By Kaja Perina, published on March 1, 2003 - last reviewed on September 20, 2011
People who believe they've been abducted by aliens have always resided at the farthest fringes of science, and the recent claim by a UFO cult known as the Raelians that they had cloned a human being does little to endear abductees to the mainstream. The sect's leader, Rael, maintains that he was plucked from a volcano by almond-eyed aliens who granted him an audience with Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, each of whom confirmed that humans are descended from extraterrestrials.
But for every Rael, there are hundreds of workaday individuals who claim to have been abducted by aliens. These individuals do not flower into gurus; they struggle alone with memories of unintelligible messages, temporary paralysis and humanoid creatures hovering over their beds. Their stories don't always check out, but their minds do: Psychological tests confirm that abductees are rarely psychotic or mentally ill. Some 3 million Americans believe they've encountered bright lights and incurred strange bodily marks indicative of a possible encounter with aliens, according to a recent poll.
It is a quandary that polarizes researchers at Harvard University. One embattled psychiatrist, John Mack, M.D., argues that these experiences cannot be understood in a western rationalist tradition of science; researchers in the department of psychology, Richard McNally, Ph.D., and Susan Clancy, Ph.D., counter that the explanation--though multifaceted--is hilarious in its fundamental simplicity.
Mack, of Harvard Medical School, is a long-time champion of alien abductees and a paranormal philosopher king of sorts. His 1994 bestseller, Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens, drew international attention with the argument that "experiencers," Mack's term for the men and women he has debriefed, probably are being abducted by aliens.
More recently, McNally and Clancy introduced alien abductees to the laboratory to study trauma and recovered memory in an experimental setting. They believe their subsequent findings explain the entire abduction experience, including abductees' refusal to accept the fact that transcendent, technicolor encounters with aliens are no more than five-alarm fires in the brain.
Harvard's ideological clashes over the interpretation of anomalous experiences date to William James' tenure at the university one century ago. Both Mack and James studied psychology after training in medicine and tried to bridge the gap between psychology and spirituality, only to be rebuffed by Harvard's powers that be. For James, this culminated in Varieties of Religious Experience, which rejected a rigorous standard of evidence for divine experiences. "There is a clinical literature and an experimental literature, and they don't refer to each other," states Eugene Taylor, Ph.D., a biographer of James and a historian who lectures on psychology at Harvard Medical School. "Mack is a clinician making observations about human experience, as opposed to cognitive behavioral scientists, who say that if you can't measure it in the laboratory, it doesn't exist." When it comes to people who believe they've been abducted by space aliens, the two camps agree on only one thing: "These people are almost never psychotic," says McNally. "They're not lying. But Mack entertains a range of explanations that are farfetched at best."
Will Bueche, a 34-year-old media director, has long had nighttime paralysis and visions that "have no resolution and seem out of place." For years, he considered them merely suggestive--until he began witnessing beings while wide awake. Some abductees had far more traumatic encounters. Peter Faust, a 45-year-old acupuncturist, believes he endured years of sexual probing by hooded creatures who implanted chips in his anus and stimulated him to ejaculation. After eight hypnotic-regression sessions with Mack, and a battery of psychological tests in the early 1990s, Faust concluded that he is yoked to a female alien-human hybrid with whom he has multiple offspring.
The abduction narrative is a strange hybrid in its own right: humiliating surgical invasion tempered by cosmic awareness. Experiencers travel through windows and walls, tunnels and space-time to reach the starship's examining table, where young women's eggs are extracted and men's sperm are siphoned off. Despite waking bruised and violated, abductees say their love for beings in the alien realm can surpass any human bond and generate a sense of oceanic oneness with the universe that rivals the experiences of a world-class meditator. Faust says he "realized we're not alone in the universe. There are beings out there who care about us. But getting to this point is a long, arduous journey, with a lot of people who want to deny your experience."
Personality-driven explanations for why people with no overt psychopathology report alien encounters have proliferated apace with blockbuster movies about aliens. Psychologist Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve University, argues that abduction reports are made by "masochists" who unconsciously want to relinquish control of their lives. The loss of control is manifest in humiliating encounters with an alien race. To be sure, there is a surfeit of elaborate sex in abduction reports; one study found that among abductees, 80 percent of women and 50 percent of men reported being examined naked on a table by humanoid beings. In fact, many abductees blame aliens for sexual dysfunction and emotional disturbances.
