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.

Interested in optical illusions? Check out some interesting Books about Optical Illusions at Amazon (Paid Link).


Mothman: The Sandhill Crane of Point Pleasant, WV

On December 15, 1967 the Silver Bridge—an eyebar-chain suspension bridge which spanned the Ohio River joining Point Pleasant, WV and Gallipolis, OH—collapsed under rush hour traffic. 46 people were killed. The cause of the collapse was discovered by investigators to be a broken link in the chain suspension system.

Here is an example of a tragedy that occurred because in the 39 year existence of the bridge it never dawned on anyone that an increased traffic load the bridge was not designed for meant the potential failure of said bridge under such a load. Hello. So who’s keeping tabs on this stuff anyway?

Unfortunately for the poor victims of the collapse but fortunate for the rest of us someone woke the hell up and decided this would be a good to review current bridges in use around the country and determine upgrades to increase the safety of those bridges in question. Bravo. You know, it’s too damn bad somebody didn’t think about this sooner, wasn’t clued in at some point. Oh wait! Apparently we were…

According to some, a string of allegedly unexplained events began happening just over a year prior to the collapse of the Silver Bridge, and are thought to have been omens of doom, some kind of foretelling of the catastrophe to come. There were Mothman sightings, phone calls featuring strange sounds, UFOs, and mysterious men in black, all somehow trying to let the people of Point Pleasant know that something wasn’t right.

Foretellings… Seriously, if Mothman knew something was going to happen why didn’t he just grab a welder and fix the chain, or write a letter to the Mason County Highway Department and let them know about the broken link. At the very least he could have swooped in and grabbed falling cars, flying them to safety before they hit the water below. Some hero.

Look, I’m all for good paranormal phenomena, UFOs, weird flying creatures and stuff like that, but when you connect this bunk to a human tragedy like a bridge collapse it’s just stupid and disrespectful to the poor people who lost their lives in the tragedy. It was a terrible accident, leave it alone.

Okay, I’ll talk about Mothman.

These are great spooky tales to tell around a campfire and fun fodder for books and documentaries but, if you actually start thinking about the mechanism involved in lifting a man-sized creature off the ground you realize that a “mothman” can’t exist. Won’t happen. There is this thing called physics, and within the boundaries of physics the wingspan necessary to lift an average dude would be enormous. Humans have only been able to lift themself off of the ground with jet packs and aircraft. Hang gliders require a running start downhill to develop lift unless you attach a motor.

Wingspan is only one consideration though, the physical attributes required to perform such a feat mean that Mothman would have to be super-jacked to flap his wings fast enough to get 200 lbs airborne way before any chance of catching an updraft to take a break. He’d look more distorted than the Tick on steroids, not just a man with wings.

So, what the hell did people of Point Pleasant see flapping over their heads back in 1967 that had them so convinced it was a dude with big moth wings and glowing red eyes? Let’s take a look at the reports and see if we can’t figure this one out.

Buzz Aldrin Selfie 1966 Gemini Spacewalk

The first sighting of a winged humanoid creature flying around was made on November 12, 1966, which incidentally is the same day Buzz Aldrin took a selfie during a space walk on the Gemini Mission. Back on Earth far below five guys were digging a grave at a cemetery near Clendenin, WV, when they claim to have seen a large, man-like creature flying overhead, and it wasn’t Buzz.

It is my opinion that Buzz Aldrin may have been the only humanoid creature flying unaided by conventional aircraft at the time, but he wasn’t contending with much gravity.

No further details were given in that sighting, but a couple of days later on November 15, there was another alleged sighting of a strange flying man-like creature. Two couples were driving around in a ’57 Chevy at the then abandoned West Virginia Ordinance Works, known locally as the TNT Area and now part of the McClintic Wildlife Management Area.

The witnesses spotted the thing at the abandoned north power plant when the wash of the headlights illuminated what they thought were glowing red eyes. The creature “wobbled” around the back of the building and the couples decided to vacate the area. One witness claimed you could “see the muscles” in the legs of the creature, though I’m not sure what creature would need to wobble when they have apparently sufficient muscles to walk with.

As they drove out they saw the creature, or maybe another of the same type, near a billboard where it flew up into the air and apparently began pursuit. According to their story it kept up with the car even at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. I’m betting they didn’t mention that speed to the cops later.

The creature allegedly chased them, “squeaking like a big mouse”, drifting back and forth as it flew along behind the car, casting its shadow upon the car. It got so close at times that its wings hit the roof. Pardon me for a minute… so it’s dark enough for them to require headlights which illuminate the creatures “eyes”, yet the thing is casting a shadow on their car? I did a quick check here and found that on November 15, 1966, at around 7PM the moon was waxing crescent, just over an eighth of it was illuminated, and it’s altitude was 5.6° above the horizon, very low in the western sky. This means there wasn’t enough moonlight to cast a shadow. Maybe street lights, but typically country roads out of town do not have regular street lights.

In any case they lost the flying thing as they entered Point Pleasant proper and stopped at a local ice cream shop to figure out what to do. They decided to head back out of town to see if the creature was still there and apparently encountered it, or something similar, near the carcass of a dead dog. According to their report the eyes appeared to glow red in the headlights again, and the thing flew over their car into a nearby field. Scared, they drove back to town and this time stopped at a Tiny’s Diner to plan their next move, which was ultimately to notify the police about what they had seen.

