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Alien Abduction Part III

There may be many different causes of alien abduction experiences.

In the last two posts I discussed the general nature and history of alien abduction reports as well as a number of issues related to conceptualizing how to think about them. I now want to address possible explanations for these experiences. These experiences are important because, as Carl Sagan and John Mack have noted, they raise questions about the place of humans in the observable universe, the limits of what we can know, and how we develop our belief systems. They may possibly even play a part in the creation of the religions of this world. In fact, the concepts of UFOs, space aliens, and abductions are important enough that the United States government considered it vital to investigate the early reports of alien space craft sightings and from 1947 to 1969 conducted Project Blue Book. The records of Project Blue Book are now available to the public and the final conclusion of the investigation was that UFOs pose no national security threat to the United States. Nevertheless, at least one president, Jimmy Carter, had witnessed a UFO in 1973 and later backed off of a promise to release all information on UFOs after he became president. High ranking government officials, such as John Podesta, have also recently suggested more information needs to be released to the public. Clearly, the issue is not settled.

Whether or not alien abductees have actually been abducted or have somehow created a vivid memory of something they are interpreting as an abduction experience, there is evidence that their reactions to descriptions of these experiences include physiological arousal (e.g. increased heart rate, increased breath rate, sweating) similar to what would be seen in patients who have experienced “ordinary” traumatic events (Appelle, Lynn, Neuman, & Malaktaris, 2014). Clearly, for individuals who have had these experiences, there is a reality that makes disbelief in them difficult. It must be pointed out that many people have become aware of these experiences only after having undergone hypnosis and this may significantly increase the belief in and emotional response to memories that may have developed as a result of the hypnosis itself. A strong reaction to a memory is therefore not a guarantee of the reality of the experience. When discussing reality, I mean it in the sense of traditional Enlightenment empirical rationality and rules of evidence based on careful observation, consensus validation, hypothesis generation, and controlled experimentation. Memories recovered by hypnosis alone cannot meet these standards.

So one possible explanation for, at least some of these reports is that they are induced inadvertently by therapists using hypnosis and leading the patient to form a kind of false memory. Psychiatrists such as John Mack have been challenged on these grounds. False memories are actually common and we all have them. Unfortunately, they cause havoc in certain situations, as when people have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit on the basis of testimony in court that was a result of false memories. Likewise, people who are dealing with some form of stress may be led to have false memories of alien abduction as a result of inappropriate use of hypnotic techniques. An additional support for this position is that, as I pointed out in part 1, these experiences seem to be rarely reported in standard patient presentations for therapy (Appelle et al, 2014).

Appelle et al (2014) cite evidence that fantasy proneness may contribute to having alien abduction experiences. As noted in the previous post, many people first experience these in childhood. It appears that people who report alien abductions have many more experiences of various paranormal events such as seeing nonphysical entities as children than do those who do not report these experiences. These kinds of experiences have been linked to what has been termed the fantasy prone personality. The research to date in this area has been too limited to conclusively rule out this as a possible explanation but further research is warranted.

As Appelle et al (2014) note, there is a frequently reported increase in the experience of general paranormal events following alien abduction experiences, as well the reporting of a higher frequency of these experiences prior to the abduction, too. This has led some to speculate that such individuals may have a higher level of extrasensory perception skill. How this might increase the likelihood of an actual abduction is not clear and the existence of ESP remains controversial to say the least.

An explanation that only goes so far is that of psychopathology. As I previously noted, the overwhelming majority of abductees are clearly not psychotic but that does not rule out the possible contribution of say, hallucinations, which are much more common than generally recognized, or psychosomatic effects that could possibly account for some of the physical manifestations of abduction sometimes noted such as marks or blotches on the skin. I can still remember attending a workshop on hypnosis in the 1990s and seeing a demonstration of how a hypnotized subject could show a reddened area on the forearm when told that a hot coin was about to be placed there, even though it was just an ordinary coin taken immediately from a pocket. Likewise, missing time could potentially be accounted for by disorders such as dissociative identity disorder. The evidence to date, however, is that some experiences may be explained by psychopathology, but on the whole, abductees do not evidence greater psychopathology than the general population (Appelle et al, 2014).

