Feb 17, 2003
At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver, Harvard researcher Richard J. McNally presented data which established that the physiological response from memories of “alien encounter” experiences may be as pronounced as the response from any reality known to be true. This has significant implications, yet only one implication is being promoted by the researcher. McNally has chosen to view these results as evidence of the “power of emotional belief.” However, that conclusion can only be reached if one presumes that alien encounters have not transpired, that they are unreal, and that they are therefore an example of belief – which is, naturally, beyond his study’s ability to determine (a simplistic comparison of contact experiences with sleep paralysis is being promoted by the researcher). The matter of the reality of alien encounters remains unresolved, even as we now have evidence that the impact they leave upon people is as significant as any life experience.
Below we present a copy of a February 17, 2003 BBC article on a research study by Richard McNally of the Harvard Medical School, followed by exclusive commentary and critique from one of the experiencers who participated in the study, and excerpts from additional news articles on this study gathered from around the globe. Of particular merit is an article from the student newspaper The Harvard Crimson.
The study itself has not yet been published.
Alien ‘abductees’ show real symptoms
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff in Denver
People who claim to have been kidnapped by aliens have a tendency to believe in fantasies and suffer disturbing experiences in their sleep, scientists have found.
But the researchers say “abductees” also believe in their experiences so deeply that they display real stress symptoms similar to those of traumatised battlefield veterans.
The latest research on the “taken” phenomenon was unveiled at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver.
“This underscores the power of emotional belief,” Professor Richard McNally, from Harvard University, told the BBC.
A group of abductees told the BBC about their experiences on Saturday. One of them said: “I’ve had several encounters with alien craft and I’ve had an alien implant removed from my body.”
Scientists believe this clearly is not true, so why do abductees believe they have been taken?
Professor McNally has found that many of them share personality traits and sleep disorders.
“Most of them had pre-existing new-age beliefs – they were into bio-energetic therapies, past lives, astral projection, tarot cards, and so on,” he said.
“Second, they have episodes of apparent sleep paralysis accompanied by hallucinations.”
Professor McNally has come up with a rational explanation of alien abduction experiences which was endorsed by other psychologists in Denver. He said the individuals conformed to a “common recipe”.
But the researcher stressed that many of the people really did believe what they were saying.
In laboratory experiments, individuals were asked to relate their experiences. These stories were played back to them and their physical responses recorded.
“When a Vietnam vet has his experiences played back to him in the lab of some combat event, his heart rate goes up and you see an increase in sweating. If you don’t have post-traumatic stress disorder, you don’t react that way.
“The heart-rate responses and sweating responses were at least as great in the alien abductees when they heard their memories of being taken and molested by space aliens and subjected to experiments as those of people with genuine traumatic events.”
RESPONSE TO THE ABOVE ARTICLE BY ONE OF MCNALLY’S ‘EXPERIENCER’ SUBJECTS
As one of the participants in McNally’s study, I’ve been aware of his personal position on the subject of alien encounters for some time now. As he is a decent man I do not hold it against him that his personal opinion is that alien encounters do not exist; such is entirely his right and it means little to me.
However, as one reads his study (or news articles about it), one needs to be aware that McNally’s personal opinion is not the direct result of his results, which are remarkable. McNally’s study proved that the physiological responses of experiencers are as authentic as the physiological responses of people whose experiences are not considered “unreal.” That has significant implications.
McNally has chosen the safest possible implication — he chooses to view these results as evidence of the “power of emotional belief.” However anyone can see that this is a conclusion which can only be reached if one presumes that alien encounters have not transpired, that they are unreal, and that they are therefore a matter of belief. The study did not prove that alien encounters were fantasy, on the contrary, it proved that the physiological response was as authentic as the response from any reality known to be true. The matter of the reality of alien encounters remains unresolved, even as we now have evidence that the impact they leave upon people is as significant as that from reality.
Although I respect McNally for the research he has done, some of his opinions professed in the article above are based on superficial comparisons which I cannot hold in the same respect — i.e., his suggestion (made here and elsewhere in the press) that because some aspects of alien encounters sound somewhat similar to sleep paralysis and accompanying hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucination, that that may be an explanation.
The following paragraphs have been revised as of July 2003 to reflect facts that came to light upon review of the actual report, which at last became available in draft form.
