What leads people to believe they have been abducted by aliens?

By guest blogger Emma L. Barratt

Alien abduction stories are, at least in the West, relatively common. From as far back as the early 60s, there have been reports of people being stolen away by aliens — typically at night — often for various physics-defying experiments, before being returned home in one piece.

And while stories like these might strike some as delusions that would typically arise from certain mental health issues, studies have found that abductees are no more likely than anyone else to have conditions affecting their perception of reality.

Thanks to psychological research over the past few decades, however, we can probably conclude that these alien mis-adventures arise due to two entirely more mundane phenomena: sleep paralysis, and false memories.

Researchers have long noted the similarities between accounts of alien abduction and the relatively lesser-known phenomenon of sleep paralysis — a common condition in which the cognitive and physiological components of REM sleep become desynchronised. Those who experience sleep paralysis are essentially awake, but unable to move for a period of seconds to minutes, often reporting a rather specific set of hallucinations during their time immobile. These include flashing lights, buzzing, electrical tingling sensations, feelings of levitation, and — most unnervingly — visual hallucinations of figures hovering near their bed.

If one were to imagine these sensations and perceptions all together, and the absence of any knowledge about sleep paralysis, it becomes easy to see why the very remote possibility of alien abduction might feel like the only plausible answer. Even so, this doesn’t quite bridge the gap between this specific set of hallucinations and the vivid details often recalled by abductees.

Abductees are often said to recover memories of what happened to them, either through therapy, conversations, viewing certain media that trigger these memories, or sometimes hypnosis. This, psychologists believe, is likely to be the point at which memories of those hallucinations become unintentionally embellished by distorted recall.

A 2002 study from academics at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School set out to probe what exactly might lead to the formation of memories of alien abduction, focusing particularly on the role of false recall and recognition

For their investigation, the researchers recruited volunteers “who may have been contacted or abducted by aliens” via local newspapers to participate in their memory study. These included 11 participants who had recovered memories of alien abduction, as well as 11 who believed unexplained symptoms pointed to having been abducted, but felt they had repressed memories of the event. The control group consisted of participants who did not believe they had been abducted by aliens.

Participants listened to audio recordings of a series of word lists, each centring around a single, non-presented “lure” word. For example, a list including words such as sour, candy, sugar, and bitter would be associated with the word sweet, which wouldn’t be presented. After briefly studying the list, each of the participants spent 30 seconds solving simple mathematical problems, before being asked to recall and write down as many of the presented words as possible. They were then tested to see if they recognised those previously presented words from a similar word list which also included new, semantically related words. In addition, they also completed several questionnaires probing aspects of mental health such as mood disorders, dissociative experiences, and schizotypy.

The results showed that those who reported recovered memories of alien abduction were more likely than controls to falsely recall and recognise the lure words, like sweet in the above example. Similarly, those in the “repressed memories” group were also more prone to false recall and memory distortion than controls, but to a lesser extent than those in the abductee group. Several factors associated with false recall and recognition were identified from participants’ questionnaire answers, too; namely high levels of absorption, depression, and magical ideation. Abductees also tended to score more highly in measures of dissociative experiences and PTSD symptoms.

In their conclusions, the researchers note that people who believe they have been abducted by aliens may have problems with source monitoring — remembering how and when a memory is acquired. For example, someone may watch a movie featuring alien abduction, or even just otherworldly creatures, and years later when assessing an episode of sleep paralysis, recall that monster and incorrectly incorporate it into their supposed abduction experience. In other words, they forget the actual source of the memory, and glue together memory fragments that seem to fit — much in the same way that abductee participants incorporated significantly more never-presented words into their recall and recognition responses.

So, while stories of alien abduction may not be the sign of extraterrestrial life some may hope for, at least they can provide a neat example of the power of false memory formation.

Post written for BPS Research Digest by Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt). Emma is a cognitive scientist and science communicator based in Newcastle, UK. Her work centres primarily around atypical and clinical psychology, as well as cognitive factors pertaining to human spaceflight and space exploration. In 2015, she published the first peer reviewed investigations of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. She also works alongside an international team to produce educational content for the popular YouTube channel SciShow

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