Certain peoples of the American Southwest plant turkey feathers in their fields, mystically intended to attract rain. Farther south, the wild turkey represents the rain god Tlaloc, whose dwelling beneath the vast American deserts is still, in places, believed to be blessed with abundant water. The dwelling place of Tlaloc is the House of Rain (Childs 2006), and the desert is its roof.
In the twelfth century CE, the rains failed. The roof of the House of Rain, the vast desert landscape of the American Southwest, became even more desiccated than usual, and people began to die (Childs 2006; Reid and Whittlesey 1997).
This great dying of the peoples of the Southwest, and of their sophisticated civilizations, took many forms. Most of these cultural disasters are yet to be fully understood: mass migrations, violence, and general societal disruption throughout the desert realm are visible at many archaeological sites (e.g., LeBlanc 1999; LeBlanc 2003; Reid and Whittlesey 1997).
Yet the desert ruins, the mute remains of the great societies of the House of Rain, provide examples of ingenious technical triumphs in the face of lingering and frequently homicidal drought. These remain at Mesa Verde and Walnut Canyon; in the mountain engineering of the Mogollon and Salado; in the simple but brilliantly effective constructions of Homolovi, one of the last places of communal refuge from the solar monster of climate change; and in the amazing canal system around modern Phoenix of the Hohokam.
Most of the Hohokam canals no longer exist as archeological artifacts. Many were re-built in the same places by modern engineers, in mute testimony to the expertise of the Hohokam who discovered the relevant topography in the first place. But you can still see one of the last of these great artificial waterways in the sparsely visited Park of the Canals in Mesa, Arizona. Seeing it, you begin to appreciate the enormous native expertise in civil and hydrological engineering that allowed their civilizations to exist in this hot and barren place.
These tremendous engineering works are clearly the most magnificent monuments to these ancient peoples. So it’s with a certain sense of dismay that one enters the tourist areas of the region. Just look around as you drive through Sedona—you’re immediately assailed with the idea that the whole place is up to its neck in the mystical, magical nature of the Ancient Ones and, oddly, in the space aliens frequently credited with ancient native achievements.
Get out of your car and look around a bit more. You can seek out vortices, or sacred places, frequently associated with UFOs. You can commune with ancient spirits and with their UFO alien buddies, who will direct your life, loves, and forays into something akin to an Ancient Desert Spirit World. Space alien depictions are everywhere, somehow conflated with the ancient native peoples.
Oddly, in the tourist spots, you won’t hear a thing about the astounding scientific and engineering feats of ancient Southwestern indigenous peoples, the evidence of which is everywhere. This is the real story—that the ancient civilizations of the Southwest were composed of real people, living at the extremes, and that they faced these extremes with extraordinary resiliency and technical skills.
Those skills are eminently worthy of modern study. Non-Eurocentric approaches to civil engineering may be of vast importance in a world of rapidly increasing multicultural populations, all of which need clean water. Yet we typically see little scientific acknowledgment of this fact or research on the crucial principles involved (e.g., Sharps and Hess 2010). Instead, we essentially see cultural appropriation: the imaginary transformation of the tough, practical people of the Southwest’s past into ethereal visions of cardboard mystics, dancing in obeisance to unknown gods from outer space and spiritually acceptable to the alien-seekers of the Southwest’s present.
The high civilizations of the Southwest desert of course supported complex religious systems, as do high civilizations everywhere. Much of the relevant religious information is not available to those outside specific cultural classes of specific tribes (e.g., Waters and White Bear Fredericks 1963). Most cultures around the world reserve hierarchies of religious beliefs for those trained in local theology (e.g., Frazer  1981), and the House of Rain is no exception. Thus, much of the ancient religious thinking of the Southwest has been lost, and much that remains is not accessible to outsiders.
But is the view of modern Southwestern cultural appropriation of Native beliefs really fair? Is it possible that beliefs in this newly minted, UFO-based, Southwestern spirituality are actually valid in some sense? Or can we account for them simply, skeptically, and scientifically, in terms of known psychological processes?
We conducted the following experiment to find out.
While making photographs for another research project at Hovenweep National Monument in southeastern Utah, the first author ill-advisedly changed lenses on his Sony Alpha digital camera in the beginning of a minor sandstorm. As an unintended result of the wind and the dirt, two dust particles clung to the internal system of the camera. The inadvertent imaging of these dirt particles resulted in two round, slightly out-of-focus “UFOs” in the sky, always in exactly the same places on each subsequent exposure (see Figures 1–3). As the author continued to photograph “background” footage for the other project (pictures including terrain, surrounding ruins, and wildlife), the three stimulus photographs of the present study emerged: a picture of the desert with two “UFOs” in attendance (Figure 1); a picture of part of an ancient ruin with the UFOs still in place (Figure 2); and a picture of part of an ancient ruin with a raven sitting on it with the faithful UFOs still in attendance, in formation, and in exactly the same relative places in the photograph (Figure 3).