Linda Scarberry, one of the witnesses, described a grey creature with circular, fiery red eyes, standing 6 to 7 feet tall and being generally man-shaped with wings. Sheriff’s Deputy Millard Halstead didn’t believe them at first, but based on their apparent agitation he figured they weren’t screwing around so he accompanied them back to the area where their sighting began. The group found nothing except a set of dubious footprints.

The following day Mason County Sheriff George Johnson held a press conference to discuss the event with reporters. Johnson thought the creature was a misidentified heron, albeit a large one. He called the creature a “shitepoke”, a nicknamed earned by small green herons because of their apparent habit of dropping a deuce before taking off when they’re startled.

Other sightings followed, undoubtedly spurred on by the news report of the TNT Area sighting, and all had similar descriptions of the creature.

All of the pertinent sightings in this Point Pleasant flap occurred within the months of November and December and pretty much stopped after the collapse of the Silver Bridge. It seems folks had something more important on their minds after that.

Another interesting thing about this time frame is that it’s the migration period of the sandhill crane.

The Sandhill Crane theory
I’d hate to cut right to it but this one works for me. I’m not suggesting the witnesses were making all of this up, clearly they saw something that they didn’t understand and were caught off guard. During a charged moment like that it’s nearly impossible to step back and objectively analyze the event. Dimensions are easy to miscalculate and often exaggerated, especially when you take even a minor dive into the psychology of it, but given the description of a large grey creature with wings, a red area perceived as eyes that “glowed” in the headlights, a wobbling gate, and a sound like the squeaking like a big mouse, it does actually fit with the description of a large sandhill crane.

Regardless of what the Haunted Librarian says, there doesn’t have to be anything paranormal going on here. This isn’t about belief or supernatural activity. Let’s stick to the facts.

An article found on regarding the 2002 film Mothman Prophecies starring Richard Gere states, “The Sandhill Crane is not native to the area, nor had they ever been seen there before or since.” However, the sightings occur precisely within the migration timeframe of the sandhill crane and Point Pleasant is very near a common migration route for these birds. And let’s face it, migrating birds do not follow the rules, they will go where they go regardless of whether or not they have been to that area before. Weather patterns play a big part in that too.

It is extremely likely that this is the bird mistaken for the creature sighted by witnesses. Since they are not directly in the more heavily traveled migration route there are likely many people of Point Pleasant who are not familiar with this kind of bird, and haven’t seen them, let alone at night, and could have been taken by surprise.

According to this Wikipedia article “During migration and winter, unrelated cranes come together to form ‘survival groups’ that forage and roost together.” So it’s likely that the four witnesses stumbled onto a group of migrating sandhill cranes that had decided to take a respite at the abandoned TNT Area, startling the birds and possibly prompting a few of them to act agitated and maybe even attack.

Consider their story about the one that wobbled around the north power plant. Shortly after they saw a creature standing near a billboard by the entrance to the area. That one flew up in the air and apparently followed their car. This could easily have been two birds. There is nothing in their story confirming that only one creature was seen. It is very possible that they saw multiple similar looking creatures. The one that flew over their car as they drove back out of town could have been a third bird, not the same one.

As for the “squeaking like a big mouse” comment, listen to the sandhill crane calls at, especially the second and third recordings. In the right situation those sounds could be described as squeaky and mouse-like.

We’re only human. I’m not willy-nilly criticizing anyone who has any particular beliefs with regard to the paranormal, we don’t know everything, and I like a spooky story as much as the next guy, but when we have ample evidence to suggest one possible explanation and only speculation on the other hand you have to step back and admit the obvious. Two possibilities come to mind when you strip away every unrealistic and unprovable paranormal claim about the so-called mothman sighings.

One, the witnesses were startled by something they had never seen before and high-tailed it out the area in a sort of excited panic, with exaggerated notions of what they really saw. It is very likely they misjudged positions, sizes and features, and misidentified a very large bird. Later they may have realized that what they saw were really birds but were so embroiled in the story that they didn’t want to go back on their claim and look like liars or fools. They were in the newspaper after all.

Two, they knew what they saw but decided to create some crazy story for fun, and got in the newspaper. It happens. Some people do things to get noticed or feel important, even if they don’t set out to do that intentionally. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and ride along with what might seem like a fun idea at the time.

I’m leaning toward the first scenario. Other folks can then be stirred up by the excitement and are on high alert for something strange and unexplained. Subsequent misidentifications of large birds in the area become more sightings of mothman.

The fact remains that a mothman as a real living creature is not physically possible. Most mysteries like this are the result of misidentification and general hype. They become another folk tale or legend, which is fine, but let’s enjoy the stories as just that, stories. We don’t need to believe it.

Next I’ll take a look at the UFO sightings and strange phone calls, among other paranormal events that are said to have taken place during the same timeframe, up until the collapse of the Silver Bridge.

Until then, keep an eye out for the weird, but don’t believe everything you hear, and only half of what you see…