Alien Abduction, Part 1
Are people really being abducted by aliens?
Posted Sep 28, 2017
I was recently on the windswept, beautiful, and remote island of Islay in Scotland. It is an island that is mysterious and isolated. Here can be found the famous “walking stones.” These tall stones have flat sides and were most likely directional markers left by people in the early Bronze Age or the even earlier Neolithic period. Seeing these ancient stones, whether they are grouped side by side by side, or standing singly, like solitary sentinels in abandoned fields, can make one wonder about the people who placed them there. For viewers of shows like “Ancient Aliens” the stones may bring to mind questions concerning times long past, when humans, perhaps, were influenced by visitors from other worlds.
For Scotch whiskey lovers, Islay is the center of the universe. It is the place where the most pungent spirits in the world are made. Anyone visiting the island has to take some time and tour at least a few of the eight distilleries there. One of the distilleries I visited was Laphroaig. Laphroaig is noted for its peaty, smoky whiskey. How it becomes so peaty and smoky has to do with the preparation of one of its main ingredients: Malted Barley. In order to make this critical ingredient, it is necessary to moisten raw barley and allow it to start germinating. Once that process is underway, enzymes are released that help break down the starches in the barley into sugars that can be fermented. Germination is stopped by heating and drying the barley. In olden times, the only material available for this process on Islay was peat. Since the island is made mostly of peat, there were no trees for wood and peat was plentiful and reasonably easy to use. It imparted a unique taste to the whiskey that was distinctive and definitely acquired. That smoky taste that has been increasingly popular around the world in recent decades and Laphroaig is one of the most heavily peated whiskeys available.
Now, the reason that I am relating this is that I had my first “paranormal” experience while at this particular distillery. Islay is stark and lonely and just walking the hilly path to the distillery put me in touch with deep feelings of connection to the land and the past. So perhaps I was already “primed” for an unusual experience. The tour guide explained that during the malting process the barley has to be turned frequently while on the malting floor to keep it from turning into an unusable mass of tangled sprouts. This means that 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the malting process, workers must return several times an hour to repeatedly turn the peat. This is hard work and can lead to a repetitive strain condition known among workers in the whiskey business as “monkey shoulder”. She explained that many workers feel the malting building at Laphroaig is haunted and hate having to do the overnight shift. Apparently, many workers have had unusual experiences while there alone at night. Like most everyone else, I chuckled at this and continued on with the tour. As we were leaving the malting building, I stood holding a door waiting for the last person to come along. I was sure there was someone behind me. As the voices of the tour group began to fade I kept looking back but there was no one there. I was sure there was someone there and as I looked down the hall I thought I saw a door open a bit and then close. I went back but there was no one there. A slight chill went down my back and I hurried to get out of that room and catch up with the rest of the group. I was more than slightly relieved when I caught up with them and we walked out into a suddenly clear and beautiful summer day in Scotland.
I relate this story because my experience falls into a category of events that have been called “anomalous experiences” (Cardena, Lynn, & Krippner, 2014) or “exceptional human experiences” (Palmer, 2013). Such experiences are often referred to as being “paranormal” and are usually considered unnatural or abnormal. As a psychologist, I have often wondered what it would be like to have one of these experiences. While in a few particularly eerie settings I have kind of hoped to have one, but have been disappointed. On this occasion, I was not.
Anomalous experiences include such phenomena as synesthesia, hallucinations, lucid dreaming, past-life memories, and alien abduction, among others. Many of these experiences are fascinating, possibly disturbing, or life-changing for the people who experience them, and they often challenge our understanding of consciousness and the universe we inhabit.
In the case of my “paranormal” experience, it is easy to invoke standard psychological explanations for what occurred. Just being on Islay is close to a paranormal experience for someone used to a densely populated urban environment. It is sparsely populated and you can drive for miles without seeing any evidence of human habitation. No other cars, no people walking, no houses or buildings as far as the eye can see. The weather is constantly changing and you can have “four seasons in one day”. This can be disorienting to someone like me who is used to being around the physical artifacts of human activity and other people all the time. Add in jet lag and sleep deprivation from several weeks of traveling across time zones and I was emotionally primed for a strong reaction to anything out of the ordinary. Next, you have the setting. A somewhat eerie, echoing, empty building with lots of side spaces and open windows that create the sensation of movement out of the corner of your eye. And, of course, you have the story about the place being haunted with reports of the discomfort of people who have to work there and so you have a strong psychological set primed for something unusual. I have no memory of thinking “I wonder if I will see a ghost here” or anything of the sort, but it certainly wouldn’t be hard to imagine something like that going on at a preconscious level.
I am fairly sure that the above considerations largely explain my experience. But what about the door opening? Surely that couldn’t be just psychological, could it? I’m not so sure. We often have fleeting perceptual experiences that may not qualify as full blow hallucinations but which nevertheless make us do double takes. I’m really not certain I actually saw the door open. It’s a fuzzy memory now, not clear and I’m full of doubt. Maybe it did open and maybe it didn’t. Clearly, when I went back to check there was no one there.
