Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Explaining Those Vivid Memories of Martian Kidnappers

Susan Clancy
Susan Clancy

New York Times

     "Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens," by Susan Clancy. Harvard University Press, $22.95.

     People who have memories of being abducted by aliens become hardened skeptics, of a kind. They dismiss the procession of scientists who explain away the memories as illusions or fantasy. They scoff at talk about hypnosis or the unconscious processing of Hollywood scripts. And they hold their ground amid snickers from a public that thinks that they are daft or psychotic.

     They are neither, it turns out, and their experiences should be taken as seriously as any strongly held exotic beliefs, according to Susan Clancy, a Harvard psychologist who interviewed dozens of self-described abductees as part of a series of memory studies over the last several years.

     In her book "Abducted," due in October, Dr. Clancy, a psychologist at Harvard, manages to refute and defend these believers, and along the way provide a discussion of current research into memory, emotion and culture that renders abduction stories understandable, if not believable. Although it focuses on abduction memories, the book hints at a larger ambition, to explain the psychology of transformative experiences, whether supposed abductions, conversions or divine visitations.

     "Understanding why people believe weird things is important for anyone who wishes to know more about people - that is, humans in general," she writes.

     Dr. Clancy's accounting for abduction memories starts with an odd but not uncommon experience called sleep paralysis. While in light dream-rich REM sleep, people will in rare cases wake up for a few moments and find themselves unable to move. Psychologists estimate that about a fifth of people will have that experience at least once, during which some 5 percent will be bathed in terrifying sensations like buzzing, full-body electrical quivers, a feeling of levitation, at times accompanied by hallucinations of intruders.

     Some of them must have an explanation as exotic as the surreal nature of the experience itself. Although no one has studied this group systematically, Dr. Clancy suggests based on her interviews, that they tend to be people who already have some interest in the paranormal, mystical arts and the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors. Often enough, their search for meaning lands them in the care of a therapist who uses hypnotism to elicit more details of their dreamlike experiences.

     Hypnotism is a state of deep relaxation, when people become highly prone to suggestion, psychologists find. When encouraged under hypnosis to imagine a vivid but entirely concocted incident - like being awakened by loud noises - people are more likely later to claim the scene as a real experience, studies find.

     Where, exactly, do the green figures with the wraparound eyes come from? From the deep well of pop culture, Dr. Clancy argues, based on a review of the history of U.F.O. sightings, popular movies and television programs on aliens. The first "abduction" in the United States was dramatized in 1953, in the movie "Invaders From Mars," she writes, and a rash of abduction reports followed this and other works on aliens, including the television series "The Outer Limits."

     One such report, by a couple from New Hampshire, Betty and Barney Hill, followed by days a particularly evocative episode of the show in 1961. Mr. Hill's description of the aliens - with big heads and shiny wraparound eyes - was featured in a best-selling book about the experience, and inspired the alien forms in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in 1977, according to Dr. Clancy.

     Thus does life imitate art, and vice versa, in a narrative hall of mirrors in which scenes and even dialogues are recycled. Although they are distinct in details, abduction narratives are extremely similar in broad outline and often include experimentation with a sexual or procreative subtext. "Oh! And he's opening my shirt, and - he's going to put that thing in my navel," says one 1970's narrative, referring to a needle.

     "I can feel them moving that thing around in my stomach, in my body," the narrative, excerpted in the book, continues. The passage echoes other abduction accounts, past and future.

     In a laboratory study in 2002, Dr. Clancy and another Harvard psychologist, Richard McNally, gave self-described abductees a standardized word-association test intended to measure proneness to false-memory creation. The participants studied lists of words that were related to one another - "sugar," "candy," "sour," "bitter" - and to another word that was not on the list, in this case, "sweet."

     When asked to recall the word lists, those with abduction memories were more likely than a group of peers who had no such memories to falsely recall the unlisted word. The findings suggest a susceptibility to what are called source errors, misattributing sources of remembered information by, say, confusing a scene from a barely remembered movie with a dream.

     In another experiment, the researchers found that recalling abduction memories prompted physiological changes in blood pressure and sweat-gland activity that were higher than those seen in post-traumatic stress syndrome. The memories produced intense emotional trauma, and each time that occurs it deepens the certainty that something profound really did happen.

     Although no one of those elements - sleep paralysis, interest in the paranormal, hypnotherapy, memory tricks or emotional investment - is necessary or sufficient to create abduction memories, they tend to cluster together in self-described abductees, Dr. Clancy finds. "In the past, researchers have tended to concentrate on one or another" factor, she said in an interview. "I'm saying they all play a role."

     Yet abduction narratives often have another, less explicit, dimension that Dr. Clancy suspects may be central to their power. Consider this comment, from a study participant whom Dr. Clancy calls Jan, a middle-age divorcĂ©e engaged in a quest for personal understanding: "You know, they do walk among us on earth. They have to transform first into a physical body, which is very painful for them. But they do it out of love. They are here to tell us that we're all interconnected in some way. Everything is."

     At a basic level, Dr. Clancy concludes, alien abduction stories give people meaning, a way to comprehend the many odd and dispiriting things that buffet any life, as well as a deep sense that they are not alone in the universe. In this sense, abduction memories are like transcendent religious visions, scary and yet somehow comforting and, at some personal psychological level, true.

     Dr. Clancy said she regretted not having asked the abductees she interviewed about religious beliefs, which were not a part of her original research. The reader may regret that, too.

     The warmth, awe and emotion of abduction stories and of those who tell them betray strong spiritual currents that will be familiar to millions of people whose internal lives are animated by religious imagery.

     When it comes to sounding the depths of alien stories, a scientific inquiry like this one may have to end with an inquiry into religion.

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