Michael Persinger R.I.P.

The one post at Skunkworks that has sparked the most interest was that concerning the Electromagnetic Hypothesis (EMH), that some UFO/UAP sightings and perhaps even encounter experiences could be accounted for by observed but unexplained naturally-occurring EM and plasma phenomena.

One of the major researchers to develop this idea was Michael Persinger, who has died at 73. The Daily Grail has posted an obituary and summary of Persinger’s research and the controversy and criticisms it inspired. Interested parties will be pleased to find at least two videos and links to ten blog posts Persinger wrote in reply to his critics.

As a partial explanation for sightings and encounters, Persinger’s work strictly falls outside the purview of Skunkworks, exploring, as his research does, the being rather than the meaning of the UFO phenomenon. What is compelling, though, is the way his research suggests that the Earth herself might be imagined to communicate with human beings via EM phenomena.

That Flying Saucers arguably reveal more about how we think and feel about technoscience and the fate of society than about extraterrestrial visitors has been a mainstay since Jung’s pioneering speculations. That Contactees and Abductees both have received warnings concerning environmental catastrophe segues nicely with the notion that the Earth articulates her concerns via tectonic energies and an available image reservoir, whether a Collective Unconscious or not. That Earth itself transmits EM energies at 30-33 Hz (an instance of a numerological pattern that runs through the whole mythos) and that these transmissions are called Extra-low Frequency (ELF) waves is also poetically suggestive, especially in view of the links made to Faery lore and the UFO mythology by, among others, Jacques Vallee….

Having recently secured a copy of Persinger’s and Lafrenière’s Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events (Chicago:  Nelson-Hall, 1977) I hope to share a review sometime in the future.

The Electromagnetic Hypothesis (EMH)

My contribution to UFOs and Popular Culture: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Myth, ed. James R. Lewis, Santa Barbara:  ABC-CLIO, 2000.

A line of thought parallel to the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH:  the theory that some UFOs are spaceships from other planets) might be called the electromagnetic hypothesis (EMH): the theory that UFOs and close-encounter experiences are caused by electromagetic phenomena and their interaction with the human nervous system. The EMH, as developed since the 1970s by its more noted proponents—Michael Persinger, Paul Devereux, Albert Budden, and their co-researchers and colleagues—draws on diverse disciplines (e.g., Budden lists medicine and clinical ecology, electromagnetics, bioelectromagnetics, neurology, psychology, physical geology, meteorology, atmospheric physics, and electrical engineering, among others) in order to explain not only UFO phenomena but apparitions in general, including hauntings, poltergeist activity, and even visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In general, the EMH proposes that fields of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) generated by natural or artificial sources can cause light-phenomena and a wide range of physiological and psychological effects, which, when combined with the background beliefs of the witness, create encounter experiences of the kind mentioned above.

As developed primarily by Persinger and Devereux, the EMH relates fault lines and tectonic activity with UFO reports and close encounters. Their studies purport to discover a close correlation between not only fault lines, seismic activity, and UFO reports, but also between these geological features and light phenomena, such as earthquake lights, mountain peak discharge, and ball lightning. Though many geologists and physicists question the nature and even existence of such phenomena, EMH proponents refer to measurements of a range of EMR generated by tectonic stresses and to eye-witness descriptions (and even photographic evidence) of unclassified aerial phenomena (UAPs). The appearance, behaviour, and visible effects of UAPs are those generally attributed to UFOs. UAPs appear as opaque, metallic, or variously colored, glowing spheres, ovoids, squiggles, or even inverted Christmas trees. Being almost without mass, they accelerate and stop instantaneously, hover, or fly in straight or irregular lines, achieving speeds clocked, in one instance, at 600 m.p.h. Being a kind of electrical plasma phenomena, they appear on radar and emit a broad band of EMR, giving rise to electromagnetic effects associated with flying saucers, namely burns, scorching, melting, and electrical interference, as well as those more subliminal effects on the nervous system that result in the imagery and narrative of a close encounter experience. Being a mysterious (if natural) phenoma, UAPs and their haunts (as it were) have been associated with many ancient or traditional holy sites, such as stone circles in England and Wales, monasteries and temples in Greece and China, and holy mountains, like Mount Shasta in present-day California. Tectonic stresses and the earth tremors that result from them have likewise been long associated with marked behaviour in animals, giving rise to research into the possible causal grounds for this connection between geological activity and the nervous systems of higher organisms, including human beings.

Michael Persinger and others have experimented extensively with the effects of EMR on the brain. Persinger, for example, has developed a chamber wherein a subject is seated and fitted with a specially-designed helmet that induces small changes in the electromagnetic fields of targetted regions of the brain thereby modifying the electrochemical reactions of the neurons, resulting in modifications of consciousness. Depending on the strength of the field, the region of the brain stimulated, the subject’s background, and even the imagery decorating the chamber, subjects report a wide range of perceptual effects, including intense emotions of fear or anger, flashing lights, feelings of being observed by an unseen presence, sensations of sudden intense cold or of being touched or moved, etc. More extreme reactions include auditory or visual hallucinations, such as hearing authorative God-like voices or the appearance of skinny, wax-like humanoids. That these effects are those associated with ghost sightings, poltergeist hauntings, and UFO abduction experiences have led researchers to propose that the energies released by geological activity or perhaps by the light phenomena supposedly caused by this activity lead to experiences interpreted by the experiencer as an encounter with a ghost, UFO and its pilots, or with some other form of apparition whose character and behaviour is culturally-determined by the experiencer’s background.

Proceeding from the research of Persinger and others, Albert Budden has expanded the refined the EMH to include artificial sources of EMR and the electromagetic pollution they are seen as causing. The historically-recent increase of  EMR in the environment has resulted in an “electromagnetic smog” from sources such as wireless communications technologies and radar, power lines, high-tension cables, transformers, substations, and junction boxes. Anxiety over electromagnetic pollution is hardly a fringe phenomenon, as the health effects of EMR have been the subject of studies and concern both within single nations (e.g., a Swedish study of 50,000 subjects to determine a link between proximity to high-tension power pylons and forms of cancer) and internationally (e.g., studies conducted by the World Health Organization) [An example of more up-to-date data can be read here]. By natural and artificial sources of EMR, singly or together, along with other factors, Budden attempts to explain in detail how “hallucinatory / visionary perceptions are caused ultimately by the actions of [electromagnetic] fields in the environment on the human system, although physiological factors that are involved point to synergistic mechanisms.” In Budden’s view, artificial and natural electromagnetic fields  interact to produce those UAPs his coworkers identify as the source of UFO reports and close encounter experiences.


Books for further reading:

For research and results in the EMH specifically, see:

Budden, Albert. UFOs:  Psychic Close Encounters (London:  Blandford, 1995).

Electric UFOs (London:  Blandford, 1998).

Devereux P., Roberts, A. and Clarke, D. Earth Lights Revelation (London:  Blandford, 1989).

Persinger, M. A. and Lafreneire, G. F. Space Time Transients and Unusual Events (Chicago:  Nelson Hall, 1977).


For the thesis that UFOs and aliens are an aspect of the general theory of apparitions see:

Evans, Hilary. Gods–Spirits–Cosmic Guardians (Wellingborough:  The Aquarian Press, 1987).

Vallée, Jacques. Passport to Magonia (Chicago:  H. Regnery Co., 1969).

Dimensions (New York:  Ballantine, 1989).