Harvard study fuels debate over alien abductions

Richard McNally doesn't believe people have been abducted by aliens, but he believes he knows why they believe it. / Jon Chase
By Hal McKenzie    March 4, 2003 

A recent study by a Harvard psychologist provided new fuel for the debate over alien abductions. Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally released a study indicating that people who claim they were abducted by aliens show physiological reactions to their traumatic memories as intense of those of Vietnam War veterans recalling their combat experiences. He concluded that false or imagined memories can be as real to the sufferer as genuine ones.  

Artist and researcher Budd Hopkins, who wrote the books Missing Time and Intruders detailing the abduction phenomena, in a telephone interview called McNally’s conclusions “ludicrous” and that they show him to be a “true believer” rather than a scientist.  

In the Feb. 20 issue of the Harvard Gazette, McNally says, “The core findings of this study underscore the power of emotional belief. If you genuinely believe to have been traumatized—even by an alien abduction, which we think is clearly fanciful—you show the psycho-physiological profile of those who have been.” McNally presented his findings Feb. 16 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Denver.  

Another Harvard professor, John E. Mack, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School who has done research into the abduction phenomenon, has disputed the notion that alien abduction claims are fabricated. William J. Bueché, communications director for Mack’s Center for Psychology and Social Change, said in an article in the Feb. 20 Harvard Crimson Online that the physiological reactions McNally cited may stem from contact with something real. “McNally assumes that the alien encounters are just beliefs … but that’s not clear-cut,” he said.  

Hopkins said he found McNally’s statement “staggering” in its lack of scientific objectivity. “J. Allen Hynek once said that science isn’t necessarily what scientists do, and this is a classic example of that. … It’s a case of the last three hairs of the tail of the dog wagging the entire dog,” he said.  

Hopkins said McNally showed himself to be a “true believer” like scientific creationists. “If their belief system is that powerful, they’re going to make the results fit their belief,” he said.  

McNally and his colleagues recruited six women and four men who claimed to have been abducted by extraterrestrials, some of them repeatedly. Seven of the 10 reported having had sperm or eggs extracted or experiencing direct sexual contact with the space aliens.  

They were each interviewed by either McNally or Susan Clancy, also a professor of psychology, and wrote a script telling the story of his or her abduction. The researchers then made audiotapes in a neutral voice from the scripts. The abductees listened to these tapes while the researchers recorded their emotional responses including heart rate and sweat on the palms of their hands. The same procedure was performed with eight people who experienced traumatic experiences such as combat, sexual abuse or automobile accidents.  

In comparing the two sets of measurements, the abductees showed strong physiological reactions as great or greater than those suffering from memories of other traumas. Neither McNally nor the other researchers considered the possibility that people in the study were actually abducted by space aliens.  

They attribute the abduction stories to what they call “dreaming with your eyes wide open,” the Gazette article said. “The episodes occur just as people awaken from a dream. Dreams include full-body paralysis, a nice adaptation that prevents people from jumping out of bed to escape their demons, or otherwise making moves in a dream that could injure them in reality. The sleeper awakens from a dream before the paralysis goes away, and experiences hallucinations like seeing flashing lights and some kinds of living things lurking around the bed.”  

McNally and his colleagues conclude “a combination of pre-existing New Age beliefs, episodes of sleep paralysis, accompanied by hallucinations and hypnotic memory recovery may foster beliefs and memories that one has been abducted by space aliens.” He likened the phenomenon to ancient beliefs in night-stalking demons like incubi or succubi that were believed to attack people in their sleep.  

Hopkins pointed out, however, that most abduction stories he has researched took place while the subjects were awake, often driving their cars. In a typical case, a subject would be driving his or her car, see a UFO, then the next instant find themselves driving miles down the road and find that they missed an hour or two of time.  

“For the first 10 years all the cases we studied were of people who experienced missing time while wide awake, driving their cars. Not one case occurred of someone in bed. It (sleep paralysis) doesn’t even apply,” he said. He added that abduction researchers are aware of sleep paralysis and take it into account.  

As for the criticism of hypnosis, Hopkins said many abduction experiences, such as the famous Travis Walton case, do not involve hypnosis. In addition, many abduction experiences begin with complete memories of close encounter in which a UFO and even aliens are seen, as with the Betty and Barney Hill case in 1961. The Hills claimed they saw a UFO with aliens looking out at them from portholes as they were driving. Only later, when they sought relief for psychological problems following the encounter, did the full abduction story emerge under hypnosis.  

Hopkins also cites many physical manifestations that accompany abduction cases that indicate they are not imaginary. In his book Intruders Hopkins describes a burned and dessicated patch of a lawn where the abductees saw a landed UFO. In addition, unexplained scars and “scoop marks” that “are very dramatic and clear cut” suddenly appear on many abductees.  

Efforts have been made to document alien abductions through videotapes with “mixed results,” Hopkins said. In a case he is currently studying, a woman set up a video camera pointed at her bed where she and her two children slept. “The eight-hour tape had one hour and a half missing. It shows the woman sitting up in bed apparently in a trance state. She then takes one child out of the room, then the other. The next instant it shows all three in bed.” It was as if the woman had been directed to remove the children, the tape was somehow blanked out, and then resumed taping an hour and a half later after they were put back in bed.  

Hopkins also cited new medical evidence. It involves five or six cases of bleeding as a result of an apparent “invasive procedure involving the urethra” among abductees. “A group of doctors are intrigued by it and are anonymously studying this,” he said. 

Hal McKenzie (1948-2010) was the first editor of CosmicTribune.com. 

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