Your Weirdest Thing, Vol. 3
Skeptoid is the podcast the examines the true history and science behind urban legends, but today we're giving that same treatment to your own personal experiences. We're going to start with a freaky tale that happened to one listener whose group, while in the Mojave Desert, found themselves surrounded by shimmering strips fluttering down through the sky. What could it have been, and can Skeptoid find out?
Once again we're going to revisit that most popular topic: hearing your own unexplained stories and seeing what Mr. Skeptoid can make of them. Every so often I go out to the premium members and ask you to send me your weirdest experiences in your own words, and then I do with them what I do best: give them the full frontal Skeptoid assault. We break them down to see what we think might have been going on, to whatever extent we're able — or not, as it often turns out, which is just as important. This time around we've got some ghost stories, some UFO stories, and some others that are just as strange. Ready? Let's go.
The Radiant Ribbons
Here is a story of weird things in the desert, from George:
I can't tell you what they were but I can help you eliminate chaff. Chaff comes in tiny little fibers, usually less than an inch long; and their canisters burst them into a cloud in the air; they don't fall in a string or in tight clusters that might look like your description.
There is a lot of naval aviation over the Mojave, but my guess is that your story more closely matches a natural explanation. I would suggest you research Mojave Desert aeroplankton. Aeroplankton includes insects, spiders, seeds, pollen, mosses, and countless species of microbes that are carried aloft by the breeze. I'd check what time of year it was and see if spiders might have been "ballooning" at the time — the name for when they migrate by releasing great big drogue chutes of silk to catch the wind.
However I'd also encourage you to keep in mind this is at least a 35-year-old memory — and research shows there's almost no chance that what you would have described then would match the way you remember it today — or what your companions would describe for that matter. Most of us know about the fallibility of memory, but how few of us are willing to accept that it could extend to our own memories as well.
The Alarm Clock Ghost
Next we have a creepy story of an early morning ghostly visitor:
Well as you have probably been told before, what you describe is a textbook example of a common type of parasomnia called a hypnopompic hallucination, or HPH. Similar to hypnagogic hallucinations which happen just as you're falling asleep, HPHs happen just as you're waking up. They can include audio, visual, olfactory, kinetic, and even tactile hallucinations, and can be so vivid that they are indistinguishable from actual events. Common ones include hearing footsteps in the house just as we're falling asleep, or waking to a sudden sensation of falling. Your ghostly face is squarely in the center of the possible range of forms HPHs can take.
As to why he said what he did, maybe he was a foreign hallucination, and pahhhhh is their word for boo.
The Stowaway Butterfly
Next we have the tale of an out-of-place insect from the Swiss Alps:
Not knowing anything myself about butterfly habitats, I put this question out to the Skeptoid Research mailing list to see what folks had to say. Very quickly, someone posted a link to a blog written by a Swiss couple who spent a January at altitude at a cabin in the Alps. Among their photos was a butterfly in the snow which then flew away. It looked a lot like a monarch, but was actually an Aglais urticae, aka the Small Tortoiseshell, or possibly another type of Aglais common to the Alps. So your experience was not unique, and apparently these have a wider range in both time and altitude than you may have thought.
Someone else also pointed out that many butterflies become dormant in the cold. If you were at a ski resort, it's likely there may have been a lodge up there where they bring supplies, perhaps including firewood, which is always going to transfer stowaway insects. Once exposed to warmth, dormant insects will wake up — butterflies included — and resume their activities. This probably happens every day at every such ski resorts. So, no great mystery or surprise here.
The Beachcombing Alien
And now, as always, we turn to UFO sightings. This is always the most common weird experience that people report. Here's one from the beach on a hot summer night:
Well first of all, you know what I'm going to say about a memory from 1969, basically half a century old. Although it's crystal clear in your mind, all I know is that whatever you would have described that same day is very different from what you describe now. However, let's set that aside, and just deal with the story itself.
I'll start by cautioning you about one thing: don't make the very common leap of logic of "I don't know, therefore I do know." You couldn't figure out what it was, and your reaction to that ignorance was to make a positive identification of "spaceship from another planet". Is that truly justified? What known characteristics of alien spacecraft were you able to match with what you witnessed?
Or is this just based on process of elimination? Nothing earthly that you know of looks like that, therefore it's something from a planet zillions of miles away? How were you able to eliminate aircraft from a secret Antarctic base? How were you able to eliminate mental images beamed into your mind by Russian scientists? If your reasoning is that those things don't exist, then how were you able to establish that visiting interplanetary spacecraft do exist?
Never ever ever explain one unknown with another unknown. If you don't know, admit you don't know, and stop there.
The Time-Traveling Bouncing Ball
Here's a weird coincidence from David in Southern California:
It's been a few months since the previous episode in this series, but in that one we discussed déjà vu — a topic that's been studied a lot from a neurological perspective, and upon which we now have a pretty good handle. If we were to apply that to your story, here is what would have happened.
You dreamed something about your ball, doesn't really matter what. But when you searched for it and found it the next day, your brain's decision-making centers — which are always trying to correlate current inputs with its own database of recognized phenomena — glitched a bit when they tried to match your discovery with your recent dream. Physiologically, it's a tiny synaptic seizure, resulting in a perceptual double-take, and force-feeding you a reconstructed memory.
In that very instant, the actual memory of your dream was replaced with the discovery of the ball under the leaves. From that moment on, it became impossible for you to conceive of any version of the dream except this one. It is impossible for you to listen to me now, and see the dream in any way other than what this new, overwritten memory tells you. Intellectually, you can understand "Oh sure that makes sense," but at an organic level, it's very hard for any person to accept, since they perceive a clear memory of the original dream pre-enacting the discovery of the ball.
I am going to conclude with a gigantic disclaimer, and that's that I freely admit I'm probably wrong about most or all of these stories. I offer my explanations not in the belief that they're probably right, but as examples of how to follow the skeptical process to unravel a mystery to its raw components and hope to reconstruct what's really going on. I'm the first to stand up and say I've no idea what happened in any of these cases, but here's a possibility that probably fits some or all of your story's characteristics. Whether it's right or wrong is not as important as the fact that there almost always are some explanations that don't require us to give up and admit the reality of the supernatural.
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