Popular Delusions VII: Alien Abduction

Back in August, in “Some Thoughts on Fermi’s Paradox“, I proposed some explanations for why there’s no evidence of intelligent alien species. But I left out what seems like the most obvious explanation of all: they do exist, and they’re already here.

This may well be the most popular answer. To judge by polls like this one from 2002, almost half of American adults believe that intelligent aliens have visited the Earth. (Ironically, The Onion actually gets this percentage right in its deadpan take.) And it’s not just visiting Earth, either: the same poll shows that 20% of Americans – which is on the order of 60 million people – believe that some human beings have been abducted by aliens or have otherwise physically interacted with them. Even some fringe Christian groups believe in this, although they tend to believe that aliens are demonically aligned, if not demons themselves.

I’ve written previously about sleep paralysis, which figures into many claims of hauntings and is probably at the root of most alien abduction claims as well. The common symptoms of sleep paralysis – inability to move, strong sensation of a menacing presence, mild hallucination – are perfect parallels to the usual elements of an abduction story.

To complete the tale, many alien abduction claimants undergo hypnosis to “remember” their experience. In reality, hypnosis makes a person highly suggestible and prone to confabulate. When primed with leading questions by the therapist, a subject under hypnosis is very likely to invent details which they later believe to be real memories. In fact, some studies have shown that abduction claimants are more likely than the general populace to concoct false memories. In this way, alien abduction becomes a self-sustaining phenomenon, as the stories and images in popular culture seed the abduction reports of the next generation of true believers.

What I’ve always wondered is, if aliens are really visiting Earth and abducting us, why is it so easy for people to find out about it? To judge by the accounts of abductees, it is extremely easy to recover the details of their experience under ordinary hypnotic regression. I would imagine that a race advanced enough for interstellar travel would either not care about concealing themselves, or would be able to hide their presence so effectively that we would be completely unable to detect them.

Even today we have drugs, such as scopolamine, that can block the formation of memories (it’s often used by date rapists and other criminals, and in the past was given to mothers in labor), and as an added bonus, makes recipients highly cooperative and suggestible. Hypnosis is ineffective at helping a person recall what they did under the influence of this drug, because the memories are never stored in the first place. Wouldn’t highly advanced aliens have something at least as effective as this?

And for that matter, why would they need to keep abducting us? Couldn’t a species so advanced just abduct one human and then reverse-engineer our genome to run whatever experiments they wanted? And couldn’t they come up with implants and sensors that could be read out remotely and wouldn’t need repeated visits? (Don’t aliens have Wi-Fi?)

Ultimately, alien abduction has simply become another modern-day religion, with advanced extraterrestrials taking the place of gods, angels and devils. Like latter-day prophets, some of them come to warn us of planetary catastrophe or guide us toward salvation. Others, like demons, come to torment and terrify us. Some true believers have created elaborate Manichean cosmologies where some aliens are good and others are evil. And, like all religions, these convoluted and fantastic claims are always advanced without a scrap of real evidence.

Other posts in this series:

SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
Repost: The Age of Wonder
Rosetta’s Comet Rendezvous
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://saliental.blogspot.com/ salient

    You are criticizing people who hold ridiculous beliefs based on irrational myths and you have swallowed one hook line and sinker.

    Whoever you are, you are not an experience psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. False memories are utterly different in secondary manifestations, content, and in the area of the brain that are active compared to recovery of repressed traumatic memories. (Repressed traumatic memories, and not false memories, are often associated with the psychogenic symptoms noted in supposed “alien abduction” experiences. It’s easier for children to imagine that the original attacker was an alien or a monster rather than a loved one.)

    The whole nonsense called False Memory Syndrome was concocted by a psychology researcher cum lawyer who may well have emotional issues of her own. The False Memory Mythology has been usurped and distorted by defense lawyers who are interested in winning cases and not in ascertaining truth.

    If you had read any of the experimental work on false memories, then you’d be aware that the studies involve experimental situations like showing subjects photos of car wrecks with a body lying on the ground in front of the car, and then asking subjects whether they noticed either “A broken headlight” or “THE broken headlight”. It doesn’t take a trained psychiatrist to realize that more study subjects claim to have remembered “THE broken headlight”. Obviously, if the experimenters had asked whether the subject remembered seeing “A body” or “THE body”, this would make little difference to accuracy of reporting! The only value of such research is to teach those who question anyone professionally (police, social workers, psychiatrists, etc) to avoid leading questions, particularly concerning the small details.

