A Strange Encounter: Explaining Alien Abduction Belief

Thank you to everybody for coming. So this is an overview of what I’m going to do. First of all I’m just going to set forward some preliminaries, a couple of things I’m going to assume without argument, then I’m going to give a brief overview of the kind of things that alien abductees say about their night time experiences, then I’ll give a bit more information about the kind of beliefs that they have. Then the serious stuff starts. I’ll ask how we’re going to explain why people have these strange beliefs.

I’ll suggest that we can explain it by appeal to some strange experiences they have and then I’ll ask whether that’s going to be enough. Actually it turns out it’s not going to be enough because some people have these experiences and don’t go on to develop the belief, so we need some other stuff involved in our explanation, and right at the end I’ll just gesture towards some other contributory factors which might be helping us explain why people have these beliefs.

OK, so just preliminaries to start. One note and two assumptions. The first is just a terminological note: so I’ll refer to subjects who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens as ‘abductees’. You’re an abductee if you believe you’ve been abducted, not if you’ve actually been abducted. So what ‘abductee’ is doing there is picking out what beliefs somebody has, not what has actually happened to them. So if you’ve actually been abducted you’re an abductee, but also if you believe you’ve been abducted, you’re an abductee. Related to that I’m going to assume that all beliefs in alien abduction are false. That’s to say that I’m going to assume that no human being has ever been abducted by aliens. I think that’s a safe assumption but I can go slightly weaker for people who don’t think that’s a safe assumption. So let’s say there are abductees proper, people who have really been abducted by aliens. Take that set of people, put them aside – I’m not interested in those people in this talk – I’m interested in those people who believe they’ve been abducted but they haven’t actually been abducted.

So if you want to leave open the possibility that some of these people have true beliefs, put those over there, I’m not interested in those people. I’m interested in this set of people who believe they’ve been abducted but they haven’t. OK, so focusing in on that set, my second assumption is that these guys aren’t lying. So they really believe their claims, they’re not trying to seek media attention or anything like that.

These people have not been abducted by aliens but they sincerely believe that they have. As I say, I’m not going to argue for those assumptions but you can ask me about them afterwards. OK, so a strange encounter. So in this section I just have a couple of abductee reports from a study by McNally and Clancy in 2005. So here’s the first one: ‘a female abductee was lying on her back. When she woke up from a sound sleep her body was completely paralysed and she experienced a sensation of levitating above her bed. Her heart was pounding, her breathing was shallow, she felt tense all over, she was terrified. She was able to open her eyes and when she did so, she saw three beings standing at the foot of her bed in the glowing light’. In the second report, ‘a male abductee awoke in the middle of the night seized with panic. He was entirely paralysed and felt electricity shooting throughout his body.

He felt his energy draining away from him. He could see several alien beings standing around his bed’. So now I want to talk about what these people come to believe when these experiences happen to them. So here are some common features of the alien abduction narrative. So typically what happens is that someone will have a night time experience like this, then they might seek out memory recovery sessions by hypnosis and then they get all these extra details about what happened to them. So common features, (this is from 1987), include being captured and examined by aliens, communicating with them often telepathically, seeing the spaceship, visiting other worlds, being communicated important information, and being returned to the point of abduction.

More recently, roughly the same kind of thing. These guys are doing the same thing to us. Common themes include being a participant in a hybrid breeding programme which can involve extraction of semen, sex with aliens, meeting hybrid offspring, and being subject to medical procedures on spaceships. So these are the typical things that are reported by abductees. So now I want to talk about two cases which are documented in John Mack’s book, Abduction. So he does the memory recovery sessions and he endorses the abduction explanation and these are from his point of view talking about these subjects who have had these experiences. So this is Scott’s story. So Scott’s room had no door, ‘and unexplained light was coming in from the direction of the adjacent clothes/washer dryer room. Scott’s breath was now coming in loud, short gasps as he spoke of “six” of “them” with “boxy” and “angular” heads that were “after me”.

