by Caroline McLeod, Ph.D.
Findings from an analysis of the first 200 Extraordinary Experience Surveys returned to PEER by mail from a self-selected group who had contacted Dr. John Mack or his organization. The survey (conducted in late 1994 and 1995) reported demographics, categories of experiences, impact of experiences, gaps in memory, and the use of hypnosis and psychotherapy.
There is a story told by Colin Turnbull of pygmies who lived deep in the rain forests of Africa. They journeyed for the first times in their lives to Lake Victoria, where there were people far out on the water, fishing. However, the pygmies were unable to perceive the fishermen on the boats. Instead, the pygmies spoke with puzzlement about things that looked like ants crawling on a leaf, though what they saw did not quite make sense to them. Because they had never before been in an environment with large expanses of space, the pygmies had never seen an object recede into the distance, becoming smaller and smaller as it moved farther and farther away. They were unable to perceive what psychologists call size constancy. Based on their history of living in the dense rainforest, the pygmies saw ants instead of people, even though they knew that ants on a leaf did not adequately explain what they saw. After several weeks of observing the boats moving back and forth on the shore and speaking among themselves, they were able to shift their understanding of reality to include objects observed on open expanses of water and land.
Turnbull doesn’t tell us how these people were received by members of their own tribe upon their return to their homeland. How do you suppose they described and explained to their own people about vast expanses, so different from their rainforest homes? Did the other members of the tribe think about this other land in terms of belief and superstition? Were the travellers treated as special members of the society, or were they thought to be crazy?
“An extraordinary experience is an experience which occurs at the edge of our culturally shared, commonly accepted reality.”
It may be that many people are now facing situations similar to that of the pygmies who were struggling to understand their puzzling perceptions. More than 2,000 individuals have contacted the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research (PEER) to report that they think they have had some extraordinary experience. By definition, an extraordinary experience is an experience which occurs at the edge of our culturally shared, commonly accepted reality. Most commonly, these experiences involve a strange encounter with technologically superior, nonhuman beings. Our society remains unsure about how to understand these experiences and how to relate to these people.
Most of the people contacting PEER cannot explain what they have seen in terms of the reality which we all share. They often speak in terms of “dreams that seem real,” or they describe strange events with conviction in one breath, and with questions about their own sanity in the next. Many are in distress and are looking for explanations for what they have experienced.
Just as the pygmies began to describe and puzzle over the incongruous ants on the leaf, PEER seeks to document and describe the perceptions and characteristics of extraordinary human experience. In order to explore the range of extraordinary experiences and better understand the people who report them, we ask individuals contacting PEER who think they may have had an unusual experience to fill out a survey. Most people had heard of PEER through Dr. John Mack’s book on the alien abduction phenomenon, or through his televised appearances on the subject. Dr. Mack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, is the founding director of the Center for Psychology and Social Change (of which PEER is a project). The survey is ten pages long, and covers subjects from demographic status to psychic experiences. We have sent out 404 surveys so far, and 235 have been returned to us, providing a 58 percent return rate.
We were interested in several areas of extraordinary experience, ranging from the backgrounds of people who report these experiences, to social aspects affecting the perception of anomalous events. Our major findings based on the first 200 surveys follow.
Demographics of the Survey Respondents
We wondered if people who report extraordinary experiences were on the fringe of society. We found that our respondents had the following characteristics:
• 25% were professionals or managers
• 43% were male
• 94% were white
• 81% had taken some college courses
• 46% completed a college degree
• 56% were married or in a long-term relationship
• 75% had children
• 50% had been in their present line of work for ten years or more
• Median family income was $60,0000.
Categories of Extraordinary Experiences
In order to get a sense of what kinds of extraordinary experiences were reported, we asked our respondents if they had had “memories not obtained under hypnosis of events that are not usually accepted by most people as part of reality.” Surprised by the variety of anomalous experiences reported, we coded and categorized them according to a coding system with over 90 percent interrater reliability.
• 38 percent of our sample reported memories that contained clear images of what has become known as an alien abduction experience.
• 9 percent reported memories that contained elements suggestive of abduction, but without interviews, it was impossible to be sure how to categorize it.
