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An Examination of the Alien Abduction Phenomenon and Associated Psychological Theories

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Summary: What is compelling about abduction cases is the amount of similar, highly detailed information that abductees report. Detailed descriptions of passage to and from the craft, physical procedures and tests, surgical-type instruments, and descriptions of the aliens themselves, come from many different abductees who have never met one another. Until recently these stories were not available in the media. Abductees come from all walks of life, age groups, and ethnic backgrounds.

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." – Philip K. Dick (1928–82) U.S. science fiction writer

"Whatever is a reality today, whatever you touch and believe in and that seems real for you today, is going to be—like the reality of yesterday—an illusion tomorrow." – Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936), Italian author, playwright

The modern history of the abduction phenomenon began in 1961 with the case of Betty and Barney Hill. The couple claimed that one night while driving home to New Hampshire from a trip to Montreal, they saw a UFO and had a couple of hours that they could not account for. Following this event, Barney suffered from insomnia and Betty had frequent nightmares. After two years, they reluctantly sought help from psychiatrist Benjamin Simon. Other than anxieties related to the incident, "Dr. Simon reported no psychiatric illness." (Fuller, 1966) Using hypnosis, Dr. Simon uncovered details of what happened during the missing hours of which they had no conscious recollection. In separate hypnosis sessions the Hills each reported being taken out of their car and into a craft against their will by "small, gray, humanoid beings with unusual eyes" that communicated telepathically. Inside, they were placed on a table, and various tests and procedures were performed on them that seemed to focus on the reproductive organs. The Hills initially were reluctant to believe that this actually occurred. "I wish I could think it was a hallucination," Barney told Dr. Simon. (Fuller, 1966) Since then, thousands of other surprisingly similar abduction cases have emerged around the world. (White, 1991)

Interestingly, many abductees do not seek therapy because "they have had an abduction experience." Rather, they seek help for a wide variety of complaints—such as vivid recurring nightmares, general anxiety, panic attacks, intense feelings of helplessness or vulnerability, and strange memories that cause them to question their sanity. Another common complaint is that of "missing time." This involves a period of time—usually ranging anywhere from forty-five minutes to several hours—that the person cannot account for. (Hopkins, 1981)

In one historic case that took place in the late seventies, a young Arizona man named Travis Walton was missing for five days. Local authorities had begun a murder investigation when he suddenly reappeared, highly traumatized, with no conscious recollection of where he had been. The logging crew Travis had been working with at the time of his disappearance claimed to have seen a UFO render him unconscious via a beam of light. As they were all suspects in the murder investigation, their story was strengthened by the fact that they each submitted to and passed lie detector tests that involved direct questioning regarding Travis' disappearance and the UFO sighting. Twenty years later, although some of them are no longer friends, they have all stood by their original story. (Torme, 1993)

What is compelling about abduction cases is the amount of similar, highly detailed information that abductees report. Detailed descriptions of passage to and from the craft, physical procedures and tests, surgical-type instruments, and descriptions of the aliens themselves, come from many different abductees who have never met one another. Until recently these stories were not available in the media. Abductees come from all walks of life, age groups, and ethnic backgrounds. Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Mack states that abductees he has worked with include "students, homemakers, secretaries, writers, business people, computer industry professionals, musicians, psychologists, an acupuncturist, a social worker..." (Mack, 1994)

In June of 1992, Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack, M.D. and M.I.T. physicist David E. Pritchard, Ph.D. held the Abduction Study Conference at M.I.T. to "assess the similarities and differences in the findings of various investigators studying people who report experiences of abductions by aliens, and the related issues of this phenomenon." (Bryan, 1995) The host of speakers and abduction researchers at the five day conference included Temple University historian and author David Jacobs, Ph.D.; California emergency physician John G. Miller, M.D.; Sacramento based psychologist Richard J. Boylan, Ph.D.; John S. Carpenter, M.S.W.; and the primary investigator of UFO abductions, Budd Hopkins, who has personally worked with over 1,200 abduction cases and has written two books on the subject. In addition, the conference included a panel of abductees that shared their individual experiences.

At the conference and in many of the books published on the subject, various psychological theories have been discussed that attempt to explain the alien abduction phenomenon. Perhaps the most obvious of these explanations is mental illness. While there have been documented cases of patients suffering from schizophrenia who experience "vivid and frightening hallucinations and delusions about space aliens," (Barlow, 1995) their stories are usually inconsistent and incoherent, and part of a whole range of bizarre and confused thought patterns and behavior that characterize their lives. Abductees examined by psychologists are not diagnosed as being schizophrenic or delusional. Further, "psychiatric examinations and numerous psychological tests have failed to reveal forms of mental illness that could, conceivably, explain the abduction phenomenon." (Mack, 1994) According to psychiatrist John Mack, this explanation simply does not hold up - abductees, from a psychiatric standpoint, appear to be very ordinary individuals.

