Last night, my partner and I were watching a rerun of the X-Files. It was great, Mulder and Scully being curious and sceptical, hints of conspiracy, images of alien abduction and some great dry humour. But it got me thinking – what does my discipline make of belief in alien abduction? And what does it study tell us about the wider context of psychological science?
Self reports of alien abduction often involve being powerless, feeling one is flying, losing time and being taken away, and memories of intrusive medical interventions- the latter often of a sexual nature. These are often accompanied by ‘lost memories’ or ‘missing time’. Interestingly, these archetypal events are reported as typical features of abductions by people who don’t claim to have been abducted themselves. But what makes the belief so strong in those that claim to have experienced it? Much research suggests that these perceptions may well be a result of a common (and more down to earth) experience of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is something I have experienced only once, and will be happy to avoid experiencing again. You awake, semi-conscious, aware but dreamlike (initially). You cannot move your body, and feel like you cannot breath. Although this state is very short lived, it feels like an eternity and is very disorientating and, frankly, terrifying. For many, dreams you were experiencing immediately before can leak into consciousness, presenting the visual hallucinations, for instance figures moving around or the perception of flight. People experiencing these events regularly (and understandably) search for meaning. For some, the events culturally shared as an ‘abduction experience’ explains this scary, confusing event well
So called ‘recovered memories’ compound this situation – indeed working with psychotherapists or ‘regression’ hypnotherapists is often the first time that ‘clear’ visions of these events emerge. Work by researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus shows that our memories are fickle things, and the implantation of false memories (of trivial things such as eating broccoli, to serious issues such as memories of childhood abuse) can be implanted in stable and intelligent individuals, through a variety of methods including hypnothreapy. Individuals confused and seeking an explanation can be more susceptible to such effects. Indeed, people who report being abducted may also be more susceptible to experimental introduction of other false memories. Once these memories are there, our desire to stay consistent with ourselves (an expression of ’cognitive dissonance’) makes such beliefs very hard to shift.
What about such beliefs where no therapy or similar intervention is also present? Or no sleep paralysis has occurred? Other theorists suggest it may be simpler than that – an alien abduction belief may reflect more a desire to escape – from the mundane, but more importantly also from the pressing demands of esteem and control. Reliving such experiences cognitively may provide this escape, at least for a short while. This perspective suggests that realistic fantasies of abduction allow one to drop the demands of positive self-evaluation, success and autonomy. Other explanations draw on psychological screening of early sexual abuse, severe mental health problems, or simply an individuals particularly high tendency to live in fantasy. Of course, more base motivates such as deliberate fabrication for sympathy, attention or reward have also been implicated by some.
Whatever the full explanation, it surprised me the number of articles which have been written, the number of opposing explanations, and the prestige of the places such work has been published. But it seems to be in the past. Interest in alien abductions in the popular imagination (and reports of alien abductions) peaked, I would guess, in the late fifties and then again around the late nineties. The research literature peaked a few years after this latter renaissance. Then it fades away. Indeed in the last few years nothing substantial was published at all on the psychology of alien abduction. For me, this highlights a strength in the science – a social phenomena emerged, and was studied and understood, and this probably made life better for some people (by helping prevent misguided interventions, and giving genuine ones more to work with). It also shows how psychology has phases and fads like any other – for a time several of the major players in social psychology (including the most highly cited psychologist alive today) published on this, now the area is almost totally neglected. However, it has left it trace – these papers still inform the areas of, for instance, false memories and sexual abuse. So, I guess the lesson is that science addresses the specific problems society faces, and in doing so moves our general understanding forward. As it does so, I will continue to enjoy watching Mulder persuade Scully to believe.