My mother, the alien

By Phil Plait | August 9, 2006 9:24 pm

Do aliens have mothers?

I have a better question: Are aliens our moms?

This may in fact be a legitimate question. Not that I think our moms are really aliens from another world (nor would I imply it, since my mom reads this blog), but could it be that the mythologized face of alien greys — big heads, black almond-shaped eyes, almost no nose, slit for a mouth — is simply a distorted view that babies have of their mothers?

Sounds weird. But in January, at James Randi’s The Amaz!ng Meeting 4, I was MCing a series of talks based on "papers" in skepticism– research done about skeptical topics. One speaker was Frederick V. Malmstrom, a psychologist and visiting scholar at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Basically, he took pictures of human women, and then ran them through a filter to distort them. The filter was based on how a baby’s eyes work, so that the resulting image would represent what a baby would see when they look at their mother. Malmstrom’s work is online, and here is a before-and-after image set:

She looks like a normal woman to me. But look at how her newborn infant sees her:


Look familiar? It does to me:

So are the stories of grey aliens just a memory of how we saw our mothers when we were infants? The case is not definitive, of course, but it’s pretty compelling. There are questions, of course. Can we remember things from that far back? Are memories retrievable form then, even distorted? And one I think about a lot: why do we have a primal fear of alien faces (that one gives me the screaming creeps) if they in fact represent our mother’s face, a woman who cared for us, nurtured us, loved us, when we were helpless infants?

And yet, there are so many similarities between alien abduction stories and the way mothers take care of infants. Alien abduction victims are whisked away, helpless, for no apparent reason; aliens chatter over them; there is sometimes a feeling of weightlessness and floating (a baby in the womb?); strange and unexplained things are done to the victims, usually medical in nature. Coincidence, or causal connection?

Beats me. But it’s certainly something to think about.

Do I think people are abducted by aliens? Nope. There are lots of reasons why not: the ships are never seen (sorry, but the blurry photos I’ve seen are pretty poor evidence), the aliens are never seen, and most damning, there is simply no hard evidence of it. There are lots of claims of "implants" found and removed, but they either never seem to surface when the victim is queried (because, for example, a hoax is being pulled) or when tested they turn out to be ordinary objects found right here on Earth.

And, as I think Carl Sagan pointed out, if you take the number of people who say they are abducted and extrapolate to the rest of the world, there would have to be something like 800,000 abductions every year to account for the reported cases! Seems unlikely, doesn’t it? Incidentally, I don’t have a citation for that number, but I have seen it floating around the web and it seems like a reasonable number.

Finally, when people ask me if I think aliens are coming to Earth to experiment on people and our livestock, I give them the same answer: why should aliens travel trillions of miles to repeatedly excoriate cow anuses when they only have to do it once and then clone all the cow anuses they need at home?

Tip of the space helmet to God is for Suckers! for the article, and, by the way, there is another article about this at the Washington Post.


Comments (37)

Links to this Post

  1. The Mosquito Eater » Blog Archive » Yo Mamma Look Like ET | February 11, 2007
  1. Christian Burnham

    I suggest eating at my local burger bar if you want a never-ending supply of cow anuses.

  2. That’s a really neat theory!

  3. Alex

    Seems to me that the ‘gray’ face is implausibly similar to a human one in general. I suppose there are several possible reasons why aliens would evolve to be vaguely humanoid, but is it not rather unlikely?

  4. Heather

    Wait a minnit! Does this mean that the oft reported “anal probes” are really that dreaded instrument of torture, the rectal thermometer???

    My mom the MD used one to take my temperature with one of these until I was about six. My first encounter with an oral thermometer took place in a school nurse’s office.

  5. Wow, it’s a really good and [b]plausible[/b] hypothesis, actually. And what Heater says really makes sense, when you think about it :)

    I somehow feel that it’s not the fear of alien faces, but rather the fear of the procedures of medical nature. Most of the “kidnapped” people report some kind of medical procedures, and if we correlate it into early childhood and rectal thermometers and stuff – well, that thing was something to fear those days, because it meant horrible medication for a week to come and so on.

    By the way, I think it would be more correct to say that babies see all human faces like that. I don’t think it’s exceptional for the mothers, it could as well be medical staff or other people (who are cruel enough for rectal thermometers).

