The UFO Abduction Phenomenon: What Might it Mean for the Human Future?

by John E. Mack, M.D.

Developed from a talk first given at Interface, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 23, 1993 (and given again at the 24th Annual MUFON Symposium). Dr. Mack had not yet finished writing his book about alien encounters, but the prior year he had co-chaired the Abduction Study Conference held at MIT, for which he had received some critical feedback.

The experience of taking on a subject which has been fare for the tabloids and the seamier side of the mass media has been a story in itself which I would like to tell sometime. Needless to say, my Harvard Medical School – what shall I call them – “seniors,” “bosses,” or “responsible academicians,” have not been too happy about some aspects of this work. There are a number of heuristic dilemmas that go with doing abduction research, for it does not follow the kinds of approaches that we have come to associate with the scientific or empirical method. Only careful observation, and thoughtful judgments about those observations, remain of that discipline.

When I speak with audiences now in academic settings I am often curious as to where they are with this phenomenon. I would like to ask, for example, “Are you here because you think there may be something to this,” or are you incredulous, i.e. “how could anybody get up here and take this seriously?” I have a hope that we will be able to move the conversation beyond questions like “Is it true? Is it happening? Can you prove it? Are aliens real? Do people really get taken up into spaceships?” I would like to see us go beyond that level to looking at what this really means, accepting that something important is, in fact, going on that we do not understand. I think there is an opportunity in this subject to shift our consciousness, to open us to dimensions that we have not fully accepted as real, at least not from the standpoint of the Western world view that has come to dominate and, I think, restrict our consciousness in the last 300 years.

The first question that I consistently ask myself and am frequently asked is how did I get into this crazy subject? It was a gradual process, although there were various turning points. This began with explorations in consciousness with Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychoanalyst who had developed a method called Holotropic Breathwork through which we can explore the deeper realms of the human consciousness. The breathwork approach uses deep, rapid breathing and evocative music to create a nonordinary state of consciousness that provides access to what Grof calls the holotropic or transpersonal world. In this state we are able to have experiences and perceive entities or beings that are not considered part of consensus reality. If stated in terms of the unconscious, this is like having Jungian ideas of the mythic or collective unconscious become real, experienced as actual in the world itself. In the summer of 1989 I read with great interest a paper by Keith Thompson on UFOs which Dr. Grof shared with me.[1] The paper interpreted UFOs in Jungian archetypal terms, but as I read it I kept asking myself, “Yes, but is it real? Is this really happening? Are there UFOs? Are there abductions?”

I suppose when you ask a question too hard, something tends to show up in the universe which may at least push the question further. That fall another member of my Grof group, a psychologist in New York, had a case that she took to Budd Hopkins, and she asked me if I wished to meet him. I said, “Who’s he?” She said, “Well, he’s this artist in New York who works with people who report that they’ve been abducted onto spaceships.” I was incredulous and said that he must be disturbed mentally and the people he works with must have some kind of new technologically structured delusion. She said, “No, no, no. It’s very real. It’s very important, and you really should meet him.”

I had some time in New York one day – I was there for another purpose – and so I went to see Budd and was immediately impressed with his warmth, seriousness, intelligence and deep concern for the abductees. But more than that, what struck me about the reports that he was telling of the cases that he had seen (at that point he had met with more than 200) was the consistency of the stories down to the minutest details among people from all over the United States and also other parts of the world, told with great reluctance by experiencers who had nothing to gain and much to lose by coming forward. For as happened then and continues to occur, abductees feel that they are misunderstood and are humiliated by the responses that they get when they report their experiences. The stories tend to be interpreted psychiatrically, even when there is no evidence of psychiatric disturbance. Furthermore, the people Budd described had not been in communication with each other, and there was nothing – at least at that time – in the media that provided the details that they were reporting.

What was especially shocking to me about what I learned was the fact that as a psychiatrist I knew that the only time that people reacted that way was when something had really happened to them. But that, of course, created a very strange and disturbing question, for if this was in some way real, then what on Earth was happening? What was going on? What was the source of these experiences? And that remains a central question for those studying the abduction phenomenon. I am now persuaded that these experiences are real. For in the end we do not have any criteria for “real” except experience reported to us in such a way that we can have no reason to doubt the truth of what the person is telling us.

