The Autokinetic Illusion with Regard to Night Sky UFOs

In the last post, Twinkle Twinkle Little UFO, we looked at the effects of atmospheric refraction on starlight and how that might contribute to misidentification of a star as a rotating, color-changing UFO hovering in the sky. But in many cases the suspected objects don’t remain stationary, they seem to move. So what’s going on?

Bright UFOs in the night sky have been reported by witnesses to dart around randomly, zig-zag, and drift one way or another. Some witness claim that the lights must be communicating with them because they seem so in-tune with the viewer. The motion may be less “in-tune” than you think, and more physically innate.

In this article we’ll be looking at a specific phenomenon that is the likely cause of this perceived motion: autokinetic illusion.

The other morning I was standing at my kitchen window looking out to the back yard and for a brief moment I thought saw something small flitting around out there, it never moved far. In fact it stopped moving and became apparent once I focused on it. Did it land?

It was a little red thing. Was it some kind of bird? Something else? Nope, it was a fine spec of tomato sauce stuck on the window which I subsequently cleaned off. But before cleaning it I did a quick experiment: I tried to steady my head and keep the spot fixed in my gaze relative to the background, but I couldn’t do it. That spot moved ever so slightly back and forth, not so much up and down though.

I realized that it was virtually impossible to keep my head perfectly still. I said the “spot moved” but to clarify, the spot didn’t really move, I did.

What I experienced, although mundane, was technically the result of autokinesis, because auto-kinesis literally means “self motion”. I was moving, and for a moment my brain misattributed this as the spot of tomato sauce moving. Until I realized what it was. True autokinetic illusion gets a bit more involved though.

Most of the time our brains do just fine figuring things out but, head movement aside, there is some pretty tricky eye-brain stuff going on that makes autokinetic illusions pretty convincing, even disorienting, and cool.

Human vision isn’t nearly as precise as, say, an owl or hawk, but our eyes are still pretty impressive. We have a pretty sophisticated tracking system in place that we rely on all the time. But misinterpretation, by our thinking brain, of the stuff our innate brain is telling us can lead us to make false assumptions. We might think we’re witnessing something that we really are not.

The two specific movements made by the eyes are saccades and microsaccades. The first are voluntary movements used to look around a scene or move your eyes across a page while reading. The second, microsaccades, are very small, involuntary jerking motions made by the eyes during visual fixation, when your gaze settles and you focus on a specific object or area.

The reason our eyes do this is because humans have a small area of visual acuity on the retina called the fovea, outside of this focal point visual detail is diminished. In a nutshell, when you look at something long enough, it must be important, so your eye jerks around in that specific area of your view, in an effort to collect as much detail through the fovea as it can. This helps your brain determine, to the highest degree possible, what you’re looking at and what’s going on with it.

In the absence of any other visual cues, the brain cannot determine the object’s position accurately, and it appears to move randomly. If you sit in a pitch black room and stare at a spot of light fixed on the far wall, that bright spot will eventually appear to move. Something called ocular drift may greatly contribute to the motion during this visual fixation.
During ocular drift the eyes follow a slow, meandering course. The spot might appear to slowly drift one way or the other, loop back a little, all very slowly. Periodically our eyes may attempt to refocus on the spot through microsaccades, which may lead to a jerking-drifting effect.

The jerking motion of the eye during microsaccades directly corresponds to the jerky or zig-zagging motion described by many UFO sighting witnesses. Again, as I mentioned in the previous article, we’re not talking about reports of silver daylight discs, triangle craft or other sightings of specific craft, just bright UFOs seen in the sky at night.

Simple animation shows how atmospheric refraction combined with involuntary eye movement, called microsaccades, can cause a star to appear to twinkle and zig-zag in the sky.

If you slightly avert your gaze the similarity to a twinkling star is more evident. These bright, whirling, rotating, multi-colored lights frequently reported dancing in the dark sky can be explained, and may simply be stars. The truth is no less amazing when you consider the natural science involved.

The optical illusions sometimes created by voluntary or involuntary eye movements, like saccades or microsaccades, can create some pretty amazing effects. One excellent example is the Rotating Snakes illusion devised by Japanese artist Akiyoshi Kitaoka. Warning: This image might make observers feel sick. if you are very sensitive to optical illusions you may want to scroll down and skip it.

