[Paleopsych] NYT: Explaining Those Vivid Memories of Martian Kidnappers

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Fri Aug 12 16:04:50 UTC 2005

Explaining Those Vivid Memories of Martian Kidnappers
New York Times, 5.8.9


    "Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens,"
    by Susan Clancy. Harvard University Press, $22.95.

    People who have memories of being abducted by aliens become hardened
    skeptics, of a kind. They dismiss the procession of scientists who
    explain away the memories as illusions or fantasy. They scoff at talk
    about hypnosis or the unconscious processing of Hollywood scripts. And
    they hold their ground amid snickers from a public that thinks that
    they are daft or psychotic.

    They are neither, it turns out, and their experiences should be taken
    as seriously as any strongly held exotic beliefs, according to Susan
    Clancy, a Harvard psychologist who interviewed dozens of
    self-described abductees as part of a series of memory studies over
    the last several years.

    In her book "Abducted," due in October, Dr. Clancy, a psychologist at
    Harvard, manages to refute and defend these believers, and along the
    way provide a discussion of current research into memory, emotion and
    culture that renders abduction stories understandable, if not
    believable. Although it focuses on abduction memories, the book hints
    at a larger ambition, to explain the psychology of transformative
    experiences, whether supposed abductions, conversions or divine

    "Understanding why people believe weird things is important for anyone
    who wishes to know more about people - that is, humans in general,"
    she writes.

    Dr. Clancy's accounting for abduction memories starts with an odd but
    not uncommon experience called sleep paralysis. While in light
    dream-rich REM sleep, people will in rare cases wake up for a few
    moments and find themselves unable to move. Psychologists estimate
    that about a fifth of people will have that experience at least once,
    during which some 5 percent will be bathed in terrifying sensations
    like buzzing, full-body electrical quivers, a feeling of levitation,
    at times accompanied by hallucinations of intruders.

    Some of them must have an explanation as exotic as the surreal nature
    of the experience itself. Although no one has studied this group
    systematically, Dr. Clancy suggests based on her interviews, that they
    tend to be people who already have some interest in the paranormal,
    mystical arts and the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors. Often
    enough, their search for meaning lands them in the care of a therapist
    who uses hypnotism to elicit more details of their dreamlike

    Hypnotism is a state of deep relaxation, when people become highly
    prone to suggestion, psychologists find. When encouraged under
    hypnosis to imagine a vivid but entirely concocted incident - like
    being awakened by loud noises - people are more likely later to claim
    the scene as a real experience, studies find.

    Where, exactly, do the green figures with the wraparound eyes come
    from? From the deep well of pop culture, Dr. Clancy argues, based on a
    review of the history of U.F.O. sightings, popular movies and
    television programs on aliens. The first "abduction" in the United
    States was dramatized in 1953, in the movie "Invaders From Mars," she
    writes, and a rash of abduction reports followed this and other works
    on aliens, including the television series "The Outer Limits."

    One such report, by a couple from New Hampshire, Betty and Barney
    Hill, followed by days a particularly evocative episode of the show in
    1961. Mr. Hill's description of the aliens - with big heads and shiny
    wraparound eyes - was featured in a best-selling book about the
    experience, and inspired the alien forms in Steven Spielberg's "Close
    Encounters of the Third Kind" in 1977, according to Dr. Clancy.

    Thus does life imitate art, and vice versa, in a narrative hall of
    mirrors in which scenes and even dialogues are recycled. Although they
    are distinct in details, abduction narratives are extremely similar in
    broad outline and often include experimentation with a sexual or
    procreative subtext. "Oh! And he's opening my shirt, and - he's going
    to put that thing in my navel," says one 1970's narrative, referring
    to a needle.

    "I can feel them moving that thing around in my stomach, in my body,"
    the narrative, excerpted in the book, continues. The passage echoes
    other abduction accounts, past and future.

    In a laboratory study in 2002, Dr. Clancy and another Harvard
    psychologist, Richard McNally, gave self-described abductees a
    standardized word-association test intended to measure proneness to
    false-memory creation. The participants studied lists of words that
    were related to one another - "sugar," "candy," "sour," "bitter" - and
    to another word that was not on the list, in this case, "sweet."

    When asked to recall the word lists, those with abduction memories
    were more likely than a group of peers who had no such memories to
    falsely recall the unlisted word. The findings suggest a
    susceptibility to what are called source errors, misattributing
    sources of remembered information by, say, confusing a scene from a
    barely remembered movie with a dream.

    In another experiment, the researchers found that recalling abduction
    memories prompted physiological changes in blood pressure and
    sweat-gland activity that were higher than those seen in
    post-traumatic stress syndrome. The memories produced intense
    emotional trauma, and each time that occurs it deepens the certainty
    that something profound really did happen.

    Although no one of those elements - sleep paralysis, interest in the
    paranormal, hypnotherapy, memory tricks or emotional investment - is
    necessary or sufficient to create abduction memories, they tend to
    cluster together in self-described abductees, Dr. Clancy finds. "In
    the past, researchers have tended to concentrate on one or another"
    factor, she said in an interview. "I'm saying they all play a role."

    Yet abduction narratives often have another, less explicit, dimension
    that Dr. Clancy suspects may be central to their power. Consider this
    comment, from a study participant whom Dr. Clancy calls Jan, a
    middle-age divorcée engaged in a quest for personal understanding:
    "You know, they do walk among us on earth. They have to transform
    first into a physical body, which is very painful for them. But they
    do it out of love. They are here to tell us that we're all
    interconnected in some way. Everything is."

    At a basic level, Dr. Clancy concludes, alien abduction stories give
    people meaning, a way to comprehend the many odd and dispiriting
    things that buffet any life, as well as a deep sense that they are not
    alone in the universe. In this sense, abduction memories are like
    transcendent religious visions, scary and yet somehow comforting and,
    at some personal psychological level, true.

    Dr. Clancy said she regretted not having asked the abductees she
    interviewed about religious beliefs, which were not a part of her
    original research. The reader may regret that, too.

    The warmth, awe and emotion of abduction stories and of those who tell
    them betray strong spiritual currents that will be familiar to
    millions of people whose internal lives are animated by religious

    When it comes to sounding the depths of alien stories, a scientific
    inquiry like this one may have to end with an inquiry into religion.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list