Roger Highfield invites you to help scientists understand the X Files phenomenon
Would you like to help with a study of a strange sleep phenomenon that may shed light on memory, the contents of our dreams and even alien abduction?
The study has been triggered in part by the emergence in recent decades of "a most bizarre phenomenon", according to Prof Chris French, head of the Anomolistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College in London.
People around the world have reported being taken from their beds or from their cars by aliens. "These beings were often around four feet high, with spindly arms and legs and oversized heads," he said. "The most striking thing about them was their large black eyes through which they appeared to communicate telepathically.
"The abductees, or 'experiencers' as they prefer to be known, would describe how they had found themselves on board an alien spaceship where they were subjected to (often painful) medical examination, during which sperm or ova might be extracted."
To investigate, Prof French compared 19 alleged "abductees" and 19 age- and gender-matched volunteers. Last week, he told a meeting in the Science Museum's Dana Centre that these "experiencers" scored more highly in a number of areas, including belief in the paranormal and a tendency to hallucinate.
Many had a history of sleep paralysis, a penumbra of consciousness when sufferers sense the presence of a nearby threat, either when falling asleep or awakening.
"These findings show that it is possible to carry out good science in this controversial area, and start to discover what lies behind these unusual reports," said Prof Richard Wiseman, University of Hertfordshire. ''Of course," he added, "it is always possible that Prof French has been abducted by aliens, and unknowingly had these ideas put into his head to prevent the real truth emerging.''
Sleep paralysis seems to occur when the body is in REM - dream sleep. During this phase the body disconnects from the brain: animal experiments have shown that this shutdown prevents a sleeper from acting out their dreams.
A survey of thousands of sufferers has been conducted by Allan Cheyne of the University of Waterloo in Canada and revealed how some hear vague rustling sounds, indistinct voices and demonic gibberish. Others see hallucinations of humans, animals and supernatural creatures. There is a striking inability to move or to speak, or a weight on the chest.
The explanation for sleep paralysis depends on the culture of the place and time. In Newfoundland, it is called "old hag" because it is often linked with visions of an ugly old woman squatting on the sleeper's chest. The Chinese refer to "gui ya," or ghost pressure. In the West Indies, there was kokma, when a ghost baby bounced on the sleeper.
In today's X Files culture people are more likely to blame alien abductions. In his 1994 book Abduction, Harvard psychiatrist John Mack claimed ''several hundred thousand to several million Americans may have had abduction or abduction-related experiences".