Then he saw a “round-tipped rod” pushing towards him which Scott related to how he was anaesthetised. “They know I’m aware”, Scott said and “they put me under” so that “I couldn’t move”. At this point a “buzzing” in his right ear changed to a ringing sound and “I lost control of my body”. Then all Scott saw was a screen like a TV monitor that was “fritzing”. Memories of his life flashed before him as he felt himself struggling to protect his mind “So they couldn’t touch it”. After this he quite literally lost consciousness although he had been saying “as fast I could ‘I’ve got to remember, I’ve got to remember’.”’ And this is the case of Catherine which I’ve laid out as a transcript. So this happened to her she says when she was a young girl and she was kidnapped from a friend’s garden and when she was up on the spaceship, one of the ‘little men’ brought out a metal implement and this is what happened next, where ‘C’ is Catherine and ‘A’ is alien. So ‘what are you going to do with that?’, ‘I’m just going to make a little cut’, ‘why?’, ‘because we need a sample’. ‘No, no, you can’t cut me’, ‘we have to’, ‘no you don’t have to, that’s mean, you don’t have to do it to me’, ‘it’s for scientific research’.

‘Well why can’t you cut something else?’ and this is after the cut, ‘because we need to blood. We had to get the sample’, ‘but you didn’t tell me why’. So this is on the way back down to earth ‘I’m researching your planet’, ‘what’s wrong with my planet?’, ‘we’re trying to stop the damage’, ‘what damage?’, ‘the damage from pollution’. ‘I don’t know about that’ says this 8 year old girl, ‘you’ll learn’. And then we’re going down again ‘I’m getting closer to the ground, getting closer, getting closer’ and I’m on the ground and I want to run away but I can’t move and he says ‘we’ll be back for you’. OK, so that was the easy bit.

That was just describing what these people report on. What on earth is going on? How do we explain this, given my assumption at the beginning that all of these beliefs are false? OK, so it’s not really illuminating to just say ‘oh, these people are obviously crazy’, that’s not a very good explanation of what’s going on here. We can do better than that. So people who are interested in alien abduction belief, they like to talk about awareness during sleep paralysis, so I’ll say what that is now.

So this is described by Richard McNally as a hiccup in the architecture of rapid eye movement sleep which lasts anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. So during rapid eye movement sleep the sleeper is immobilised so motoric output is blocked. This is usually a really helpful mechanism because it stops us acting out our dreams and hurting sleeping partners. But sometimes things go really wrong and we can wake up before the paralysis has disappeared and we can become aware that we’re unable to move. And this can be accompanied, not surprisingly, by an increase in heart rate, difficulty breathing, and feelings of dread. But it’s actually quite common in the general population. Estimates vary on this but McNally and Clancy put it at 30% of the general population who have had an experience of sleep paralysis and three quarters of these people will hallucinate during the paralysis in one modality, which is just to say either visually or auditorally, whilst they’re paralysed. You can imagine how terrifying this is. Katherine Holden and Christopher French give a slightly different range, so they say it’s ‘somewhere between 25 and 40% of the population’ have had some experience of awareness during sleep paralysis. It’s not a disease or any other kind of medical condition, it’s terrifying but actually it’s harmless, it does not indicate ill-health or pathology.

OK, so that’s the first step. Then we can start talking about the hallucinations which can accompany this paralysis and these may be visual including ‘lights, animals, strange figures and demons, or auditory including heavy footsteps, humming or buzzing noises and sounds of heavy objects being moved’. So McNally and Clancy ask you to do this imaginative exercise. So ‘Imagine opening your eyes shortly before dawn, attempting to roll over in your bed and suddenly realising that you’re entirely paralysed. While lying helplessly on your back and unable to cry out for help you become aware of sinister figures lurking in your bedroom. As they move closer to your bed your heart begins to pound violently and you feel as if you’re suffocating. You hear buzzing sounds and feel electrical sensations shooting throughout your body. Within moments the visions vanish and you can move again. Terrified’—obviously—‘you wonder what has just happened’.