Indeed, comments in the press suggested that McNally had shown that experiencers have a higher incidence of sleep paralysis than the average population. A review of McNally’s paper (a draft of the report was recently obtained) has revealed that this suggestion is not supported by the study. The sole reason why this suggestion was made is simply because the report defines alien encounters as sleep paralysis. Therefore, a person who reported life long, frequent contact with apparent aliens was reinterpreted by McNally as a person who reported life long episodes of sleep paralysis, and this evidently put them above average.
The opinion that these two experiences were one was based on the superficial similarities between the initial moments of an alien encounter and the experience of sleep paralysis and the tendency for alien encounters to take place at night.
The opinions of experiencers themselves on the distinctions would be ones to consider here, given that many experiencers are familiar with such states of consciousness, since they have been prompted by their experiences to learn about alternative explanations for what they perceived (including studying what is known about human psychology), and still remain unconvinced that these account for their alien encounter experiences.
Experiencers such as myself who have experienced sleep paralysis once or twice may have relevant information. I can easily appreciate how someone who is not personally familiar with both experiences may be tempted to make a connection between the superficial similarity between sleep paralysis and the initial moments of a typical alien encounter. By most estimates, greater than a quarter of the population (some say 30%) have experienced sleep paralysis, which is to say they have become semi-conscious during the natural condition which keeps our bodies from moving during sleep, a time when our perceptions tend to be skewed. That the experience is only superficially similar to some moments of contact seems to be given short thrift by McNally, and indeed as is common when making such comparisons he makes no mention of experiences which are perceived by two or more people simultaneously — which while not establishing for certain that alien encounters take place in our “reality,” certainly blur the distinction between objective (external) reality and internal (subjective) reality far beyond what scientists can account for.
When I originally read McNally’s comments in the press which seemed to suggest that he’d found a link between alien encounters and sleep paralysis, I considered the following idea: “If experiencers do report more episodes of sleep paralysis than the average population, then this discovery could prompt further research into the question of whether altered states of consciousness, such as the states of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, may be conducive to extraordinary perception (a possibility suggested by Sherwood, S. in the Journal of Parapsychology, June 2002).” Such an exploration may still have merit, however as noted above, McNally’s report did not document an elevation in episodes of sleep paralysis, it merely noted an elevation in alien encounters and then redefined the encounters as sleep paralysis.
A second statement which deserves a closer look is McNally’s suggestion that people who report alien encounters have unusual beliefs about reality, beliefs which he says in the BBC article existed prior to their encounters. One needs to bear in mind that according to most studies, adult experiencers have tended to have had encounters since childhood which they may have disregarded at the time for the most part (childhood experiences tending to have a different quality than those in adult life). If encounters do begin in childhood, then the development of novel ideas about reality may well be the result of their early experiences, even if they did not become fully aware of their experiences until later in their adult lives. In short, “cause and effect” remains in question even for that aspect of his study.
I hope that a critical reader will take into consideration the details of this report, and understand the remarkable results of his physiology study are not diminished by the personal opinions of the researcher.
The Harvard Crimson
Thursday, February 20, 2003
Study Explores ‘False Memories’
People who claim they were abducted by aliens show more intense emotional reactions to their memories than some Vietnam War veterans, according to a Harvard study released Sunday.
But a spokesperson for one controversial Harvard professor said the study may demonstrate something more significant—that humans may actually experience contact with a “third realm.”
Professor John E. Mack, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and a popular writer and commentator on extraterrestrial activity, has disputed the notion that alien abduction claims are fabricated. His spokesperson cites the study as evidence.
Most experts, however, say the study’s findings, presented by Professor of Psychology Richard J. McNally at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), show that emotional trauma can stem from imagined experiences.
“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 said.
In his study, McNally read abduction accounts both to subjects claiming to have been taken by aliens and to neutral controls, and found significant physiological differences in the reactions of the two groups.
The average increase in heart-rate of those who claimed abduction was 7.8 beats-per-minute, compared with no significant response from subjects in the control group. When Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder were subjected to the same procedure, the average increase in heart-rate is 3.2 beats-per-minute, McNally said.
William J. Bueché, communications director for Mack’s Center for Psychology and Social Change, said the physiological reactions may stem from contact with a spiritual reality that exists apart from the material and the non-material.
Bueché said McNally’s study is “a significant landmark in alien encounter research.”
He criticized McNally, however, for what he called his “leap of faith.”
“McNally assumes that the alien encounters are just beliefs…but that’s not clear-cut,” Bueché said.
McNally said he and Mack agree that the subjects had intense emotional experiences, and were not mentally ill; but he added he was “very skeptical” of the abduction narratives themselves.
