Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Autokinesis and UFOs

The autokinetic effect has been well-known for at least two centuries, that being documented during this period of time.  I suspect the effect has generated interest, if not completely baffling observers for a couple of thousands of years.  This visual perception effect has been linked to quiet a few UFO reports.  The autokinetic effect has been used as a way of explaining visual mis-identifications of lighted objects in the night sky. 

From Wikipedia:  The autokinetic effect (also referred to as autokinesis) is a phenomenon of visual perception in which a stationary, small point of light in an otherwise dark or featureless environment appears to move...Alexander von Humbolt observed the phenomenon in 1799 while looking at stars with the naked eye, but thought it was a real movement of the stars. Thus he named them "Sternschwanken" i.e. "Swinging Stars". It was not until 1857 that G. Schweitzer (Schweitzer, 1857), an early German psychologist, discovered that is was a subjective phenomenon. The US Navy started studying this in 1945 in order to explain vertigo experiences related by pilots...

To simplify things, let's take the UFO component out of the story for the time being and look closely at the phenomena from a physiological stand point.

Gregory and Zangwell, 1963:  "The effects of unbalanced fatigue of the ocular and neck musculature on the auto- kinetic effect are described. It is shown that after deviation of the eyes to an extreme position, fixation of a small light source with the eye in the central position gives rise to an immediate and pronounced autokinetic effect. This apparent movement is typically in the same meridian as that of the ocular deviation and is often, at all events at first, in the opposite direction. Similar, though less clear-cut, results are obtained after induction of unbalanced fatigue in the neck musculature. It is argued that the autokinetic effect observed under these conditions warrants treatment as a primary illusion of movement and does not involve a “framework” or standard of reference. In an appendix, a speculative model of the ocular control system and some preliminary observations are presented. It is concluded that the autokinetic effect is principally due to spontaneous minor fluctuations in the neural system which monitors the outward signals controlling eye movement."

Since the 1940s, research has shown that the physiological origins and effects have been linked to the vestibular system of the inner ear.  The three semi-circular canals play an important part in our sense of balance and spatial orientation.  So we can deduce that the autokinetic effect is a physiological visual illusion generated by our semi-circular canals.

Upon doing an online meta search I found research papers describing autokinesis going to the early 1900s.  Most of the studies occurred during the 1940s and 1950s.  Surprisingly, not much has been published in the latter half of the last century.

But I did come across this interesting paper.  A study conducted by Eva Riedel, et al, published in 2005, "Imaging the visual autokinetic illusion with fMRI"

"During fixation of a stationary, dim light-emitting diode (LED) in complete darkness, a subtle, apparent motion is perceived which is called autokinesis. This autokinetic illusion increases with increasing fixation time. Eleven healthy subjects were examined by fMRI while fixating an LED in darkness for 35 s. BOLD signal changes of the first and the second half of the fixation period were compared. While the stimulus was the same for both periods, perception differed in that autokinesis was more pronounced in the second half. This second half of the period was associated with bilateral activations in the motion-sensitive middle occipito-temporal area known as MT/V5. Our finding suggests that area MT/V5 is involved in the mediation of autokinesis."

OK, the fact that the middle occipito-temoporal area is neurally suggested for autokinesis is interesting to me, but I suspect that most others could care less.  But, the true gem of this study lies with the suggestion that prolong fixation (staring) at a lighted object increases the autokinetic illusion.

Last week, I conducted a self-experiment while out scanning the night's sky with my telescope.  I used to stars (Deneb and Altair) as my target subjects.  Both stars are prominent in the southern sky based on my location in Southern California.

Without aid of telescope, but naked eye observation only, I fixed my gaze on Deneb.  After only a short time, the autokinetic effect became evident as the star appeared to move from right to left. The same effect was observed using Altair as my stellar prop.  I can confirm Riedel's findings that prolong fixation on both Altair and Deneb did increase the effect.

I also confirmed that willfully attempting to mitigate the effect was impossible on my part.  This confirms that it autokinesis is purely a involuntary physiological effect that the subject (me, in this case) has no control over.

How does this effect come into play with UFO sightings?  I conducted a new meta search using "autokinesis" and "UFOs" as my keywords and found a large search return describing the two as linked in UFO encounters.  