Fascinated by this, and wondering why everybody who came in touch with the phenomenon was not also fascinated by it, I rather reluctantly crossed several Rubicons. The first was when Budd asked me if I wanted to see these people myself in his apartment. Later he asked if I wanted to have them referred to me in Boston. That was probably the real turning point, because I then opened myself up to a realm, a set of experiences, which have profoundly changed my life in virtually every imaginable way. This has changed my world view and my inner sense of myself. Almost every aspect of my personal and professional life has been impacted by working with the abduction phenomenon. There are energies involved here, of which for someone like me, raised in the materialist/rationalist culture of New York City, I had had no inkling. I found myself speaking of spiritual matters, of the divinity and higher consciousness, even about God, which was probably the last thing I ever believed could happen when was growing up in New York.

Over the past three years I have met with 71 people who fulfill my criteria of a “genuine abduction case.” These criteria consist of the following: that the person, with or without hypnosis, reports that he or she has encountered humanoid beings who have entered their home, car or playground, and by means of some sort of energy – perhaps a beam of light – have taken them up into an unusual craft. Within the craft they report a series of intrusive procedures, examinations and surgical/medical-like interventions, which are told about with emotion that impresses me as authentic. For over forty years – since I was a medical student – I have been trained to make discriminations about mental states. When somebody is talking ragtime I think I know it. When they are speaking about something that has really happened and scared them, I believe I can tell that. When a person is deluded or reporting mental content that reflects displacement, i.e., stands for something else, I have confidence that I will know this. I only diagnose a case as an abduction when I feel confident of the authenticity of what is being reported.

Of the 71 cases I have done one to seven hypnosis sessions with more than 40. There is a good deal of controversy surrounding hypnosis as an investigative tool. Is it accurate? Do people report memories correctly? Research about these matters shows that the accuracy of memory tends to increase according to how salient the matter in question is for the person. In other words, if an experience vitally affects the person – a trauma, rape, or abuse – and it is reported with strong affect, hypnosis can accurately flesh out what otherwise is not remembered. Hypnosis is less accurate when the matter is not of significance to the person, in the courtroom, for instance, when someone is asked to report as a witness whether a car came in from the left or the right, who was driving, etc. These are situations in which the event was not of vital importance yet the person feels he or she has to come up with something. But where experiences are as central to the well-being of the individual as is this phenomenon, I have no reason to doubt what is being reported. Investigators who use hypnosis in this work must, of course, be careful to be open-ended and not to lead the “witnesses.”

In the case of the abductees, my experience is that memories recovered under hypnosis are less congenial to the self-regard of individuals and, therefore, probably more reliable than what is consciously recalled. For example, a man in his mid-40’s told me about an abduction experience that occurred when he was 16 years old. The way he reported it before the hypnosis was rather nice. He was taken out of a car on the rocky coast of Maine into a capsule or pod. There was an attractive, hybrid alien woman in that capsule and they had sex. Then, after the sex, she said, “We took care of that. Now we can get to the important stuff.” She proceeded to fill his head full of information about the bad things that would happen to the Earth and our environment if we did not change our ways. He told all this with great sincerity. In the hypnosis session it was quite different. He was taken first into a larger UFO, the kind with which we have become familiar where there are all kinds of instruments, a sort of laboratory with white, rather sterile computer consoles visible along the sides. There was no sex with the alien woman. She was there, but observing, running the show, and what actually happened was that he had a sperm sample forcibly taken with a suction cup. This was quite humiliating for him, as it is for all of the men that have such experiences. After that he was taken to the capsule that he had remembered consciously and was given in detail the information that was transmitted to him about the future. This was 1961, and what was conveyed to him was an anticipation, accurate in some ways, of the destruction of the environment that would take place over the next 30 years.[2]