OK, so some people have this experience and they want to know what just happened to them. Now of course some people can just shrug it off as inexplicable or they might say ‘well, clearly I had too much to drink last night’ or maybe they actually know the explanation, maybe they spend their days thinking about hypnopompic hallucination and sleep paralysis. But for those people who don’t, they might be kind of freaked out and want an explanation of what just happened to them. So although ASP and hallucination is relatively common among the general population, knowledge of these states isn’t really. This doesn’t pop up on interview panels or on TV. So given that most people don’t know about this kind of stuff, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be able to explain their experience by appeal to these kind of explanations. So I’m willing to bet that before you guys came in here, at least some of you didn’t know about awareness during sleep paralysis and hypnopompic hallucination. If you don’t know about it, you’re not going to be able to explain your experience by appeal to it.

And though the experiences are common, they don’t indicate pathology. The general public just don’t know about this so they don’t go and say something like this, ‘oh, this is a dyssynchrony in the architecture of REM, it’ll pass’. They don’t do that. They freak out and they want to know what happened to them. OK, so this is McNally’s typical case of what happens to an abductee. They have this kind of night time experience, they wonder what happened to them, then they start reading about these experiences either online or in books. They see therapists who endorse the abduction explanation, therapists like John Mack, then they enter into memory recovery sessions via hypnosis and under hypnosis they start generating more details about the experience and what happened thereafter, including them being ‘whisked through walls up into the sky and into spaceships’, being ‘sexually probed by aliens’ and ‘involved in hybrid breeding experimentation’ before being ‘brought back down to the bedroom before the break of dawn’.

So now I want to ask whether experience is enough. So what I’ve said so far is that people have these beliefs that they’ve been abducted and all these terrible things have happened to them and we know that these kinds of experiences can be caused by awareness during sleep paralysis and accompanying hypnopompic hallucinations. So do we have a full explanation? Is that all we need to say in order to explain this? Obviously my answer’s going to be ‘no’ because I have two more sections. So does experience explain everything? It doesn’t. So in McNally and Clancy’s 2005 study, one of their twelve control subjects – so their subjects who were not abductees – reported having experienced sleep paralysis and just forgot about it. She wasn’t really worried about it, she just wrote it off as inexplicable. So they say of this, ‘not all individuals experiencing sleep paralysis will seek an explanation.

Some will simply shrug it off as weird and inexplicable occurrence’, some people will know the true cause. So having the experience isn’t going to be enough to get you all the way to alien abduction belief. And in a large scale study by J. Allan Cheyne and colleagues, they surveyed 870 university students and 22.5% of them had had this kind of experience, this sleep paralysis with hallucinations. Max Coltheart who’s a cognitive scientist working on delusion, he comments on this and he says look, I don’t know how many people think that they’ve been abducted by aliens, but I’m willing to bet that ‘it’s going to be lower than 22.5%’ and if we can take that 22.5% as representative of the general population, then it looks like we’ve got people who have the experience but don’t go on to have the weird belief. So there will ‘be many people who’ve experienced sleep paralysis with hallucinations yet do not have the alien abduction belief’.

So the experience can’t be doing all of the work. So it’s not enough. So this is Max Coltheart, if we accept that ‘the experience of sleep paralysis with hallucination is what prompts the idea of alien abduction in abductees, we still need to explain what it was that turned this idea into a permanent belief in these particular people when most people who have the experience do not adopt the belief’. This is from Susan Clancy, she’s my favourite person to read on this subject. She has a book called Abduction: Why People Believe they’ve been Abducted by Aliens, which I heartily recommend. This is a quote from her. She says look, ‘when there are so many available explanations for this kind of experience, from excess carbohydrates to parental neglect, from insufficient bikram yoga to too much Prozac, why pick alien abduction? What makes abductees unusual is not the strangeness of their experiences’, we’ve already seen that’s fairly common, ‘or their desire for an explanation, but the specific explanation they choose.

