SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Rescuing People from Aliens

by Daniel Loxton, Jan 24 2012

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?


  1. Clancy, Susan. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.) p 20
  2. 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
  3. Ibid. p. 77
  4. Ibid. p. 52
  5. Ibid. p. 33
  6. Ibid. p. 7
  7. Ibid. p. 38
  8. Ibid. p. 52

Like Daniel Loxton’s work? Read more in the pages of Skeptic magazine. Subscribe today in print or digitally!

27 Responses to “Rescuing People from Aliens”

  1. d brown says:

    Last I read some people never got out of jail over recovered” memories of childhood sexual abuse. And more are still going in. and it has been proved over and over there was no way it could have happened like the story said in some cases. But abductees, unlike recovered childhood sexual abuse, are not programmed by outsiders. They come up with it on their own. But they do tap into a existing belief system. Oh, remember the flying saucers? The first report did not say they were saucers. It said something looked like it flew like skipping saucers. All the next ones said saucers. The next ones did not see what the first one reported.

    • Generally, full blown alien abduction memories (like recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse or Satanic ritual abuse) develop only through the intervention of a hypnotherapist specializing in “recovering” memories of that type. Clancy’s Harvard colleague John Mack (a leading proponent of alien abduction who led many patients to recover abduction memories under hypnosis) underlined the relationship between the specific hynotherapist and the type of memories recovered in one of the more striking admissions in the abduction literature (from C. D. B. Bryan interview with John Mack, Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind: Alien Abduction, UFOs, and the conference at MIT, 1995, p. 270-271):

      “And there’s another interesting dimension to this,” Mack continues, “which Budd Hopkins and Dave Jacobs and I argue about all the time, which is that I’m struck by the fact that there seems to be a kind of matching of the investigator with the experiencer. So what may be the archetypal structure of an abduction to Dave Jacobs may not be the uniform experience of, say, Joe Nyman or John Mack or someone else. And the experiencers seem to pick out the investigator who will fit their experience.”
      “Could you have that backwards?” I ask.
      “Yes,” Mack says amiably.

  2. tudza says:

    I found knowing about sleep paralysis before it happened to me to be very helpful.

  3. MadScientist says:

    I still find Carl Sagan’s thoughts on alien abductions to be very reasonable. There is no need for a hypnotherapist to encourage or even plant false memories; it is enough for the person to experience something strange and to attribute it to an alien abduction. The belief in the abduction (and other false memories) may be bolstered by interaction with people who encourage the wrong thinking, and people who dismiss the alien abductee may cause the person to withdraw from the company of nonbelievers and become more of a true believer. I wonder if Clancy was able to develop any schemes to help sort false memories from real ones. The problem of the reliability of memory continues to plague courts of law and any new tools would surely be helpful.

  4. Ryan says:

    I wonder if you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis. It’s pretty much the most horrifying and disturbing thing I’ve ever experienced. The dreams and sensationalism are incredibly real, but your higher reasoning is gone so you can’t even really process them mentally. I think if I hadn’t been aware of sleep paralysis before hand (thanks to a very fun 7th grade history teacher) I really wouldn’t have had any clue how to cope with it. Once you’ve been through it few times its incredibly easy to see how people can equate them to abduction, religious events, folkloric critters and the like. I mean I’ve seen the standard shadowy figures; lights; flying sensations etc, but also far more extreme things. Like a giant face pressing through my ceiling and demanding my soul whilst belching flames.

    Despite being familiar with the phenomenon (and actually sort of entertained by it), I wasn’t aware of this: Apparently my sleep disturbances (the sleep paralysis, general insomnia, Alice in Wonderland syndrome, exploding head syndrome, and a tendency toward migraines)could be indicative of serious sleep disorders or other health issues. According to a sleep researching acquaintance I really need to visit a sleep lab. So perhaps the very real connection to health could be a good approach.

  5. Trimegistus says:

    But doesn’t the person have to have some kind of “predisposition to believe” in abduction? I mean, if I had a sleep paralysis experience, there are a lot of things I’d consider before aliens.

    Moreover, I’m not sure that it’s any more comforting to think that inhuman creatures are experimenting on me than that, say, something’s the matter with my brain. Quite the reverse, in fact.

    So doesn’t this suggest that there is at least some level of “wanting” (even if not at the conscious level) the alien explanation to be true?

    • Jason Loxton says:

      There do indeed seem to be some statistical differences between the psychology of skeptics and certain groups of believers, but Dan is addressing a more general point: you can’t accept an explanation that you don’t know about (regardless of your disposition). Over years of general outreach work to friends, nearly all of them university educated, the number I have met who had heard of sleep paralysis as a phenomenon can literally fit on one hand (and is exceeded by the number who have experienced it). The same is true of cold reading, etc., i.e., there *are* plausible alternatives to a paranormal explanation, but they require a knowledge of facts that many people lack.

    • badrescher says:

      But doesn’t the person have to have some kind of “predisposition to believe” in abduction?