Psychologists have long surmised that abductees may be inclined to fantasy and "absorption," the propensity to daydream or be enthralled by novels. Both alien abductees and garden-variety fantasizers report false pregnancies, out-of-body experiences and apparition sightings. Some psychologists speculate that people like Will Bueche and Peter Faust are simply "encounter-prone" individuals with a heightened receptivity to anomalous experience. Whatever the case, Bueche and Faust found a willing listener in John Mack.
Mack has been on the faculty of Harvard Medical School since 1955, and in 1982 he founded the Center for Psychology and Social Change, located in a yellow clapboard house just beyond the university's campus. The Center aims in part to study anomalous experiences, and has its post office box in Cambridge, but the building lies just within neighboring Somerville. The address is a fitting line of demarcation for a clinician who straddled conventional science and altered states of consciousness long before the publication of Abduction.
Mack founded the department of psychiatry at The Cambridge Hospital in 1969; a program that has long attracted innovative, Eastern-oriented psychiatrists. In 1977, Mack was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for A Prince of Our Disorder, a biography of Lawrence of Arabia. "Mack is in dynamic communication with the humanities," says Eugene Taylor.
Mack has embraced traditions from Freudian psychoanalysis to the guided meditation of Werner Erhard. In 1988, he began to practice Stanislav Grof's holotropic breathwork, a technique that induces an altered state by means of deep, rapid breathing and evocative music. Mack believes he retrieved memories of his mother's death, which occurred when he was 8 months old. "I was raised in a tradition of inquiry," says Mack. "If you encounter something that doesn't fit your worldview, it's more intellectually honest to say, 'maybe there's something wrong with this worldview,' than to try to shoehorn your findings into an existing belief."
At 73, Mack appears regal despite his slightly stooped gait. His handsome, deeply lined face and flinty blue eyes are quietly compelling; he quickly earned a reputation for emotional succor among the abductees he interviewed. Abductees including Faust and Bueche cling to him like acolytes, often parroting his theories.
Mack used hypnotic regression to retrieve detailed memories of 13 encounters with aliens, all chronicled in Abduction. He has now interviewed more than 200 abductees. He says that he ultimately endorsed abduction reports largely because he found his subjects to be mentally competent. Some were also highly traumatized and most were reluctant to come forward and appropriately skeptical about their experiences.
Mack defends the use of controversial techniques such as hypnotic regression because he prizes the experiential narrative over empirical data. To debrief an abductee is to be "in the presence of a truth teller, a witness to a compelling, often sacred, reality." Mack says he was jolted when his subjects reported receiving telepathic warnings about man's decimation of natural resources. "I thought this was about aliens taking eggs and sperm and traumatizing people," admits Mack. "I was surprised to find it was an informational thing."
The faculty of Harvard Medical School, for its part, was dumbfounded that Mack believed he'd stumbled on anything more than an underreported cluster of psychiatric symptoms. From 1994 to 1995, Arnold Relman, M.D., professor emeritus of medicine, chaired an ad-hoc committee that conducted a 15-month investigation into Mack's work with abductees. "John did good things in his career and gained a lot of respect. His behavior with regard to the alien-abduction story disappointed a lot of his colleagues," says Relman. The investigation ended with much tongue-wagging but no formal censure. Mack was, however, encouraged to bring a multidisciplinary approach to his study of the phenomenon. "No one is challenging John's right to look into the matter," sighs Relman. "All we're saying is, if you do it, do it in an objective, scholarly manner."
In the spring of 1999, Mack invited astrophysicists, anthropologists and a Jungian analyst who studies anomalous experience in the wake of organ transplants to the Harvard Divinity School, where they brainstormed with mental health professionals and abductees. One participant was Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally, an expert on cognitive processing in anxiety disorders.
McNally told the assembly that "sleep-related aspects of the experiences might be correlated with different parts of the REM cycle." He was referring to the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, but he hesitated to speak bluntly about it. Many abductees deem sleep paralysis too mundane an explanation for their experiences, so McNally didn't use the term, for fear of "alienating" the very subjects he wanted to recruit.