• 19 percent described experiences that contained purely psychic elements, such as precognition, remote viewing, telepathy and telekinesis.
• 7 percent of the sample described their memories in a distinctive manner that made us wonder about psychopathology; the reports tended to show pervasive lack of coherence, grandiosity, or paranoia.
• 19 percent reported other experiences which ranged in form, from ecstatic and other religious phenomena to other unusual, unclassifiable events.
• 7 percent reported no unusual memories; these respondents tended to report unusual dreams instead.
• 2 percent returned surveys that were incoherent, with answers that failed to conform to questions we asked, and which we categorized as uncodable.
The Impact of Extraordinary Experiences
We wondered whether extraordinary experiences were part of a well-formed alternative worldview, or whether they occurred contrary to expectation. We asked respondents to rate the impact of their experience on a scale with “no change” at one end” and “a lot of change” on the other, and whether the change was permanent or not.
We found that unusual experiences seem to have profound impact because what is perceived is so profoundly challenging to what is understood to be ”real.” John Mack, in his work with abduction experiences, calls this factor “ontological shock.”
Forty percent of our sample reported that their experience brought maximum change. Abduction experiences seemed to create the most impact of all; 48 percent of individuals reporting abduction experiences were significantly more likely to report that the experiences resulted in maximum, permanent change, whereas only 28 percent of individuals reporting other experiences reported such change.
Memory Disturbance and Extraordinary Experience
We were also interested in exploring whether gaps in memory were associated with unusual experiences, particularly abduction experiences. Abduction researcher Budd Hopkins has found that a high percentage of his clients report “missing time” episodes in conjunction with a UFO or alien sighting. We know that gaps in memory can occur when people have been exposed to a traumatic event. These gaps might also be symptoms of a more pervasive dissociative disorder, in which continuity of consciousness is regularly disrupted in response to stress.
Contrary to expectations, only half of our sample reported a gap in memory not associated with drugs or a head injury. Reported memory gaps tended to be short-term and in frequent; of those who reported this gap, most people (71 percent) reported that it happened one to three times, for a period of between fifteen minutes to three hours. So it seems that the experience of the memory gap was unusual in the lives of our respondents, evidence against the presence of a dissociative disorder.
Unexpectedly, the incidence of a gap in memory was similar for people reporting extraordinary experiences (53 percent), but was significantly lower in the 12 individuals reporting no unusual experiences (17 percent). Interviews need to be conducted to ascertain the context for these gaps in memory; what aspects of an unusual experience is associated with the memory gap? Could a memory gap be related to ontological shock and an inability to assimilate an undeniable experience into current cognitive structures? Is disrupted memory a defensive move to protect the self from the memory of a traumatic experience? Or do extraordinary experiences occur in an altered state of consciousness, making memories difficult to recall while in a normal state of consciousness?
Hypnosis is known to be associated with some distortion in the “recovery” of memories. It has been suggested that abduction experiences are products of hypnotic trance induced by the researcher. We wondered in how many situations was hypnosis used to recover information about an extraordinary experience.
Hypnosis was reported by 51% of our sample, but was not associated with any one kind of extraordinary experience. Since almost half of abduction experiencers (45 percent) had never been hypnotized, their accounts cannot be attributed to hypnotic elaboration. Of those abduction experiencers who underwent hypnosis, 97 percent of them reported that their strange memories existed before hypnosis and were often the motivating force for seeking hypnosis. Thus, in these data, hypnosis and the distortions it introduces do not seem to adequately explain abduction reports or any other kind of extraordinary experience.
It does seem clear that hypnosis is a preferred method for exploring unusual experiences in a high proportion of individuals who report them. Why would this be true? First, hypnosis may provide a safe social role to present crazy-sounding material. Hypnotically recovered narration can always be disavowed or held in doubt, and is therefore more comfortable for the experiencer to report. Second, memories of an anomalous experience may be laid down while a person is in an altered state — either one of high arousal corresponding to shock and disbelief, or some other altered state related to the experience itself. Such memories may not be accessible from an ordinary state of consciousness. Thus, hypnosis may provide the altered state necessary to retrieve material laid down as state-dependent memories.
