I remember watching Jimmy Kimmel interview Kurt Russell a while back and learning that Russell was the general aviation pilot who reported the famous “Phoenix Lights” UFO back in 1997. As the story goes Russell, part-time local and Snowmass ranch owner, and his son were on approach to land when a line of six lights appeared, almost stationary, over the Phoenix airport. I wondered if he had flown from Aspen’s airport to Phoenix that night, but he didn’t say.
Russell saw the lights, all in a row “right over the airport” and reported them to the tower as he was unsure if their presence would affect his landing. He went on to explain that afterwards he didn’t think or talk about the incident for several years until he saw a documentary about the event and the narrator mentioned that only one general aviation pilot had reported the lights. “That’s me,” he thought.
Listening to Russell’s description of his experience with the Phoenix lights reminded me of a similar experience I had and then didn’t think about for years, around the same time period in the late ’90s. As finance director for the city of Lynnwood, Wash., I had the pleasure of commuting almost 50 miles from the Tacoma area through downtown Seattle. On one particularly blustery early spring morning as I drove northbound on Interstate 5 through northern King County, my peripheral vision spotted something odd in the sky above me. Looking up, I could see a grid pattern of stationary diamond-shaped black or dark gray objects. The objects were organized symmetrically, but were difficult to see as they appeared to be just above a layer of fast-moving low clouds that obscured them and a high layer of gray clouds above them reduced their contrast with the sky.
I was unable to look at the objects for more than about two seconds at a time, due to the fact that I was hurtling up the interstate at 65 miles per hour with hundreds of my closest commuting friends. I remember asking myself if I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing, and trying to figure out what the objects could possibly be. Were they some kind of weather monitoring system? Boeing’s Paine Field was not far away, perhaps they were part of some kind of experimental set of aircraft that Boeing was testing. Those are actual thoughts that fleetingly invaded my consciousness in the moment.
But as quickly as I saw them, the objects were gone. In total the observation lasted no more than two or three minutes. Like Kurt Russell and his sighting, I didn’t think about it again, let alone consider that it might have been some kind of unexplained phenomena, until I too saw a documentary on the Phoenix lights. Only then did it occur to me that what I saw might have been unusual enough to categorize as a UFO, or some other unexplained natural phenomenon.
More interesting to me is the way my brain interpreted the event in the moment. I tried to find an answer from my own memory and understanding of the world, but when I didn’t, rather than pursue it with an investigative interest, I discarded it. Like Russell’s description of his observation, I didn’t forget it or repress it. I simply decided it wasn’t worth thinking about anymore and the truth is, given the unique nature of the observation, I am at a loss to explain exactly why.
An article from newscientist.com (“Our brains prefer invented information to the real thing,” May 19, 2017) summarizes the results of two studies that indicate how much power our brains and memory have over our vision and other senses. Our brains “fill in” significant blind spots in our vision with internally created images taken from our memory and experience. In one study, researchers discovered that 65% of participants trusted the vision that their brains create for them more than what is actually there. Rather than try to explain how they did this, you can go to the link at the end of this column and read the short explanation for yourself.
Is it possible that my brain was looking at an unfamiliar visual image — low fast-moving clouds against a background of high slow-moving clouds — and in an effort to make sense of it created the scene described above? Or was there really a grid of diamond-shaped objects hovering over Seattle and I was the only person who apparently saw them?
The researchers concluded that this finding was consistent with what we already know about cognitive biases. It’s no secret that If we passionately believe in the truth of something — climate change is human caused or not, gun control needed or not, UFOs are real or not — we are less likely to be receptive to evidence that disproves its truthfulness. This and other study results support the assertion that such biases are wired into us from things we have previously read or seen or experienced.
I have concluded that my brain discarded my observation, because it decided it was just too far “outside the box” to be curious about. So, the moral of the story is to remain curious and open to new information. In Russell’s case, lots of people saw the Phoenix lights and they were widely recorded on video, he was just the only general aviation pilot to report them. In my case, there is no evidence for my observation outside of my own memory, but I know what I saw. Or do I?