The estimated number of Americans reported to have been abducted by aliens reaches into the millions (four, to be precise). This means that the support for alien existence is 4 million voices strong, sounds like a pretty big sample size to me. So why don’t we (scientists) believe any of them? Well, people with a scientific background generally look for more concrete evidence before drawing conclusions. A psychologist could offer several alternative possibilities to these outlandish claims.
1. Mental illness
People who report abductions are more likely to be open to unusual experiences, be more imaginative and creative, have more depressive thinking, be suspicious, and have suffered childhood trauma. These tendencies alone might not suffice to explain such strange experiences.
2. The fallibility of human memory
Like everything else about us, our memories are imperfect. Sometimes we incorrectly remember the facts of a situation. Other times, we end up mixing some of the aspects of a recent event with bits and pieces of information from our long-term memories. Those folks who claim to have been abducted by aliens seem to have less perfect memories than others, meaning that they are more likely to have false memory in general (Clancy et al., 2002).
3. Temporal lobe disturbance
This area of the brain may be responsible for creepy, other-worldly experiences. Placing magnets near the temporal lobes outside the head can induce feelings of fear, disorientation, and even a ‘presence’. Pretty freaky stuff.
4. Sleep Paralysis
This phenomenon was the most interesting to me. When you are sleeping and entering the REM cycle (the time when you dream), your brain kicks into body-movement blocking mode. You don’t want to act out your dreams, so you are essentially immobilized. Sometimes people sleepwalk when the system fails at keeping your muscles inactive when you’re unconscious. The opposite can also happen; your brain fails to stop blocking body movement s when consciousness is regained. Thus, you are awake, but unable to move and feel helpless. This weird state is often accompanied by hallucinogenic happenings, such as a greenish creature with an abnormally large head hovering over you.
But let’s get back to the question I posed in the title. What happens when a psychologist experiences a so-called ‘alien abduction’? Well, as anyone who has taken an intro psychology course knows, we tend to start self-diagnosing when we are aware of the specific descriptions of pathologies. So, they are probably going to self diagnose themselves as having tendencies towards imaginative behavior, creating false memories, having messed up temporal lobes, and/or being afflicted with sleep paralysis. Though, I’d love to see the statistic telling us how many of the 4 million reported abductions include anyone with a degree in psychology…
Clancy, S.A., McNally, R.J., Schacter, D.L., Lenzenweger, M.F. & Pitman, R.K. (2002) Memory distortion in people reporting abduction by aliens. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111 (3), 455-461