The level of distortion created by hypnosis remains a source of controversy, however, and for this reason, material recovered under hypnosis must be compared across individuals and with material reported in an ordinary state of consciousness. In their case studies, abduction researchers have used this method to glean the most important aspects of the abduction phenomenon, though this kind of research has yet to be undertaken with large samples or with other forms of extraordinary experience. Such research would not only help us document the characteristics of extraordinary experience, it would help us investigate what aspects of experience are most likely to be remembered and what aspects are most likely to be distorted by altered states.
Mental Health, Psychotherapy, and Extraordinary Experience
Given that the report of a extraordinary experience is often a sign of psychopathology to mental health professionals, we wondered how people reporting anomalous experiences related to psychotherapy. Were they mentally ill or psychologically unsophisticated? How have they fared with psychotherapists?
A surprising 71 percent of the sample reported having gone to a psychotherapist or a counselor at some time in their lives, but only 8 percent were currently in therapy. The high incidence of exposure to therapy is probably a reporting effect – individuals who have been to counselors are more likely to be sure of their mental status and may be more willing to come forward to participate in psychological research.
Thirteen percent of the sample reported having sought help from a counselor for problems stemming from abduction experiences. Clincians and researchers report that abduction experiencers often suffer from post-traumatic symptoms such as nightmares, trouble concentrating, phobic avoidance of situations and objects symbolically linked to the abduction material, and emotional intrusions related to their reported experience.
The proportions of our sample seeking help for depressive symptoms (17 percent), for schizophrenia (1 percent), and manic-depression (1 percent) were comparable to the proportions in the general U.S. population. At 17 percent, our sample was about two times more likely to seek help for anxiety as the general population. The findings are similar to those of other researchers of abduction experiencers, who find a low incidence of serious psychopathology among individuals reporting such experiences.[5-7]
Our sample was slightly more likely than the general population to be taking psychoactive medication; 19 percent of our respondents were taking psychoactive medications, compared to 12 percent of the general population. Most of the medications reported were anxiolytics and antidepressants; only 4 percent of the sample reported taking antipsychotic medication.
We received additional data from a subsample of 71 individuals who answered questions about psychotherapy and their experiences. Seventy-one percent reported that they had disclosed their experience to their therapist. Of those who did disclose their unusual experience to their therapist:
• 34 percent said that disclosure about the experience was unhelpful. Respondents in this group stated that therapists dismissed the experiences as imagination or otherwise refused to address the feelings of the individual involved.
• 14 percent reported that disclosure was harmful. Respondents stated that therapists in this group imposed the label of sexual abuse to the experience or were felt by the respondent to be more interested in the abduction material than in the person who was frightened by it.
• 52 percent said that disclosure of their extraordinary experience to their counselor was helpful. Respondents stated that the sense that they were not alone in trying to cope with their extraordinary experience was extremely helpful. A number of people noted that the caring presence of the counselor made a life-saving difference.
Thus, a psychotherapist can be extremely helpful to individuals dealing with extraordinary experiences when the therapist is able to tolerate not knowing about the reality status of the experience, while paying attention to the feelings and struggles of the person involved.
Social Aspects of Extraordinary Experiences
It is well known that people tend to organize and interpret the ongoing experience of life in terms of shared frameworks of knowledge. We wondered whether interest in UFOs determined how a person described their anomalous experience.
Despite the variety in the kind of experiences reported, a similar high percentage (about 80 percent) in each group reported that they enjoyed UFO books, movies, and TV shows. Thus, mere exposure to UFO and abduction material was not sufficient for an individual in our sample to reorganize and reinterpret an unusual experience in terms of abduction. Our sample had other interests besides UFOlogy; they also reported high interest in documentary (79 percent) and comedy programs (72 percent), as well as science books and periodicals (61 percent).
The high level of interest in UFO material could be a natural consequence of an extraordinary experience. Because human beings live according to shared symbols and knowledge, an individual having an extraordinary experience will try to make sense of that experience by investigating what has happened to other people. This decreases the experiencer’s sense of isolation and anxiety.