Fabrication is another possible explanation. It has been theorized that abductees lead boring lives and fabricate these stories to gain attention, publicity, and perhaps financial gain. Although this is a possible explanation in some cases, it certainly is not true for the majority. Most abductees come forward reluctantly, fearful of ridicule and avoiding media attention. John Mack emphasizes the sometimes "remarkable lengths to which abductees go to protect their anonymity." (Bryan, 1995) Rather than trying to convince people that the abduction is a real event, they seek therapy in hopes of uncovering a treatable mental illness. Studies have also been conducted by psychologists to determine whether or not abductees exhibit a high degree of certain personality traits such as fantasy proneness; the results, however, showed that most abductees fall within the normal range.

The notion that abduction accounts can be explained by individuals falsely claiming experiences based on stories heard in the media is a drastic oversimplification of a puzzling phenomenon. According to former Pentagon official Col. Philip J. Corso (Ret.), the military was investigating reports of alien abduction and cattle mutilation beginning in the late 1950s, a decade before the first reports began to surface in the media. He writes,

...there were the suspected cattle mutilations and reported abductions, perhaps the most direct form of intervention in our culture short of a direct attack upon our installations. While debates broke out among debunkers who said these were a combination of hoaxes, attacks by everyday predators on cattle, psychological flashback memories of episodes of childhood abuse in the cases of reported abductees, and out-and-out fabrications of the media – field investigators found they could not explain away some of the cattle mutilations, especially where laser surgery seemed to be used, and psychologists found alarming similarities in the descriptions of abductees who had no knowledge of one another's stories. The military intelligence community regarded these stories of mutilations and abductions very seriously. (Corso, 1997)

Another interesting theory suggests that what is occurring is a form of displacement from another kind of trauma, especially sexual abuse. While it is true that abduction experiencers do show some of the symptoms associated with post-traumatic states, Mack asserts "these symptoms appear to be the result, not the cause, of what the experiencers have undergone." (Mack, 1994) Many therapists attempt to explain abduction accounts as "screen" memories masking the repression of sexual abuse. However, "no abduction screen memories have ever been stripped away to reveal a past history of abuse." (Jacobs, 1992) While it is true that some abductees are also victims of sexual or physical abuse, they usually have a clear memory of the abuse and feel the abduction experience to be unrelated.

Sleep paralysis is a common neurophysiological explanation. During prewaking and presleeping states, also referred to as hypnogogic and hypnopomic states, a person "may feel paralyzed for a very short time. She might have vivid 'dreams' in those moments that take on the shape of reality." (Jacobs, 1992) This explanation fails to take into account the many abductions claimed to have taken place while the subject was awake. For example, many people claim to have been abducted in broad daylight while driving a car. In addition, dream-like experiences in hypnogogic and hypnopomic states do not match the emotionality, strong sense of realism, and sequential events reported in abduction accounts.

The questionable accuracy of memories uncovered through hypnosis is yet another possible conventional explanation for the alien abduction phenomenon. Studies do show that hypnosis can produce inaccurate material. Subjects under hypnosis can be very susceptible to the expectations of the hypnotist, possibly creating stories based not on experience but imagination. John Myers, a professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, who studies child abuse and related issues such as repressed memory in child abuse litigation, states that "the clear consensus of opinion is that repressed memory does exist, particularly for traumatic events. How to differentiate the accurate from the inaccurate, that's the problem." (Przybys, 1995) Because so little is understood regarding the use of hypnosis as a methodological technique for manipulating cognitive and affective states, this theory could certainly benefit from additional research.

Researchers who use hypnosis to investigate alleged alien abduction experiences argue that they are careful not to ask leading questions. Further, they state that if they intentionally try to lead the subject away from the abduction narrative, and perhaps suggest a more rational explanation, they are generally met with great resistance. Some abductees claim to have conscious memories that surface without hypnosis. Budd Hopkins argues hypnosis is not essential in many cases, and most abductees remember some elements of the abduction experience prior to hypnosis. Regarding the use of hypnosis, John Mack states:

The intensity of affect and expressed bodily feeling that occurs during the regression sessions of abduction experiencers is so powerful that even the most determined skeptic would be hard-pressed to conclude that something quite extraordinary and reality-shattering did not occur. (Mack, 1994)

Some individuals, such as the late Carl Sagan, suggest that what is really going on in relation to alien abductions is some sort of mass psychosis, hysteria, or hallucination. Examples of hysterical contagion, whereby people believe that something has happened to them because they are aware that it has happened to others, do exist. However, according to David Jacobs, abduction claims "do not fit the model of mass hysteria." (Jacobs, 1992) Typically, for mass hysteria or hysterical contagion to occur, the victims have to know each other or in some way have contact with one another to engage in mutual reinforcement. Although some abductees do know one another, most do not, and they have little in common. Further, the abduction phenomenon is not restricted to a particular geographic location or brief time period, as is usually the case in mass hysteria.

