Your Mama Looks Like E.T.

(Aynsley Floyd - AP)

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Accounts of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens have one eerie similarity. When serious researchers like psychologist Frederick V. Malmstrom have asked self-proclaimed abductees what their out-of-this-world kidnappers looked like, they inevitably describe beings with large heads, big eyes, gray skin, smooth features, a barely visible or absent mouth and smallish bodies.

Malmstrom, a visiting scholar at the U.S. Air Force Academy, now thinks he recognizes that face. It's Mommy -- or at least the image of a "prototypical female face" that's hard-wired into a baby's brain and helps newborns instantly respond to their mothers.

Scientists have known for years that animals are born with certain visual recognition "templates" that help them survive. In one famous study, a scientist found that newly hatched chickens automatically cowered from shadows in the shape of a predator (such as a hawk) while the shadow of a non-predator -- a goose -- elicited only yawns (or the chick equivalent).

There's similar evidence that human babies are programmed to react to a generalized face. Studies show that up until 2 months of age, an infant will react favorably to anything resembling a human face -- even a Halloween mask -- while showing little consistent interest in other shapes.

The key, researchers have concluded, is the eyes and nose. A newborn's blurry vision tends to soften facial features and smudge the eyes into large dark blobs. In fact, when Malmstrom optically altered a photo of a woman in a way consistent with the characteristics of a newborn's vision -- astigmatism, an extremely shallow focal plane -- the resulting face looked remarkably like those big-eyed aliens drawn by self-declared abductees, he reports in the latest issue of the magazine Skeptic, which features scholarly articles on the paranormal and other extraordinary claims.

Okay, professor -- two questions. First, why do these adults who claim to be abducted "see" their mothers, or at least this prototypical female face, and not some other important figure, say a prototypical pacifier?

The answer, he asserts, has to do with another familiar feature of alien-abduction accounts. Virtually all of the cases considered credible enough to study occurred when the abductees reported they were either falling asleep or were "remembered" while the subject was under hypnosis. The feeling of being halfway between wakefulness and sleep is called a "hypnagogic dreamlike state" and shares many of the same characteristics of being hypnotized.

Malmstrom suspects that "the alien face perceived in hypnagogic dreamlike states is also produced from the same primitive facial recognition template." In this state, the mind reverts to basics to make sense of its imagined out-of-this-world surroundings, in this case summoning up the image of the archetypal mom, says Malmstrom.

Well, maybe. Your Unconventional Wiz isn't quite convinced, and even Malmstrom says his theory merits "further research."

Oh, my other question: If they're seeing Mother, then why do these descriptions of close encounters with aliens often sound so unpleasant, as in those ghastly accounts of anal probes or forced sexual relations? Do we have issues with Mommy Dearest even at birth?

"There does seem to be a sexual element to it, but I don't know," Malmstrom laughed. "That's an excellent question for a doctoral dissertation."

The Best Living Artists: An Economist's View

The art establishment says the art market is a poor way to judge artistic quality. University of Chicago economist David W. Galenson begs to differ. He's just released his list of the greatest living artists, based on the number of their works that have sold for $1 million or more at auction. He says the names on his list bear a marked similarity to those whose work appears most often in art history textbooks.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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