The charts below include snippets of data from research into UFO experiences. Each row represents a group of people, where the first group believes they’ve spotted a UFO and the second claims no experience with extraterrestrials whatsoever. The data are the average scores that each group received on relevant psychological inventories.
You probably noticed that I didn’t give the groups their respective labels. That’s for you to figure out. Here’s a bit more information:
Group A seems to fit the popular conception of a UFO spotter, with a comparatively lower IQ and psychological well-being and an increased proneness to fantasy and experience of the paranormal. But the UFO spotter group is actually Group B.
Here’s the labeled chart with a new row, the abductee group, added in:
Despite stereotypes, there is no known association between a low capacity for intelligence and people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens. There also isn’t an association between abductees and an increased number or severity of mental illnesses. Year after year, studies with varying methodologies continue to chip away at Western society’s popular conception of the average alien abductee.
And isn’t it incredible that there’s such a thing as an “average abductee” to begin with? Millions of people believe they have been abducted by an advanced alien species—and they claim to remember the experience in vivid detail. This alone elevates the phenomenon above fringe status.
There are plenty of useless explanations for this on both sides. But the quick-and-easy conclusions of “…therefore, aliens have invaded Earth” or “…therefore, abductees are all just crazy” are both reductive and borderline anti-intellectual. Neither can account for the entirety of this issue, and neither answer the most important questions: What does it take to make someone believe they’ve been handpicked by cosmic travelers to be the keepers of profound secrets, the subjects of an intergalactic interrogation, or the lab rats in some grand experiment? And what purpose might believing in these myths serve?
False recall and memory
What makes alien abduction cases so fascinating is their consistency. An alarming amount of alleged abductions take place during sleep. Upon waking, abductees report finding themselves in strange positions, feeling odd sensations throughout their bodies, sensing a presence nearby, or finding themselves unable to account for lost time. Most abductees report no memories of a specific abduction event—only of ambiguous sensations. They’re so confused and frightened, they seek out memory recall services, like hypnotherapy or recall therapy, in an attempt to recover memories that might help them make sense of their strange experiences.
The phrase ‘false memories’ makes it sound like there’s such a thing as a real memory to begin with. But that’s not the case.
It’s only after a visit to a recall therapist that their abduction memories “come back.” That’s a bit strange, isn’t it? There must be something about the recall therapy intervention that changes how abductees appraise their uncomfortable and vague experience. But what is it? Is recall therapy helping them recover real abduction memories, or is it somehow aiding the abductee in fabricating them? To figure this out, we need to understand the two major schools of thought on memory.
First is the psychoanalytic school of thought. These are the Freudian types who believe that people repress and dissociate traumatic memories that would be too difficult to remain conscious of. Although these memories are pushed out of conscious awareness, psychoanalysts think they influence us from the depths. Most relevantly, they think these memories can be recalled, with perfect clarity and no distortion, through recall practices like hypnosis or guided reflection.
The second school of thought is what I’ll call the skeptical school. This school says there’s no reason to believe that traumatic memories obey different psychological laws than other kinds of memories and that the idea of pristine recall is completely unfounded. Countless experiments have proven that memory is fallible and that memory recovery therapies don’t result in perfect recall. In fact, they can actually foster the creation of false memories of both trivial and traumatic events.
It’s doubtful, then, that recall therapists are helping abductees recover pristine memories. Memories recovered under hypnosis, or under similarly deliberate means, are strong candidates for a phenomenon called “false recall.” It turns out it’s much easier than you might think to implant or create (inadvertently, of course) memories in the murkier regions of our recollection.
This seems to be a product of our drive to throw narratives onto ambiguous events, often in an attempt to make sense of them.
But I should clarify: The phrase “false memories” makes it sound like there’s such a thing as a “real” memory to begin with, and that’s not the case. Neuropsychologists and other memory researchers report that we don’t record everything we experience and store it away as a memory (an idea partial to the psychoanalytic school). Instead, we reconstruct plausible renditions of the past by consulting whatever bits of information are currently present. The clearer and more readily available the reconstruction is, the more realistic it seems. From that point on, the more we retell the story, the more confident we become that it actually happened.
In other words, memory is a lifelong game of telephone. There have even been studies in which psychologists had the family members of subjects remind them of events that never occurred. Eventually, the subjects swore that they could recall the event, vividly—even as the psychologists and family members tried to debrief them, asserting that no such thing happened.