Rotating Snakes by Akiyoshi Kitaoka for reference of autokinetic illusion.

The effect seen here is due to a phenomenon called “peripheral drift” an effect that shares the stage with autokinetic illusion due to the actual mechanism at work.

So when we see twinkling stars it is caused by refraction, and when those bright points of light seem to move it is an optical illusion caused by the movement of our eyes and sometimes our heads. These are personal experiences though, often seen through binoculars, and peripheral drift will not occur the same for everyone… so what’s going on when multiple people see the same thing? That’s for next time.


Twinkle Twinkle Little UFO

As a child I was amazed every time I’d look up at the stars. Even now looking up on a dark starry night evokes a sense of wonder. The vast sea of twinkling stars is awe inspiring. It seems so incomprehensible, so magical and mysterious. Looking up is our personal view into space. What could be out there? It’s not all a mystery, but much of it still is.

Star gazers enjoy gathering to look up and witness the celestial dome in groups. Star gazing is a way to socialize, commune with the universe, and catch the occasional shooting star or satellite. it is a time to revel in the majesty of a grand, mysterious universe that science is still learning about. Through science we understand a lot more than our ancestors did about those bright twinkling things in the sky but the mystery, reverence and excitement are indisputable, and contagious.

This contagious excitement happens at UFO watch parties too. Like star gazers, UFO watchers gather for the social aspect and are intrigued by the grand spectacle of the stars above. Unlike most star gazers though, UFO watchers have a specific goal: to see UFOs. They want to, most of them expect to, and many are predisposed to seeing so-called unidentified flying objects.

This article doesn’t attempt to explain daylight silver disc-shaped sightings, triangular objects, landings or crashes that some people claim to have witnessed. I’ll save those for another time. The point of this writing is to suggest an explanation for flickering lights seen in the sky that some UFO enthusiasts claim to be unknown objects maneurvering in ways that defy the known laws of physics. There have been many accounts of spinning, blinking and flickering UFOs that change colors and zip around the sky, zig-zagging in view finders of binoculars and cameras alike.

My proposal is this: they are stars. But of course what might seem obvious to one person is not so obvious to another.

Not long ago I was watching a documentary on UFOs and one segment included two guys who were utterly amazed by the blinking and color-changing UFOs they were watching through their video camera and binoculars. The video of these objects wasn’t convincing to me. I’ve seen this phenomenon before when aiming my own camera at certain small objects and zooming in. What I was seeing on the television screen was, in my opinion, shaky video of stars in the sky.

The UFO hunters on TV marveled at how these bright objects zig-zagged erratically, clearly something no conventional aircraft can do. The assumption seemed to be that these lights must be spacecraft from another planet or dimension… piloted by beings far more advanced than humans.

They were making a big deal of two things well understood by science, and innately understood my most brains because we’ve all experienced them to some degree at one time or another, and we don’t always jump to crazy conclusions.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider common sense and our innate understanding of most simple situations. If you hear a creak when you open a door you don’t immediately assume it was a ghost, you know it was the door making that noise. Depending on your age and understanding of basic physics you might not know exactly why the door creaked, you might not understand what a hinge is, but you know that the sound came from the door.

So too, when we look up at the stars and see them twinkle, we might not know exactly why they do that but we know they’re stars, not alien spacecraft. Fairly certain anyway, and we’d be safe to assume so. It’s a low-level first pass our brains make at a given observation, and most of the time our first suspicion is the correct one. Any other conclusion, that involves alien-piloted spaceships for example, requires a stretch of the imagination and maybe a moderate degree of self-delusion. The most simple explanation is likely the correct one. That’s called Occam’s Razor.

The two things I hinted at above, which are very likely responsible for the flickering, bright, multi-colored objects the witnesses claimed to be UFOs, are refraction of light and something called autokinetic illusion. Actually there is a third, shaky hands jiggling the camera or binocs, but today I’m focusing on the twinkle…

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Any one of us can look up at the sky on a clear night and confirm this phenomenon, but what causes a star to appear as if it is twinkling? Is it the flicker of flames? Even though stars are massive blazing infernos they are too far away and far too bright for us to discern any flicker the flames may cause. Instead, the twinkling is caused by interference as the narrow beam of starlight passes through Earth’s atmosphere on route to our eyes.

