Faith in fantasy
Even the most dismissive skeptics are quick to acknowledge that so-called abductees have had some kind of memorable experience. But, as Michael Shermer, executive director of the California-based Skeptics Society wrote in his Scientific American “Skeptic” column in 2005, “the vividness of a traumatic memory cannot be taken as evidence of its authenticity.”
By and large, most abduction-doubters ascribe the alleged abduction experience to a medical phenomenon known as “sleep paralysis.” A typical sleep paralysis episode, often the result of disrupted REM sleep, is marked by a sudden wakefulness combined with the inability to move. The experience often induces panic, paranoia, the sense that someone else is in the room, and hallucinations.
Whereas centuries ago, such episodes were correlated with supernatural entities like nightmares, succubi, or demons — the paranormal monsters of our past — our current frame of reference has shifted.
“We don’t live in that world anymore,” Shermer explains on the phone from Southern California. In the modern context of science fiction, fantasy, and space exploration, he says, “Aliens are our demons.”
Susan Clancy, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University and the author of Abducted: How People Come To Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, came to the conclusion that abduction memories are “a function of memory distortion. It is well established by cognitive psychologists that memory is fragile [and that] false memories — even traumatic ones — can be created.”
With another Harvard psychologist, Richard McNally, Clancy studied how a someone could mis-remember an episode of sleep paralysis as alien abduction. They found that in seeking an explanation for a distressing event (the hallucinations, the paralysis), a person undergoing hypnotic regression sessions will dig into their memory banks (full of experiences both real and not) and ultimately “recall” having been abducted or experimented on by aliens. Those recollections, though, seem to be influenced by fantasy as well as reality. “The striking similarity of these narratives,” the authors wrote in a paper published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, “suggests a widely shared cultural script.”
As Clancy stated in a 2005 interview on National Public Radio, “I just want to stress that nobody reported being abducted before they actually saw it on TV or in the movies.” She is also highly skeptical of memory-retrieval techniques like hypnosis, which is generally relied on in abduction cases.
In other words, a subtle (and quite possibly subliminal) absorption of alien-abduction themes in TV shows, movies, sci-fi books, and on the Internet could help explain how someone could jump from I had an upsetting experience in bed as a child to I was kidnapped and probed by otherworldly beings as a kid.
But it’s not necessarily a sign of mental illness. “Many people believe that abductees are ‘nuts’ — this is a mistake,” Clancy says in an email to the Phoenix. “Our data showed they are essentially normal [and] psychologically healthy. Alien abductees were not more likely than control subjects to suffer from psychological disorders. My feeling after a decade of research . . . is that abductees, like many others, were looking for explanations for their lives and for the things that happened to them that they could not understand. They were familiar with the alien abduction script, believed that abductions were possible, and thus concluded that abductions were a possible explanation.”