Still, you don’t need to put yourself through hypnotic regression to create false memories. Over time, it happens to us all. Hypnosis might speed up the process, but there’s nothing magical or mysterious about it. It’s just the nature of memory. Convincing an unwitting family member that an event occurred isn’t all that different from constructing an abduction narrative. False recall can become really creative when it has vague core events to build a narrative around, which are in tall supply, as we’ll see next, in the early stages of abductee reports.
A good candidate for these core events is sleep paralysis, a phenomenon where a person is half-awakened—conscious, but unable to move. Many people have briefly experienced this, but some suffer from severe episodes involving strong auditory, visual, or tactile hallucinations while awake.
During typical REM sleep, when most dreams occur, muscles become paralyzed—likely to keep us from physically acting out what we’re dreaming. But this can backfire if we “wake up” before the rest of our body does. Such events are considered episodes of sleep paralysis.
It’s estimated that about 20 percent of people have experienced sleep paralysis. Some people experience it so often they’ve developed ways to (try to) snap out of it. They do things like scrunching their fingers, blinking hard, or focusing on staying calm and waiting for it to pass. This can be uncomfortable since the episodes are often accompanied by pressure on the chest or throat. Often trying too hard to “shake free” can give the sensation of being pressed or suffocated. Worse yet, some episodes of sleep paralysis are accompanied by vivid hallucinations, which often involve the sensation of flying, electricity on the skin, or a presence in the room. Seeing strange lights; hearing faint noises, like ringing, or humming; feeling that a presence is shaking, strangling, or prodding at you are all often reported.
Abductee stories, in their earliest and presumably least altered incarnations, seem to start here. A bout of sleep paralysis, or some similar event, leaves individuals confused, scared, or subject to something distressing. Upon waking, they may not remember what they “dreamed” about but still feel their hearts racing, recall snapshots of a presence or strange sensation, and they may even wake in a strange position. This provides them with plenty of ambiguous (and sometimes traumatic) content to later string a narrative around.
Worried and desperate for an answer, people might seek professional help. Recall therapies (and similar services) make attractive claims; the ability to recover lost or repressed memories is just what they are looking for. Of course, discussions of waking in strange positions, seeing lights, hearing buzzing, feeling as if you’re floating, or feeling the sensation of a presence nearby all bring to mind our nation’s rich alien mythology. This no doubt impresses itself into the ever-suggestible narrative that is, at this point in recall therapy, still being written.
In this way, our culture has some part in penning the narrative; we’re just as primed to associate symptoms of sleep paralysis with aliens as, historically, Japanese people were with the kanashibari or Newfoundlanders with the “Old Hag.” These are just two of the many incarnations summoned to make sense of what may be the same vague events.
Abduction narratives and the social and existential climate
Science fiction loves presenting the “first contact” as a transformative event that lets us transcend political and social divisions. It’s supposed to bring about a sense of borderlessness, nationlessness, or classlessness as the presence of new intelligent life makes us see ourselves at a larger resolution. Now that we have more than ourselves to be compared to, we take on the broader, more simplified classification of “human.”
Did you notice the decreased stress in the abductee group in the research charts at the beginning? That result is consistently found across surveys. Some researchers have begun wondering if there’s something about alien abduction belief that safeguards abductees from some of the stresses of life. That may seem counterintuitive, especially since abduction narratives can become so frightful and discomforting, but there’s an interesting case to be made.
In relation to alien abduction narratives in the United States, psychologist Donald P. Spence identified, “a notable difference between current abduction stories and what was being claimed in the 1950s and 1960s.” The stories from those earlier decades had a sense of benevolence and omnipotence to them. The abductees were often treated pleasantly and often reported feelings of enlightenment afterward. But, as Spence explained, this all changed:
As political and cultural climates have changed in the intervening years, the abduction stories have become more ominous and more focused on helplessness and loss of identity.
When national identity in the U.S. was strong, the economy was booming, the dollar held its value, and “the established structures of church and family were still intact,” the abduction stories tended to take on a lighthearted and constructive tone. They’ve since become ominous, mysterious, and frightening, involving experimentation, violation, assault, and kidnapping. Instead of abductees feeling safe or enlightened, they’ve begun to feel helpless, confused, and violated. What could account for this significant change?
Well, as we leave the realm of social science and enter murkier waters, we can only speculate. It wouldn’t be fair to propose answers with any certainty, but if we fit Spence into the framework I’ve introduced so far, then perhaps it’s during the false recall phase (where abductees begin penning their narratives) that the social and political climate they live in begins to inform their stories. It’s been priming them from the day of their birth after all.