Stars appear to us as very bright points of light, that’s why we can see them so well, but because of their great distance from Earth the apparent size of any given star is so small, literally like a pinhole in a black sheet of paper, that light from the star actually appears to flicker in brightness, as well as change color and wiggle, due to atmospheric refraction as it passes through layers of turbulent air masses in our planet’s atmosphere. This is called astronomical scintillation. Can’t claim that I knew that, I just learned it while writing this. Check it out for yourself at

Think of looking at a penny on the floor of a swimming pool. It distorts and wiggles as ripples refract the image on the way to your eyes. Differing air masses in the atmosphere cause a similar effect when we look at the stars. The effect is more pronounced closer to the horizon. Another example is the rippling effect we see as heat rises up from the road and passes before the landscape beyond.

Along with distortion of the light refraction also causes the color of the light to change because it disperses the wavelengths of white light. If you look at a star through binoculars or zoom in with a camera, the star will look like it is flashing or rotating through white, red, green and blue, and possible other colors like yellow or purple but the effect is so rapid that we can’t pick out every color.

Here’s an animated example of what the light from a bright star, constantly refracted in different ways by the changing atmosphere of our planet, might look like.

Simple animation shows how atmospheric refraction may cause a star to appear to twinkle and change color.

This interference creates a very dynamic effect and it might even seem as if the star is spinning really fast, pulsing various colors of light like a hovering UFO in a sci-fi movie. It’s exciting and mysterious, but readily explainable. Certainly there are things occurring in our world, and most definitely in the universe, that we don’t yet understand and cannot adequately explain, but that doesn’t mean it was aliens.

References: – Twinkling – Atmospheric Refraction

The Mystery of the Delphos Ring UFO Sighting

50 Years Ago, on November 2, 1971, sixteen year old Ron Johnson was tending sheep on the family farm in Delphos, Kansas. He heard his mom calling him for dinner and, as the story goes, when he turned to reply his attention was drawn to a strange mushroom-shaped object hovering in the air about 75 feet away, making a sound not dissimilar to an old vibrating washing machine.

I believe that’s the first time in UFO history such a description was used for the sound of a hovering object. If someone was sitting in this rattling contraption hovering above the earth, and if there were intelligent space beings that somehow made a harrowing trip across the cosmos in that thing, I hope they had a mechanic check it out before they drove it back home. Could have been a loose muffler or something.

Now back to the story…. Ronnie claimed the craft appeared to be about six to eight feet in diameter, which is pretty small when you consider it. That’s an awful cramped space to travel that far. Humans require huge RVs to go just a few thousand miles.

Anyway, according to the story (there’s even a book about it on with a massively long title: The Compelling Scientific Evidence for UFOs: The Analysis of the Delphos, Kansas UFO Landing Report) the object was hovering just a few feet above the ground and left a circular area of bare land where, from then on, grass refused to grow.

Upon investigation the affected soil was found to be resistant to water, and when compared to soil samples from outside of the ring it was found to contain more calcium, soluble salts, was more acidic, and apparently contained an unidentified hydrocarbon. There was also a white, fibrous, crystalline material found in the soil.

Let’s take a look at these chemical findings first. Off the bat we can exclude calcium, salts and acidic soil as evidence of some strange event. Those components are not uncommon in soil, and plants tend not to thrive in acidic soil so that could explain the bare spot. Hydrocarbons in the soil, especially in this situation (it’s a farm), can be explained by various agricultural operations including the use of pesticides, and regular use of farming equipment or vehicles.

Next, the white stuff. I read this thing (which is consistent with other reports on the Delphos ring, indicating that they’re all just regurgitating the same information), and according Jacques Vallée, a well known French astronomer who wears many hats including UFOlogist, the white material was analyzed by a French biologist and found to be actinobacteria, and referred to in the report as a form of fungus.

