Spoiler Alert! If you are convinced you were abducted by aliens, please do not read any further. I have neither the desire nor the ability to change your belief. That said, the research shows that the event perceived as an “alien abduction” is an altered state of consciousness. The belief that one has been kidnapped by extraterrestrials is not.
I just finished reading an engrossing study called Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens by Susan A. Clancy, PhD, published by Harvard University Press. Dr. Clancy, a post doctoral fellow in psychology at Harvard, was doing research with people with “recovered” memories of childhood sexual abuse. She became frustrated because there was no way to know with certainty whether these people recovered memories of actual abuse or factitious events. She decided to “repeat the study with a population that I could be sure had ‘recovered’ false memories. Alien abductions seemed to fit the bill. (p. 20)”
Dr. Clancy interviewed and conducted laboratory memory studies of over fifty volunteers who sincerely believed they were abducted. Her sense was that these people were not lying. Only one of her participants was psychotic. The rest were normally functioning people, most of who felt that the abduction experience, though harrowing, changed their lives for the better. The group included a physician, a librarian, a veteran, an MBA, a chef, a fitness instructor, a construction worker, Ivy Leaguers, geeks, housewives, teenagers, grandfathers and school teachers.
About the only personality characteristic the sample group had in common was schizotypy. People with schizotypy are more likely than others to be perceived as eccentrics, engage in magical thinking and experience perceptual distortions. For example, one might “sense” the presence of another person. They tend to interpret incidents and events as having a special and unusual meaning. They may be prone toward a belief in superstitions. While people with schizotypy are not psychotic, they have a greater likelihood than the general population to have close relatives with schizophrenia. Clancy concludes that “these people are not crazy. They tend to have unusual ideas, experiences, and beliefs – ones that don’t necessarily conform to mainstream social beliefs and tendencies. They believe not only in alien abduction, but also in things like ESP, astrology, tarot, channeling, auras, holistic medicine, and crystal therapy. (p. 134)”
So, how do people wind up believing they were abducted by aliens? The belief usually begins with an altered state of consciousness. In earlier posts I described a variation of hypnagogia that I suggested could occur during waking hours. However, standard hypnagogia refers to hallucinatory or quasi-hallucinatory events that occur in the process of falling asleep or upon awakening. During certain sleep cycles our bodies are immobilized by the nervous system so that we aren’t acting out our dreams. This is called sleep paralysis. If we wake up while we are still dreaming, the paralysis may persist into the waking state along with hypnagogic remnants of the dream including hallucinations of sights, sounds and tactile sensations. It can take up to a half a minute for our sleep – wake cycles to resynchronize and for the sleep paralysis and dream-like material to fade. As with any other hallucination, the sensations may seem very real. Most of us chalk these normal experiences up to what they actually are, but those who are so inclined may attach special meanings to such events.
Since the advent of science fiction movies of invaders from outer space, people who report abductions tend to tell the same general story:
An unsuspecting ordinary human gets kidnapped by extraterrestrial beings for medical examination or sexual experimentation… Both the details [big heads, wrap-around eyes, reversible amnesia, and probing needles] and the general plot existed n the movies and on TV before people ever reported personal knowledge of them…Alien abduction reports…began only after they were featured on TV and in the movies. (Clancy, p. 83)
Now, not all believers in alien abduction initially interpret the hypnagogic sleep paralysis as an extraterrestrial kidnapping for medical or sexual purposes. Rather, they sense something is wrong with them. Perhaps they have unexplained physical and mental ailments, such as strange marks, pain, changes in sexual functioning or panic attacks. Believing that alien abduction could be possible, they seek the services of a hypnotist to try to find out the cause of their symptoms. It has already been documented that hypnotic trance can unintentionally produce false recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Thus, a hypnotist working with some people may unwittingly guide them into developing “memories” of an alien abduction. These “recovered” memories seem as real as memories of an actual event. Similar false memories have also been created in the laboratory.
Another complication reinforcing the belief in abduction in most of Clancy’s participants was the perception that the abduction was a “transformative [life] event.” Abductees reported that these experiences provided meaning in their lives, gave them wisdom, enlarged their word view or expanded their realities. “For many people, belief in alien abduction gratifies spiritual hungers.(p. 150)” “Not surprisingly,” according to Clancy, “once you ‘discover’ your place in the universe, you have a hard time being a skeptic. (p. 149).”
In essence, the people most likely to believe they were abducted by aliens are those who are predisposed to favor paranormal over scientific explanations. Without conscious awareness they apply their interest in and exposure to stories of extraterrestrials to provide a complex explanation to what most people accept as a normal altered state of consciousness. They often have physical and/or emotional symptoms for which they don’t seek common explanations. Some may “recover” memories of being abducted through hypnosis or other forms of guided imagery. The belief in abduction then tends to become sealed in stone when it fills an otherwise spiritual void.
Clancy, Susan A. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005
Mavromatis, Andreas. Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep. London: Routledge, 1987. (3rd Ed 2010 avialable)