Faced with nothingness, to what lengths would people go to get back the comforts of universal order, justice, meaning, and love?
And we can zoom out even further. We’ve already moved from the individual to society, but let’s take a look at the backdrop of it all. Perhaps this is an outgrowth of something that Nietzsche (with his death of god), Jung (with his plight of the individual and mass-mindedness), Fromm (with his burden of freedom), and countless other philosophers and classical psychologists have diagnosed our societies with. Each has a different name and framework for it, but it all strikes a similar chord. At its most general and symbolic level, this phenomenon concerns the prevailing sense of meaninglessness, aimlessness, and hollowness inordinately felt by Westerners of our day. In this new world, predestined purpose or meaning, so it goes, cannot be reasonably found or convincingly defended. These thinkers wonder if people try to account for the deep, elusive, existential deficits we’re all born feeling by adhering to en masse groups like political parties, cliques, movements, cults, trends, philosophies, religions, and just about any other ideological club.
Jung and Nietzsche famously suggested that the bulk of this comes from modern society making religion appear untenable. And when religion—once the foundation of morals, politics, social lives, mental lives, and existential concerns—falls, what profound, silent crises might occur? Faced with nothingness, to what lengths would people go to get back the comforts of universal order, justice, meaning, and love?
Maybe, at a loss for a deity, we just deify something else. Our nation, our economic system, our faith, our science, our causes, ourselves, others. There’s no shortage of ways to try to attain meaning. Fromm and Jung say this is a dangerous tendency: Trying to sate unbearable feelings of loneliness and insignificance by adhering to something larger than us involves the “annihilation of the individual self.” Along with it goes our capacity to be reasonable and morally upstanding individuals. As Fromm put it in Escape From Freedom:
One surrenders one’s own self and renounces all strength and pride connected with it, one loses one’s integrity as an individual and surrenders freedom; but one gains a new security and a new pride in the participation of the power in which one submerges.
If you think about it, being an abductee isn’t all that bad. It can earn you fame and notoriety among other believers. It can provide you with a comforting community of people who understand you and have had similar experiences. It abundantly answers our inherent need for uniqueness. It comes prepackaged with a conspiratorial ideology ready to be adhered to.
It sets up a new life for you—one filled with much more awe and drama. A life filled with researching, thinking, and conspiring with like-minds. You discuss what the aliens really want, what the government really knows, and what they really did to you. This communication with other abductees can drastically alter narratives. And the new memories that surface begin to homogenize the abduction story across the group.
But, above all, the myth of abduction might help remove that burden of freedom under which so many of us falter.
Remystifying alien abduction
But if, as philosophers say, this backdrop affects all members of society—then why aren’t we all primed to write elaborate abduction narratives from ambiguous events? Well, if these are little more than manifestations of our daily stresses, then perhaps those who don’t succumb to them can more accurately link their anxieties to existing features of the political, religious, social, existential, or economic crises they face. Better yet, they might take steps toward minimizing these crises, bettering the lot for the rest of us.
And that brings us to my most important argument: It’s easy to tear people apart. It’s easy to ridicule. It’s easy to puff up your own ego by deflating others. But it’s better—and more constructive and more admirable—to do the harder thing, the better thing, and figure out why someone believes that something so unlikely occurred. If you’re especially strong in will, you might even imagine what it would take for you to believe the same thing.
Further alienating abductees and similar groups with otherworldly beliefs won’t help anyone. Trying to refute the beliefs they rely on so fervently (and deeply) will only make them cling to them harder.
Challenging someone’s framework for life is a high-stakes game. You’d be surprised how far any of us would go, and do go every day, to protect it.
But nothing we’ve spoken about demystifies the alien abduction phenomenon. A lot of people seem to think that a worldly approach isn’t quite as neat. What fun is suggestibility, misremembering, and false recall, when we could have government conspiracies, Isaac Asimov-like technology, and elusive extraterrestrial invaders? Fair enough—the sensational tends to be more popular than the mundane. We’re certainly more attracted to stories where the kings are dethroned, the researchers become the researched, the thinkers are out-thought, and the innovators are out-created. It flips everything on its head and fills our world with mystery.
But I say there’s nothing mundane about it. There’s plenty of mystery in the hunk of neurons that’s responsible for these experiences to begin with. As far as I can tell, the most elusive and spectacular thing in the universe is sloshing around between our ears. We don’t need to look outward.