  6. Valhar2000

    I don’t think this evidence is compelling, to be honest. It could be that alien abductions are remnants of remembered interactions with our mothers, or it could be many other things, including, but not limited to, the fact since we have all seen alien abduction movies and thus we know what aliens are supposed to look like, that’s what they look like; I find that explanation much more compelling.

  7. Fred

    But Phil! Surely the purpose of the repeated proddings is to sample the whole range of diversity of cow anuses. If they just took one and cloned it, sure they would have as many as they wanted, but they would all be genetically identical, and what’s the use in that?

  8. Zart

    This reminds me of an explaintion of how the concept of dragons seem to have arisen independantly on serveral continents.

    Aparently, children of certain ages, when they have nightmares they dream of monsters. These monsters usually sports big teeth and glowing eyes. That is quite remarkable because it can happen regardless of weather the child has ever been exposed to the idea of monsters or not.
    However, evolutionary speaking, for childern to have a fear of such things makes a lot of sense because it might have saved them from being lion food.

    So the idea is that dragons are an artistic or mythological expression of some kind of genetic “training” on what to fear.

    My own hypothesis is that dragons are just cool so as soon as someone stumbles on the concept, it sticks. And it’s pretty obvious concept at that.

  9. 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 “to separate the boys from the men” (you can substitute “sheep from the wolves” if you prefer). Key ingredient in the witches’ brew is Junior Lab, a class which the course catalog says will require eighteen hours of work per week. Well, if you’re a slacker, perhaps: I never knew anybody who did a decent job doing less than twenty. And you’re expected to be taking three other classes at the same time, including your first real encounter with quantum mechanics — a nice, intuitive subject which gives you time to relax and contemplate — and if you believe that, I’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 — when I was truly zonked with exhaustion but somehow unable to doze off — 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.

    This is so freakin’ cool!” I would exclaim. 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 dentist’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.

    Our friend Carl Sagan wrote, “And if the alien abduction accounts are mainly about brain physiology, hallucinations, distorted memories of childhood, and hoaxing, don’t we have before us a matter of supreme importance — 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 — but it is, I think, of a distinctly homegrown and terrestrial character.”

  10. I woke up one late evening to my cat sitting on my chest and had an extreme flash of “aliens are abducting me, yes!” Combined with the sleep paralysis, the generally grogginess, and the alien-esque shape of a cat’s face, it was quite convincing. Then my brain kicked in. Stupid brain. :)

    I wonder how many abductees have cats?

  11. Next: look for correlations between people who claim alien abductions and who were abused as very young children by their parents or other adults. That might explain why the alien abduction stories are horrific.

    A hard and disturbing study to do. Disturbing for obvious reasons. Hard because many people will not tell the truth about either. Certainly, a lot of alien abductions stories come from people who are deliberatly lying, for whatever reason. Some may really believe them, but probably picked up from popular culture what the mass delusion was supposed to look like. Re: people abused as children, if their brains are inventing alien abduction scenarios to deal with repressed memories, those memories may be repressed….

    On a competely different thought, for whatever reason very large eyes are scary. When I was a kid, I was given this humpty dumpty toy. It would sit on the self at night… staring at me… watching me…. It was scary! My mom got a couple pieces of blue electrical tape, gave it droopy eyelids, and suddenly it wasn’t scary any more. Is this a general thing? I’ve seen other evidence of kids being afraid of things with very large eyes, but it’s anecdotal. Interesting to note that, usually, the Greys are depicted with very large eyes.

    Why would it be that people are “naturally” afraid of large eyes? Nocturnal preditors of some sort that gave humans wary of that feature an evolutionary advantage?


  12. Cynthia

    Being abducted by mommy aliens might be a great storyline for a film noir parody or a film noir psychodrama.

  13. Space Cadet

    If we’re truely skeptics, we have to be skeptical, to some point, of every bit of new information, even that offered by other skeptics, even our beloved BA and The Great Randi. While I doubt the validity of reports of alien encounters, I’m wondering if this is any different from the lady who ‘prooved’ that Phil is an alien lizard by filtering photos. Can we tell with any certainty what a baby’s eyes see? Besides, Phil looks nothing like my mother, alien lizard filter or not.

  14. It would be interesting to see how many people think the filtered face looks like an “alien” if they were not told about the supposed resemblance in advance. (When I heard the Chinese story about the girl with a parasol and a bunny rabbit, it got a lot harder to see the Man in the Moon.)

