Dismissing Extraordinary Experiences

A rebuttal to a commentary by skeptic Joe Nickell

by John E. Mack, M.D.
with Will Bueché

Nickell’s critique dismisses extraordinary experiences a priori. Having codified experiences that transcend our material reality (from “psychic abilities” to “religious visions”) as examples of fantasy, it is thereafter a simple matter of defining anyone who has such experiences as “fantasy prone.” This is circular reasoning. Having taken this first misstep, the path does not even begin to enter the terrain within which we can reach an understanding of the nature of the alien encounter experience.

Before I encapsulate my view of the nature of alien encounters, I must correct a detail of the critique which stated, with what sounded like clinical certainty, that the “reexperiencing and reliving” of experiences during hypnotic relaxation is “typical of fantasy proneness.” The citation for this (Wilson & Barber) would perhaps be best complemented by Brewin, Dalgleish, & Joseph, 1996; Foa, Molnar, & Cashman, 1995; Terr, 1991; Van der Kolk & Fisler, 1995 (cited in Andrews et al., 2000) who support the position that traumatic memories of sufficient emotional intensity as to contribute to post-traumatic stress (such as childhood sexual abuse or other maltreatment) “are often experienced as a reliving of the event in the present.” Such vivid recollections are typically experienced when one is prompted by any number of external or internal cues that one may come across in the course of their natural lives, or they may be evoked by the use of any relaxation technique, including, but not limited to, hypnotic relaxation. The omission of this widely available clinical information could give the impression that the reliving of sensations is solely the province of “fantasy prone” personalities, when in fact it is common in a great variety of people.

The emphasis on “fantasy” as both the description of and explanation for alien encounters (and other interactions that seem to exceed, if not contradict, our understanding of nature) speaks directly to the point I would like to make about our view of the world.

The worldview that continues to be more or less dominant in Western society, and those cultures we have influenced, is called variously Newtonian/Cartesianism, scientific materialism, or anthropocentric humanism. It radically separates the objective from the subjective domains. The objective world, matter and energy, is treated as virtually synonymous with reality, and knowledge of it is gained by the scientific method, viz. hypothesis, controlled experiment, measurement and replication. Unless the presence of beings, or any other intelligence, can be proven to exist by this method, reports of such encounters can be dismissed out of hand or relegated to the purgatory of the subjective.

But the alien encounter phenomenon “subverts the same modern worldview which discredits [it]” (Harpur, 1994). It seems to belong to that particular class of phenomena that seems not to be of this material world and yet appears to manifest here, however briefly. Whatever or whomever these beings may be, they seem to have the capacity to enter our world, while, at the same time, bringing the experiencers into the level of consciousness, or the dimension of reality, in which the beings “reside”. Having “handed over” the extra-dimensional aspects of reality to the clerics centuries ago, we are unprepared for these “crossovers” to and from our three-dimensional material world, the one domain of reality which we have learned, or been programmed to believe, is real.

The evidence for alien encounters, like that of spiritual experience, is largely experiential, i.e. the reports of individuals themselves, and, on occasion, corroborating observations by others of at least a part of the experience. The testimony of over 200 witnesses that I have recorded over the past twelve years consistently describes an experience that seems to transcend material existence, but far from being unreal it may describe a meeting of worlds that we have arrogantly separated.

“It is like our reality is set within a larger dimension in which everything is always present,” Karin (one of the experiencers) related to me. “In our evolution,” says Judy, “we are learning to handle the knowledge of living in different dimensions.” “We keep expanding,” Greg concurs. “We are coming closer to allowing this within our reality,” Nona says. “Transcendent is definitely the word.” Abby speaks of, “transcending what you’ve grown to know as your existence.”

Mythologist Patrick Harpur suggests that since the beginning of history, interactions with other realms have moved us “toward a radical re-alignment of what we commonly regard as reality” (1994). The alien encounter experience is one among a number of anomalies that are enabling us to see the cosmos as a vibrant and complex interplay of different dimensions, some of which contain intelligences that we may interact with — by their prompting, and perhaps, eventually, by our own.

Physicist Arthur Zajonc has connected our evolving knowledge of the cosmos to a call for changes in the way human beings perceive: “We are now being called upon to see new things. What this requires is a transformation of self, and the creation of organs of perception which allow us to see new things” (Zajonc 1992).

What is evident to those who have worked with experiencers is that the transformation is well underway.


Andrews, Bernice, et al. “The Timing, Triggers and Qualities of Recovered Memories in Therapy,” British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2000, no. 39, pp. 11-26).

Harpur, Patrick. Daimonic Reality: Understanding Otherworld Encounters (Penguin, 1994)

Zajonc, Arthur. Interview by Jane Clark, “Contemplating Nature.” Noetic Sciences Review (1992, no. 23, pp. 19-25).


This untitled essay (titled “Dismissing Extraordinary Experiences” for its appearance on this website) was written for a 2002 UK edition of Ronald D. Story’s UFO Encyclopedia. It is a rebuttal to a commentary by skeptic Joe Nickell titled “Mack’s abductees”. (Nickell’s commentary was originally published in Skeptical Inquirer, November 1995).

The essay was largely constructed by PEER’s Will Bueché using excerpts from Mack’s essay, Witnessing: Abductees as Sacred Truth-Tellers, excerpts from press interviews in support of his book Passport to the Cosmos (including a practice interview conducted by PEER’s Karen Wesolowski in March 2000), and excerpts from the Abstract for Victoria Prophet’s Conference written by Mack on July 12, 2001.

The edition of the encyclopedia in which the essay appears is believed to be ISBN 1841196134, published by Little, Brown Book Group, London on 2002-08-29, under the new title The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters. Mack’s essay is not present in the US edition ISBN 0451204247, published by NAL Trade on 2001-09-01. The essay is also not present in the 2012 edition, which appears to be a reprint of the 2001 US edition.

The version on this website was streamlined by Will Bueche in 2021; 142 words were deleted, 5 words were added, and one sentence was repositioned and revised (for clarity) to say “extra-dimensional” rather than “non-material”.

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

© 2002 John E. Mack, M.D.