Alien abductions have sometimes been dismissed as hallucinations. This explanation does bear consideration. It turns out that differentiating hallucinations from real perceptions can be difficult(Siegel, 1992). Psychological and philosophical considerations propose that real perceptions are different from mental images, fantasies, dreams, memories, thoughts and so on. They have qualities of being more vivid, alive, coherent, and concrete. They also are thought to have a certain quality of feeling in that they involve our senses interacting with stimuli from the environment to create sound, sight, taste, and feeling. We experience real perceptions as being external to ourselves, and these experiences do not stop if we just wish them to stop. When a mental event takes on these qualities it is not possible to distinguish it from a real perception. Drug experiences, dreams, and hallucinations can take on these qualities, and indeed, may seem more real that “real” perceptions. It may be impossible on the basis of experience alone to determine if an experience was caused by an external stimulus, or was somehow created by the mind or brain itself.

Another possible explanation is that people are deliberately presenting a hoax. Again, as I previously noted, this is unlikely as falsely reporting such an experience is likely to not be well received and may actually harm the person’s standing in the community. It is also possible that abductees are presenting with a form of factitious disorder, better known as Munchausen Syndrome, in which people pretend to have physical or psychological disorders in order to take on a sick role. This kind of presentation is not, however, common among those abductees who have been studied (Appelle et al, 2014).

A controversial theory to account for paranormal experiences that I have often seen used in shows like “Ghost Hunters,” is that some are caused by the effect of electromagnetic fields on the temporal lobes of the brain. While this cannot currently be ruled out entirely, no evidence of it has been found in reported cases of alien abduction (Appelle et al, 2014).

Another approach that lacks sufficient support comes from psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories (Appelle et al, 2014). In the psychoanalytic version, events such as childhood abuse get transformed into false memories of alien abduction. From the Jungian psychodynamic perspective, these experiences may be an example of archetypal imagery that exists in the collective unconscious.

I now want to focus on the theories that I think are most interesting and need the most investigation.

First is the possibility that at least some of these events represent actual contact with alien intelligences that are actively contacting and studying humans. This is the explanation that is most often discarded on the basis of Occam’s Razor. After all, many of the explanations discussed above may more simply explain these events than the elaborate framework that would have to exist if they were objectively real. Until we have definitive proof from alternative sources such as an actual landing of a UFO on the White House lawn, the roof of the Louvre, or beside the Great Pyramid in Egypt, the strongest evidence in favor of this explanation is the relative consistency among the thousands of existing reports that we have. The problem here is that there may be alternative explanations for this consistency. For example that abductees have been exposed to the way alien encounters have been represented for over 60 years in popular science fiction literature, or the availability of many books, magazine articles, and online sources that provide classical examples of the abduction experience. And there is also the possibility noted above that the consistency was originally rooted in the archetypal nature of these experiences based on the collective unconscious.

A second and intriguing explanation involves the super powerful psychedelic substance DMT. In an earlier blog I had mentioned the Psychedelic Renaissance that has been ongoing for many years and was in part started by the work of psychiatrist Rick Strassman in the early 1990s. He administered various doses of DMT to volunteers who then had remarkably powerful hallucinatory experiences that often involved apparent contact with other entities. These were described variously as insects, aliens, spirits, and so on. The experiences were so overwhelming that many of the participants could not shake the belief that they had actually been in contact with these other beings in some objective reality such as a universe parallel to our own. The impact of listening to these experiences as they were occurring affected Strassman and he subsequently left academic life to pursue more spiritual endeavors. As it turns out, DMT is produced in the human brain in the pineal gland and may be released during dreams and near death experiences (Strassman, 2001). Could some of these experiences be related to a spontaneous release of DMT and the subsequent experience of a trip to a parallel universe and meeting strange aliens? This is highly speculative but very interesting. It also is subject to the consideration I noted in part 1 that it may be impossible to differentiate between a substance causing a powerful hallucination and that substance opening a portal to another dimension, however speculative and unlikely this sounds. Mack himself had suggested that the aliens in the alien abduction experiences might not be from another planet but perhaps from a parallel universe.