Sleep paralysis is a common phenomenon--up to 60 percent of people have at least one episode, in which the brain and body momentarily desynchronize when waking from REM sleep. The body remains paralyzed, as is standard during the REM cycle, but the mind is semi-lucid or fully cognizant of its surroundings, even, according to a Japanese study, if one's eyes are closed. The experience can't be technically classified as either waking or sleeping. For an unlucky handful of people, fleeting paralysis is accompanied by horrifying visual and auditory hallucinations: bright lights, a sense of choking and the conviction that an intruder is present. The Japanese call it kanashibari, represented as a devil stepping on a hapless sleeper's chest; the Chinese refer to it as gui ya, or ghost pressure.
Sleep paralysis with hypnopompic hallucinations (those that occur upon waking) can be so unexpected and terrifying that people routinely believe they're stricken with a grave neurological illness or that they're going insane. When faced with these prospects, aliens no longer seem so nefarious.
But sleep paralysis and abduction don't always go hand in hand. Consider the case of "Janet," a 52-year-old copy editor in Chicago. Eleven years ago she endured a terrifying out-of-body experience while lying in bed. Janet saw her head strapped in a vise as a group of men looked on. Fuzzy images were projected onto the back of Janet's eyes, visions she likens to "a 3-D hologram engraving something into my head." Her first thought on waking was of a brutal sexual assault she'd once read about. McNally believes it is the sense of powerlessness in being immobilized that triggers associations with invasive sexual procedures.
Janet experienced terror and helplessness in the wake of these messages she could not decipher, and sought the help of numerous therapists. But she says she "never thought this had anything to do with aliens. I thought it was something arising from the depths of my subconscious."
Why, then, do some people who experience violent hallucinations upon waking or falling asleep conclude that they have been abducted? One possibility is that people embellish their experience in the course of hypnotic regression. But McNally and Susan Clancy speculate that alien abductees aren't just amenable to suggestion under hypnosis; instead they actively create false memories. They drew this conclusion while studying one of the most contentious issues in psychology today: false memory syndrome.
The question of whether or not people repress traumatic memories was thrown into high relief 15 years ago, as psychotherapy patients increasingly recovered memories of sexual abuse, often through such porous techniques as hypnotic regression and guided imagery. Some cognitive psychologists, including McNally, argued that people rarely repress memories of abuse or trauma; if anything, they are more likely to recall the incident. Sexual-abuse victims remain silent "not because they are incapable of remembering, but because it's a terrible secret," says McNally. Other professionals argue that traumatic memories are easily repressed through specific dissociative mechanisms.
In 1996, McNally and Clancy became the first researchers to examine memory function in women who believed they had recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. They found that these women were significantly more likely to create false memories of nontraumatic events in a lab than were women who had always remembered being sexually abused, or women who had never been abused. (The findings are outlined in McNally's book, Remembering Trauma, published this spring. See review, page 81).
False memory was assessed by asking subjects to study semantically related words (such as candy, sugar, brownie and cookie) and then identify them on a list that includes false targets such as "sweet;" words that are thematically similar but not previously presented. Members of the recovered-memory group were by far the most likely to believe they'd seen the false targets.
But McNally and Clancy could not ascertain whether the women had in fact been sexually abused. Since it is unethical to create false memories of trauma, the researchers did the next best thing: They amassed a group whose recovered memories were unlikely to have occurred. Those people were, of course, alien abductees.
McNally and Clancy assembled a group whose members believed they'd recovered memories (usually under hypnosis) of alien abduction, along with a repressed memory group whose members believed they'd been abducted but had no conscious memory of the event. (This group inferred their abduction from physical abrasions, waking in strange positions or sometimes just from their penchant for science fiction.) There was also a terrestrially bound control group who reported no abduction experiences.
The recovered and repressed memory groups exhibited high rates of false recall on the word-recognition test. Those with "intact" memories of abduction fared worse than those who believed their memories were repressed.
But could this type of false recall be a function of memory deficits incurred through traumatic experiences? No, says Clancy: "Real trauma survivors exhibit a broad range of memory impairments on this task. Recovered-memory survivors--whether the trauma is sexual abuse or alien abduction--exhibit just one impairment on this task: the tendency to create false memories."
False recall is a source-monitoring problem, an inability to remember where and when information is acquired: You think a friend told you a piece of news, for instance, but you actually heard it on the radio. "Human memory is not like a video recorder," says Clancy. "It's prone to distortion and decay over time. This does not mean that abductees are psychiatrically impaired. I don't think they should be considered weird. If anything, they're just more prone to creating false memories."
