[Paleopsych] CHE: Harvard Researcher Probes the Minds of Alien Abductees
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Sun Nov 13 23:23:35 UTC 2005
Harvard Researcher Probes the Minds of Alien Abductees
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.11.4
By JENNIFER HOWARD
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS: Susan A. Clancy doesn't think her subjects are any
weirder than the rest of us -- certainly not weirder than various
relatives or the people she's met at Ivy League universities who
delude themselves into believing "that a city dweller needs an
all-terrain vehicle" and that "they understand how wireless technology
"I myself believe that strenuous exercise is a form of self-loathing,"
she writes, "and that buying shoes is an effective treatment for
As that excerpt demonstrates, Ms. Clancy's new book, Abducted: How
People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Harvard
University Press), is galaxies away from standard university-press
fare. It is about extraterrestrials and the humans who encounter them.
It is "Bridget Jones goes to Harvard and meets the aliens," says
Elizabeth Knoll, a senior editor at Harvard University Press. "We
don't very often publish books where a one-sentence description of the
topic makes people laugh."
Most earthlings do not believe that we're being snatched from our beds
by little green men (or, in a more common scenario, big gray beings of
indeterminate gender) and subjected to hideous probings. But Ms.
Clancy, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at
Harvard, felt that scientists had been too quick to dismiss abduction
stories as crazy talk from crackpots who have seen too many episodes
of The X-Files. If this stuff isn't happening, she wondered, why does
it seem so real to those who believe that it is?
In Abducted, Ms. Clancy synthesizes abductees' accounts, the results
of psychological experiments, and the stories we all know from books,
movies, and television to arrive at an explanation: "Alien-abduction
memories are best understood as resulting from a blend of
fantasy-proneness, memory distortion, culturally available scripts,
sleep hallucinations, and scientific illiteracy, aided and abetted by
the suggestions of hypnotherapy," she writes. And the experience fills
a void in abductees' lives, she believes. "Not only does it furnish an
explanation for psychological distress and unsettling experiences; it
provides meaning for one's entire life." For believers, in other
words, aliens may be the cure for alienation.
To "de-pathologize" the abduction phenomenon, Ms. Clancy drew on her
graduate work with women who had recovered memories of childhood
sexual abuse. Alien abductees seemed to offer an excellent and
less-politicized way of exploring the creation and manipulation of
memories. Her research team ran ads in the Boston papers and, after
screening out the pranksters and those who wanted to know whether
Harvard didn't have better ways to spend its money, conducted
extensive interviews with about 50 people.
Fifteen of those interviewed agreed to take part in lab experiments
such as the Deese/Roediger-McDermott, or DRM, paradigm, in which they
studied lists of words (e.g., "sugar," "candy," etc.) all related to
another word (e.g., "sweet") that did not actually appear on the list.
They were then asked to recall which words they'd really seen. The
abductees were statistically more likely than other groups to believe
they had seen the absent words, according to Ms. Clancy. "I didn't try
to change the world with one experiment. ... All I concluded from the
study was the alien abductees were more prone in the lab to create a
certain type of false memory." She also found that in tests that
measured physical reactions such as heart rate and sweating, the
abductees "reacted similarly to real trauma victims" when reliving
Abductees and their champions are not amused by Ms. Clancy's work.
David M. Jacobs, an associate professor of history at Temple
University and president of the International Center for Abduction
Research, wrote in an e-mail message to The Chronicle that Ms. Clancy
"sets up an unfalsifiable system of explanation whereby the abductee
can never have had the experiences that they say they have."
Using hypnotic regression, Mr. Jacobs has worked with some 140 alien
abductees in the last 20 years. "The abduction phenomenon is not
something one can re-create in a laboratory situation," he says.
Fifteen subjects does sound like a slim sample. But Ms. Clancy calls
it "quite appropriate for the analysis." And the DRM paradigm is
widely used in memory research, she says, which allowed her to compare
her data with existing norms. Some of her conclusions have been
published in peer-reviewed journals, including Psychological Science
and the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
Ms. Knoll calls Ms. Clancy's approach "an incredibly ingenious way" of
exploring "the very large and almost universal phenomenon of false
memory and false belief." The press subjected the manuscript to twice
the standard number of reviews; Ms. Knoll solicited all four of them
"from top people in memory, cognitive neuroscience, and hypnosis" to
be sure that "the science was absolutely solid," she says.
Author and editor say that the burden of proof rests with the
believers anyway. Anecdotes and recovered memories don't count as
evidence -- but that's what believers have to go on. "We do not have
an alien ashtray that says 'Made on Mars' on the back of it," says Mr.
Jacobs, "but we do have a tremendous amount of anecdotal testimony
that is ... exceptionally precise in its detail."
Are aliens just a science fiction, the hybrid offspring of modern
technology and humanity's age-old need to believe in something greater
than ourselves? "Whether extraterrestrial life exists," Ms. Clancy
says, "is totally separate from whether it has been coming down to
earth and abducting us to have babies with us."
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