- Exopsychology is a new field exploring the possible cognitions and motivations of extraterrestrial entities.
- The biggest challenge, as with studying animal behavior, is to overcome anthropocentrism.
- Exopsychology can lead us to deeper understanding of humans—by avoiding projecting ourselves onto others.
An emerging field
Astrobiology, the study of the origins of life on Earth and the search for life elsewhere in the universe (for example, by analyzing chemical signatures of far-away planets), and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) are now part of mainstream science, pursued at both NASA and prestigious universities worldwide. (1)
Inasmuch as psychology is essentially a branch of applied biology, it should come as no surprise that some brave behavioral scientists have risked the ridicule of their peers to extend the investigation of non-earthly lifeforms into the realm of psychology, with research called Exopsychology (2,3).
The ultimate goal of this research, according to German exopsychologist Niklas Dobler, is not only to contribute to SETI, but to better understand ourselves by exploring not only what we are, but what we are not.
For instance, rigorously challenging assumptions about extraterrestrial motivations rooted in anthropocentrism (projecting human motivations onto non-humans), might help us do a better job relating to other humans who are very different from us, or to gain a deeper understanding of animal behavior.
Stepping outside ourselves to imagine the unimaginable
At first glance, getting inside the minds of extraterrestrials without using ourselves as a reference would seem impossible because we lack the mental building blocks with which to construct utterly alien mindsets. The challenge is analogous to trying to imagine a color you’ve never seen before. Close your eyes and try it. Without mental building blocks for a previously unseen color, it’s nearly impossible to create one in your head.
Recently, serving as a science consultant for a new TV show on UFOs (now called UAPs), I tried to do the equivalent of imagining an unseen color to come up with fresh insights about the motivations of possible extraterrestrial visitors (one of several explanations of astonishing aerial object behavior reported by military pilots) by explicitly putting aside anthropocentric motivations.
For instance, science fiction writers and UFO enthusiasts have long attributed possible extraterrestrial visits here to human-like motivations such as the naked desire for conquest, a search for scarce resources, or scientific curiosity. Some have even attributed extraterrestrials' possible presence to altruistic motives, such as saving humans from themselves. These are all reasons we might explore other planets and civilizations, and some or all of them might prove to be correct,
But new insights about extraterrestrials, and ourselves, are unlikely to emerge from such old ideas. To develop truly novel ideas, a novel approach is needed.
One such approach is anti-anthropocentrism, in which we posit intelligent life forms who are explicitly unlike us, and therefore likely to have motivations we would struggle to understand.
An exercise in anti-anthropocentrism
Human motivations stem from our desire to reproduce, and our need to survive to do so. Other drives, such as bonding with other humans, territoriality, aggression, curiosity, and novelty seeking, pretty much all support our basic biological imperative to survive, thrive, and reproduce.
Imagine intelligent organisms that do not:
- Sexually reproduce (some earthly vertebrates reproduce without sex)
- Have scarce resources engendering aggression and conflict within or across species
- Emotionally bond with others of their species (orangutans, spiders, and other animals don’t)
- Have curiosity and novelty-seeking behaviors (which help humans find new resources)
- Have finite lifespans (some earthly species, such as hydra, might be immortal)
- Require food or water to survive (for example, what if extraterrestrials are formed of dark matter drawing life from dark energy, and UFOs are technologies that bridge the gap between ordinary matter and dark matter?)
- Derive from animal forms, but do derive from other life forms such as plants (in which case extraterrestrial UFOs could, essentially be types of spores or pollen) and harvest food from sunlight?
- Have written or spoken language or any other form of symbolic communication?
- Derive directly from biology, but are hyper-advanced digital AIs originally created by distant biological entities.
We could go on, but you get the point. Imagining motivations and predicting behaviors of intelligent entities, who are wildly different from us, and who, for reasons of their own, have traveled here—either themselves or through probes—would be exceedingly difficult. But as noted, above, with the exception of dark-matter-based life forms who consume dark energy (I threw that in the illustrate the radical ideas that extreme anti-anthropocentrism stimulates), examples of most other “alien” forms exist right here on Earth. Explicitly non-human motivations are not only possible but probable if alien life has anywhere near the diversity of life on Earth.
Earthly benefits of unearthly thoughts
Let’s bring the discussion back down to Earth by applying the spirit of anti-anthropocentrism and exopsychology to your own life. Suppose at work, or in your travels or personal life, you are struggling in a relationship or encounters with someone new. If the problem is that you can’t relate (or someone can’t relate to you) make an inventory of all of the things that are most important to you (for example, career, family, spirituality, having kids, and so on). Then, in front of each drive or motivation, write not, indicating that the person with whom you have difficulty may not have the same desires, needs, and drives as you.
The exercise could give you fresh insights into the roots of your difficulties with another person and ideas about how to move past your problems. You might even find the benefits of the mind-bending exercise are … out of this world!