Hypnosis, for reasons that we do not entirely understand, seems uniquely capable of undoing the amnesia that occurs in abductions. This amnesia seems to have two dimensions. One is the repression that we ordinarily impose psychologically when something disturbing or traumatic occurs. The psyche will dissociate, i.e. put the thoughts about the event out of consciousness, so we can go on functioning. Many people have had abduction experiences throughout their lives, and repression protects their daily consciousness. People cannot go through their daily routines remembering experiences like these which are so overpowering. There has to be an economy of the psyche that allows disturbing thoughts and memories to be put out of mind. But there is another element in the not remembering. Virtually every abductee at some point will report that the aliens told them not to remember or forbade them to tell about their experiences. This is an imposed switching off of memory. Hypnosis seems almost to fit what is called for like a template. It seems to be designed perfectly for undoing the repression and bringing back into consciousness the forgotten experiences.

The cases that I have seen include several children, including a two-year-old boy who said that a little man comes, bites his note, and (pointing to the sky) takes him to the “ship.” The individuals I have seen work at various jobs and come from every possible socio-economic group. My cases include housewives, a prison guard, secretaries, psychologists, professors, writers. I have discovered that people who have a big stake in our society are not so willing to come forth openly. One man, an artist who has a fairly high profile in my community, left me a post office box address in a town he did not live in, along with a pseudonym, and instructed me to write to him there. Abductees are still ashamed to acknowledge these experiences, yet they often feel a strong need to have somebody who can listen, who can take seriously what they have been through.

There have been a number of psychological studies of the abductee population. I have had psychological tests administered to several of my cases. There is no evidence in the literature, or among my cases, of psychopathology that can account for this phenomenon. Some abductees, like all of us perhaps, come from troubled families, including alcoholic backgrounds. There is a good deal of sexual abuse in the background of many abductees. Some researchers claim the incidence of sexual abuse is higher among abductees than the national average. But abductees themselves are clear to distinguish abuse at human hands from what has happened with the alien beings.

There are three classes of information involved in abduction phenomenology. Some of this information cannot be apprehended within the epistemological and ontological structures that we have developed within the Western world-view. The phenomenon simply will not stay within the boundaries of those structures. First are phenomena that look sort of like what we know, things you can see or not see, like UFOs and photographs of them; missing people; cuts, scars, and scoop-marks on people’s bodies after abductions; beams of blue light, etc. These are matters we believe we can study empirically.

Second are things that seem sort of like technology, if you stretch its definition. These are capacities we can conceive of, but cannot now enact, although a hundred thousand years from now we might be able to. For example, people are taken through doors and walls, changed apparently into some sort of new energy form that allows them to pass through solid objects. We know that UFOs can appear or disappear, there one moment and out of sight or off the radar screen in the next. We have no way to understand that. Finally, there is a whole other class of phenomena which we have no way to understand within the Western world-view. The aliens can appear, for example, in animal forms or UFOs can look like helicopters. People have powerful past-life experiences, which I will say more about shortly. We have no place for past-life experiences in the Western view of reality, for we have lost our connection with these dimensions of consciousness. Many abductees experience themselves as having a double identity, both alien and human, and we do not understand within our physicalist/materialist paradigm how they can pass from one form to another.

Some people who do abduction investigations feel clearer than I do about which phenomena are authentic and which represent some sort of illusion. My own view is that one has to take all of the phenomena, as they come, even if we have no place for them in our world view. I have talked with Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. about how scientific paradigms change. He gave what I think is good advice about how to approach my research. He said, “Just observe. Drop all your categories as best you can. Put them aside and just collect raw information. Don’t worry about words like ‘happening,’ or ‘didn’t happen,’ ‘exists’ or ‘doesn’t exist,’ ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ ‘real or unreal,’ ‘internal or external.’ Put all that aside and just collect information.

Many abductees, for example, will report that space-time as we know it collapses during their experiences. If you ask them, for example, “Well, where did this happen?” they may reply, “Well, it’s really not in time and space as we know it.” Those of us who are trained in the Western world view have no way to deal with that, and even most physicists have no place for such ideas. The abductees speak of “other dimensions” from which they sense that the beings come, or they say they are taken to another dimension. But what does that mean to us? The beings may be felt as just a “presence,” or they may be described in more typical terms as, for example, your “standard” gray humanoid with large dark eyes, pear-shaped heads, no ears or hair, thin spindly bodies, slit mouths, little holes for nostrils.