      Not really. It’s comforting to have answers (and perhaps to have an object of blame for feeling helpless). We all have a predisposition to search for answers; it’s how our brains work. Regarding “wanting” to believe, how we disambiguate isn’t driven as much by what we wish for as it is by what we can make sense of. The more knowledge (e.g., what sleep paralysis is and that it is common) we have, the more we can make use of.

      The more we practice skepticism, the more skepticism becomes our default way of thinking (the less likely we are to accept any explanation without evidence), but it isn’t a very natural way of thinking for anyone. There are certainly genetic factors, but their contributions are likely very small in the long run.

  6. doctoratlantis says:

    I still remember how relieved I was when I learned about sleep paralysis. It accounted for the most disturbing aspects of my “haunting” experience. If you try to find out why there is an invisible entity sitting on your chest in the night even now you’re more likely to find stories of the succubus, incubus or old hag before you run into sleep paralysis.

    Imagine how many relatives you know who forward you useless urban legends via e-mail that they could have solved through a simple check. Now when those people have a “paranormal experience” where are they going to go to get answers? Obviously they don’t have the research chops to get to the bottom of things in the most casual of situations – and now they’ve got invisible creatures in their house!? It’s a tough row to hoe.

  7. tmac57 says:

    There are additional motivations to believing in the alien abduction or ghost visitation explanation. It gives that person an interesting story to tell,and implies such things as: There are super-intelligent beings who have the power to secretly investigate us at will,and who knows what other useful and powerful knowledge the possess (god like).Ghosts are a sign that we are able to survive in a conscious form after death,and can commune with the living (immortality).
    A sleep disturbance pales in comparison.

  8. d brown says:

    I think MadScientist has it.

  9. Pete says:

    Hell, it would help if more people were aware of how malleable the human memory is. I had a memory of an event that I later determined could not has possibly happened. Up to that point, I treated that memory as real. I would have sworn under oath that I had done those things. And yet once I questioned it, and realized that the memory conflicted with other, even more solid facts, I realized it was false – a dream, perhaps.

    • tmac57 says:

      Pete,are your SURE that’s the way it happened? ;)

    • WScott says:

      Same here, Pete. For most of my life when people asked me about my earliest childhood memory, I would talk about a trip to Disneyland when I was 2. The memory was absolutely crystal clear in my mind. It was just a few years ago that I figured out that – while the trip itself did take place – my memories of it were completely false, patched together from pictures in a childrens’ book and amplified by stories told by family members. Makes for a great story and teaching point, because there’s not a lot of disturbing emotional content.

  10. BillG says:

    Daniel, ever listen to “Coast to Coast”? Regarding not only aliens, if anyone needed some help in the critical thought process department! Confess to be skeptical or evidence based is perceived as a hostile haven for those who most need it.

  11. CountryGirl says:

    The false memory of alien abduction seems pretty tame and harmless when compared with the false memory of sexual abuse that sadly is not uncommon. many of these cases have been exposed in the past but generally not before serious costs in money and reputation to the accused. What is worse is there are many cases where the falsely accused was convicted and sentenced to jail. A far cry from a loony toons alien abduction false memory.

    • The false memory of alien abduction seems pretty tame and harmless when compared with the false memory of sexual abuse

      The possibility of wrongful conviction is one striking practical difference, but the difference in terms of emotional toll is less obvious given Clancy’s finding that the “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.” Also, note that recovered memories of alien abduction can, like other types of recovered memory, disrupt family relationships and leave the victim more isolated and dependent upon support groups and recovered memory therapists who may further deepen the victim’s convictions.

  12. Janet Camp says:

    I am so glad I stumbled upon Carl Sagan, Randi, Shermer, Ernst and Singh, et al, a long time ago. Too bad people don’t read more–more non fiction anyway (and self-help books don’t count).

    It also helps if you don’t “believe” in aliens to begin with. I never did. Even if they exist, why would they visit me? I don’t care about the “odds” that they “must be out there”. I’ll believe in aliens when they land or possibly when we receive clear radio signals from them–although I think SETI is a bit of a cryptozoological type of organization. I know many will disagree, but I think it’s just something they desperately “believe” in and are setting out to prove rather than simply investigating the universe and seeing what they find.

    I did have sleep paralysis before I read about it, but while it was scary, I never looked for an otherworldly explanation. I started reading about brain science instead–stuff like Oliver Sacks at first–and learned that there are all kinds of weird brain farts that can occur. But then, I’ve been pretty skeptical since I was about eight years old (age of reason?) and my Mom told me in all seriousness that men have one less rib than women–I looked at a skeleton in the encyclopedia and found out it wasn’t true. When I asked her if dinosaurs and people existed at the same time she said I asked too many questions. I quit asking and started reading, so maybe it was good my mother was a deluded fundamentalist.

