Monday, January 17, 2011

Navigating Ambuity & Novelty

It’s shortly before 2 a.m., and the night is still young. Amaleen and her boyfriend (all witness names have been changed to protect their privacy) are cruising east along Highway 198. The sky is clear — the sort of night when you gaze up at the stars and see God staring back at you. Except they aren’t looking for God. They’re aiming for the slots at Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino.

As they come over a rise, the couple see an aircraft in the distance crisscrossing the highway. At first, they think it’s an airplane. Then her boyfriend says it’s a helicopter. Amaleen isn’t sure. As they close the remaining distance, the strangely lit craft turns and bears straight toward them, its six brilliant lights up front burning a hole in the night sky. Terrified, Amaleen jams her foot on the gas pedal. At the last moment, the aircraft veers up and misses them by just a few feet. Amaleen described it as a giant wing the length of two tractor trailers parked end-to-end. “I could have reach out and touched it,” she tells me later, still shaken by the encounter. The strange thing was, the aircraft made no sound. Nor was there any wind.

* * *

Fourteen-year-old Jacob, his friend and brother are tramping through the woods at night in Newberg, Oregon. Suddenly, Jacob and his friend spot a strange creature, about four feet high, running through the woods with long, hopping strides. The skinny creature has a pelt of short, dark hair and runs on two legs like a person.

* * *

One summer night I am setting up my tent on a remote hillside in Northwestern Nevada. Earlier this evening, driving north out of Winnemucca, I saw a couple lightning flashes in the distance. But here on this deserted bluff, the air is dry and the sky studded with stars. I wrestle the last set of poles into position and step back from my tent. It feels good to have shelter in this desolate place off a jeep road in middle of God-knows-where. The engine cooling in the night air crackles gently over the soft chirr of cicadas. Then I see something that defies understanding.

A golden ball of yellow light dances above the ground a dozen or so feet away. I watch for a moment, mesmerized, as the light bobs and weaves through the air like a firefly that’s lost its blinker. Tinkerbell. A smile forms on my lips as I recall the Disney movie. As I step toward it, the light recedes from me. I back away, and it follows, lingering about fifteen feet away. Do you believe in faeries? Not before this night, I say, talking to myself as travelers in the desert often do.

* * *

Gestalt psychology tell us that perceiving is an interpretive act. In part, this is because most situations present us with incomplete data. Is the person on the bus flirting with me or just being friendly? The mind fills in the blanks based on prior knowledge and/or expectation. In Gestalt psychology, this act of forming a perception out of incomplete information is called closure or closing the Gestalt.

Many of our interpretations are so instantaneous as to be indistinguishable from perception. I do not hear a high pitched noise of varying pitch and frequency; I hear a bird singing outside my window. However, when faced with novel situations, the interpretive component of perception may become more self aware. In either case, perception involves active mental engagement and construction.

One challenge for UFO witnesses — and those who interview them — is teasing out the interpretations embedded in perception. When confronted with novel or ambiguous stimuli, witnesses react in a few different ways. They may avoid closing the Gestalt, retreating into confusion — or perhaps embracing the ambiguity. Or they may come up with a novel explanation. The stranger looking at me on the bus must be the government agent who has been reading my mail. In some cases, the perceiver dismisses the novelty altogether by forcing the unknown stimulus into a conventional box. That couldn’t have been a UFO — it must have been a weather balloon. (At a conceptual level, this is the preferred method of UFO debunkers who interpret every UFO sighting in terms of mundane phenomena.)

A witness or an investigator who is primed to see a UFO — because of past experience and interest or even a need to believe — can be equally subject to interpretive bias. I have observed this on numerous occasions with those who mistake visually impressive Iridium satellite flares for UFOs ‘powering up.’

Let’s return now to the three cases that began this entry.

Amaleen was quite sincere when she told me that what she saw that night on the way to the casino was a giant wing. She perceived and described some classic features of a UFO, including the lack of wind and sound. However, upon further digging and a tip from a third party, I concluded that what she and her companion most likely saw was a crop-dusting helicopter, which tend to fly in the middle of the night because of the lack of winds (and perhaps to avoid alarming vehicles on the highway).

When teenage Jacob described the strange creature he saw in the woods, he seemed to avoid assumptions and snap judgments. He was a keen observer who described the exotic animal in fine detail. Nonetheless, at some level, Jacob must have intuited that the creature he saw was a cryptoid, since he reported it to UFOs Northwest. Here again a tip from the public seemed to close the Gestalt toward a conventional explanation. A Newberg resident reported that wallabies had escaped a pet store and were seen in the wild. Like Scully, I was perhaps a bit too ready to embrace this explanation. (Many wallabies are known to go feral, Mulder.) But then I contacted the one pet shop in Newberg. They informed me that they hadn’t sold wallabies in a couple years. Nor had they received any reports of escaped wallabies — except for some that had escaped from their owner a couple years ago and had already been caught. So this sighting remains unresolved.

* * *

Ten minutes after the faery light blinks out, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel as a vehicle skirts the hill on which I am camped. The light that danced with me atop the bluff was a truck headlight jogging up and down a jeep road miles away.

Or was it?