Why Do So Many Aliens in Real-Life Abduction Stories Look The Same?

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There is an eerie consistency in many alien abduction stories when the victims describe their kidnappers...
A classic design from the movie 'Extraterrestrial'

It's resulted in an all-pervasive image of what an alien looks like. You know it: the pear shaped almost featureless face, smooth skin, tiny nose and mouth and huge almond shaped black eyes.

A typical encounter was recounted by a man named Sebastian:

"It was like three years ago. I saw this ET. It woke me up in the middle of the night, while I was mediating. They exist. If some could go like this and open your eyelids while you're mediating, while you're in deep man there's something out there. It looked like a little kid except it had big eyes, it looked just like a little kid except it had big eyes, small nose and a little mouth. Big eyes, small nose and a little mouth."

 It's dominated our media for decades as the catch-all symbol for extraterrestrial life. But why is the image so consistent? Could it be that all alleged abductees have been hunted by the same alien species; can this consistency of narrative be classified as proof that aliens truly exist?

But a more likely explanation for the consistency of experience could be down to how human consciousness has evolved - and survived- over the millions of years.

In his paper Close Encounters of the Facial Kind, Frederick V. Malmstrom suggests that instead the distinctive character of the alien face is due to an Inborn Facial Recognition Template. In his 1979 collaboration with Richard Coffman he found that out of a random sample of 30 reported aliens 100% were of a median height close to that of the average woman, and 80% displayed prominent diagonally oriented wraparound eyes, double slit nostrils and little or no mouth. In addition, most subjects reported to being between sleep and wakefulness when the encounters happened or later recalled this face when they were put into hypnotic regression. Both states of conciousness are ripe grounds for out of body experiences and hallucinations.

Similar experiments were conducted elsewhere, looking into the possibility that alien

Sketches on Barney Hill's alien kidnapper:
Top Image drawn under hypnosis
with bottom images as artist's
interpretations from his descriptions.
 (credit: NICAP 1972)
encounters were actually forms of out of body experiences. Richard Wiseman, in his book Paranormality, states that between 10-20% of the population have experienced out of body experiences when very relaxed, anaesthetised, experiencing sensory deprivation, under the influence of cannabis or following a life threatening situation (such as the famous 'light at the end of the tunnel'). He explains that out of body experiences are the product of the human brain continually seeking to identify where it is and it can be easily tricked. For example, by using mirrors and a dummy hand, along with simultaneous stimulation of their real -hidden- hand, a subject can be tricked into feeling as if the dummy hand is part of them because the confused brain anchors itself to the dummy hand that it is presented with. Out of body experiences are a similar decoupling of identity. When Michael Raduga conducted an experiment at the Out-of-Body-Experience Research Centre in Los Angeles more than half the volunteers he studied experienced at least one full or partial out-of-body experience (following guided relaxation techniques). Seven of the twenty volunteers were able to make supposed contact with UFOS or aliens during these dream like experiences.

In these lucid out of body experiences the brain is uncertain and falls back on a mix of subconscious memory and instinctual programming  and it is here that the Inborn Visual Recognition Template takes hold and gives us the distinctive image of the alien.

So what is the Inborn Visual Recognition Template?
The pupil schematic most favoured by
newborns according to Hess' study

Evolution is a amazing thing. In The Study of Instinct  Niko Tinbergen found that newly hatched chicks were born with an inherent knowledge of their predators and would automatically hide from shadow patterns that resembled dangerous hawks, while ignoring shadow patterns that showed benign geese. Human babies are particularly vulnerable infants and part of a species that survives due to social performance and so similarly are hardwired to recognise faces from the womb. As a matter of survival they respond favourably to these faces and seek them out.
Up until two months old, however, this ability isn't particularly sophisticated and they will seek out anything that has 'face-like' features, whether these are potentially scary - like a halloween mask - or benign. The key seems to be instead the makeup of the face - two eyes and, usually, a nose. Infants ignore one eye or three eyes and focus on two. Similarly, Eckhard hess found that they also respond more favourably to eyes with larger pupils. When I.W.R Bushnell took this research a step further, they found that babies found it easier to recognise a hairless and earless face and that this recognition is hardwired into the hippocampus - a noncortial 'lower' area of the brain. Only later does the baby start to use the 'higher' cortical areas of the brain to add in additional recognition cues such as the hairline and ear.

Another feature of newborn vision that is important to note is their limitations. While there is disagreement as to whether babies are born shortsighted or longsighted either way they will usually only pay attention to objects between 7-25 cm in front of their eyes, with this expanding to around a meter as quickly as one to two days after birth. In addition newborn vision is generally blurred and 'foggy' with very weak or entirely absent colour differentiation. When apply these restrictions to the image of mother's face at a typically intimate distance, the change is quite alarming, and revealing.

The mother's face in the vision of a newborn

Above is the standard mother's face having been reduced down to the vision range expected of a newborn. The second image was reduced to a coarseness of about 150 pixels and a field of a 50 degree visual angle with simulated radial astigmatism and a very shallow depth of focus. The third image smoothed to remove the residual high spacial frequencies 
following the digitization and simulate the 'fogginess' of new born vision.
In the process you can see how the facial recognition is still very clear when using the restrictions of newborn sight and when following the hardwired symbols of the hippocampus. Two large black eyes with large black pupils. Also, interestingly, it's clear to see how an alien face emerges - the large black slanted eyes, the almost non existent mouth, and the vertical slit nostrils, with a hairline blurred. We have our alien.

Sebastian's alien drawing

Aliens: The most primitive face?

During lucid dreaming and in out of body experiences it would be no surprise that the brain dips back into the subconscious and pulls out its most primitive programming.Therefore it seems likely that many of the creatures seen in 'alien abduction' stories aren't actually aliens at all but, fundamentally, an instinctual ghost of the Mother.

But, of course, it would be impossible to leave any article on aliens without returning a little ambiguity to the mix, so I leave you with this quote by Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York:

"You’d be considered a pessimist if you imagined the probability of evolving a civilization on a habitable planet was, say, one in a trillion...But even that guess — one chance in a trillion — implies that what has happened here on Earth with humanity has in fact happened about 10 billion other times over cosmic history."

We may not be getting abducted, but that's not to say that we're alone in the universe, so keep curious and keep questioning, and I shall see you next week.

Other Posts on Aliens...

-The Wonder of Snottites and the Search for Alien Life
-The Race to Europa
-Preludes Recommends: PBS Spacetime
-Review: Paranormality by Richard Wiseman

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-This post as heavily influenced by the excellent paper 'Close Encounters of the Facial kind: Are UFO Alien Faces an Inborn Facial Recognition Template' by Frederick V.Malmstrom. At the Skeptic reading room
-The surprising origin of alien abduction stories -LiveScience
-Alien Abductions may be vivid dreams, study shows - LiveScience
-Betty and Barney Hill Abduction Case (Sept 19, 1961) - UFO Evidence.org
-Extraterrestrial movie
-The Universe has Probably Hosted Many Alien civilizations: Study - Space.com 
-Paranormality by Prof. Richard Wiseman
-The real Life X Files - meet people abducted by aliens - DailyMail
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