The bottom line is, that in situations like this, we can never be absolutely sure as to what actually happened. Perhaps I was in a psychological state in which I could misperceive events; maybe I thought I saw something that I didn’t. That is to say, perhaps I had an experience that would not have registered on a surveillance camera. But I will never know. And this is one of the qualities of these anomalous experiences that I wanted to emphasize before getting into the details of one of the most fascinating of anomalous experiences—alien abduction.
We are often presented with events that may have a number of possible explanations. In my situation, it is possible that psychological factors led to misperception of ordinary sensations that resulted in a strange experience of unsettled mild fear—of the unknown. Others would argue that no, there are unexplained phenomena in our world that are best understood by reference to the spirit world. Workers are not misinterpreting the wispy vapor rising from the distillation process but are experiencing a kind of energy that represents the essence of a formerly living being that can continue to exist and exert some influence, however tenuous, in the physical realm after death. Like partly opening doors with no visible cause of motion. Some people find the explanation of ghosts and spirits to be more compelling than psychological theories about these kinds of experiences.
In science, there is a philosophical principle called Occam's razor that is often used in situations like this. There are many different ways of stating it, usually along the lines of “all other things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the best”. This principle is used to cut away unnecessary and erroneous explanations by focusing on what is the simplest explanation available for a phenomenon. For centuries, this razor that cuts away falsehood has worked rather well. For example, Copernicus' heliocentric model, with the sun as the center of the solar system, was simpler than the Ptolemaic system, with the earth at the center of the solar system, as it did not need the complex cycles and epicycles required in the latter model to account for the observed movement of the planets.
When applied to psychological phenomena such as a paranormal experience that may be interpreted as an observation of a ghostly spirit, Occam’s razor would have us compare the various possible explanations and choose the simplest and therefore most likely. The psychological explanation has the benefit of using commonly observed cognitive and perceptual factors to explain a potentially difficult-to-understand event. The ghost explanation requires additional explanatory factors—spirits and a realm in which they can exist and occasionally interact with us. On these grounds, we tend to reject the supernatural explanation and accept the psychological one.
Use of Occam’s razor assumes that in the situation in question all things are equal, but we know that often all things are not equal, and it certainly seems possible that there may be times when the most complex explanation actually turns out to be best. Occam’s razor is a rule of thumb that has worked well but it is not a law of nature and could be wrong at certain times. When anomalous experiences are more complex and challenging, we may find it more difficult to accept simple psychological explanations. Sam Harris, a noted atheist, has discussed the significant difficulties encountered when approaching an exceptional human experience such as a mystical union with the universe experienced during psychedelic drug trips or while in deep meditative states. There are at least two compelling explanations. One is the standard scientific explanation that certain emotional, cognitive, and perceptual experiences result from brain state changes and psychological factors related to the drug or meditation technique used. It is also possible that these techniques don’t just create a changed brain and psychological state but actually open a portal to other dimensions of reality to which we do not typically have access. As he points out, one of the problems with nonscientific explanations, at least from a scientific perspective, is that they become unfalsifiable. While in principle we may be able to rule out some aspect of a neuroscientific or psychological explanation with the use of proper instruments and experimental design, it is not currently possible to disprove a supernatural one. Being unable to disprove a supernatural explanation does not mean that it can’t be true, just that it is less likely that it is the best explanation possible and can’t meet the requirements of a scientific theory.
Alien abduction experiences are some of the most profound and potentially frightening or, perhaps, spiritually enlightening, experiences that a person can have. In my experience, these experiences are not something that is often discussed in psychotherapy, although there are people who have been traumatized by these experiences and seek professional help. People in psychotherapy may be afraid to disclose these experiences to a mental health professional for fear of being labeled “schizophrenic” or “psychotic”.
With these considerations in mind I want to explore one of the most challenging and fascinating anomalous experiences reported in the psychological literature, the experience of not only seeing or interacting with alien beings not of this world, but of being abducted by them and perhaps also being experimented on by them. Are these experiences similar to or wholly different from other kinds of exceptional human experiences? From a sleep medicine perspective, some of these experiences may be related to dream states or other aspects of human experience at the boundaries of waking and dreaming. In the next post I will discuss some aspects of these encounter experiences and possible explanations for them.
Cardena, E, Lynn, S.J., & Krippner, S. (Eds.). (2014). Varieties of Anomalous Experience, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Harris, S. (2011). Drugs and the meaning of life, https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/drugs-and-the-meaning-of-life, accessed 09/24/2017.
Palmer, G. (2013). Therapeutic Benefits of Exceptional Human Experiences, presentation recorded at the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences’ 2013 2nd Annual Conference: Therapeutic Issues of Spiritually Transformative Experiences, held October 3-5, 2013, in Arlington, VA.