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Alian Abductions Explained--Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer, scientific American, February 2005, p. 34.

In the wee hours of the morning on August 8, 1983, while I was traveling along a lonely rural highway approaching Haigler, Neb., a large craft with bright lights overtook me and forced me to the side of the road. Alien beings exited the craft and abducted me for 90 minutes, after which time I found myself back on the road with no memory of what transpired inside the ship. I can prove that this happened because I re­counted it to a film crew shortly afterward.


When alien abductees recount to me their stories, I do not deny that they had a real experience. But thanks to recent re­search by Harvard University psychologists Richard J. Mc-Nally and Susan A. Clancy, we now know that some fantasies are indistinguishable from reality, and they can be just as traumatic. In a 2004 paper in Psychological Science entitled "Psychophysiolcgical Responding during Script-Driven Imagery in People Reporting Abduction by Space Aliens," McNally, Clancy and their colleagues report the results of a study of claimed abductees. The researchers measured heart rate, skin conductance and electromyographic responses in a muscle that lifted the eyebrow—called the left lateral (outer) frontalis—of the study participants as they re­lived their experiences through script-driven imagery. "Rela­tive to control participants," the authors concluded, "abduct­ees exhibited greater psychophysiological reactivity to abduc­tion and stressful scripts than to positive and neutral scripts." In fact, the abductees' responses were comparable to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients who had lis­tened to scripts of their actual traumatic experiences.


The abduction study was initiated as a control in a larger investigation of memories of sexual abuse. In his book Re­membering Trauma (Harvard University Press, 2003), Mc­Nally tracks the history of the recovered memory movement of the 1990s, in which some people, while attempting to re­cover lost memories of childhood sexual molestation (usually through hypnosis and guided imagery), instead created false memories of abuse that never happened. "The fact that people who believe they have been abducted by space aliens respond like PTSD patients to audiotaped scripts describing their alleged abductions," McNally explains, "underscores the pow­er of belief to drive a physiology consistent with actual trau­matic experience." The vividness of a traumatic memory can­not be taken as evidence of its authenticity.


The most likely explanation for alien abductions is sleep paralysis and hypnopompic (on awakening) hallucinations. Temporary paralysis is often accompanied by visual and audi­tory hallucinations and sexual fantasies, all of which are in­terpreted within the context of pop culture's fascination with UFOs and aliens. McNally found that abductees "were much more prone to exhibit false recall and false recognition in the lab than were control subjects," and they scored significantly high­er than normal on a questionnaire measur­ing "absorption," a trait related to fantasy proneness that also predicts false recall[i].


My abduction experience was triggered by sleep deprivation and physical exhaus­tion. I had just ridden a bicycle 83 straight hours and 1,259 miles in the opening days of the 3,100-mile nonstop transcon­tinental Race Across America. I was sleepily weaving down the road when my support motor home flashed its high beams and pulled alongside, and my crew entreated me to take a sleep break. At that moment a distant memory of the 1960s televi­sion series The Invaders was inculcated into my waking dream. In the series, alien beings were taking over the earth by repli­cating actual people but, inexplicably, retained a stiff little finger. Suddenly the members of my support team were trans­mogrified into aliens. I stared intensely at their fingers and grilled them on both technical and personal matters.


After my 90-minute sleep break, the experience represented nothing more than a bizarre hallucination, which I recounted to ABC's Wide World of Sports television crew filming the race. But at the time the experience was real, and that's the point. The human capacity for self-delusion is boundless, and the effects of belief are overpowering. Thanks to science we have learned to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.


Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic ( and author of  The Science of Good and Evil.


[i]   Just because a group of people who tell a fantastic story exhibit a proclivity to tell other such stories through the tested traits of false recalls and absorption doesn’t entail that such people have a purely neurotransmitter foundation for these results.  I would speculate that for some of these people have purely environmental causes.  Some would, if placed in an environment which peer conditioning is strongly adversive to such verbal behavior, this behavior including silent whispers would diminish over time.  However, I also suspect that others in the group would have a neurotransmitter foundation.  I base these speculations on observations I have of those who have New Age beliefs and those who are extensively involved in church activities.   Some of such  groups are quite mentally sound, while others aren’t--jk


Some people are more prone to poorly distinguish between fantasy and fact in their verbalization of what they store in memory.  People who claim alien abductions—much like those who claim interactions with celestial being such as gods, Jesus, angels, and devils—they exhibit the inability to distinguish between fantasy and fact.  For some of them it is primarily the result of complex social conditioning (a peer group that reinforces such stories), for others of genetic predisposition.  Testing confirms this for alien abductees (see high-lighted section above)—jk



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