    If you knew anything about false memory studies, then you’d know that many experimental subjects are immune to implantation of memories. Some studies recruit parents to tell their child of an event, such as disliking soft-boiled eggs, that the child supposedly experienced but does not recall. Hypnosis is not used for this. Some imaginative kids are able to visualize the described event and to come to believe that it actually happened. It’s easy to understand how this can happen–when we read a novel, we visualize the characters, the places, and the events about which we read.

    Now, think about how different the experience of being beaten or sexually traumatized is in comparison to recalling broken headlights or imagining that you disliked soft-boiled eggs. Worlds apart. As a therapist who treats traumatized women, I can assure you that the therapeutic work involves letting the patient recover the memory without any leading questions. In fact, if I ever try to clarify a detail and get it wrong, my patients are utterly clear on which detail was accurate. When victims of childhood trauma recover a memory, they don’t just remember it the way you or I would consciously recall a faded ‘episodic’ memory of an event, they RELIVE it with all the intensity and sensations of the original event. It’s upsetting to witness, and there is no way on earth that a therapist could either implant such a memory or that they would wish to.

    Don’t take my word for all this any more than you’ve believed lawyers or psychologists-with-issues, look up a reputable site on childhood abuse, repressed memories, or dissociative identity disorder, and listen to those who help victims rather than perpetrators.

    I’m sorry that this is so long. I get utterly frustrated with the impact of denialist nonsense on my patients. Another tragic component of this prevailing denial is too frequent misdiagnosis and mistreatment by incompetent psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists.

  • Stephen

    While “Salient” may be correct that some work on False Memory Syndrome is rather unconvincing, he is putting the cart before the horse. The onus of responsibility is not on researchers to demonstrate that recovered memories are false. The onus is on the therapists who claim to be recovering memories from their patients to demonstrate that these memories are (a) genuine memories and (b) were genuinely forgotten. Furthermore they must demonstrate that this is systematically true, not an occasional lucky hit.

    People have been imprisoned as a result of false accusations generated under therapy. This is a genuine issue which needs to be addressed seriously, not casually dismissed as “denialist nonsense”.

    If he claims to be recovering memories on a regular basis, I would refer him to, for example, http://www.apa.org/topics/memories.html and suggest that he needs to be rather more self-critical.

    And if he claims that the “recovered memories” of alien abductions are genuine then he should be receiving therapy, not giving it.

  • Andrew A

    Salient, when trying to prove your point, anecdotal evidence is generally disregarded without some other evidence to back it up. Ebonmuse provided a study that supported his position, but you merely proclaimed that you are right, without providing a more objective source yourself.

    Regardless, these people provide memories of events that are highly unlikely to have occurred, based on the other points Ebonmuse mentioned. Even if False Memory Syndrome is as fake as you claim it to be, these people are describing fake memories. How can so many people be generating fake memories, if people don’t actually do this?

  • http://6thfloorblog.blogspot.com Ceetar

    you may recall that I took a UFO class in college. Although the professor was adamant about abductions being a separate thing. I never verified that this was true, but he said that almost all abduction stories are Americans. It seems other countries don’t get visited by ETs.

  • javaman

    Salient, could you please describe your professical/educational training and background in the field of pychology? The title of “therapist” is an unlicenced title, anybody can legally hang out a shingle in front of their house and counsel people who willing to pay out of pocket.

  • Alex Weaver

    While the citation seems to have been removed from the article where I originally saw mention of it, there is at least one case on record of a teenaged girl from whom memories were “recovered” of her having been sexually abused by her father, impregnated, and forced to abort the fetus herself. Due to belief in the efficacy of recovered memory therapy, the father was convicted and imprisoned in spite of medical evidence showing that the girl have absolutely never been pregnant. If this is not a “false memory” nothing is. What is your evidence that you are not recovering similarly false memories through your therapy techniques, Salient?

  • Valhar2000

    [...]there is no way on earth that a therapist could either implant such a memory or that they would wish to.

    Now that is just excessively naive. The therapist would wish to do so if they were a psycopath, for example. Also, if a therapist is true beleiver in something or toher, they may be so invested in helping people who supposedly have suffered whatever it is the therapist beleives that the therapist implants those memories without realizing it; or are you going to tell me that therapists are super-human?

    And, in anticipation to common retort, scientists are in constant danger of doign these very thigns, and often do, hence the insistence on physical evidence and double-blind tests and peer review.

  • andy

    LOL at salient thinking psychologists have any indication of how memory works. If he had read any of the latest neuroscience studies… blah blah blah…

    At any rate…

    I just started reading your blog recently, and I’m really enjoying it. Great stuff and usually very well communicated.

