A few years ago, Harvard University could claim not one but two sets of researchers studying, of all things, alien abduction. Naturally—this being academia—a sharp divide separated the two camps. As chronicled by the New York Times Magazine and Psychology Today, members of the psychology department alleged that people’s memories of extraterrestrial transport and unsavory probing could be explained by normal science—i.e., that controlled experiments were able to come up with a list of terrestrial factors that added up to an “abduction experience.” Over at Harvard Medical School, meanwhile, maverick psychiatrist John Mack had interviewed abductees and concluded that their experiences belonged to a mystical realm that science couldn’t explain. Abductees’ stories had convinced him that a “universal intelligence” resides in the cosmos, as he wrote in his 1994 best seller Abduction. The dispute at Harvard was a reflection, however baroque, of a long-standing divide within psychology, one dating back at least to the days of another Harvard professor interested in the supernatural, William James. On the one side you had the experimentalists who designed tests to support their claims about mind and memory; on the other, a clinical researcher primarily interested in interpreting subjects’ narratives rather than the results of lab experiments.
It seems the aliens have since left the campus: Mack died last year, while Susan Clancy, the psychology department researcher who originally interviewed and tested abductees, accepted a fellowship in Nicaragua. Now, though, Clancy has published a short, popular account of her research, Abducted: How People Come To Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens. The funny thing about Clancy’s book is that it begins by trumpeting the virtues of science over superstition but ends up veering into Mack territory. Not that she thinks her subjects were truly nabbed by diminutive intergalactic sex researchers—far from it. But in trying to make sense of their experiences, she ultimately relies on their personal narratives more than on the results of her laboratory tests, and she credits those narratives as meaningful, even if not literally true. Finally, she wants to say something general about the nature of belief. Abduction memories reflect peoples’ desire to find the purpose of life: “Being abducted may be a baptism in the new religion of this millennium.” E.T., meet Rick Warren.
Is there any consensus about the psychology of alien abduction? Prior research has yielded a few insights, some of which are hardly surprising: People who believe they’ve been abducted tend to be fantasy-prone and eccentric, for one. On the other hand, they don’t tend to be crazy. Most abductees are regular Joes, with decent jobs; though they have varying levels of education, they are predominantly white and middle class. In addition to an appetite for fantasy, researchers have identified several mental phenomena that often accompany a person’s belief that she’s been abducted: One is sleep paralysis, a relatively common experience during which the brain and the body desynchronize briefly before waking up. The body remains paralyzed (as it is during REM sleep) while the mind enters a state between sleeping and waking, in which some people hallucinate. The theory goes that a subset of the hallucinators, primed by popular culture to believe in visits from otherworldly kidnappers, interpret their experiences as abductions.
The second contributing factor is the mind’s capacity to create false memories, particularly under hypnosis—which is how many abduction “memories” have been retrieved. In fact, it was the study of false memory and trauma that led Clancy to the aliens. She started graduate school in the mid-’90s, as psychologists were duking it out over the validity of “recovered” memories, and signed on to assist two professors with a study of sexual-abuse victims. The professors gave subjects lists of words to memorize—”sugar,” “candy,” “sour,” “bitter”—that were all related to another word, “sweet,” that was not on the list. People who had allegedly recovered memories of sexual abuse while in therapy, it turned out, were more likely than a control group to remember “sweet” as having been on the list—that is, to produce false memories in the lab.
Of course, this did nothing to prove whether the women’s abuse memories were themselves false, and Clancy and her colleagues were roundly attacked by victims’ advocates and other scientists. So, the researchers went looking for another set of subjects—people whose memories were assumed by most people to be false—and they wound up with alien abductees. Again, their work revealed that abductees were also more likely to misremember words than a control group. Alas, they were attacked on the same grounds: How dare you question the veracity of other people’s firsthand experiences?
It’s impossible to disprove these experiences. But what’s interesting is how many seem to have been largely shaped by popular culture. Speculation about extraterrestrial beings is ancient, but “alien abduction” as we know it originated in the 1960s, after a New Hampshire couple named Betty and Barney Hill claimed to have been kidnapped by extraterrestrials. Betty was a fan of movies like Invaders From Mars. Her story inspired a best-selling book, a TV movie, and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Many more people began to report abductions, which in turn led to more books and movies, which led to more people claiming to have been abducted—in a sense, it was Hollywood that had abducted them.
In a chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience called “The Reality of the Unseen,” William James attested to the existence of a “sense of reality” distinct from the other senses, in which “the person affected will feel a ‘presence’ in the room, definitely localized, facing in one particular way, real in the most emphatic sense of the word, often coming suddenly, and as suddenly gone; and yet neither seen, heard, touched, nor cognized in any of the usual ‘sensible’ ways.” As evidence, James produces several firsthand accounts from people who were visited by “presences” late at night. These have a familiar ring: They sound just like stories from alien abductees, minus the aliens. Objects of belief, James says, may be “quasi-sensible realities directly apprehended.”
Clancy doesn’t quite grant reality status to aliens, but on the other hand, Abducted devotes much more space to abductees’ stories than to her lab results. That’s probably at least in part because the stories—both those that the abductees tell and the ones she tells about her research—are much more entertaining than research protocols; this is a book aimed at a general audience. But it’s also because narrative is a better vehicle for understanding why people believe what they do than a set of lab results is. When it comes to the ambitious project of explaining the why and wherefore of “weird beliefs,” Clancy’s book doesn’t tell us too much more than James did: People believe in this stuff because it seems real to them, more real than any reasoning about sleep paralysis or the unreliability of memories produced during hypnosis.
But Clancy goes on to assert, muddily, that people conjure up aliens to satisfy religious desires (unlike James, who did not grant religion status to perception of “presences”). People’s imagined contacts with aliens, she speculates, arise from “ordinary emotional needs and desires. … We want to believe there’s something bigger and better than us out there. And we want to believe that whatever it is cares about us, or at least is paying attention to us. … Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need.” To conclude that alien abduction is a religious experience seems a stretch. (Admittedly, I have not yet been contacted.) And it also seems a cop-out, since Clancy is not religious and didn’t study the religious tendencies of her subjects. Instead, her research hints at—but does not ultimately tell us much about—the way in which pop culture permeates even our subconscious minds. However you want to categorize alien abduction, the fact that pop culture schlock fills our dreams may be the eeriest part of all.