Alien abduction

Published in New Scientist, 19 November 1994, 29-31

(this is the version submitted and may differ slightly from the final published text)

Thousands of Americans believe they have had a close encounter of the alien kind.
Susan Blackmore wonders what on Earth is going on …

The outer door slammed firmly shut, and a deathly hush descended on the tiny red-lit, sound-proofed room in which I half lay, half sat, in a kind of dentist’s reclining chair. Half an hour alone in here might have seemed a pleasantly restful prospect – except for the converted motorcycle helmet on my head. Embedded in either side of it, just above my ears, were sets of solenoids about to deliver a pulsed magnetic field designed to mimic the firing patterns of the temporal lobes of my brain.

I was in the laboratory of Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. Persinger has long claimed that mystical experiences, out-of-body excursions and all sorts of psychic occurrences, are associated with excessive firing in the temporal lobes. The evidence is suggestive, but has always been essentially correlational. People with more unstable temporal lobes have more psychic experiences. Temporal lobe epileptics sometimes report deja-vu or hallucinations just before seizures. Temporal lobe activity is implicated in the effects of anoxia in near-death experiences. But there are many possible reasons for such correlations apart from cause and effect. What has been missing is a direct demonstration that specific experiences can be created by specific firing in this part of the brain.

The reason I was willing, indeed keen, to let myself in for this experiment was that I was trying to understand the origin of the latest craze in crazy experience – abduction by aliens.

Although the details vary – some people are taken from their cars or in the street, for example, and not all see children or babies – the stories are more remarkable for their consistency than their differences. A typical report may go something like this.

I woke up in the middle of the night and everything looked odd, and strangely lit. At the end of my bed was a four-foot high grey alien. Its spindly, thin body supported a huge head with two enormous, slanted, liquid black eyes. It compelled me, telepathically, to follow and led me into a spaceship, along curved corridors to an examination room full of tables, on which other people lay. I was forced to lie down while they painfully examined me, extracted ova (or sperm) and implanted something in my nose. I could see jars containing half-human, half-alien foetuses and a nursery full of silent, sickly children. When I eventually found myself back in bed, several hours had gone by.

Some recall their experiences in full detail, but for many abductees the “memories” emerge only when they take themselves to a therapist for hypnotic regression.

This leads to the idea that there may be many unwitting abductees. Indeed a recent, highly publicised, Roper poll claimed that nearly four million Americans may be abductees. The poll itself is a nightmare of assumptions and logical leaps. The four million is extrapolated from the fact that two per cent of the respondents reported certain experiences. Yet they did not report abductions; they simply answered “yes” to a number of questions about sleep paralysis, sensations of flying or leaving the body, seeing unusual lights and finding puzzling scars on their body. This does not add up to having been abducted.

Cheap jokes are easy to make. Why do the aliens always pick Americans first? How come they are clever enough to teleport through walls, and to read and erase our memories – but all we have to do to defeat them is a little hypnosis? And if they really put implants in people’s noses how come these always seem to be sneezed out and don’t show up on the X-ray.

Another common response is to dismiss abductions accounts as delusions of the mentally ill. This is easy to counter; personality studies of abductees have shown that they are of at least average intelligence, from a wide range of social situations, and show no particular signs of mental disturbance or pathology.

It is still easy to dismiss the whole thing as ridiculous, but I think this would be missing a real opportunity to learn something about the mind.

The fundamental question for neuroscience is the precise relationship between subjective experience and neural firing. A flash of light produces an evoked potential in visual cortex; activity increases in the left hemisphere when using verbal skills. It is far less obvious how complex subjective states arise from brain activity – yet surely it is an assumption of neuroscience that they do. If we could understand the neural basis of something as bizarre as an abduction experience we might learn a lot about both mind and brain.

The abduction experience is unfortunately complicated by the fact that some – though not all – abductees only “recall” their experiences under hypnosis. This naturally raises accusations of FMS – or False Memory Syndrome – that the hypnotists themselves have implanted the ideas and created “memories” for things that never happened. The comparison is made with “recovered memories” of child abuse in which therapists hypnotically regress clients and convince them of the reality of terrible childhood traumas.

There is much hype and misunderstanding around the concept of false memory. False memory is not something completely different from “true memory”. Indeed to some extent you could say that all memories are false. There is no tape recorder in the brain. Rather, research shows that we use stored information to reconstruct plausible accounts of past events. When we retell those events it is easy to recall our own retelling more clearly than the original experience – even if we’ve exaggerated it a bit along the way. How, then, can we decide which memories were “real” and which imagined? There is no magic way to the right answer and some theorists think it just depends on how readily available an image is. If it is clear and detailed and easy to bring to mind it will be remembered as “real”.

When memory is seen this way the phenomena of false memory seem less bizarre. Take recent experiments by Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist from Seattle, Washington. She wanted to bring false memory research from the comparative sterility of laboratory events to genuine emotional ones. She invited people into her lab and chose to implant in them the “memory” of being lost in a shopping mall as a young child. The subjects had never actually been lost this way (as far as anyone knew) but their relatives took part by “reminding” them of the event. Afterwards the unsuspecting subjects “remembered” the events clearly and, even when Loftus tried to debrief them, some remained convinced that it had actually happened.

This should not unduly surprise us. Do we really remember that time on the beach when we were six or did we just invent it from the photo in the family album? We shall never know, and we are at liberty to convince ourselves that our memories are accurate – until we see laboratory demonstrations like this when we know for sure that they are not.

