Alien abduction claims explained

Sleep paralysis, false memories involved

Harvard Gazette/September, 2005
By William J. Cromie

Many of the people who believe they have been abducted by aliens are bombarding Susan Clancy with hate e-mails and phone calls. The Harvard researcher, who has spent five years listening to the stories of some 50 abductees, has described her (and their) experiences in a new book to be published in October.

Clancy, 36, likes most of these people. "They are definitely not crazy," she says. But they do have "a tendency to fantasize and to hold unusual beliefs and ideas. They believe not only in alien abductions, but also in things like UFOs, ESP, astrology, tarot, channeling, auras, and crystal therapy. They also have in common a rash of disturbing experiences for which they are seeking an explanation. For them, alien abduction is the best fit."

As you might guess, the people behind all that hate mail and the phone calls don't buy that. They were there, she wasn't, they insist.

In her book, "Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens," to be published by the Harvard University Press, Clancy describes a typical reaction. "Can you believe the nerve of that girl (Clancy)," one abductee says. "She comes to me, like, 'Oh, I believe you've been abducted! Let me interview you to learn more.... Oh, what really happened [she says] is sleep paralysis.' Riiight! How the - - does she know? Did it happen to her? There was something in the room that night! I was spinning. I blacked out ... it was terrifying.... I wasn't sleeping. I was taken. I was violated, ripped apart - literally, figuratively, metaphorically, whatever you want to call it. Does she know what that's like?"

Paralyzing dreams

Abduction stories are strikingly similar. Victims wake up and find themselves paralyzed, unable to move or cry out for help. They see flashing lights and hear buzzing sounds. Electric sensations zing through their bodies, which may rise up in levitation. Aliens with wrap-around eyes, gray or green skin, lacking hair or noses, approach. The abductee's heart pounds violently. There's lots of probing in the alien ship. Instruments are inserted in their noses, navels, or other orifices. It's painful. Sometimes sexual intercourse occurs.

Then it's over, after seconds or minutes. The intruders vanish. Victims are back in their own beds and can move again.

Clancy, Richard McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard, and other researchers tie such horrifying happenings to sleep paralysis, a condition where the usual separation between sleep and wakefulness gets out of synchronization.

When you dream, you are paralyzed. It's a natural adaptation to prevent people from lashing out, jumping out of bed, walking into doors or windows, and otherwise injuring themselves. But it's possible to wake up while still paralyzed.

"We can find ourselves hallucinating sights, sounds, and bodily sensations," Clancy says. "They seem real but they're actually the product of our imagination." One researcher describes it as "dreaming with your eyes wide open."

Bizarre effects aside, sleep paralysis is as normal as hiccups. It's not a sign of mental illness. About 25 percent of people around the world have experienced it, and about 5 percent get the whole show of sight, sound, tactile hallucinations, and abduction.

Some of these people become completely absorbed by what happened and seek an explanation of it. That can lead them into a grab bag of different techniques well known to those with a rich fantasy life and a distaste for scientific explanations.

Such techniques include hypnosis, guided imagery, regression, and relaxation therapies. "These all work in roughly the same way," Clancy comments. "The therapist lulls the abductee into a suggestive state, in which normal reality constraints are relaxed, and then asks the person to vividly image things that might have happened." Or might not have happened.

Hypnosis, she says, "is a bad way to refresh your memories. Not only that, it renders you susceptible to creating memories of things that never happened, things that were suggested to you or that you just imagined. If you (or your therapist) have pre-existing beliefs or expectations, you're liable to recall experiences that fit with these beliefs, rather than events that actually happened."

False memories

Clancy knows all about false memories; they got her into studying abductees in the first place. When she arrived at Harvard to work on a Ph.D. in 1996, she was fascinated by the political, legal, and social impacts of people who suddenly recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Using standard laboratory tests, she found that women who reported recovering such memories were more likely to remember things that never happened than women who always remembered such abuse.

That result, however, does not prove whether or not the woman with recovered memories had actually been sexually abused. Clancy then got the idea that she could get a better scientific grip on false memories by studying people who recovered memories of events that could not, in her mind, have possibly happened, i.e., being abducted by aliens.

"Boy, was I naïve," she says in retrospect. "You can't disprove alien abductions. All you can do is show that evidence is insufficient to justify the belief, and try to understand why people have those beliefs."

On the way to doing this, she, McNally, and their colleagues made some tantalizing discoveries. Measurements of sweating, heart rate, and brain waves showed that those claiming to be abductees show the same symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome as combat veterans. The researchers did not, however, conclude that the abductees had experienced combat-type trauma. Rather, they believe, it is the emotional significance of a memory, whether it is true or not, that causes sweaty hands and rapid heartbeats.

Earlier this year, Clancy and McNally reported on another study that found those who recalled childhood sexual abuse or abduction by aliens experience higher rates of sleep paralysis than those who do not make such claims. Strikingly, the first group also scored high on underlying traits of fantasy proneness, paranormal interests and experiences, and inability to relate socially to others.

Add to this mixture a recurring interest in aliens expressed in books, in movies, and on television, as well as true discoveries of more than 150 planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy. Overwhelmed by this hurricane of sleep paralysis, false memories, and fantasy, some people seek explanations and succor in ghosts, reincarnations, and multiple personalities. Others find that alien abductions provide answers and peace of mind, says Clancy.

"It probably doesn't matter much to the abductees whether they are right or wrong," she comments. "They simply feel better because of what they believe."

Clancy is finished with space abduction studies. She now works in Central America, teaching, continuing research on trauma and memories, and writing a book on recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. You can bet that book will bring another high wave of hate mail.

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