Some of the phenomenology of abductions I will review will be familiar to those who are well versed in this field. What happens, typically, is that the experiencer will report his or her encounters initially as a dream. But if you press, carefully, and ask, for example, “Well, then you went to sleep?” an abductee will often reply, “Well, I’m not sure.” Sometimes there is a moment of truth in the initial interview where tears will come, a moment of great sadness when he or she realizes that that which was held as a dream, or the person wanted to believe was a dream, is now felt to have occurred in full consciousness of some sort. Abductees may even prefer to be told that they were psychotic. Some abductees have not come back to see me when I could not say that they were crazy, for, if they are sane, they know that they are dealing with something that is quite shattering to their reality and cannot be “cured.” The experiencer may have heard at first a humming sound or strong light may enter the room, and they experience themselves as being drawn by some force. There may be several beings around the bed. Then they are taken – “floated” is the common word – down the hall, through the walls or through the window frame, up into the sky. Often they can see the house receding. Sometimes they are taken first into a small ship which brings them to a larger ship. Often abductees do not see the ship itself at all, or they may describe the UFO up close and can describe it in detail. Generally, when a craft is seen up close it means that an abduction of some sort has occurred.

In the craft a series of procedures are done, including skin scrapings, various examinations and staring by the beings. Abductees often try to avoid eye contact with the beings because this is so powerful and creates a conviction of their reality which, at least initially, experiencers would like to avoid. The central aspect of the poking and probing with complex instruments, the surgical-like phenomena that abductees speak about, has to do with reproduction, the taking of eggs from the women and sperm samples from men. Women will often report they have been impregnated and experience observable breast and other body changes. Later they may experience a baby being taken. They will often see the fetus, especially during regressions, and this is particularly traumatic. Later they will be taken into the ships and brought in contact with these often listless-appearing, hybrid, babies. It is heartbreaking when you hear a mother or father report that they have been brought together with these strange offspring, in part because they do not have any control over when they will ever be able to see them again. Often after abductions experiencers will have cuts or bleeding areas that may heal quite quickly and they notice unexplained scars, scoop marks, and even little implants, which abductees feel are used to track them, may be left in their bodies. Several of these are being analyzed though nothing conclusive from the standpoint of proving their extraterrestrial origin has been found.

There is an important point to be made about the physical evidence. This is an area that tends to receive a lot of attention in abduction literature. Debunkers will even say that there is no physical evidence. There is actually a great deal of physical evidence, but it is largely corroborative. For example, a UFO may be seen, photographed or reported in the media, independent of an abduction experience in which the abductee may not have actually seen the UFO herself. We seem too much, I think, to base our conviction about whether the abduction phenomenon exists, or is important and meaningful, upon the physical evidence. The phenomenon, I am coming to feel, is so designed as to move us beyond a definition of reality that is limited to the physical world. So to expect that something as subtle as this will reveal its secrets to methods and an epistemology as crude as our Western scientific paradigm may be an error in logic. Perhaps the abduction phenomenon simply will not reveal itself to the physicalist approaches of the Western scientific method. This very subtlety invites us to extend ourselves to a larger, wider sense of reality and consciousness, and relying on material evidence for proof may be a dead end, no matter how varied are the associated physical findings. Perhaps UFOs will never land on the Boston Common, with alien beings coming out single file slowly enough to allow the media to photograph them.

What happens to abductees over time? There are both traumatic and transformational sequelae. The traumata are obvious enough. To be taken against your will out of your home, or to have your car stopped and be removed forcefully is itself humiliating and frightening. Furthermore, an abductee has almost no control over what happens as the intrusive procedures are performed. That is what I call Trauma 1.