Twenty-one male and seventy-six female respondents were recruited from the psychology department of a California university. This university has articulation agreements with the highly multicultural community college system of the region, resulting in a reasonably valid sampling of the current American population. Respondents were provided with Figures 1, 2, and 3. In the control group, respondents were told that these images were “over desert mountains” (Figure 1), above “an … Anasazi ruin” (Figure 2), or there was “a common raven” in the same picture (Figure 3).
In the experimental group, respondents were given the same information but were also informed that these images were recorded in a desert area “in which a great many UFOs and alien encounters have been reported.” (This is true. A lot of people in pursuit of personal revelations from the Eagle Gods take some time off to seek out their flying-saucer allies in the same places.)
Respondents were also informed that this was an area in which “Sky People” have been seen as particularly important (absolutely true, from the UFO fans’ perspective) and in which the Raven was seen as “having enormous spiritual power among Native peoples … as a creator … protector … supernatural” (also true in some Native American beliefs). Respondents were then asked, on a Likert-scale (1–7 basis), questions about what they believed they had seen in the photographs. They were also requested to write about what they thought they had seen.
The good news is that 35.4 percent of our respondents thought that our UFOs, the two fuzzy dots in the pictures, were “camera issues.” That’s what they were.
The bad news is that 14.1 percent believed, explicitly, that the dots were spacecraft or UFOs. An additional 18.2 percent didn’t use the term UFO, but they believed that these dust specks were inanimate or animate objects flying above the earth—pretty much the definition of UFOs. We wind up with a grand total of 32.3 percent of modern adults who believed that these two dots were UFOs in the sense of alien aircraft.
So, about one third of our modern population saw these fuzzy dots as UFOs; this is perilously close to the other third who quite sensibly and correctly saw the same dots as something wrong with the camera. This is also close to the approximate 30 percent, in our recent publication in Skeptical Inquirer (Sharps et al. 2019), who generated completely erroneous visions of nonexistent cultural and geographical features on an “artificial planet,” based on nothing other than context-appropriate suggestions.
There were a few exceptional cases. One individual thought the dots were “spirits.” Other idiosyncratic ideas included earth aircraft or spacecraft; the unimaginative but relatively sane “two black dots”; and the idea that the specks were there “for no reason” (diplomatically inoffensive, true, but deeply bizarre if you actually think about it).
But the important finding here: about one third of modern adults, people who get to vote, thought these two dust specks were alien starships or something unknown but similar, which was just about the same number of people who correctly thought there was something wrong with the camera.
Multivariate analysis of variance showed, at a significance level of p <.05, that those receiving the UFO-intensive “experimental group” information were significantly more likely to endorse the following ideas:
1. That the two dust specks on the camera lens were real objects;
2. That at least one dust speck was an intelligently controlled vehicle;
3. That the vehicles in question may have been piloted or remotely controlled from some other “ship or station”; or
4. That “at least one of these objects is an extraterrestrial spacecraft of similar vehicle, and neither is an explicable, natural phenomenon of the Earth.”
However, the experimental group was not more likely to endorse the idea that “it is possible that one of the objects is some kind of shadow of the other one, so that I am actually seeing one flying object and some form of visual reflection of that object.” We’ll see why this is important below.
The primary result of this experiment is very clear. Human beings, if provided with a prior cognitive framework, will respond according to that understanding. Human responses will be rooted in that prior framework (Bransford and Johnson 1973; Sharps 2017), even if the framework in question is full of UFOs.
Therefore, between the prior cognitive framework created by the influence of alien-nonsense media and an ill-informed view of ancient Southwestern peoples as vaguely magical, alien-ridden beings, many people are easily persuaded to believe in relevant mystical/UFO nonsense in the ancient Southwest.
And this is what we found. In the present experiment, all we had to do was present two dust specks as possible alien starships, and presumably rational people were perfectly willing to accept these specks as emissary vessels of the space aliens to their Southwestern spiritual children.
But recall that the UFO experimental group was not more likely to endorse the idea that “it is possible that one of the objects is some kind of shadow of the other one, so that I am actually seeing one flying object and some form of visual reflection of that object.” As discussed above, many respondents in the experimental, UFO-information group tended to see the photographs as involving UFOs, but this statement derailed and defeated that rather obviously incorrect ideation for this same group. Why?
In several articles in cognitive gerontology, representation theory, forensic cognitive science (see Sharps 2003; Sharps 2017 for review), and also in the realm of paranormal thinking (e.g., Sharps et al. 2016), the first author has discussed the continuum of gestalt to feature-intensive processing (G/FI) in the realm of human cognition. FI (feature-intensive) processing occurs when the features of a given situation are brought into consideration, yielding slower but more detailed cognitive solutions. G (gestalt) processing occurs when fewer features are considered, yielding faster and less detailed solutions (see Sharps 2003; Sharps 2017 for further discussion).