A third and fascinating explanation is that of accidental awareness while having a surgical procedure under anesthesia. During accidental awareness patients remain unable to move while regaining some degree of awareness of what is happening to them, a horrifying thought. I have actually experienced this myself when undergoing wisdom tooth extraction in the 1970s. For me I became aware of people around me with what seemed like an impossible number of instruments and hands somehow forced into my mouth. Fortunately, I did not experience pain and afterward fully recognized what had happened. I was therefore not overly traumatized by the experience. Unfortunately, data provided by the Royal College of Anesthetists has found that half of patients who have accidental awareness do experience pain, two thirds experience helplessness and panic, and over 40% had moderate to severe psychological harm including PTSD. It is possible that alien abductees are actually experiencing memories of their accidental awareness. Apparently none of the patients in the above survey reported having an alien abduction experience. It has been noted, however, that Barney Hill, who along with his wife had the first widely reported alien abduction experience, had undergone a tonsillectomy earlier in his life. This could be an example of recovered memory – of an operation where he would have been in an unfamiliar environment, surrounded by medical equipment and strange looking creatures without human faces, and overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and inability to move. It could be that other reports of alien abduction are rooted in these medical experiences. This does not prove this hypothesis but it is a compelling potential explanation for at least some of the reported experiences. Of note, and paralleling my experience, is that when patients understood what was happening to them or had accidental awareness explained to them soon after the experience, it was much less traumatizing.

The final and, for me, most compelling explanation for most abduction experiences is the phenomenon of sleep paralysis with hypnopompic imagery. I have discussed this before in the context of incubus attack and up to 60% of people experience at least one episode of this in their lives. During these events a partial awakening from REM sleep occurs. Vivid and often frightening imagery from the dream is mixed together with actual aspects of the sleep environment, while the person remains unable to move due to the paralysis that regularly occurs in REM sleep in order to prevent us from acting out our dreams. This state is often terrifying and in the past was often interpreted culturally as an attack by some supernatural being. In the west this was often thought of as some kind of demon such as an incubus. It seems likely that since the start of the atomic, space, and information ages that culturally we would begin to interpret these frightening experiences in a more modern way. Most often, the experience will be shaken off as a bad dream but sometimes it has such intensity and feeling of reality that it stays with the person and can be elaborated over time into a more complex experience with all the features of alien abduction. I have often wondered if alien abduction experiences are more common among patients with narcolepsy as sleep paralysis is a feature of the disorder and is often frequently experienced by these patients. As far as I am aware there are no data that address this question.

There is some indication that the rate of alien abduction reports has declined since the end of the 20th Century as we have moved into the information saturated and often dismaying reality of the early 21st Century. This new century has turned out to be little like that depicted in the movie “2001” (1968) and unfortunately more like the one in 1982’s “Blade Runner” (Raftery, 2017). On the other hand, it may be that alien abduction reports remain fairly common and have just disappeared from obvious venues into the endless meeting places of cyberspace. In the end we have to conclude that there is much we do not know about ourselves, our planet, and the universe in which we live. While scientific explanations focus on currently understood processes and materials to understand alien abduction, we cannot fully rule out that these experiences occur in actual reality. However, if they are caused by our own minds, whether under the influence of powerful chemicals like DMT or arising out of the subconscious and revealed in our dreams, alien abduction reports do demonstrate a truly remarkable quality of the human mind.

Appelle, S., Lynn, S.J., Neuman, L., & Malaktaris, A. (2014). Alien abduction experiences, in Cardena, E, Lynn, S.J., & Krippner, S. (Eds.). (2014). Varieties of Anomalous Experience, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Raftery, B. (2017). Blade Runner is back. Wired, 25 (10), October, 2017, p. 76 – 87.

Siegel, R.K. (1992). Fire in the brain: Clinical tails of hallucination. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc.

Strassman, R. (2001). DMT: The spirit molecule: A doctor’s revolutionary research into the biology of near-death and mystical experiences. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.