Working on refinements to my upcoming cryptozoology book with Skepticblog’s own Don Prothero (due out later in 2012) gave me a chance yesterday to dip back into Harvard psychologist Susan Clancy’s fascinating 2005 book about her studies of alien abductees, Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. I thought I might share a couple of passages from the book here, partly because they dovetail so nicely with my own “Reasonableness of Weird Things” arguments.
Clancy’s area of primary interest is not skeptical investigation of paranormal claims, but false memory. To perform an ”honest broker” service as thorough and reliable guides to the evidence on paranormal topics, skeptical investigators are ethically obliged to seriously consider the (unlikely) possibility of paranormal phenomena. In her own work with abductees, Clancy’s obligations were different. She felt justified in taking it pretty much for granted that her subjects had not been kidnapped by space aliens. Abductees were, for Clancy, a proxy group to allow her to examine questions related to a separate population’s “recovered” memories of childhood sexual abuse.
Research into abuse is of course very complicated—and ethically fraught. It is surrounded by tension and the potential for harm for the simple reason that abuse really happens. By contrast, Clancy wrote,
…alien abductees were people who had developed memories of a traumatic event that I could be fairly certain had never occurred. A major problem with my research on false-memory creation by victims of alleged sexual abuse was the fact that it was almost impossible to determine whether they had, in fact, been abused. I needed to repeat the study with a population that I could be sure had ‘recovered’ false memories. Alien abductions seemed to fit the bill.1
I won’t comment on Clancy’s research in regard to sexual abuse—it is not my area of expertise, and I have not read Clancy’s book on that topic—but I was very struck by her sympathy for abductees.
Throughout the book, she took pains to emphasize that alien abductees have ordinary mental health (with “little evidence that this was a particularly psychopathological group”2) and that their beliefs are fundamentally understandable—given the information they have to work with.
The disconnect between these experiencers and their critics is that only one group has access to what appears to abductees to be the key information in their own cases: the overwhelming subjective reality of their personal, visceral experiences. So real are abduction memories to those who hold them, in fact, that this subjective reality can in some sense be quantified.
And we don’t have to accept only the abductees’ word for it when they say they feel powerful emotions as they remember their abductions. Laboratory data confirm it. My colleagues and I…recorded the heart rate, sweating, breathing, and muscle tone of abductees while they recalled their abduction memories. Not only were the physiological reactions of abductees similar to those of documented trauma victims, such as combat vets and rape victims; in some cases, they were even more extreme.3
Think about that one for a moment.
However, abductees do not start with such overwhelmingly persuasive memories. As Clancy explained, “coming to believe one has been abducted by aliens doesn’t happen overnight. It progresses in fits and starts, through many stages, in which the possibility comes to seem more and more believable.”4 Victims first have an experience or series of experiences they find odd or difficult to explain; then they begin to assemble this strange data into a pattern, using the best explanatory framework available to them; eventually they may wind up in the hands of a hypnotherapist specializing in recovered memories of alien abduction; and then, finally, abduction memories emerge under the influence of hypnosis.
Recovered memory is a murky, complex area—too murky to explore in detail in a blog post. For today, I would like to focus on the period in an abductee’s development before vivid abduction memories are recovered—the period before they become part of a therapy relationship or support structure that may generate traumatic memories. In this early period, “abducted by aliens” is not a permanently cemented subjective reality for an abductee, but a suspicion or inference. Once one can literally remember being abducted, belief is essentially guaranteed. But how do people come to suspect that they might have been abducted? That is, for skeptics, a more interesting and fruitful question.