In the present experiment, we provided respondents with either a UFO-rich prior cognitive framework for consideration or one that did not provide this cognitive framework. The UFO framework resulted in more nonsensical alien-based thinking. Such thinking tends to be gestalt (G) in nature (see Sharps 2003; Sharps 2017). Fewer specifics of the given situation tend to be considered in G processing, resulting in a less detailed, relatively vague cognitive representation for the respondent.
However, when we asked respondents to think about a possible shadow effect in the question discussed above, the net effect required respondents to engage in feature-intensive (FI) processing: they had to slow down cognitively to create mental images of the stimulus elements in their minds and ultimately to juxtapose them in reasonable patterns of shadows and realities. When they did this, the resultant mental activity increased the essential cognitive resources devoted to the problem, which increased their relative depth of processing (e.g., Craik and Lockhart 1972). This in turn shifted their cognitive processing from relatively abstract and ethereal gestalt thinking to relatively specific, and therefore logical, feature-intensive representations—with a corresponding enhancement of their abilities to perceive reality as it is. They began to reject supernatural concepts, specifically those involved in UFOs and their alien pilots.
This is crucially important: the present results are consistent with previous studies (e.g., Sharps et al. 2016; also see reviews in Sharps 2003; Sharps 2017), indicating that conditions fostering feature-intensive processing are more conducive to accurate cognitive outcomes than those involving faster, but more vague, gestalt outcomes (see also Sharps and Nunes 2002). If you think about things point-by-point, in feature-intensive depth, you are less likely to consider them erroneously than if you accept a faster and easier—but less-detailed—solution in gestalt terms. Truth, in short, lies in the details, but you have to think about the details—in feature-intensive terms—to find it.
It is strongly suggested here, and by these data, that an avoidance of mystical beliefs is best found in feature-intensive, detailed cognitive consideration of any given phenomenon in question. This is what modern skeptical education should foster, according to the most comprehensive cognitive representational principles extant at this point in the history of science.
Popular mystical views of the American Southwest, at least in terms of their space alien provenance, are shown here to be primarily a psychological phenomenon rather than one grounded in any reality other than the convoluted laws governing human cognition. Modern people, the beneficiaries of modern science and engineering, may see the Southwest as a land of mystical nonsense. They may see the ancient Southwestern peoples as the spiritual heirs of vague space alien magic rather than as the practical, hydrologically ingenious inhabitants of an unforgiving land that they actually were.
But the fact is that mystical space aliens have nothing to do with the Southwestern landscape, the vast white deserts and red rock arches and cliffs, of the Southwestern peoples’ habitation. Rather, the realm of this essentially magical thinking is exactly where one might rationally suggest: in the mind of the thinker. More specifically, the dynamics involved lie in the gestalt cognitive tendencies, with their corresponding reduction of step-by-step logic, of the given thinker.
Were that thinker to engage in the more detail-oriented, more productive feature-intensive cognitive abilities of which we are all capable, the ultimate beliefs might be less alien-intensive and more appreciative of the extraordinary technological achievements of the tribal peoples who inhabited the House of Rain, the harsh environment of the Southwest desert.
It might be considered somewhat insulting to the memory of the brilliant Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon, Salado, Sinagua, and other unnamed Southwestern technologists—who for a period triumphed over a terrifyingly unforgiving landscape—to believe otherwise.
- Bransford, J.D., and M.K. Johnson. 1973. Considerations of some problems of comprehension. In W.G. Chase (Ed.), Visual Information Processing. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
- Childs, C. 2006. House of Rain. New York: Little, Brown, & Co.
- Craik, F.I.M., and R.S. Lockhart. 1972. Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11: 671–684.
- Frazer, J.G. (1890) 1981. The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore. New York: Avenal.
- LeBlanc, S.A. 1999. Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
- ———. 2003. Constant Battles. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Reid, J., and S. Whittlesey. 1997. The Archaeology of Ancient Arizona. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
- Sharps, M.J. 2003. Aging, Representation, and Thought: Gestalt and Feature-Intensive Processing. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
- ———. 2017. Processing under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law.
- Sharps, M.J., and A.B. Hess. 2010. Ecocognition: Decision and understanding in environmental context. ReVision 31: 85–89.
- Sharps, M.J., S. Hurd, B. Hoshiko, et al. 2019. Percival Lowell and the canals of Mars: How to see things that aren’t there. Skeptical Inquirer 43(6) (November/December): 48–51.
- Sharps, M.J., S.W. Liao, and M.R. Herrera. 2016. Dissociation and paranormal beliefs: Toward a taxonomy of belief in the unreal. Skeptical Inquirer 40(3) (May/June): 40–44.
- Sharps, M.J., and M.A. Nunes. 2002. Gestalt and feature-intensive processing: Toward a unified theory of human information processing. Current Psychology 21: 68–84.
- Waters, F., and O.W. White Bear Fredericks. 1963. Book of the Hopi. New York: Penguin Books.
Simran Nagra, Seth Hurd, and Alexis Humphrey are research students in Sharps’s Laboratory for Cognitive Science, California State University, Fresno.