  15. Liam

    Not really convinced.. and I think the BA with his experience should be more wary of people demonstrating things by aplying filters to digital photos of the type and in the order of their chosing!

  16. Mark Martin

    This is the sort of thing which makes good food for thought. But how is it possible to experimentally verify that infants really do see their parents in that manner?

  17. I think much along Rob Knop’s line of thought; the idea of childhood abuse coupled with the infant facial perception makes sense as a differentiating factor between those of us who find “aliens” interesting and those who are terrified by the concept.

    The only psychologist I’ve ever read who has said something similar, however, was Marlene Steinberg, in Stranger in the Mirror. She sees alien abductions as a form of dissociation created by the victim’s need to blame someone other than their own parents for whatever horrors they experienced.

  18. Dan

    The “grey” aliens are ALWAYS depicted with black eyes.

    Most mothers don’t have black eyes.

    Is this a(nother) flaw in the theory?

  19. idlemind

    Interesting hypothesis. Perhaps it explains the dreaded thermometer scene in The Creeping Terror.

  20. Folks, remember: I said the study was compelling, but I did not say it was convincing. It’s food for thought.

  21. Well, see, this is why a wordanista like myself wouldn’t use the word compelling in a case like this. The study is interesting, but it does not compel belief!

    It’s food for thought, but you can only stretch it out to cover a midnight snack.

  22. Oh, I forgot to say —

    The Sagan quote I gave a few posts ago is from The Demon-Haunted World (1996), page 188. I believe the following passage from page 64 is relevant to the 800,000 figure the BA mentioned in his post:

    As revealed by repeated polls over the years, most Americans believe that we’re being visited by extraterrestrial beings in UFOs. In a 1992 Roper poll of nearly 6,000 American adults — especially commissioned by those who accep tthe alien abduction story at face value — 18 percent reported sometimes waking up paralyzed, aware of one or more strange beings in the room. About 13 percent report odd episodes of missing time, and 10 percent claim to have flown through the air without mechanical assistance. From nothing more than these results, the poll’s sponsors conclude that two percent of all Americans have been abducted, many repeatedly, by beings from other worlds. The question of whether respondents had been abducted by aliens was never actually put to them.

    If we believed the conclusion drawn by those who bankrolled and interpreted the results of this poll, and if aliens are not partial to Americans, then the number for the whole planet would be more than a hundred million people. This means an abduction every few seconds over the past few decades. It’s surprising more of the neighbors haven’t noticed.

    One abduction every four seconds works out to a bit shy of 8 million per year, BTW.

  23. Michael Hopkins

    I am deeply unimpressed by this claim. I don’t think we need to invent just-so stories to debunk the “Greys” nonsense.

  24. JohnnieCanuck

    I don’t buy it.

    Recall that aliens and UFOs are relatively modern examples of magical thinking. These kinds of explanations follow fashions. In Victorian times it was faeries. Before them it was witches. Most of the contemporary drawings of these creatures do not much resemble ‘greys’. One illustration I have seen of a devil sitting on a man’s chest is now interpreted as being inspired by sleep paralysis.

    Whenever Venus shines brightly in the evening sky, uninformed observers speculate on what they are seeing. Too many opt for the exciting thought, rather than admit ignorance or apply logic.

    It used to be that seeing something out of the corner of your eye might mean a faerie was about. We seldom see reports of wee folk sightings in today’s media.

    I wonder what the replacement for UFOs and aliens will be. Science and common sense?

  25. Jianying

    The filter applied mimics the unfiltered image that the eye sends to the brain. (Actually the eye does a little more, like edge, contrast, and movement detection) I suppose the assumption is that a new born baby’s brain has not yet learbed how to merge what we see into a seamless whole yet. Most of what we see is patched together and interpolated by the brain, which is how many optical illusion work. If this patching and interpolation center is either temporarily suspended or damaged in an adult our brain will reach into other parts of it self to make sense of the world. The greys MIGHT be one result.

  26. Gary Ansorge

    Sense is rarely common, requiring as it does both imagination and logic.

