It turns out that Christmas came early.
I was skimming through the headlines and came across an article in Psychology Today which describes the psychology of alien abductions.
If you know me and / or ever read this blog, you can probably imagine my delight. I highly recommend you read the full article, but I’ll cover some of the highlights here…
The Psychology Of Alien Abductions
The article, originally published in 2003, is essentially a back-and-forth between two sides of the alien abduction debate.
Both sides are from the faculty at Harvard. In the “abduction is possibly legitimate” corner is the late psychiatrist and professor John Mack. In the “abduction is an explainable, psychological phenomenon” corner are psychologists Richard McNally and Susan Clancy.
A few excerpts, to begin the discussion:
When it comes to people who believe they’ve been abducted by space aliens, the two camps agree on only one thing: ‘These people are almost never psychotic,’ says McNally. ‘They’re not lying.’
Mack used hypnotic regression to retrieve detailed memories of 13 encounters with aliens, all chronicled in Abduction. He has now interviewed more than 200 abductees. He says that he ultimately endorsed abduction reports largely because he found his subjects to be mentally competent. Some were also highly traumatized and most were reluctant to come forward and appropriately skeptical about their experiences.
The debate created by Mack’s stance:
Mack “defends the use of controversial techniques such as hypnotic regression because he prizes the experiential narrative over empirical data.” The response by Arnold Relman, his colleague at Harvard who chaired a 15-month investigation into Mack’s work- “His behavior with regard to the alien-abduction story disappointed a lot of his colleagues… No one is challenging John’s right to look into the matter. All we’re saying is, if you do it, do it in an objective, scholarly manner.”
This gets at a recurring theme on this blog: the value of objectivity and observation (aka- science) over less rigorous ways of acquiring knowledge. This theme plays out throughout the rest of the article.
One of the common scientific explanations for abduction stories is sleep paralysis.
As the article describes, sleep paralysis is when the “body remains paralyzed, as is standard during the REM cycle, but the mind is semi-lucid or fully cognizant of its surroundings, even if one’s eyes are closed. The experience can’t be technically classified as either waking or sleeping.
For an unlucky handful of people, fleeting paralysis is accompanied by horrifying visual and auditory hallucinations: bright lights, a sense of choking and the conviction that an intruder is present.
The Japanese call it kanashibari, represented as a devil stepping on a hapless sleeper’s chest; the Chinese refer to it as gui ya, or ghost pressure.
Sleep paralysis with hypnopompic hallucinations (those that occur upon waking) can be so unexpected and terrifying that people routinely believe they’re stricken with a grave neurological illness or that they’re going insane. When faced with these prospects, aliens no longer seem so nefarious.”
False Memory Syndrome
The article goes on to describe the cognitive psychology phenomenon known as false memory syndrome, which centers around the process by which individuals may recall a past traumatic event that did not actually occur.
This phenomenon is one of many factors that has led to decreased acceptance of psychotherapy and hypnosis, which can at times result in such erroneous recollections.
Cognitive studies have shown that abductees who “recover” the memory of their experience through these means exhibit a much higher tendency to create false memories on tests.
These studies also showed, not coincidentally, that every member of this group has reported experiencing sleep paralysis.
Clancy and McNally concluded that alien abduction can be best described by the following “equation”:
Susceptibility to creating false memories, coupled with a disturbing experience like sleep paralysis and a cultural script that allows for abduction by aliens, may lead one to falsely recall such an encounter.
To me, the most fascinating thing here is that the emotional reaction they have to their recollection is often indistinguishable from the emotional reactions of people who have verifiable past trauma…
McNally collected testimony from 10 subjects with recovered memories of abduction then confronted them with the most frightening details of their own accounts–from violent trysts to swarms of aliens around their beds. Six out of 10 subjects registered such elevated physiological reactions, including heartbeat and facial muscle tension, that they met the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder.
The article goes on to say that “the most telling difference between abductees and survivors of ‘veritable’ trauma is not physiological but attitudinal.
Experiencers unanimously state that they’re glad they were abducted. ‘There’s a psychological payoff,’ says McNally. ‘This makes it very different from sexual abuse.’ Trauma survivors of all stripes cite positive spiritual growth, but, ‘no Vietnam vet says, ‘Gee, I’m glad I was a POW.’ “
Photo Credit: Xava Du (Creative Commons)