Are alien greys just a memory of mom?

Mother, is that you? ©Envision/Corbis

Why do images of alien greys resonate with us so strongly? Maybe because they're pictures of your mom.

Greys really only entered the public imagination in the 20th century, but humans have whispered about paranormal experiences for thousands of years. We blamed gods, elves, angels and finally aliens - whatever idea had the most cultural traction at the time. See, our normal experience of reality is highly susceptible to the influence of hallucination, false memories, sleep paralysis, dreaming and imagination. Reality suddenly deviates from our normal experience of it and we turn to these pre-existing scripts to make sense of it.

But why the alien greys? What about them resonates so strongly with us?

Well, according to psychologist Frederick V. Malmstrom, those alien faces might just be memories of what our mothers looked like when we were infants.

Consider: Newborns have limited visual capabilities. They can't see very far or in very much detail, and color distinctions barely register. Their astigmatism smears the images the behold. So what do they see when the look at their mother's face? They see two large, dark eyes on an otherwise blurred and colorless face.

In his 2003 study, Malmstrom illustrated this theory with the following images. He simply took a photo of a prototypical mom and distorted it to replicate infant sight:

A newborn's facial recognition abilities are primitive, but the ability to look into this abstract blurry face and see a caregiver is certainly an evolutionary advantage.

It's an image that may stick with us, re-emerging from our earliest memories during dreams or hypnotic states.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.