This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare a 1,000ish word post on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
Aliens, Abductions, and False Memories by Kelly Jent
Have you ever had bad dreams? Maybe at some point you’ve felt compulsive or have woken up in the morning with back or neck problems. Or perhaps you have a strong aversion to or fear of things such as snakes, spiders, or heights. If you’ve been wondering what may have caused any of these peculiar symptoms, wonder no more – I know what the problem is. That’s right. I know what’s been causing all of your troubles. Aliens. You heard me. You. Have. Been. Abducted.
Now, before you start telling me “no,” let me explain.
You are not alone! Beginning around the late 1950’s abduction claims started receiving more attention. The number of claims exponentially grew after news of the Betty and Barney Hill case hit the media in the early 60’s. This number has continued to grow to now millions of people worldwide claiming to have been abducted by aliens. Approximately 2.5% or 7,900,000 people in the United States alone claim to have been abducted. These people (referred to as Experiencers or Abductees) experience symptoms such as the ones previously mentioned, along with a multitude of others including being allergic to animals, the inability to tolerate liars, and nose bleeds (very bizarre symptoms, I know). Among these is also the realization that there is a period of time that can’t be accounted for. This missing time piece is a prevalent “sign” and is typically the one that causes abductees to begin questioning what could have happened. They generally seek help from hypnotherapists, and during hypnotherapy, recall the repressed memories. The typical abduction story goes something like this:
- The Capture – abductees may report a weird sensation before being abducted. Hallucinations of flashing lights, odd sounds, and figures are not uncommon and may be accompanied by experiencing a tingling sensation. Many people report being beamed up into a craft by floating through walls and windows.
- Examinations – this appears to be the most traumatizing aspect of the abduction. People report memories of undergoing uncomfortable medical procedures against their will. These procedures are performed on them in an experimental nature and many focus on sex. Some abductees have tubes inserted in them, are forced to perform sexual acts, and forced to hold and nurture “hybrid” babies.
- The Return – abductees are returned to the exact place or a place of close proximity to where they were taken from. They have been brainwashed and instructed to forget that they were abducted. By returning to the same place, the only clue abductees have of the abduction is the possible realization that a few hours have passed unaccounted for.
So, now that the initial shock of your abduction has worn off, if you’re beginning to question the validity of these claims, and hopefully you are, and you’re beginning to think that they are a little far-fetched, you’d be right. You see, there are multiple other empirically supported explanations for the creation and recollection of these bizarre memories. Some of these explanations include sleep paralysis, abnormal temporal lobe activity, and false memories. For this post, though, I am going to focus on why these false memories are created and accepted.
Have you ever been telling a story and in the middle of it someone who was present during the original event stops and corrects you on a specific part? The two of you may exchange a few comments like “No, I remember, I swear this happened” before finally agreeing to disagree on that certain aspect of the story. This common occurrence depicts two different recollections of the same event – so which one is right? False memories can simply be considered memories that are recalled but never happened.
You see, memory does not work like a recording. You can’t push “play” and replay the same event over and over with no variation. Rather, memory is incredibly malleable. In other words, our memories are fragile and unreliable. We are constantly being exposed to new information, and this acquisition of new information contaminates the original memory of the event, reconstructing it. In fact, memory is so suggestible that whole events have been created and embedded in the minds of unsuspecting people. I’m not talking about some abstract event – I’m talking about convincing people that something had previously happened to them. Starting to sound familiar? If people remember an event that never happened, such as being lost in a mall as a child or riding in a hot air balloon, is it really that unlikely that these abduction stories may just be a form of false memories?
Dr. Richard McNally of Harvard was intrigued by abductees and how sane they are. He conducted a study and measured physiological symptoms of abductees such as heart rate and facial muscle tension. McNally discovered that when recalling their abductions the abductees’ physiological reactions were as intense as that of Vietnam vets recalling their war experiences. Now you may ask, “Okay, if these are just false memories and did not actually happen why are some “abductees” severely affected by them?” I’m glad you asked. There are some noteworthy similarities that have been found when studying abductees. In addition to the suggestible nature of the mind, these factors contribute to the recollection and complete acceptance of alien abductions which subsequently leads to these intense reactions when recalling the traumatic stories. In other words, believing it makes it real to them, regardless of external validity. McNally found that the more of these factors that are present in someone, the more likely they are to create false memories of an abduction:
- Endorse New Age ideas (astrology, tarot cards, ghosts, etc.)
- Familiar with alien abduction narratives
- Experience sleep hypnosis and hypnopompic hallucinations
- They are prone to fantasy and have vivid imaginations before “treatment”, therefore;
- They are more highly suggestible during hypnosis and more likely to create these pseudo memories, especially in the presence of an authoritative figure
Hypnotherapy appears to be the leading cause of remembering these abduction stories, and while hypnosis increases memory output, it does not increase memory quality. In other words, when being hypnotized you will remember a lot more information, but it is not accurate information. For example, when being encouraged by an authoritative figure after a hypnotic treatment, fantasy prone people were more likely to recall living a past life. This illustrates the suggestibility of the mind and exacerbation of symptoms when in the presence of an authority figure who confirms your beliefs. Shermer (2002) covers the literature and says that it is not possible to “recover” memories as these hypnotherapists claim; rather, “memory is a complex phenomenon involving distortions, deletions, additions, and sometimes complete fabrication.” Needless to say, it would be pretty easy for a hypnotherapist to promote the creation of these memories in susceptible people.
If the false memory spiel is not quite doing it for you, one final argument that is brimming with years of scientific evidence is found in the fields of astronomy, physics, and biology. If you can support your abduction claim after considering those three subjects let me know and maybe we can revisit this subject. But until then rest assured that you have, in fact, not been abducted and rather it is most likely a mind game.