Just a note: Actinobacteria is not fungus. As the name not so subtly implies, it is bacteria. It is also common in soil, especially in forest areas (you know, around trees). The only thing fungus-like about actinobacteria is their tendency to form colonies and develop into whitish, stranded, branching formations called hyphae.

So, funny white fungus-like bacteria, trace forms of calcium, salt and acidic soil do not indicate that something weird happened. It means something rather normal happened. It happens all over the place. Soil isn’t just some inert stuff sitting there waiting for us to look at it. Natural processes are happening all the time.

But why is it shaped like a ring, and why doesn’t it absorb water? Since we have learned that the soil was not really that strange, those remaining factors can be relatively easily deduced. It may have been that the soil had be come too compacted to readily absorb water, and the things that compacted the soil could be the very same things that caused the ring and the acidic quality of the soil.

Remember this was a sheep farm, and sheep pee. Put a bunch of peeing sheep with trampling hooves around a circular bale feeder, day after day, and you’ll have compacted salty soil in no time.

That’s just my theory, but I think it’s a good one. It doesn’t take an unidentified hovering object to make a circle of dry dirt on a farm. Farm animals can do that with no trouble at all.

But why would a sixteen year old boy make up such a far-fetched tale about a hovering UFO? Come on now… telling stories is what humans do.


Alleged Travis Walton UFO Abduction Incident

The Travis Walton UFO sighting and abduction story is a good one. But even though it’s an intriguing tale, and made a great movie, there are some things that don’t ring true in this famous UFO case. Aside from having everything involved with it but the kitchen sink.

Continue reading “Alleged Travis Walton UFO Abduction Incident”

Phoenix Lights Regurgitation

The Phoenix Lights Festival returned for its fourth year to The Park at Wild Horse Pass on April 7 & 8, 2018. The two day music festival featured 42 artists, including techno, dance and trance DJs and full bands. Festivals need themes and the Phoenix Lights Festival has an interesting piece of local lore behind it. Who knows, there may very well have been some extraterrestrials at the festival, but there weren’t any at the original sighting events back in 1997. Or at any other time. I don’t mean to pop any bubbles, just being real. It’s my job.

To be sure, festivals are not the problem, the problem is these dopey documentaries that show up 21 years later, rehashing reports, adding new nonsense and completely ignoring anything that resembles reality. But then, one guy’s reality is another’s… whatever, you know what I mean.

21 YEARS since Phoenicians first experienced a strange light formation in the sky, and mysterious orange lights flickering over South Mountain and the Sierra Estrella mountain range, southwest of Phoenix, AZ.

Before I comment on this Expanded and Updated documentary which is also apparently Beyond Top Secret, let me first summarize the events which I have independently investigated while sitting at the dinette of my little RV. I happen to be camping in a remote location, staking out a logging site for a friend of mine. He thinks there may be a Bigfoot roaming around in the woods here.

After a long day and no Bigfoot I was winding down with a cold beer and decided to cover-surf on my Amazon FireTV Stick. Since I frequently watch shows about the paranormal as part of my investigative work Amazon pops up various titles that I might find interesting. I know Amazon tracks my viewing behavior, I just hope my Alexa is minding her own business. I’d hate to think she’s logging my conversations, especially the ones I have with myself. Ha! Logging.

Anyway, that’s where I noticed the Phoenix Lights – Beyond Top Secret – Expanded and Updated. The title reads like just like a bullbunkum book you wouldn’t pay two cents for. Well, I wouldn’t, I can get that stuff on Kindle for free. I don’t enjoy the stuff really, but I need to keep up to date in my line of work. Beyond top secret huh? Let’s talk about the Phoenix Lights…

Artist rendering of the Phoenix Lights

The Phoenix Lights Story

Two events unfolded on the evening of March 13, 1997, and many, including Lynne Kitei, confuse the them, maybe deliberately so, merging them into one and dismissing any rational explanation because it does not fit with what they want to believe.

Witnesses of the first event recount seeing a triangular, or V-shaped, formation of lights traversing slowly overhead and seen by witnesses starting at 7:55 MST in Henderson, NV. A report was made by a motorist in Kingman, AZ, then reports started at 8:17 MST in Prescott, AZ, followed by witness sightings in Phoenix.