    Just one thing on this post: you say “Hypnosis is ineffective at helping a person recall what they did under the influence of [scopolamine].”

    I’ve just recently heard about scopolamine (watched a very intense documentary), and have not heard about any studies on how it (or similar drugs such as flunitrazepam (roofies)) affect hypnosis. Could you point me towards where you heard about this? Recent discoveries in neuroscience about how storage and recall actually work as well as an argument with my girlfriend have had me really curious about the topic.

  • Damien

    I am fortunate, in that I know a lot of folks who profess to be rational thinkers, and even a few open atheists. But many of these same people simultaneously profess belief in ghosts as the wandering souls of the dead, or UFOs as alien vehicles bearing Von-Daniken-type space gods.

    In several of his posts, Ebonmuse has mentioned that the number of professing atheists is up by X%, or that Y% of the public is becoming more skeptical of Christianity, and so on. Which is of course wonderful. Except that even if these changes are permanent (and so far I’m unconvinced), the old ways of irrational thinking are simply being replaced by new ways, like UFO cults and “Ghost Hunter” philosophy.

    It’s a bit discouraging, hacking away at a hydra.

  • DaVinci

    I think you’re already taking the matter way more seriously than it deserves when you go arguing over the best explanation: I’m thinking, the best explanation . . . of what? Once you start advancing alternative hypotheses (e.g., the sleep paralysis hypothesis), you’re already conceding that there’s something to be explained — and, in this case, that itself is an open question. (Aren’t these just unreliably transmitted legends?) Besides which, I can’t see that anything much turns on it. I’ll ask you this: Supposing there are aliens visiting earth, what’s supposed to follow from that? We can give them all those sightings, and still reject their dictates about how we’re supposed to live our lives: The former have no bearing on the latter, and the latter are (in any event) obnoxiously funny.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It seems to me that the most damning evidence against intelligent beings being behind UFO sightings is the fact that these SOBs are said to be smart enough to invent interstellar travel, but when they get here they go to [drum roll please] New Mexico.

    Oh yeah, they’re a buncha rocket scientists, alright.

  • KShep

    New Mexico? That’s SOOO 1947, you know.

    Today’s aliens prefer to land near Mississippi trailer parks. :^)

  • Becky

    I found this online and thought it very interesting. Also, back in the 50s and 60s there were literally hundreds of reported sightings of UFOs by the Russians. I am very skeptical of such things, but I do think Cooper make a few speeches later in life stating that all that is known about ‘encounters’ has not been made known. Who knows?

    Gordon Cooper: No Mercury UFO
    By Robert Scott Martin

    Staff Writer
    posted: 06:37 pm ET
    10 September 1999

    Pioneering astronaut Gordon Cooper denies being the first astronaut to see a UFO while in orbit, but stands by his reports of a strange encounter over Germany in the 1950s.

    Cooper flatly denied the long-standing claim, repeated over the years by various authors including UFOlogical saints Allen Hynek and Jacques Valley, that he saw a greenish object with a red tail move past his Mercury 9 spacecraft in 1963.

    “No, somebody made a lot of money selling … lies on that one,” Cooper, the sixth American in space, told Art Bell on the syndicated “Coast to Coast” talk radio show Thursday night. “It was totally untrue, sorry to say.”

    However, the retired air force colonel, who once lectured the United Nations on the reality of UFOs, still holds an “unshakable” belief in extraterrestrial intelligence, thanks largely to personal experience.

    “On one occasion, I saw some strange vehicles that we assumed were UFOs,” he told Bell.

    In the encounter, which took place over Germany in the early 1950s, Cooper saw “flights of fighters flying by in the same sort of formation we flew, moving east to west.” The U.S. Air Force base scrambled its own pilots, including Cooper, who remembers the objects as looking “just like saucers — they were metallic looking, but we couldn’t really get close enough to see more than that. You couldn’t see any wings on them.”

    At the time, Cooper entertained the possibility that the craft might be a new Soviet design, but “looking back now,” he suspects “it was some kind of extraterrestrial vehicle.”

    He also stood by his belief that he saw a UFO land at Edwards Air Force Base in California in 1957. Although Cooper had been filming the base with a camera crew at the time, the film, which he handed over to a high-ranking officer from Washington, has never emerged.

    Area 51 and the lost Gemini photographs

    After another round of filming — this time in orbit aboard Gemini 5 — Cooper ran into trouble with the authorities when they confiscated film he took from space. However, in contrast to UFO legend, this film did not contain photographic proof of an alien encounter.

    Instead, he had ran afoul of the authorities for taking pictures of the “top secret” Nevada military base known familiarly as “Area 51″.

