What are UFOs really?

You glimpse a light in the night sky — not a star, not an airplane, but something radically different. It moves with baffling speed, pulsates with radiance beyond anything you’ve witnessed. Three letters immediately enter your mind: U-F-O.

Technically an unidentified flying object can be anything when you get right down to it, but the term has become synonymous with extraterrestrial spacecraft. Alleged sightings began popping up in the 1950s and continue to this day throughout the world. Exact descriptions of alien spacecraft vary with each telling, but witnesses often describe a lighted object capable of hovering silently and zigzagging in midair.

The sky has always teemed with sights to stir the imagination: atmospheric anomalies, wildlife, optical illusions, aurora borealis, shooting stars and distant supernovae just to name a few. Even in our scientifically informed age, countless phenomena escape our understanding.

As Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung pointed out, these sights have no intrinsic meaning, but even the earliest humans jumped at the chance to project their hopes, dreams and nightmares into the vastness of the sprawling void. They personified the sun and moon as deities and poured their belief systems into the wheeling movements of the stars. And when they glimpsed strange lights, they read them as omens.

Accounts of alien abduction often factor into UFOsightings, and this too is an area where one’s worldview, belief system and culture play a vital role in framing an extraordinary experience. Fortunately, alien abduction accounts generally provide more room for serious evaluation, typically by medical doctors or psychiatrists.

Doctors believe that sleep paralysis and waking, hypnopompic hallucinations factor into many abduction experiences. This is a kind of temporary paralysis accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations. The hallucinations in question are often charged by the individual’s sexual fantasies, belief system and pop culture.