This disagreement over the reality of the abductions is not new. In 1995, then-Dean of the Medical School Daniel C. Tosteson ’44 took the rare step of publicly warning Mack about the manner in which his research on alien abduction was affecting the academic standards of the Medical School.
Mack was forced to withdraw Harvard affiliation from his center, and asked by the Medical School to work with other researchers who were not immediately sympathetic to his work.
Some scientists said Mack’s research methods cast doubt on his interpretation of McNally’s study.
Arnold S. Relman, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and chair of an ad-hoc committee at the Medical School which investigated Mack’s research, said Mack has “only gone through the motions” of producing more objective research.
But Bueché said the accusations against Mack were “trivial” and that since 1994, Mack had brought together researchers in multiple disciplines, including McNally, to do research on alien abduction.
Relman, however, said he has been “disappointed” with what he called Mack’s lack of objectivity.
“If I were dean, I might have said to him, ‘John, for God’s sake, take a look at what you’re doing, you’re making a fool of yourself, and if you believe that you’re onto something of fantastic import… get some help from your colleagues,’” Relman said.
The BBC article was also picked up by HealthScoutNews (syndicated on various websites such as Yahoo), and run in an abridged form:
|Alien ‘Abductees’ Experience Real Stress Symptoms, Researcher Says
People who say they’ve been abducted by aliens believe so deeply in their encounters that they suffer real stress symptoms resembling those of traumatized war veterans, BBC News reports.
“This underscores the power of emotional belief,” the BBC quotes Prof. Richard McNally of Harvard University saying.
“If you genuinely believe you’ve been traumatized and recall these memories, you’ll show the same psycho-physiologic emotional reactions as people who really have been traumatized,” McNally adds.
The research, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also found that the “abductees” tend to believe in fantasies and are afflicted with disturbing experiences in their sleep, such as sleep paralysis accompanied by hallucinations.
Coverage of McNally’s study was also picked up by AP (Associated Press) on February 17, paired with information about what AP described as a “new” study about “implanting false memories” by Elizabeth Loftus. In fact Loftus’ study was already reported on last year (the “Bugs Bunny is a Disneyland Character?” study), but it is being reported as if it were new. McNally’s study is mentioned at the end:
…In other research presented Sunday, Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally tested 10 people who said they had been abducted, physically examined and sexually molested by space aliens.
Researchers tape-recorded the subjects talking about their memories. When the recordings were played back later, the purported abductees perspired and their heart rates jumped.
McNally said three of the 10 subjects showed physical reactions “at least as great” as people suffering post traumatic stress disorder from war, crime, rape and other violent incidents.
“This underscores the power of emotional belief,” McNally said.
An Australian news agency called the Herald Sun ran a similar version of the story on the 19th:
|The Herald Sun, Australia
19 Feb 03
Sleep terrors not so alien
DENVER – They have terrified those who experience them and baffled those who investigate them.
But alien abductions – along with ghosts and other paranormal visions that have spooked mankind for centuries – have a simple explanation, scientists are claiming.
A study suggests that visits from aliens and night-time ghostly encounters all result from a surprisingly common sleep disorder.
Professor Richard McNally said his research suggested a condition called sleep paralysis can account for many types of paranormal experiences.
In a study of those who claimed to have been abducted by aliens, he found all suffered from the condition.
In sleep paralysis, victims begin to awake from deep sleep and become partially conscious of their surroundings but remain paralysed.
Crucially, dreams can still intrude into their consciousness, appearing to be genuine experiences.
“Almost one in three of us will have episodes of sleep paralysis at some stage in our lives,” Professor McNally told a science conference.
One in 20, he added, experience sleep paralysis and vivid hallucinations. Professor McNally, of Harvard University, tested 10 adults who claimed to have been abducted by aliens and a similar number of people who did not.
“Crucially, the people who claimed they had been abducted had all had an episode of sleep paralysis,” Professor McNally said.
How people interpreted this experience depended on their culture, Professor McNally added.
“Sleep paralysis … has been reported in many different ways in many different cultures throughout history,” he said.
“In Newfoundland, it’s called being visited by the ‘old hag’. In the southern US, it’s being ‘ridden by the witch’. In the Middle Ages, it was interpreted as being visited by agents of the Devil.
In Massachusetts, it’s being taken up in a space craft and molested by aliens.”
This article from the UK at least has an amusing headline.