Subjects whose personality profiles indicated a high level of absorption or inclination to fantasy were the most likely to perform poorly on the word-recall task. Furthermore, says McNally, every abductee in the recovered memory group described what appears to be sleep paralysis.
Clancy and McNally outlined their findings in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology last fall, whittling the abduction phenomenon down to an equation of sorts. Susceptibility to creating false memories, coupled with a disturbing experience like sleep paralysis and a cultural script that allows for abduction by aliens, may lead one to falsely recall such an encounter. "You don't necessarily have to endorse these experiences to create false memories," says Clancy. "You may have just seen 'The X-Files' and thought, 'That's crap,' but then you have an episode of sleep paralysis that freaks you out, and the show is still in the back of your mind."
And among people wavering about whether or not they've been abducted, hypnosis can push them to embrace this interpretation. In a 1994 experiment that simulated hypnosis, psychologist Steven Jay Lynn asked subjects to imagine that they'd seen bright lights and experienced missing time. Ninety-one percent of those who'd been primed with questions about UFOs stated that they'd interacted with aliens.
Still, if the abduction experience is a misinterpreted bout of sleep paralysis, why do abductees invest it with such emotion? A videotape of a tearful Peter Faust undergoing hypnotic regression is so powerful that Mack says he stopped showing the footage; it freaked out even nonabductees, causing many to erect "new defenses." Terror in the face of potentially false memories was one issue McNally hoped to study with abductees. This question brought him, in part, to the Divinity School conference. "I wanted to know whether people really have to be traumatized to produce a physiological reaction."
McNally collected testimony from 10 subjects with recovered memories of abduction then confronted them with the most frightening details of their own accounts--from violent trysts to swarms of aliens around their beds. Six out of 10 subjects registered such elevated physiological reactions, including heartbeat and facial muscle tension, that they met the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Interestingly, subjects with PTSD react physiologically only to their own traumatic experiences, but the abductee group had heightened responses to additional stressful scripts, such as the violent death of a loved one. They even reacted to positive scripts, such as viewing their newborn infant for the first time. Such reactivity, coupled with high levels of absorption, has been linked to the ability to generate vivid imagery, according to McNally. In other words, abductees are more likely to experience a traumatic--or positive--scenario as real, in part due to their fertile imaginations. They will then react to it as such. "Emotion does not prove the veracity of the interpretation," McNally concludes.
For McNally, the most telling difference between abductees and survivors of "veritable" trauma is not physiological but attitudinal. Experiencers unanimously state that they're glad they were abducted. "There's a psychological payoff," says McNally. "This makes it very different from sexual abuse." Trauma survivors of all stripes cite positive spiritual growth, but, "no Vietnam vet says, 'Gee, I'm glad I was a POW.'"
It is understandable that memory lapses, as measured by poor performance on a lab test, pale in comparison to communication with unknown beings. And while abductees may feel assaulted by aliens, they also feel special. For that reason, "They are not trying to demystify their experience," says McNally, whose deconstruction of sleep paralysis for one woman was met with a polite smile and the exhortation that he should "think outside the box." When McNally finally broached the term "sleep paralysis" at Mack's conference, he says, "There was an awkward silence, as if someone had belched in church."
"I'm not personally interested in what Susan Clancy found," admits Bueche, for whom the memory test was "50 bucks and free Chinese food." I don't need evidence or proof. Most experiencers are well beyond that. This is about what you can learn regardless of whether it is physically real or interdimensional or something grand that the mind is generating."
Mack counters that no combination of sleep paralysis and the Sci-Fi Channel explains phenomena such as alien sightings by school children in Zimbabwe who are wide-awake. "It doesn't even come close," he says. Mack's second book, Passport to the Cosmos, chronicles abduction as a cross-cultural phenomenon; he finds evidence of sexual and ecological parallels to American abduction reports on almost every continent.
Mack is currently at work on his third book, which examines the clash between "scientific materialism and a nonrational point of view." He increasingly distances himself from the question of whether or not aliens exist in the physical world, focusing more on a "consensus reality" that precludes us from even entertaining such a possibility. "We void the cosmos of other intelligence unless it can be proven," states Mack. On the work of McNally and Clancy in the psychology department, a stone's throw away, Mack says, "We're in different firmaments."