What does this tell us about alien abductions? First, we must not be diverted by the red herring of hypnosis. Not all abductees are hypnotised and “false memories” can be created without hypnosis. In any case there is nothing magic about hypnosis itself. Its power probably lies in the way subjects are relaxed and encouraged to use their powers of imagery and fantasy. If you are asked to “go back” to the night of your “missing time” and talk about what happened, and if you come up with a fantasy of an abduction, then you may well recall it as though it is real. But so will you recall a similar fantasy invented in the quietness of your own bed or in late-night story-telling with your friends. So, whether hypnosis is involved or not, false memory may well be a factor.

However, false memories cannot be the whole story. In general we are quite good at distinguishing fantasy from reality, in spite of the blurred edges, and we do not invent false recollections entirely out of the blue. My suspicion is that, even if false memory plays a role, there would have to be some kind of core event for the fantasies to build around. But what?

One suggestion is sleep paralysis. During normal REM sleep, when the majority of dreams occur, the skeletal muscles are paralysed. This is presumably so that we do not act out our dreams, as animals have been shown to do when the brain centres controlling sleep are suppressed. Normally we are unaware of this, but occasionally we can become mentally alert while the paralysis persists. Waking up this way can be extremely unpleasant, especially if you don’t know what is happening. Yet it is quite common; surveys show that about 20 per cent of people have experienced sleep paralysis at some time or another. Some people learn ways out of it, such as wiggling one toe, or just lying back and waiting for it to pass. Trying to move – and failing – makes it worse and often provokes the sense that there is someone or something trying to squash, strangle or suffocate you. Sexual arousal during dreams is common and may add a particularly powerful edge to the experience.

Some cultures have built elaborate myths around sleep paralysis. The incubus and succubus come to have sex with their unwilling victims in the dead of night, and during the Middle Ages many a virgin or nun was reputedly visited by the evil incubi who came to tempt them. In Newfoundland the Old Hag comes and presses on sleepers’ chests, suffocating them and preventing them from moving. And the hill people of Laos and Vietnam talk of a Grey Ghost who paralyses victims in the dark.

Alien abductions may just be a modern equivalent of a sleep paralysis myth. It makes sense that in late 20th century Western culture the space ship and the alien would form its basis. But why the odd lights and other consistent features?

Eerie lighting is common in another kind of sleep disturbance – the false awakening, in which you dream you have woken up. Although you are convinced you are awake, things don’t look quite right and familiar objects can seem lit from within. In this state anything is possible because you are still dreaming, but the apparent familiarity of the environment means that the experiences are more likely to be interpreted as real. This is one variety of what Oxford psychologist Celia Green refers to as a “metachoric experience” – one in which the perceived world is replaced by an imagined replica.

The association of sleep disturbances with abductions is lent some support by the research of the late Nicholas Spanos and his colleagues, at Carleton University in Ottawa. They compared groups of people who had had intense UFO experiences, such as abduction, with those having less intense experiences and found that the former were more often sleep-related.

Sleep phenomena may be part of the answer but what about the sense of being taken bodily away, of flying or floating and going on a journey? I was still looking for explanations for these and this is why I came to Persinger’s laboratory.

Persinger’s theory is that abduction-like experiences are caused by complex patterns of activity in the temporal lobes. People vary in how stable their temporal lobes are and he argues that those with the most unstable activity may have the experiences spontaneously.

In addition magnetic effects from earthquakes could set off the necessary firing. To test this he looked for, and found, a strong correlation between the dates of seismic events and claims of UFO sightings, abductions and other strange phenomena from past centuries. Interestingly the recent claims that earthquakes and thunderstorms can create visible lights might provide the link between UFOs and abduction experiences.

Those who believe in the literal reality of abductions have tried to counter this theory by showing that abductees do not score higher on measures of temporal lobe lability and arguments have raged over whether the samples were adequate or the experiences really abductions. But such arguments would lose their importance in the face of direct simulations of the experiences.

For the first ten minutes or so nothing seemed to happen .To tell the truth I felt rather daft. Instructed to describe aloud anything that happened I did not know what to say and felt under pressure to say something – anything. Then suddenly all my doubts were gone. “I’m swaying. It’s like being on a hammock.” Then it felt for all the world as though two hands had grabbed my shoulders and were bodily yanking me upright. I knew I was still lying in the reclining chair, but someone, or something, was pulling me up.

Something seemed to get hold of my leg and pull it, distort it, and drag it up the wall. I felt as though I had been stretched half way up to the ceiling.

Then came the emotions. Totally out of the blue, but intensely and vividly, I felt suddenly angry – not just mildly cross but that sort of determinedly clear-minded anger out of which you act – only there was nothing and no one to act on. After perhaps ten seconds it was gone but later was replaced by an equally sudden fit of fear. I was just suddenly terrified – of nothing in particular. Never in my life have I had such powerful sensations coupled with the total lack of anything to blame them on. I was almost looking around the little room to find who was doing it.

Of course, I knew that it was all caused by the magnetic field changes but what, I wondered, would I feel if such things happened spontaneously. What if I woke in the middle of the night with all those feelings? I knew I would want, above all, to find an explanation, to find out who had been doing it to me. To have such powerful feelings and no reason for them is horrible. You feel as if you are going mad. If someone told me an alien was responsible and invited me to join an abductees’ support group, I might well prefer to believe the idea; rather than accept I was going mad.

An explanation in terms of brain events would be better still. So, until we understand the brain better, and until we learn to accept that things that seem real need not be, we cannot blame people for interpreting their weird experiences as abductions.

One last thought. Persinger applied a silent and invisible force to my brain and so created a specific experience for me. He claimed he was imitating the basic sequences of the processes of memory and perception and that, by varying those sequences, he could control my experience. Could he have done it from a distance? Could it be done on a wider scale? Suddenly prospects of magnetic mind control seem an awful lot worse than the idea of being abducted by imaginary aliens.