Some of you know where I'm going with all of this as I've been researching the 1968 Minot UFO case.  Project Blue Book had used autokinesis as a factor in the ground sightings and focused on the star Sirius.  Obviously, there are other factors associated with the case but I wanted to look at the the autokinetic effect in more detail.  More at a later date...


  1. Hello Tim,

    Dunno if you have already it when attempting a meta-analysis regarding "autokinesis/autokinetic effect" and "UFO", but...
    Beyond an opinion about this article, Jeffery A. Lindell proposed an article last year where "autokinesis" and "UFOs" link (as other perception effects) was/where pointed, called "The Real Foo Fighters - A Historical and Physiological Perspective on a World War II Aviation Mystery". It was released in Skeptic, vol. 17, n. 2 (pp. 38-43).

    You can find it online here (with typos): http://jeff.lindell.home.comcast.net/~jeff.lindell/The%20Sparticani.htm

    Lindell proposed his "hypothesis" in ATS too: http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread880609/pg1

    As myself found this pdf (a USAF manual about night vision) indicated in Lindell's article for our French forum in a thread we discussed a little about the article (but there are probably interresting others articles in Lindell bibliography to have) : http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a257059.pdf


  2. Gilles,

    Thanks for the links. I'll take a look and provide another comment. For some reason the autokinesis/UFO/Foo Fighter subject appears familiar...


  3. Gilles,

    I read Lindell's paper and found it fascinating. He is leading in the right direction correlating the psychological (cumulative?) effects of the Foo Fighter encounters and the start of the modern day UFO story.

    Lindell appears to make the case that the Foo Fighter legends corresponded to the German development of jet aircraft, as well as Japan's attempts to do like-wise at the tail end of the war.

    Most of the information that I had accessed for autokinetic studies showed an intense interest in the 1940's...just as Lindell states.

    Great link on your part!


  4. Tim and Gilles,

    Thanks for the plug on my research. If either of you have any questions about my research I would be happy to correspond, my e-mail is jeff.lindell@comcast.net or jlindell@indiana.edu. Either address should work. This invitation is also open to any serious researchers of UFO myths and legends. I'm a folklorist by academic trade but also have experience in Electronic Warfare in the USAF.

  5. Jeff,

    Great to have you comment on the blog! I want to repeat what I said to Gilles, great research on your part.

    I have a few questions concerning your ELINT experience as it may be germane to my current on-going project, but I pose that with an email.

    Tim H.

  6. Thanks a lot. I'll look forward to reading your thoughts. Also, just a reminder... this ELINT stuff is kind of classified, but I can answer questions about the declassified stuff from WWII. Also, if you're interested here's a link to the Skeptic forum on Night Flyer Illusions... http://www.skepticforum.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=18300

  7. Hey Tim,

    I just dug up a couple of old forum posts on ATS from 2004 and 2007 I did on the Foo Fighters, perhaps you might find them interesting.



  8. Jeff,

    Thanks for the links. I'll take a look and get back to you. I'll be sending you an email soon. Sorry for the delay...worked all weekend.


  9. Hi Tim:

    There is no reference in the communications or documents indicating that autokinesis was a possible factor in the ground sightings. Of course, in the PBB final report Q mentions that "5. Stationary lights when seen against a black background can appear to move. This process is called autokinesis. (See Atch #3)" And includes an attachment #3-3 which is an ADC print out describing the autokinetic illusion that pilots sometimes experience during nighttime formation flying. I had not given this possible "explanation" much thought in my analysis. in fact, I thought it was related to the #3 attachment which is the report of the 11 July 1968 case at Elieson AFB, Alaska. Not sure why that case was included unless it was in response to Col. Pullen's request to: "hit a little heavy on what has happened to other aircraft on occasions like this, this would help play the issue down." In any event, it is unclear how an effect could describe the cause.

    Kind regards, Tom

  10. No problem Tim, please take your time. Just one last link I need to share with you. This is perhaps the single most important piece of research that I stumbled upon while I was collecting these group sightings of "foo fighters." This was a study preformed by the eminent Social Psychologist, Muzafer Sherif, titled "Some Social Factors In Perception."


    After reading this, try to imagine how a bomber crew, in the context of a night bombing raid, would interpret this "objectively unstable situation in which all basis of comparison as far as the external field of stimulation is concerned is absent." From the perspective of applied folkloristics, it just doesn't get any better than this!