Everybody I spoke with had one thing in common: they’d begun to wonder if they’d been abducted only after they experienced things they felt were anomalous—weird, abnormal, unusual things. The experiences varied from person to person. They ranged from specific events (“I’ve wondered why my pajamas were on the floor when I woke up”) to symptoms (“I’ve been having so many nosebleeds—I never have nosebleeds”) to marks on the body (“I wondered where I got the coin-shaped bruises on my back”) to more or less fixed personality traits (“I feel different from other people, a loner—like I’m always on the outside looking in”). Sometimes they included all of the above. Though widely varied, the experiences resulted in the same general question: “What could be the cause?” In short, it appears that coming to believe you’ve been abducted by aliens is part of an attribution process. Alien-abduction beliefs reflect attempts to explain odd, unusual, and perplexing experiences.5
In many cases the original seed for later, hypnosis-recovered memories may be well-understood but frightening natural phenomena such as sleep paralysis (a sleep disruption in which awareness of surroundings returns before the dreaming and immobility of sleep are complete). According to Clancy, abductees with recovered memories find the sleep paralysis explanation “stunningly unpersuasive. After all, they’re the ones who were abducted—the ones who experienced the fear and the horror. And when you pit the cold, remote virtues of scientific data against the immediacy of personal experience, science is bound to lose.”6
At earlier stages, however, abductees have no such certainty. What they have are increasingly troubling questions that they need answered.
Consider an experiencer of sleep paralysis—any of countless millions. Paralyzed, hallucinating, terrified, perhaps sensing or seeing a presence in the room. How do people cope with the aftermath of such an unexpected and seemingly inexplicable experience? Well, they’re humans. They’re smart. They try on a range of explanations, and try to reason it out. But here’s the problem: everybody knows about ghosts and demons and aliens and gods, but only a few people know about the normal brain functioning that can mimic those phenomena. As Clancy put it,
When you are looking for the cause of an anomalous experience, your search is limited to the set of explanations you’ve actually heard of. For most of us, the set of possible explanations is far from complete. We’re unaware of the prevalence of sleep paralysis, sexual dysfunction, anxiety disorders, perceptual aberrations, chemical imbalances, memory lapses, and psychosomatic pain. But our set of possible explanations does include alien abduction, because everyone knows about aliens and their modus operandi (they come in the night, fill you with terror, kidnap you and erase your memories).7
Once people begin to try out the culturally available scripts (“Was it a ghost?” perhaps, or “Could I have been abducted?”) they find more and more pieces that seem to fit. The reason abductees endorse abduction, Clancy discovered, “is actually quite scientific: it is the best fit for their data—their personal experiences.”8 It is exactly their reasoning powers, their human legacy as puzzle-solvers, that leads them into that trap. And belief is a trap: once you start on that path, it’s very difficult to turn back.
But what might they do with more complete information—with an alternate explanatory framework—at an earlier point in their investigations? My personal, anecdotal experience is that this is one of the most powerful interventions that skeptics ever get the chance to perform: simply telling puzzled people that sleep paralysis (for example) is a thing. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times as people have described their sense of a ghostly presence at the foot of the bed, their terror at the blankets pulled back through supernatural influence, or other frightening classic experiences. “Well, I don’t know what happened to you. I wasn’t there, and I didn’t share your experience. But have you heard of something called ‘sleep paralysis’? It’s a normal event that can create experiences similar to the one you describe.” I’ve had strangers latch onto that like a drowning person grabs a rope, because, no, they hadn’t heard of that. They hadn’t heard any viable explanation except “I was attacked by a ghost” or “I am a lunatic.”
So the question I’ll leave you with today is this: what can skeptics do to ensure that our forums and media and comment threads and public presentations are welcoming to those people who most need reliable information about paranormal topics? What can we do to make the skeptics movement a safe place for vulnerable people who need our help—a safe place for people who (for example) think they were probably abducted by aliens?
- Clancy, Susan. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.) p 20
- Ibid. p. 129. Abductees do tend, however, to have certain normal traits in common—including a higher than average vulnerability to creating false memories ina laboratory setting. See Clancy (2005) pp. 132-133
- Ibid. p. 77
- Ibid. p. 52
- Ibid. p. 33
- Ibid. p. 7
- Ibid. p. 38
- Ibid. p. 52