Trauma II is isolation. Abductees are reluctant to tell anybody about their experiences. If you tell your mother, even if she is an abductee herself (abductions tend to run in families), she will not want to be reminded of her experiences or learn that her child is undergoing the same troubling experiences that she, too, has repressed all her life. So she is likely to tell the child, “It’s just a dream.” The child may insist once or twice, “No, mother. It’s not a dream. It really happened!” But after the mother has told her over and over that it was a dream, the child may conclude well, mother knows best, it must have been a dream. The child will then repress the experience until somebody like me comes along, or they read about another abductee’s experience and say to themselves, “Well, that’s exactly what happened to me,” contact an investigator and discover that their experiences were not dreams at all. In short, beginning in childhood, abductees “go underground.” Also, they cannot tell people at work. If you say to the wrong person at the office, “I was abducted last night by a UFO,” you could lose your job. I have talked with active duty commercial airline pilots, the ones that fly you to New York, St. Louis and places like that. They say that many pilots see UFOs up close, but they do not tell the executives because were they to do so they would run the risk of being placed under psychiatric care or could be removed from their jobs as a person “at risk.”

Trauma Ill is “This can’t be!” Virtually every abductee says that his or her life perspective, outlook, ideology, point of view, paradigm of reality, world view–whatever you want to call that set of assumptions in the culture by which we are all, including abductees, raised–has been “shattered.” This just is not supposed to happen, and, as you know, people fight wars over points of view or ideologies. Each culture has its own right way to structure perception, what I call the politics of ontology, the basic view of a small group determines we are supposed to believe about the universe. In the dominant Western world view this elite, the Carl Sagan’s of the world, have decided that abductions by aliens cannot happen because the phenomenon does not fit the materialist paradigm. That leaves an abductee with the choice either of denying the phenomenon or breaking out of our confirming structures of reality, and that is the last thing we generally like to do. Human beings will often prefer to die rather than to open up their psyches and submit themselves to the anxiety that we feel when we lose the safe structures of thought that have helped us to feel secure, those assumptions that have enabled us to believe that this universe is, at least in some way, understandable. On the positive side, the UFO abduction phenomenon can open us to a vast mystery that is exciting, fascinating and even joyous, however terrifying.

Trauma IV relates to the fact that it is not over when its over. If you were in the Vietnam war you are not going to be forced back to Vietnam again twenty years later. But if you are an abductee you never know when the experience is going to happen again. Abductions occur unpredictably. Furthermore, you cannot protect people you love. Parents often will come to see me not primarily to explore their own experiences but because they think that their children are being taken.

Finally, there are the physical sequelae that accompany the psychological trauma. These include headaches, sinus infections, abdominal distress, various gynecological problems, etc. These may be subtle, but are nevertheless real and occur throughout the body, corresponding anatomically to the procedures that were done during the abductions.

The transformational aspect of the abduction phenomenon is more complex and includes a deep spiritual dimension. Many abductees experience the healing of many kinds of physical and emotional distress they have experienced over time. In addition to the traumatic procedures, information is given to the abductees that confronts them and us with what might be called our collective selves. They are shown what we are doing to the Earth through environmental destruction and the threat of nuclear war. This information is shocking to the abductees, and it changes them forever. For them it is not like reading about environmental destruction in the newspapers. Their psyches may be fundamentally transformed by the information they are given. Some abductees become fanatically concerned about the fate of the Earth and profoundly spiritually (or whatever we would call a concern for the Earth and its sacred value) connected with something beyond themselves.

Furthermore, abductees develop a sense of humankind as but one among countless species. They become troubled about our disharmony or imbalance, the awkward, destructive way we live among ourselves and among other creatures on the planet. This concern develops especially strongly when the abductees accept and surrender to their experiences, when they stop trying to fight them and actively invite a more reciprocal relationship with the beings. There is a point in my work when, if the person can fully experience the traumata, an acknowledgment of the reality of the alien beings takes place. This occurs often through contact with the huge alien eyes, which leads to a deep, swimming, oceanic connection that is associated with a powerful opening of consciousness. Sometimes an extraordinarily profound, powerful, loving relationship between the alien beings and the abductees occurs, and the experiencers may feel that the aliens have been their spirit guardians since birth if not through many centuries.

