by Jesse Galef
Can you tell the difference between Aliens and Demons? If you were visited in the night by an intelligent, non-human entity, could you really distinguish between them? (In a sidenote I’m not addressing right now, how would you know the voice in your head is God and not a tricky demon? How do you know devils can’t impersonate voices?)
Although nobody would know it in an age with laptops and cell phones, I’m in New York City right now. I hopped on a bus to go see my sister Julia Galef give a presentation on rationality – my first post was written while on the BoltBus, actually. The talk was entitled “Aliens, Psychics and Ghosts, Oh My! Or, How Our Brains Fool Us Into Believing Strange Things.” I thoroughly enjoyed it.
One interesting point was that while reports of alien abductions are a relatively new phenomenon, the psychological reasons behind such hallucinations are not. However, instead of blaming aliens, people used to blame the bad boys of the supernatural world: Demons.
In “alien abductions”, people tend to report waking up, feeling pinned down and unable to move, seeing visions of visitors, and often experiencing sexual stimulation. These are the familiar symptoms of sleep paralysis and hypnopompic hallucinations.
During sleep, the brain stops controlling the muscles – that’s why we don’t flail around in our sleep as we act out our dreams. Sometimes when woken from a deep sleep, the brain doesn’t immediately retake control, leaving the poor person both awake and unable to move (This has happened to me, and I was lucid enough to recognize what was happening. It was a fascinating experience.) It can be particularly difficult to breathe. When woken up from a deep sleep, a person is also prone to vivid hallucinations. This combination explains the commonly heard reports of alien abductions.
But before aliens, people interpreted those perceptions as demons – same symptoms, different supernatural explanation. Online Etymology says the term “Nightmare” originally meant “an evil female spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation”. Sound familiar?
John Henry Fuseli’s painting “The Nightmare” shows an evil-looking imp sitting on a woman’s chest while she lies in bed. Psychologists now believe it to be an early representation of sleep paralysis. It’s telling that the same evidence can fit seamlessly into countless supernatural theories.
How cool is it that we can look at ancient experiences people thought were supernatural and explain them in scientific ways? Epilepsy, schizophrenia, sleep paralysis, oxygen/sensory/nutritional deprivation… The gaps keep getting smaller and there’s less and less room for God.