    I read that awful book Chariots of The Gods but then went to college and studied Anthropology where I also got an excellent grounding in Darwin’s life as well as basic human biology and the history of science. Later I watched Cosmos and read Broca’s Brain by Sagan and later, the Demon Haunted World. These are all books I found at the library–why is it so sadly true that someone can count the number of people he knows who have heard of sleep paralysis on the fingers of one hand? I think I am an ordinary person of ordinary intelligence–but perhaps heightened curiosity.

  13. Retired Prof says:

    Years ago I read an account of supposed alien abduction in which the author claimed his car had been stopped by a “tractor beam.” As evidence he described small polished spots, perfectly circular, on the back of his car.

    A few days later, as I opened my trunk, I noticed three or four such spots on the back end of my car. The sight gave me an electric thrill of alarm even though I had no memory of being stopped by a tractor beam and abducted. After a moment’s thought I told myself there had to be some ordinary explanation and went about my business. Later I examined those spots closely and discovered that each one had a tiny rust spot at its exact center. Clinging to each rust spot was a thread from the rag I had used to wash the car. Those threads had polished the paint by whipping around in air turbulence.

    The emotion generated by seeing those spots soon after reading a hair-raising story that featured similar ones suggests one subconscious motivation for believing fantastic stories of alien abduction and spirit visitation. Human beings keep on doing scary things that give them intense thrills–whether the stimulus is fictional, as in horror films, physical, as in roller-coaster rides, or delusional, as in the cases discussed in this post.

  14. Bob Smoot says:

    I have an interesting (to me…) false memory. I was visiting London on 7/7/2005. One of the bombs went off a few blocks from where I was staying. I have some very vivid memories of that time, but in all of them the cars are driving on the right side of the street. That powerfully illustrates to me how unreliable memory is.

  15. Jeanette Bartha says:

    Accepting that we can’t do much for some people is a good start.

    I will begin to look at people’s experiences as a good explanation considering the information they are working with. That, for sure, helps me.

    Some people will hold on to erroneous belief systems no matter what. It’s brainwashing whether or not it is from inside your head or from the mouth of someone else. Rational thinking, for example, is void in repressed memory arguments & thinking that multiple personalities actually exist. Sometimes we just have to let it be.

  16. Lowell Anderson says:

    One of the clearest memories I possess was watching a segment of the News Hour on PBS when a cure for AIDS was announced. The following morning I approached several friends asking if they had heard the news. None of them had. Why wasn’t it one the front page of the paper? It took a good two weeks before I even began to consider that it must have been a dream. The memory to this day (about 10 years now) remains incredibly vivid. I have come to realize that the hyper reality of the dream is one way of recognizing that it never happened. Two others in this discussion mentioned something similar. AIDS has not been cured and no one but me heard the news. But if the topic of my dream were something that could not be disproved there would be no way I could be convinced it didn’t happen. The reports from people claiming alien abductions often describe the vividness of the experience. I have often wondered if the only difference between me and them was the ability to disprove the experience.

    • tom says:

      the memory you describe is a genuine, natural one, albeit of a dream. it’s not at all the same as a suggested, false memory implanted by a therapist. sorry.

  17. MikeG says:

    doctoratlantis’ comment resonates with me. The credulity of some people is often outrageous. While I do think education is part of combating stuff like this, I think there’s got to be some critical threshold of science education that prompts one to look to natural phenomenon over the supernatural. We all know of those who reject plausible natural explanations of things over outlandish supernatural fluff.

  18. G DOLAN says:

    Aliens- before delving into this depth of inquiry, is it not prudent to evaluate the probability that they do not exist, or that if they do, the likelihood of an encounter is infinitesimally small?
    Given the time-space vastness of the universe, plus the fact that SETI has detected nothing it is almost certain that any encounter is impossible; unless, of course the aliens in question are able to contravene the laws of physics and every other law of this universe. In which case we must consider them Gods.

  19. B Maxie says:

    I’m a mental health counselor and have treated many people who report sexual abuse. In the beginning, I believed them all and took what they said as “fact”. As time went on, I learned to tell the difference between sexual abuse as reality and sexual abuse as a false memory. The false memories reported by some clients, became more and more outrageous as they repeated their stories while the clients I believe truly were victims of sexual abuse, told of the same events happening to them, without further embellishment, throughout our therapy. Sadly, both the “reality” clients and the “false memories” clients, truly believed it occurred.

  20. Eric Berendt says:

    To state the very obvious, before I retract and soften my post, people who have been abducted by aliens are delusional. To retract a bit. In therapy about 30 years ago, I had a hallucination (an hallucination?) I saw my father open his casket and start climbing out. It blew my mind, and, I might add, cured me. Especially because I was still in the therapist’s office and the coffin my Dad was arising from only existed 19 years in the past. Yes, I was there in the office, but my father, never in danger of inhabiting any list of the greatest Dads ever, was getting out of his coffin to “get” me.
    The brain is an organ. Yes, as Schermer says, we want to believe. But, as skeptics, we must constantly show the “believers” how powerful an organ of deception lurks in their heads – unless of course, they decide to start using their brain to think, and to learn about our world and our place in it.