Abductees may experience the aliens as intermediaries, beings that are closer to some kind of spiritual source, world soul or anima mundi. A word they commonly use is “Home.” They feel through their abductions they are connected with their true Home or spiritual origins. When they first feel the connection with this “Home” during a regression the experiencers will often break into tears. These tears, I have come to understand, reflect a feeling of awe in relation to the power of the reconnection with a divine source from which most of us in Western culture have been cut off. Abductees may also experience themselves as deriving from that source, and this also underscores their connection with the alien beings themselves. The tears may also relate to a feeling of grief that they ever had to be separated from this source to become embodied on Earth. In certain instances abductees have opened during regressions to cycles of embodiment, return to this spirit source and reembodiment, a continuous process in their personal or soul’s evolution. have encountered many past-life experiences among abductees. At a certain point when they are reporting, let us say, an infantile abduction experience, an abductee may say sadly, something like “I have returned here again,” or “I’m back.” If I ignore the “again” or “back,” nothing adverse will happen, except that we will talk more about their childhood experiences, which is, of course, what we tend to do as therapists. But if I pick up the “again,” or the “return,” then what usually will come out is a past-life experience that may be reported with as much authentic feeling as biographical experiences in this lifetime.

I have taken several abductees through their “deaths” in previous lifetimes, so perhaps in this way we can learn a lot about what happens when we do die. It has been phenomenal to me how similar are the death and birth experiences that occur in regressions. The process of being born from their mothers’ wombs, or of shifting from the heaviness of the dying body to a lightness in the spirit world, is described in quite similar terms. Cycles of birth and death repeat themselves, and a continuity of identity or consciousness evolution may be traceable over several lifetimes. Finally, abductees may feel that they have an alien self which, through their work with me, they are trying to integrate with their physical selves. This alien self may be experienced as a “soul self” from which they also have been cut off.

In conclusion, I would ask what is this about? Any theory of the abduction phenomenon will have to account for five fundamental dimensions. These are 1) The consistency of the stories among people who do not know each other; 2) The association with UFOs; 3) The related physical phenomena; 4) The fact that abductions are reported by children as young as two years of age and; 5) The absence, as far as I can tell, of any sort of psychopathological diagnoses or psychosocial forces that could begin to explain this. There is not in the abduction literature, among the many hundreds of cases reported, a single one that has turned out to be anything other than what the person has told of. That does not mean we understand the phenomenon or know the source of these experiences. It does mean that we are likely to learn more by staying open to its many facets.

My overall impression is that the abduction phenomenon, which is occurring in the context of the growing threat to the Earth’s living systems, constitutes a joining of two (or more) species for some sort of evolutionary purpose. Though traumatic to the experiencers, this process may also be life-preserving and may, for humankind, if we can grasp its profound meaning, open our consciousness to a more life-sustaining sense of our appropriate place in the universal order. Through the abduction phenomenon we human beings may learn that we are not the lords of the cosmos, but simply one species among millions, one that has lost its way through arrogance and a constriction of consciousness that has become dangerous at a cosmic level. It is possible that our systematic destruction of the Earth has not gone unnoticed at a “broader” or “higher” level of intelligence and that these intrusions, as some abductees have said, represent some sort of correction, adjustment or evolution for all of the species involved.

[1] The paper by Keith Thompson given to John Mack by Stan Grof that piqued Mack’s interest in alien encounters was “The UFO Encounter Experience as a Crisis of Transformation”, which soon appeared in Grof’s 1989 book Spiritual Emergency.
[2] Mack wrote about this case in chapter 3 of Abduction, “You will remember when you need to know”.

  • John E. Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

© 1993 John E. Mack, M.D.
This essay is based on a lecture first delivered at Interface, Cambridge, MA, on April 23, 1993. Mack developed this essay from a transcript of that event in advance of presenting the lecture again at the 24th Annual MUFON Symposium on July 3, 1993. The essay was published in the MUFON Symposium Proceedings, 1993, July 2-3-4, pp. 203-213, Richmond VA (with section headers added by the editor). A German translation followed a couple years later in Kurier magazine, May 1995, No. 7., pp.27-37.

Das Phänomen der Entführung durch UFOs: Was könnte es für die menschliche Zukunft bedeuten?

von John E. Mack, M.D.