I’ve set a simulation to crunching away in the background, so for a little while, I can tell myself that I’m being “productive” whilst in fact tossing up a quick blag post. An interesting experience which used to happen to me fairly often recurred a few days ago, so I figured I should resuscitate some old thoughts about it. You see, I enjoyed the privilege of an alien abduction every few weeks during my junior year of MIT.
Let me elaborate on that:
Junior year for us physics majors is deliberately designed to be a brutal experience. To use flamboyantly gender-biased language, the professors want a chance â€œto separate the boys from the menâ€ (you can substitute â€œsheep from the wolvesâ€ if you prefer). Key ingredient in the witchesâ€™ brew is Junior Lab, a class which the course catalog says will require eighteen hours of work per week. Well, if youâ€™re a slacker, perhaps: I never knew anybody who did a decent job doing less than twenty. And youâ€™re expected to be taking three other classes at the same time, including your first real encounter with quantum mechanics â€” a nice, intuitive subject which gives you time to relax and contemplate â€” and if you believe that, Iâ€™ve got a very attractive deal on a bridge in Brooklyn. . . .
Put simply, if you survive junior year, you know you can make it as a physicist. You also learn just how productive you can be in a state of sleep deprivation. I was a lightweight, usually tumbling into bed between two and four A.M. when others could go all night long. However, I would wake up around six, when the sun started hitting my bedroom window, and damnably, I would have the hardest time falling asleep again.
So I would curl up there in bed, not able to be awake, not able to sleep. And then, pretty dependably â€” when I was truly zonked with exhaustion but somehow unable to doze off â€” I would feel a wave of numbness, followed by a strange paralysis. With my eyes closed, I would see my room, but with the sizes and proportions all distorted. If the experience lasted long enough, I would sense myself rising into the air and sometimes even flying through abstract tunnels of light.
â€œThis is so freakinâ€™ cool!â€ I would exclaim. Curiosity and enthusiasm quickly overcame me, since I recognized the exact phenomenon which Carl Sagan had implicated in alien abductions of today and demonic visitations of yesteryear. After a few such experiences, I discovered I could give myself a good shake and break the sleep-paralysis. Sometimes, after I did that, I could relax into my little hypnogogic trance again.
I expect lots of people have had similar experiences, half-awake and seeing odd things. (I mean, I tripped out in a dentistâ€™s chair at age eight after inhaling too much nitrous while they fixed my sugar-rotted baby teeth. Weird things can happen to the brain, even in daily life!) Junior year at MIT gave me the chance to explore the phenomenon, to test it with a little repeatability.
A couple weeks ago, I went through a siege of allergies. Generally, I get my worst allergic reactions in the spring, when all the flowers fall in love and spray their gametes into the air. Springtime came late this year, and so I found myself popping Claritin pills in order to function. During the worst of it, I realized I’d rather wallow in Nyquil than in self-pity, so I downed a couple gelcaps and tumbled into bed, early, in a decongested daze. I woke up about two o’clock the next morning and, in the sodium light shining through my Venetian blinds, went through the whole paralysis experience again.
Just as before, it was pretty freakin’ cool!
As Carl wrote,
And if the alien abduction accounts are mainly about brain physiology, hallucinations, distorted memories of childhood, and hoaxing, donâ€™t we have before us a matter of supreme importance â€” touching on our limitations, the ease with which we can be misled and manipulated, the fashioning of our beliefs, and perhaps even the origin of our religions? There is genuine scientific paydirt in UFOs and alien abductions â€” but it is, I think, of a distinctly homegrown and terrestrial character.