Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Do We Prefer Dreams to Reality? Dreams, UFOs, and Extraterrestrials

The uncanny can be very normal.

Dreams and Reality - Tobey Albright's Grandmother

Christopher Nolan's "Inception" is more than an incipient movie icon. It's a sleep doctor's wet dream, a thriller set in the landscape of the mind. So when reporters ask me if it's possible to manipulate others people's dreams I should not be surprised. The answer? No. The present likelihood of intelligent dream invasion approximately equals my ability to drive my '97 Corolla to Apollo 11's lunar base camp.
Lately I'm often asked whether people prefer dreams to reality. I generally answer that only a few psychotics and political commentators appear to prefer dreams to the consensual bet we call reality. But these days I'm not so sure.

Unsolved Mysteries

In the early 90's a local reporter questioned me about alien abductions. I offhandedly remarked that much of what "abductees" described sounded like sleep paralysis: states between REM sleep and waking where people have bizarre and frightening out-of-body experiences. Uncanny human events are actually very common; about half the population experiences sleep paralysis. Shortly thereafter I received a call from a producer on the TV series "Unsolved Mysteries," asking if I'd be willing to explain "my theory" on camera.
Uh oh. I hesitated to appear next to a large mock-up of an alien applying 25th-century-style dental tools to violate a comely, hapless earthwoman. A week later the producer called back to say, "Sorry, we can't do the show. We've been having difficulty finding someone credible from ‘The Other Side.'"
Over the next several years the controversy exploded, as Harvard professor John Mack published his study of hundreds of people describing their own, often repeated, alien abductions. Carl Sagan expanded "my theory" to claim that many of these abductions probably were sleep paralysis, though many occurred in waking daylight.
Later I discussed the uncanny with my late friend, novelist Stuart Kaminsky. Prior to the filming of Spielberg's ET, Stu was asked by the studio to write a review of historical UFO literature. He nodded as he told me about a newspaper report from a western town describing hundreds of people gathering around Main Street to watch a "cigar-shaped object" lazily dance through the afternoon sky. The date: 1893.

UFOs and the Dreams of Governments

UFOs still capture the media. Recently the BBC reported that Winston Churchill personally suppressed reports of UFO sightings by RAF bomber crews, not wishing to harm wartime "public morale." Long after the "The X-Files," many people still wish to know the truth about extraterrestrials; and according to The Week, about one fifth of the world's population believes ETs live amongst us. This means that for over a billion people, "Men In Black's" portrayal of Manhattan as an asylum island for aliens is no joke.

Dreams, Memory, and the Wisdom of the Uncanny

Dreams are in many ways the fragmented byproducts of the brain's sleep-empowered reworking of memory. All our previous day's memories-an enormous, mainly unconscious cache of information-must be processed, remembered, or forgotten. Fortunately much of this material appears to be summarized and then dumped, or our ability to learn new information might be fatally compromised.
Yet when I mention to people that memories are rebuilt and remade each time they are retrieved, reactions range from indifference to confusion. When I further explain that memories, like dreams, are not fixed like CDs or DVDs but are continuously changing, mouths drop as though I've described a public sex act. Most of us want our reality to be hard and defined, what "I" remember, and deeply resist acknowledging how quickly the body reconfigures itself-and our consciousness.

Who Will Do the Interview?

If our most powerful memories may be unconsciously fabricated, as neurologist Oliver Sacks demonstrates in his memoir "Uncle Tungsten," it's only a matter of time before people "remember" their "true origins" and extraterrestrials publicly declare themselves. A celebrity-obsessed culture requires new types of celebrities, and ETs should fit the bill.
The bigger question is: Who will do the interview? Geraldo remains in long decline, and Larry King is off the air. Oprah is throwing in the towel. Though Stephen Colbert's wondrously mean tour of the National Air and Space Museum makes him a strong candidate, I would plump for aliens coming out through Jon Stewart. Stewart has the media chops, daily describing how completely unreal TV and media reality really is. He's also had personal experience of ETs: In the movie "The Faculty," he portrayed a science professor whose body was taken over by parasitic aliens.
So when the first properly documented public extraterrestrial turns up on the Daily Show, remember-it's no dream. You saw it here first.