In the wee hours of the morning on August
8, 1983, while I was traveling along a lonely rural highway approaching Haigler, Neb., a large craft with bright lights overtook me and forced me to the side of the road. Alien beings exited the craft
and abducted me for 90 minutes, after which time I found myself back on the road with no memory of what transpired inside
the ship. I can prove that this happened because I recounted it to a film crew shortly afterward.
When alien abductees recount to me their stories, I do not deny that they had a real
experience. But thanks to recent research by Harvard University psychologists Richard
J. Mc-Nally and Susan A. Clancy, we now know that some fantasies are indistinguishable from reality, and they can be just
as traumatic. In a 2004 paper in Psychological Science entitled "Psychophysiolcgical Responding during Script-Driven
Imagery in People Reporting Abduction by Space Aliens," McNally, Clancy and their colleagues report the results of a study
of claimed abductees. The researchers measured heart rate, skin conductance and electromyographic responses in a muscle that
lifted the eyebrow—called the left lateral (outer) frontalis—of the study participants as they relived their
experiences through script-driven imagery. "Relative to control participants," the authors concluded, "abductees
exhibited greater psychophysiological reactivity to abduction and stressful scripts than to positive and neutral scripts."
In fact, the abductees' responses were comparable to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients who had listened
to scripts of their actual traumatic experiences.
The abduction study was initiated as a control in a larger investigation of memories
of sexual abuse. In his book Remembering Trauma (Harvard University Press, 2003), McNally tracks the history
of the recovered memory movement of the 1990s, in which some people, while attempting to recover lost memories of childhood
sexual molestation (usually through hypnosis and guided imagery), instead created false memories of abuse that never happened.
"The fact that people who believe they have been abducted by space aliens respond like PTSD patients to audiotaped scripts
describing their alleged abductions," McNally explains, "underscores the power of belief to drive a physiology consistent
with actual traumatic experience." The vividness of a traumatic memory cannot be taken as evidence of its authenticity.
The most likely explanation for alien abductions is sleep paralysis and hypnopompic
(on awakening) hallucinations. Temporary paralysis is often accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations and sexual
fantasies, all of which are interpreted within the context of pop culture's fascination with UFOs and aliens. McNally
found that abductees "were much more prone to exhibit false recall and false recognition in the lab
than were control subjects," and they scored significantly higher than normal on a questionnaire measuring "absorption,"
a trait related to fantasy proneness that also predicts false recall[i].
My abduction experience was triggered by sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion.
I had just ridden a bicycle 83 straight hours and 1,259 miles in the opening days of the 3,100-mile nonstop transcontinental
Race Across America. I was sleepily weaving down the road when my support motor home flashed its high beams and pulled alongside,
and my crew entreated me to take a sleep break. At that moment a distant memory of the 1960s television series The
Invaders was inculcated into my waking dream. In the series, alien beings were taking over the earth by replicating
actual people but, inexplicably, retained a stiff little finger. Suddenly the members of my support team were transmogrified
into aliens. I stared intensely at their fingers and grilled them on both technical and personal matters.
After my 90-minute sleep break, the experience represented nothing more than a bizarre hallucination,
which I recounted to ABC's Wide World of Sports television crew filming the race. But at the time the experience was
real, and that's the point. The human capacity for self-delusion is boundless, and the effects of belief are overpowering.
Thanks to science we have learned to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
Michael Shermer is publisher
of Skeptic (www.skeptic.com) and author of The
Science of Good and Evil.
[i] Just because
a group of people who tell a fantastic story exhibit a proclivity to tell other such stories through the tested traits of
false recalls and absorption doesn’t entail that such people have a purely neurotransmitter foundation
for these results. I would speculate that for some of these people have purely
environmental causes. Some would, if placed in an environment which peer conditioning
is strongly adversive to such verbal behavior, this behavior including silent whispers would diminish over time. However, I also suspect that others in the group would have a neurotransmitter foundation. I base these speculations on observations I have of those who have New Age beliefs
and those who are extensively involved in church activities. Some of such
groups are quite mentally sound, while others aren’t--jk