One of the most bizarre explanations for the abduction phenomenon is the idea that they stem from a collective unconscious, or cumulative memory, which "embodies certain archetypal memories that are inherent in all human minds." (Jacobs, 1992) Carl Jung addressed the issue of UFO sightings from this perspective in his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, published in 1959. He wondered whether UFOs might not be "materialized psychism - actual physical or paraphysical objects created by the collective unconscious." (Bryan, 1995) While the idea of a collective unconscious is not something that has been supported by any solid evidence in the psychological community, it is a concept that deserves further research. If it were in fact a valid explanation, it would completely change the way we view psychology, and "the implications for humanity would be enormous." (Jacobs, 1992)

With any of the various psychological theories, it is difficult to account for the growing body of documented cases of abductees that experience physiological effects. Some abductees have small scars or scoop marks on their body they cannot account for that are often symmetrical and similar in nature those found on other abductees. While it is possible that these are self-inflicted, the similar nature of the marks is difficult to account for. John Mack claims to have worked with one individual with these markings who is a paraplegic, and therefore in this case at least the scars could not possibly have self-inflicted.

There have been other physiological effects noted as well. Some women abductees have suffered from a various internal complications, including a high incidence of ovarian cysts. There have also been cases of what is known as "missing fetus syndrome," in which a pregnant woman's fetus mysteriously and inexplicably disappears overnight, without any indications of a miscarriage. In some cases problems have been so severe as to require a total hysterectomy.

A case occurred in Texas that involved three individuals who allegedly witnessed a UFO touch down on a remote highway in front of them, and then after several minutes took off. They described being exposed to a blinding, very hot light that visibly burned the face and arms of one of the witnesses who had stepped out of the car. After the incident, and continuing for several days, they each suffered nausea and other physiological effects similar to those normally associated with radiation exposure. Doctors could not account for their condition. In addition, trees on either side of the highway were scorched and the paint on the highway itself was noticeably effected.

Clearly whatever is happening to abductees defies a conventional psychological explanation. As John Carpenter noted:

I fully expected to wade through a variety of psychological issues — including fantasies of hysterical individuals, dramatic confabulations from Borderline Personality Disorders, dissociative episodes as with Multiple Personalities, attention-seeking antics of sociopathic characters, intricately-woven psychodynamics of those traumatized in childhood, and the space-age delusions of insecure individuals, influenced by extraterrestrial themes and speculations in all of the media. To my astonishment, none of these expectations has become valid in my research so far. (Bryan, 1995)

Does the alien abduction phenomenon represent some new form of psychiatric illness? Or is it possible that what abductees claim is happening to them is really true. Surprisingly, many of the researchers and mental health professionals working closely with these individuals are now leaning toward the latter conclusion. In the book Abduction, which is based on his work with over 100 abductees, John Mack states:

We can continue to try to make the phenomenon fit the world as we have known it, jamming it into a kind of Procrustean bed of consensus reality. Or we can acknowledge that the world might be other than we have known it. Then we are free to see where our thinking leads us. I have spent countless hours trying to find alternate explanations that would not require the major shift in my worldview that I have had to face..…but no familiar theory or explanation has come even close to accounting for the basic features of the abduction phenomenon. (Mack, 1994)

Regardless of the cause, the number of people seeking therapy for abduction experiences continues to grow. Whether or not one believes their stories does not change the fact that these people are seeking help. They have been traumatized by what they consider to be very real and frightening experiences that are beyond their control. Often these cases are misdiagnosed; one of John Mack's patient's described being treated unsuccessfully though out his adolescence with "hit-or-miss drugging," and resented what he later came to feel were "uninformed and unnecessary medical procedures." (Mack, 1994)

The mainstream psychological and scientific community needs to recognize and further study this phenomenon if these cases are to be handled properly and if any definitive answers are to be reached. As David Jacobs warns, "we must realize that the abduction phenomenon is too important to dismiss as the ravings of prevaricators or psychologically disturbed people. I hope the extraordinary lack of scientific concern to date does not in the long run prove to be a mistake with undreamed-of consequences." (Jacobs, 1992)

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