    Several years ago I read about a computer program that was used to extrapolate adult faces from the juvinile in order to find missing children several years after they were abducted (by their parent). The particular researcher used the program , based upon the evolutionary alterations in our physiognomy, to project how our remote descendants might look,,,his program showed humans with large eyes and heads, small faces and chins, but 7 feet tall(big bodies needed to support that big brain).
    Looked quite similar to the “gray aliens.”
    One should also look to anthropologists who used to lump different ethnic groups into black, white, yellow and brown and see they now use for white the term “pinko-gray”.
    Children with ” ancient” physiognomy, ie, large faces in relation to the head size, close set eyes and large jaws are the most likely to be abused children.

    Put all that together and we have anticipation of coming events down to the genetic level.

    As far as remembering infancy, my brother, the rocket scientist, remembers being born,,,and some other things, while I have a confirmed memory going back to the age of 2.5 years(first time I ever tied my showlaces, a big deal 60 some years ago). So, yes, some early memories can be retained but most seem to require some an emotional tag, to mark the memory as important (mine was angry frustration).

    Gary 7

  27. Well, it sounds fascinating, and gives us an fun process to contemplate: perhaps in between sleep states people might have a sudden “spark” of memory from before they developed cognitive ability, and interpret it as an abduction experience. Since their adult mind treats subjects differently from a newborn’s, having grown up long enough to develop non-instinctual fears, they see it as a terrifying experience.

    It’s sort of the same thing as the similar stories about after-death experiences: the eye narrows its field of vision as consciousness flickers out, which might explain the stories of tunnels of light, etc.

    @ Dan, regarding black eyes: Newborns do not have a great ability to distinguish color either; high-contrast toys (black and white usually) are preferred over the colorful bangles one sees in an infant’s crib. Therefore, all eyes are merely seen as “dark”, not necessarily “black”.

    How can we tell what a baby sees? I’m sure I don’t know, but I’m also confident that science can examine the shape and consistency of newborn’s eyes and determine how it sees, much in the same way we know a cat is mostly color-blind and that a fly sees in a mosaic pattern. I wish I had links to a detailed analysis.


  28. CR

    “How can we tell what a baby sees?”
    That reminds me of something a comedian once said about baby babble. I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of “I want to tape record a baby babbling, then years later when it’s old enough to speak, I want to play the tape back and ask the kid what he meant.”

  29. Hi Dr. BA!

    We tried checking out your link, but it’s broken.


    Could ya fix that for us?

    JanieBelle and Kate

  30. I fixed it. I found a version that ended with php, but that may have been removed. Weird. I changed it to html and it’s working now. Thanks!

  31. You’re welcome, Dr. BA. Your new link is way more legible than ours. We’ll adjust that in our post about your post about their post.

    Thanks right back!

  32. Hey Dr. BA?

    I just had a thought (which may in itself be unusual) about this:

    What if we took a bunch of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, and asked them to draw a picture of the aliens.

    Then we ask them to provide a picture of THEIR mother and run it through the filters, as opposed to just any ol’ young woman.

    That seems like it would make for a more solid case to me, or at least make for some interesting comparisons.

  33. Well now… Couldn’t a believer just say that the aliens may have chosen a physical appearance for themselves that is designed to remind human victims of their mothers, to inspire feelings of acquiescence? Yeah, they probably could.

  34. alan

    “normal” woman in the photo, yet that depends on your perception of how normal human people look like. Perhaps an infants under-developed eyes can distort the shape of things, although I wonder then about color.

    It’s possible that if everyone were to perceive “normal” people as having light complexion for skin tone, then a mother of caucasian ethnicity might
    pass for the light complexion of the typical standard description of aliens.

    what if the “normal” woman happens to be a mother of an ethnicity having much darker skin tone complexion? the infant might see a distorted shaped, but as for the light complexion…no.

    so far not too many people have witnessed seeing aliens with darker complexions. so perhaps people who have darker skin, might happen to witness the standard dark large eyed light skinned alien, and if wouldn’t be an infant memory of their own darker complected mother.

  35. Josh

    It is foolish to try to think the processes of something that evolved on a completely different planet. All common sense would be thrown out the window. A human reason for doing something could be an act or war to an alien race. What if these alien don’t want to be seen so they use technology that make them their ships look like blurs, what about cloak technology which us humans are currently creating. I mean EMP technology is only a few years away, imagine what some thousands of years advanced technology could do. Never try to understand the things above you, the student will never know the thoughts of a master.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar