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UFO Abductions: A Powerful Emotional Experience
Augustana University College
A paper submitted to Dr. Jayne Gackenbach as part of the course requirements for Psy 473 (Sleep and Dreams), April, 1997
It's a dark windy night as Max is driving back home from a weekend trip. He's driven for hours and now he's turned onto a small back road which is a short cut to his place out in the country. The wind gusts rhythmically and the trees sway from side to side. Max's eyes are feeling heavy and objects are beginning to blur. Max fights the intense need to sleep by opening his truck windows and cranking up the radio. All of sudden, Max sees a blinding white light appear in the sky, while he simultaneously hits the ditch. Max awakens the next day in his truck. He recalls being on an examining table and having a bright light shining in his eyes. He remembers grey little creatures looking at him out of their big black eyes. Max also remembers feeling helpless as he tried to move but was unable to. Max is shaking as he starts his truck and speeds off to his home. Fox Mulder (from the X-Files) would cry out that "This is an alien abduction!" while Dana Scully would argue "Look at the scientific evidence Fox, there are alternate explanations for his experience!" Is this a possible alien abduction experience or could Max have internally generated the imagery that he claimed to experience? This essay will explore possible explanations for UFO abduction experiences. I will argue, that the felt sense of an abduction is emotionally powerful but there is evidence to suggest that the reality may not be an actual physical abduction.
A UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) is "something seen in the sky (or on land, or in water, but thought capable of flight) which the witness could not identify and thought sufficiently strange to report to either an official or unofficial investigating body" (McGrew, 1994, pg.3). An IFO is an Identified Flying Object and according to McGrew, 90% of all reported UFO's can be explained as "either natural phenomena or misidentification of normal manmade devices" (pg.3). Alien is defined as not residing in the country of one's citizenship or different in nature. Thus, an alien can be seen as a foreigner; someone or something that is not in their natural environment.
Although there is a tremendous amount of speculation about other life forms existing elsewhere in the universe, there is little evidence. The only substantial evidence available are from abductee reports. Later this essay will discuss why this alone is not sufficient evidence to conclude that UFO's, or aliens for that matter, exist.
The debate, however, is far from over. The Drake Equation for example, is often used in support of alien existence in the universe. The Drake Equation "attempts to estimate the number of civilizations in the universe by using imprecise variables" (McGrew, 1994, pg.5). But this is not very useful considering that earth is the only planet where there is solid evidence of civilization. Other more complex calculations have increased the reliability of such techniques but nonetheless, have been fruitless in the attempt to support the conclusion that there is other life existing in the universe. The best that these techniques have done is to prove that there are "molecules believed to be essential to the formation of life...in interstellar space" (pg.6).
There is however, some evidence to support alien abductions. First, most accounts of abductions are very similar to one another. The typical alien for example, is a short (1.0 m to 1.25 m in height) grey creature with large black oval-shaped eyes (McGrew, 1994, pg.6). There is even the possibility of material evidence. "There are abundant material traces, even excepting those confiscated by the military" (pg.7). Material traces consist of grass that is burnt in places where the UFO's have allegedly landed, or UFO's captured on film or in photos (refer to Appendix A), and finally UFO's shown on radar tapes. There is also bodily traces on abductees which "include scoop-marks in the flesh, incisions, burns, apparent radiation exposure, bruises, inflammation, etc" (pg.7).
I argue that alternate explanations for each above piece of evidence is possible. Using any or all of this evidence is not sufficient to conclude that aliens exist because it is too subjective. This is true by modern scientific standards, however there are those that argue that trying to study these experiences using only science is limited (Ring, 1992). But nonetheless, science is also a useful approach. For example, I could have a narcoleptic attack while driving and awaken with bruises and burns on my skin. I may even recall being abducted, but I could easily have confused a nightmare with reality, which is not uncommon for narcoleptic sufferers. This can scientifically explain an abduction experience as false.
This is not to take away from the felt sense of the experience of the abductees. I have no doubt that many of those who claim that they were abducted believe that they were and experienced it at a felt sense level. But since UFO's have little if any supporting concrete evidence, I feel that it is important to realize that there are alternate explanations for these experiences. It is possible that these are internally generated images that feel completely real. This essay will address this possibility later.
There are many different theories regarding the origins of UFO's. These include that "UFO's are some form of advanced technology;... that UFO's might be time travelers; that UFO's might be some form of new natural phenomenon; and the UFO's might be some form of psychic phenomenon" (McGrew, 1994, pg.7). Again, there is no firm evidence to confirm or disprove any of these theories. One major problem with studying alien abductions is that in many cases it is not falsifiable. If the UFO is spotted and then talked about after the fact, there is little evidence to disprove or prove the claim.
Characteristic experiences reported by professed abductees are the loss of memory and the loss of time. Abductees frequently recall the experience from their memory or recall their abductions with the help of hypnosis. The use of hypnosis is controversial since individuals are extremely suggestible and the realizations that they can come to while under are not always accurate. Hypnosis can direct a person unknowingly to believe that they have been abducted. Furthermore, skeptics argue that all the media attention regarding abductions can persuade people having nightmares or people believing that they have lost time to draw on this while under hypnosis. The result is that people are being put through unnecessary trauma. Although the problems associated with hypnosis can not account for all the actual claims of abduction, it has, in the past, influenced people to recall things (such as an abduction) which are completely false.
It is true that "nightmares are often caused by the sleeping disorder narcolepsy, and [that] "missing time" is not an uncommon experience and is caused when the mind is preoccupied by other matters" (pg.6). In fact, nightmares can have a variety of different causes, including medication, drugs, illness, and serious trauma of any type. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for adults who have no sleeping disorders (and is quite common for children) to have nightmares. Nightmares commonly occur for people experiencing different types of sleep disorders (including narcolepsy).
Narcolepsy is a genetic sleep disorder in which the person has REM sleep attacks during the daytime. The victim of this sleep disorder falls asleep (during a REM sleep attack) no matter where or what they are doing. Since it is REM sleep, the sufferer collapses because he or she is paralyzed. Intense emotions provoke these attacks. "A side effect of this attack are strong nightmares and confusion between what is real and what is not" (Gackenbach, pg.5, 1995). Thus, narcolepsy can help to explain the missing time, since victims suffer attacks at random times for varying lengths of time. It can also explain the recall of an abduction experience as being a nightmare since nightmares and reality are often confused. It is true that sleeping disorders such as narcolepsy can not account for all the abduction experiences that people have claimed occurred, but I believe that it is a reasonable explanation for some of the cases.
Sleep paralysis, also known as the old hags myth, is a phenomena which happens primarily at night in ones bedroom. This is a REM intrusion disorder. Basically what happens is that the high brain functions wake up while the brain stem is still asleep, thus the individual is paralyzed. The individual lies in bed frightened and unable to move, while usually attempting to scream (but can not). People often recall a threatening being in the room, such as an alien. When they finally regain the ability to move "they are left with the conviction that they were awake, and in physiological and psychological terms they're correct this is a waking experience" (Hufford, 1992, pg.6). However, people can draw from this experience to claim that they have been abducted, which is incorrect. Many UFO abduction experiences include the person being unable to move. This can be in some cases connected to sleep paralysis. "A large survey aimed at what the investigator can say to be features associated with abduction... finds 18 percent of the general population... have awakened at least once during the night in the presence of a strange visitor" (Hufford, 1992, pg.2).
Sleep paralysis rarely goes on for minutes (like up to ten or fifteen minutes), but when it does it "frequently terminates in what the subject describes as an unpleasant involuntary out of body experience" (Hufford, 1992, pg.6). This is similar to abduction experiences in which the abductee describes being "taken out through the wall of their room" (pg.6). Although the abductee would argue that this is a physical experience, it is possible that it is a mentally generated experience.
There are some commonalties between alien abduction experiences and near death experiences. "Ring and Rosing (1990, cited in Gackenbach, 1993) found a very similar pattern of childhood neglect in both NDE [(near death experience)] and UFOE [(unidentified flying object abduction experiences)]" (Gackenbach, 1993, pg.16). Also, Ring and Rosing (1990, cited in Gackenbach, 1993) "surveyed 264 people of four types: UFO encounter group, interest in but no UFO experience, NDE [encounter] group, and interested in NDE but no experience" (pg.17). They found a statistically significant difference for the NDE and UFO experiencing groups; a superiority was found "in childhood psychic experiences and childhood sensitivity to nonordinary realities" (pg.17). Ring and Rosing (1990, cited in Gackenbach, 1993) also found that these two groups shown significantly more childhood abuse, trauma, and illness than did the NDE nonexperiencers and the UFO nonexperiencers.
Gackenbach (1993) contends that most out of body experiences (OBE's), NDE's and UFOE's "occur in a states of either sensory underload (at or near sleep), or overload (physical or emotional stress)" (pg.16). For example, Max was driving on a small back road with no other traffic at night. Since the environment had a low sensory load it could have easily produced a hypnagogic state, similar to being in a trance (Gackenbach, 1993). At sensory overload or sensory underload, "it is easier to reconstruct the mental model of lived world" (pg.16). Thus, Max falsely attributed his experience to being abducted by aliens. This is similar to nonlucid dreams when one falsely attributes that they are awake when they are indeed sound asleep. Just as the state of nonlucid dreaming feels completely real, so too do the experiences of those who claim to have been abducted. These people experience a felt sense of reality, unlike the rarer experience of lucidity when the dreamer is aware and correctly attributes "the true nature of his or her state" (pg.17). Although the felt sense level of an UFOE is one of reality (believing that they are awake), it is possible that this attribution of reality is incorrect.
UFOE's are very powerful and often transforming experiences. Ring (1992), for example, found that abductees often report changes in consciousness. "There seemed to be physiological changes, even neurological changes - all seeming to be indicative of a development of a higher consciousness" (Ring, 1992, pg.1). It is a transpersonal experience that "combines both ... objective and subjective realities in one hybrid kind of reality" (Rojcewicz, 1992, pg.2). There are some scientific explanations which I feel are useful when attempting to understand UFOE's, for example, the possibility of narcoleptic attacks and sleep paralysis. However, it is clear that the felt sense reality of these experiences for the abductees means more to them than just these scientific definitions since these experiences are often transforming.
Image Gallery: UFO'S, Alien Bodies. (1997). http://www.spiritweb.org/Spirit/image-gallery-ufos-alienbodies.html.
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