The Autokinetic Effect
We know the brain loves a good optical illusion. When our brain and eyes work together to interpret what we see, often it tricks us into thinking things are moving around. The autokinetic effect can make stationary objects seem as if they are moving in the dark. Some UFO sightings could be attributed to this phenomena. So let's look at the autokinetic effect in more detail.
What is the autokinetic effect?
Also known as autokinesis, this phenomenon is occurs when a small stationary source of light which is surrounded by a dark environment appears to be moving. It actually isn't moving, but there are scenarios where we believe it is moving. It is thought that because it is surrounded by darkness, there is no reference point for our brains to use. The jury is out as to whether it is more a fault of the eye or the brain. While some believe it has to do with how the brain perceives the information, others believe it is more to do with involuntary eye movements.
Conformity and autokinesis
Conformity is best described as the power of suggestion in way. It is a social influence which makes a person change their belief or behaviour to align with those around them. Turkish American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif actually used autokinesis to demonstrate how a person can be influenced by another person's opinion. Using a small light projected on a dark screen in a controlled environment, the participants were asked to guess how far the light moved (such as from 20-80cm). The then put subjects in three groups to be tested again. He purposely put 2 people in a group who guessed a similar figure and then one person's whose guess was considerably different. Each person in the group had to state out aloud how far they thought the light had moved. Over several trials, each member of the group came up with a similar figure meaning in each case, the person whose guess was initially vastly different to the rest of the group changed their minds. He concluded that in group situations, people are more likely to conform than make an individual judgment. When in an ambiguous situation, a person unknowingly looks to their peers to help them to make a judgment.
How does this apply to UFOs?
In 1799 Alexander Von Humboldt who was a geographer and explorer was staring up at the sky like he usually did. He noticed that some of the stars seemed to be moving. He labeled this movement "Sternschwanken: which means moving stars in German. It wasn't until 58 years later that a German psychologist realised that it wasn't that the stars were moving, it was the brain perceiving the movement. In many cases of searching for UFO phenomena, people will conduct a 'sky watch' which often involves sitting outside and staring at the sky for hours on end. While equipment is also often used, a person is likely looking at the sky using their eyes. This is the perfect scenario for auto kinesis to occur. You have a bright light source being a star, and a dark surrounding background being the night sky. If you are with another person and you comment 'Do you see that light moving in the sky?', conformity could make them think they are seeing this same movement. The good news is that video is immune to this phenomena because well a video doesn't have a brain. It is an unbias account of what is happening. If you see an item moving in the sky, refer straight back to your video to see if it moves. It is a good control to see if it is just a case of your eyes playing tricks on you. To avoid autokinesis, it is suggested not to just focus on one particular area with your eyesight and to often scan different areas with your eyes.
There is a lot to look at when you simply take the time to look up and see the stars. From shooting stars, aeroplanes and satellites, it takes an avid skywatcher to know what they are looking for. Like anything, practice makes perfect and it is something you will only learn after you go out and do it. If in doubt, remember a camera doesn't lie. Try to have a static camera set up that you refer to confirm if a moving object you saw was really a moving object or just autokinesis. When you can eliminate this optical illusion, then the real fun of working out what you really saw begins!
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