Why do some people come to believe that their sleep paralysis experiences are caused by extra-terrestrials?’ and then as a funny aside she says ‘it’s not actually a very good explanation for this reason: ‘Wouldn’t you think that these mentally and technologically superior beings would have something more interesting to do, something quite possibly beyond the imagining of the human brain than to hang around North America’ – where most abductees live – ‘kidnapping its more creative and intuitive inhabitants in order to do the same experiments over and over again?’ We always hear from people that they took their genetic material to produce hybrid babies. ‘Why are these genius aliens so dim? After 50 years of abducting us, why are they still taking the same bits and pieces? Don’t they have freezers?’. So here’s a reason for thinking actually it’s not a very good explanation of their experiences. OK, so just in the last part I’m just going to gesture to what other stuff might be going on which will get us from the experience to the alien abduction belief.

So, what you might be inclined to say is that OK, the experience isn’t enough in people who are kind of mentally well but if you get someone who’s a little bit mentally unstable, plug in the experience, that will do all the work. That’s going to be a really bad explanation because actually alien abductees are mentally well people. So there’s been no convincing evidence for higher rates of ‘serious psycho-pathology among abductees compared to the general population’.

And the typical abductee though, and this is what seems to be doing some of the work, there is a little bit of oddness about them. So they have a ‘long-standing interest in New Age practices and beliefs such as reincarnation, astral projection, mental telepathy, alternative healing practices, energy therapies and astrology’ and you might think that these beliefs make abductees ‘especially prone to endorse an alien encounter interpretation of their sleep paralysis episodes’. So if you’ve got someone who already believes in this kind of stuff, then you plug in the experience, that might be enough. And this is Clancy again.

She says look, it’s kind of consistent with what we already believe. We’ve already seen the alien abduction movies, we know the kind of thing that these guys get up to when they come to earth, so when we’re looking for an explanation of an experience, assuming we’re not well read in psychology so we don’t know the true explanation, we can only choose from those explanations which we’ve actually heard of. Most of us who don’t study this stuff, a ‘set of possible explanations is far from complete’. Most of us are ‘unaware of the prevalence of sleep paralysis, sexual dysfunction, anxiety disorders, perceptual aborations, chemical imbalances, memory lapses, and psychosomatic pain.

But, our set of possible explanations does include alien abduction’… ‘everyone knows about aliens and their modus operandi’, right? We all know that ‘they come at night, fill you with terror, kidnap you and erase your memories’. We’ve all seen the films, right? This kind of explanation is available to us. So it’s also consistent with the kind of thing that we believe already – some of us. So maybe we’ve got closer to a full explanation now. So we had this experience that I outlined at the beginning but I said that’s not going to get you all the way because some people have the experience without the belief.

OK, plug in this other stuff, so New Age beliefs and familiarity with the alien abduction narrative, which people in North America – which coincidentally is where most of the abductees live – have. These other contributory factors are present in the normal population, so they’re not sort of clinically significant, they don’t make you mentally unwell if you have these New Age beliefs and this familiarity with the abduction narrative. So maybe we can get closer to a full explanation of alien abduction belief by looking at the weird experiences people have, plus some oddities found in the non-abductee population. So I’ll just leave you with this final thought from Clancy. So she says ‘at other times and other places in the world, such night terrors have been interpreted as Satan, demons, witches, dragons, vampires, large dogs and angels and erect Gorgon’.

(I don’t know what that is.) ‘Today it’s extra-terrestrials, yet although it’s true that sleep paralysis and alien abduction experiences have a lot in common’, right, ‘there’s one important difference. Sleep paralysis is a fact; alien abduction isn’t. So, if you wake up in the middle of the night, levitating above your bed and sleeping like a chicken on a rotisserie, you should understand that the experience is roughly a billion times more likely to have been caused by something normal than by something paranormal’.

‘But be careful about telling this to an actual abductee. You’ll encounter only denial, anger, blank stares or condescending smiles’. Thanks. .

As found on Youtube

Go Top