However, this natural desire to find a common explanation has a downside. Skeptics often dismiss the consistencies in reports of alien abduction and other extraordinary experiences as the products of media exposure. Not surprisingly, individuals with anomalous experiences who have extensively explored paranormal references have similar concerns; to what degree are memories of past and subsequent experiences influenced by what has been read? It’s a difficult bind for the experiencer who wants to feel less isolated, but who is also wanting to understand his/her own experience.
“It is difficult for humans to organize in a meaningful way perceptions occurring outside commonly shared symbolic knowledge.”
Future research into extraordinary experience will help us understand the relationship between socially constructed images and symbols, and perceptions generated from personal experience. The pygmies’ experience shows us that it is difficult for humans to organize in a meaningful way perceptions occurring outside of commonly shared symbolic knowledge. To what degree can we differentiate socially constructed images from images of personal experience? How do anomalous phenomena get perceived and organized in meaningful ways by the individual, and how does individual experience influence what is accepted as real within a community?
In summary, we found that people reporting extraordinary experiences seemed to have fairly stable lives, with low reports of psychopathology, despite experiences that seem to have high impact. Alien abduction experiences had particularly high impact. Though anomalous experiences could not be explained away as hypnotically-constructed memories, the high proportion of the sample exposed to hypnosis and the prevalence of gaps in memory raise questions about the role of altered states in the creation and recovery of memories of extraordinary experiences.
The study of anomalous experiences is important because it is only through the recognition, description, and careful study of anomalies that science moves forward. Just as the pygmies in the introduction of the paper needed to observe and discuss the anomaly of the “ants on a leaf” in order to finally perceive the fisherman on the lake, so PEER is actively involved in collecting data about extraordinary experience. And, we expect that just as the pygmies gained a whole new ability to perceive aspects of their world, so must our study of anomalous experiences expand and enrich our own capacity to perceive that which was previously hidden to us.
 Mack JE. Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens. New York: Scribner; 1994.
 Hopkins B. Missing Time: A Documented Study of UFO Abductions. New York: Richard Marek; 1981:258.
 Wilson JP. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and experienced anomalous trauma (EAT): Similarities in reported UFO abductions and exposure to invisible toxic contaminants. Journal of UFO Studies. 1990;2:1-17.
 Laibow RE. Clincial discrepancies between expected and observed data in patients reporting UFO abductions: Implications for treatment. In: Laibow RE, Sollod RN, Wilson JP, eds. Anomalous Experiences and Trauma: Current Theoretical, Research, and Clincial Perspectives. New York: The Center for Treatment and Research of Experienced Anomalous Trauma; 1992:320.
 Parnell JO, Sprinkle RL. Personality characteristics of persons who claim UFO experiences. Journal of UFO Studies. 1990;2:45-58.
 Rodeghier M, Goodpastor J, Blatterbauer S. Psychosocial characteristics of abductees: Results from the CUFOS Abduction Project. Journal of UFO Studies. 1991:59-90.
 Spanos N, Cross P, Dickson K, DuBreuil S. Close encounters: An examination of UFO experiences. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 1993;102:624-632.
The survey was conducted by Caroline McLeod, Ph.D. and research associate Barbara Corbisier, M.A.
Caroline McLeod, Ph.D. was the director of research at PEER, the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research, a project of the Center for Psychology and Social Change. She received her Ph.D from Boston University, where she studied how the implicit ways that human beings make sense of the world affect their physical health.
Barbara Corbisier received her M.A. in Psychology from Brandeis University in 1995. Her thesis, The Role of State Dependence in Reality Monitoring, examined how different states of consciousness contribute to how the source of a memory is determined.
© 1995 John E Mack Institute
Originally published in CenterPiece 1995/1996 Issue 6, pp. 17-19,26-27. This article was prepared between Sept and Dec 1995 from surveys received in late 1994-1995.
(PEER’s Extraordinary Experiences Survey is not to be confused with PEER’s more elaborate Personality Study – full title Personality Differences Related To Reports Of Anomalous Experiences Commonly Called ‘Alien Abduction’ – conducted between 1994 and 1998.)