Most witnesses described lights in a V formation traveling at a slow rate of speed from northwest to southeast. Some claimed a massive object blocked out stars in the sky as the formation passed overhead, though the brightness of the nearby lights witnesses were focused on would most likely cause their eyes to adjust, thereby making far distant stars seem much dimmer.

Here you go… an amateur astronomer using a Dobsonian telescope observed the lights of the V formation and clearly saw that they were attached to individual airplanes. That pretty much settles it for me, but maybe I should doubt what he says because he could just be a plant for the government to misdirect people from the truth about the UFO Alien coverup. Yeah that’s it.

The second event was subsequently confirmed by authorities at the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range to be a series of parachute flares dropped by A-10 Warthogs over the testing range southwest of Phoenix. In fact, video recordings made by some residents clearly depict lights behaving exactly as one would expect descending and flickering parachute flares to behave. None of the video clips presented in any news reel or documentary show the full deployment of course because then it would be evident as to what they are. They just wouldn’t be as intriguing.

A distant line of reddish glowing lights appear in the distance, flickering to life one by one and progressively descending, eventually disappearing behind the Sierra Estrella mountain range, generally in the same order in which they were dropped. No sound was heard because the aircraft dropping the flares were some distance away and flying perpendicular to witness viewing directions from Phoenix.

So, Beyond Top Secret, what’s that about? There was absolutely nothing top secret about the so-called Phoenix Lights in the first place. Air Force personnel freely disclosed that the series of lights seen over the mountains from Phoenix were flares dropped in a training run, and a guy with a telescope saw airplanes in the giant V-formation.

Now, About this Documentary…

… that I couldn’t waste more than 8 minutes on.

Three swigs into my beer I decided to switch over to Longmire. I just couldn’t stand listening to Dr. Lynne Kitei ramble on about the miraculous encounter she and her husband had had with the lights, and how magical the whole thing seemed to her. In the documentary she implied that she could sense a presence in the lights, and seemed to seriously believe they were some kind of higher beings trying to connect with humanity.

Over and over we see reenactments of her taking pictures of the event and she comments frequently on one photo in particular, which we are never shown. At one point I caught myself yelling at the TV, “show us the picture! Show us the PICTURE! SHOW US THE DANN PICTURE!” During one weird moment she actually takes a framed photo in her hands and looks at it with some apparent longing before returning it to the mantel, hiding it behind other pictures. Very strange. But we never see it.

After a little research I discovered that her photos of the event are available at the Phoenix Lights Network website. They are obvious blurry photos of the flares dropped by planes from Barry Goldwater AF Range, which is an event confirmed by the Air Force and would have appeared as the photos depict if seen from Phoenix. These are photos of the second event, not the V-formation.

This is all so basic it amazes me how these events, which were adequately explained at the time, can get so blown out of proportion. Actually, it doesn’t really. People perpetuate a whole bunch of nonsensical rubbish just because they have a need to believe. It really all boils down to just that. I won’t get into the psychology of it all here, I’m not a psychologist just a simple investigator of the unexplained.

This Phoenix Lights thing has taken on a whole new shape beyond just believing the lights were alien piloted spaceships. Lights, craft and even orbs are terms used to describe the things witnessed on that night in 1997. Orbs hints at the supernatural, ghosts and spirits, so this Phoenix Lights thing has become a kind of spiritual movement.

It reeks of some new age nonsense with sentiments like “Evolution to a New Consciousness,” and claims of a cover up with statements like, “…cover up of what is now being hailed as the largest mass sighting of UFOs in modern times…”

This is a weird amalgamation of UFO lore and spiritual enlightenment with religious overtones, but it’s nothing new. We’ve seen UFO enlightenment movements and “re-awakenings” in the past. In some ways, for some people, UFOs and the idea of aliens from space have replaced a biblical god.

The events known collectively as the Phoenix Lights have been sufficiently and rationally explained. There really is no need to spend any more time on it. The documentary is a rehashing of anecdotes, and the rekindling of a belief, held by some, that the lights were of extraterrestrial origin. It’s also spinning into something far stranger. Good luck to those who wade into the murky waters of some “New Consciousness.”