    “I found out fairly recently that one of the reasons it got confiscated was I had inadvertently … overflown Area 51,” while taking test photos, he said.

    Cooper had no comment on the Great Face on Mars.

    “That’s one of the reasons you need to send a manned mission to Mars, to study that stuff closer,” he told Bell, gently criticizing today’s NASA and recent presidential administrations for lacking the “bravery” to build on previous generations’ space advances.

  • http://saliental.blogspot.com/ salient

    For all those of you who are enquiring about credentials: I am a psychiatrist and have treated DID (etc) for 20 years. Earlier, I worked in research in neurophysiology and neuropharmacology.

    Stephen, all of your “ifs” are inappropriate.

    You said, “The onus of responsibility is not on researchers to demonstrate that recovered memories are false.” No. The burden of proof lies with the claimant, in this case with the claims of ‘false memory’ implantation.

    Technically, of course, it is difficult to ‘prove’ a human event that occurred many years previously and selectively occurred only in the absence of uninvolved adult witnesses. However, many of the memories that my patients recall are corroborated — hospital records of mothers beaten into comas, for example. You’ll have to take my word for it.

    Alien abductions are interpretive distortions of such human-perpetrated events. Only a kook therapist would believe that alien abductions had a basis in fact, though I dare say that some kooks have become unlicensed therapists, even psychiatrists.

    Our nearest star is 4 1/2 light years away, and there is *no* evidence that any close planetary system could support life, so aliens would have to travel many more than 5 yrs at the speed of light just to make a visit for the purpose of highly selective abductions of a few kids. Unless you insist on conjecturing a wormhole highway in the sky. So, as to those, often emotionally damaged individuals, who believe that there are aliens among us, the less said the better. It’s quite extraordinary what ridiculous things people love to believe in the absence of any confirmatory evidence.

    Back to the topic. The research findings that I have described for FMS have been misapplied. The FM Foundation, which was founded by the accused, has politicized those findings in an attempt to discredit witnesses, and they have succeeded in fooling those who are not in a position to assess the clinical material. (Just as the RC Church protected its own reputation by hiding the activities of its priests, or do you think that those recollections were implanted by anti-RC therapists?)

    The result of all this politicized information is that the uninformed tend to be deluded into a blame the therapist, disbelieve the victim, and protect the perpetrator position. The tragedy is that some unskilled therapists have also been scared into not treating victims, compounding the damage and the travesty.

    As one of you said, anecdotal examples can be misleading, and some of you have provided anecdotal examples without links, and no links or references to impressive, contradictory information. As to the claim that a young woman had not been pregnant, did they extract both her ovaries and examine them histologically? I’d bet not. The hormones that are elevated with pregnancies fall very rapidly post-termination.

    I said that memories of abuse cannot be implanted, and I stand by that on the basis of experience with the emotional associations to be expected with genuine traumatic experiences, both recent and distant. False information, such as belief in the ‘innocence’ of perpetrators and ‘guilt’ of therapists can be implanted in those who have not had experience in the field. The ‘memories’ investigated by Loftus and others are of the latter, unemotional, untraumatic kind.

    Yes, innocent people are occasionally convicted of crimes both recent and long past. This is always regrettable, but one false conviction does not overturn even one accurate conviction, let alone the hundreds of appropriate convictions and false acquittals. I’m saying that each case should be judged on its merits. As a matter of fact, I am immensely more concerned with therapy for victims than with determining guilt or advocating punishment of perpetrators. Don’t be fooled that defence lawyers are concerned about determining truth.

    This is as much educating as I’m prepared to do. This is too much like a busman’s holiday. I prefer to focus my leisure on learning new fields, not revisiting work. If you are curious about the topic, there are a few good websites with general information, but highly specialized information is more difficult to find, and is difficult to assess without clinical experience.

  • Mark


    I think the case referred to above is the Ramona case, in which a girl “recovered” memories of years of ritualized sexual abuse, perpetrated by her father, and multiple abortions. The only problem was that her hymen was intact. Gary Ramona sued his daughter’s therapist and won.

    In any case, thank you for “educating” us.

  • http://www.abicana.com Knut Holt

    Whatever the truth is, the goverment is utterly afraid of people investigating into alien abduction matters and other strange matters like UFO crashes when these investigations are done intelligent and serious.

    So something is surely going on, but it might be activities performed by govermental agencies or military units that they want to keep secret, whatever it costs, and not activities performed by aliens.

  • lpetrich

    Knut Holt, do you have any evidence of that? This seems like yet another UFO-enthusiast conspiracy theory.