The Times (UK)
February 18, 2003
Abduction by aliens is really stressful
PEOPLE who claim to have been abducted by aliens suffer many of the same trauma symptoms as Vietnam veterans and World Trade Centre survivors, even though their memories are not real.
Researchers have found that they show many of the physical and psychological effects normally seen in post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares, anxiety, racing heartbeats and sweaty palms, when recalling experiences.
The findings, by a team at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggest that most abductees are not mentally ill and genuinely believe that they have been kidnapped by visitors from outer space and that their false memories were induced by a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis, which affects 30 per cent of the population at some stage in their lives, occurs when a person wakes during rapid eye movement sleep, when dreaming takes place and the entire body is paralysed with the exception of the eyes. It can often lead to frightening visions called hypnopompic (upon awakening) hallucinations as elements of a dream impinge upon wakefulness. Sufferers usually report being unable to move while seeing shadowy figures around their beds, feeling electric currents coursing through their bodies, or levitating.
According to Richard McNally, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, the phenomenon probably explains the witch crazes of the 16th and 17th centuries, ghost sightings and scores of other paranormal events. “Today, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it’s interpreted as abduction by space aliens,” he told the conference.
In his study, Professor McNally sought to investigate whether false memories could be as traumatic as genuine ones by examining “the emotional reactions of people whose traumatic memories are almost certainly false — people who claim to remember having been abducted by space aliens”.
He asked ten “abductees” to record tapes of their experiences, along with other memories that were either positive, neutral or negative, then analysed their reactions as they listened to the playback.
The abductees had psycho-physiological responses similar to those seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients. “With PTSD, we find these heightened responses when, for example, a Vietnam veteran hears his memories played back to him. The degree of response was at least as great in those who claimed to have been subjected to experiments on space ships as it was in those who have been traumatised by genuine events.”
None of the subjects was mentally ill. Professor McNally said: “It’s more mundane than mental illness, or actually being abducted, but it’s a frightening event, and listening to it provokes physiological reactions as strong as PTSD.”
All ten abductees recounted reasonably consistent details of their experiences, Professor McNally said, but these were almost certainly culturally determined. “Their memories were of being subjected to sexual and medical probing on spaceships. I certainly think we can say The X-Files probably helped with all that.”
Sleep paralysis was the likely explanation for many paranormal phenomena. All the subjects in the study had visited “recovered memory” practitioners before recalling their alien experiences. [Note from CPSC: That claim, in the last sentence, is not true]
The Financial Times (!) also reported on the study. In this article McNally suggests that his results provide a cautionary note: that inaccurately recalled memories (“recovered memories” are cited, possibly a nod to attendee Elizabeth Loftus, see AP story above) can produce intense emotional reaction. Though he is well intentioned, we again note that McNally is taking the position that alien encounters are examples of inaccurately recalled events in order to make his case. If they are in fact events which are recalled with some accuracy, then logically the study’s relevance to this point is null.
|Tuesday February 18 2003
American Association for the Advancement of Science:
Frightening new evidence of the brain’s susceptibility to suggestion was presented yesterday to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Psychologists described recent experiments in which they implanted false memories, altered perceptions through subliminal messages, and demonstrated the intense emotional distress of people who believed they had been abducted by aliens.
Richard McNally of Harvard University studies 10 people who had reported being abducted by aliens and subjected to traumatic experiences such as sexual examination on a spaceship. Participants recorded these
The physiological symptoms of emotional distress shown by the abductees during playback were similar to those of people suffering from real post-traumatic stress. Prof McNally said his experiment should sound a warning to some psychotherapists who believed “recovered memories” of past traumas such as childhood sex abuse are genuine just because they induce intense emotion. “The intensity of emotional reaction associated with a memory cannot confirm the authenticity of the memory,” he said.
|Alien memories leave real scars
Scientist says false abduction tales create genuine stress
By Alan Boyle
DENVER, Feb. 16 — People who say they’ve been abducted by aliens exhibit the same physiological reactions as people who have experienced more conventional kinds of trauma, a Harvard psychologist reported Sunday. He says the research provides evidence that even false memories can leave real emotional scars. However, he doesn’t expect to convince the abductees themselves that they’re wrong.
ALIEN ABDUCTIONS have become an integral element of American popular culture — due in part to television programs like “The X-Files” and the recent miniseries “Taken,” in which abductions are a common plot element. Surveys consistently indicate that about a third of all adult Americans believe extraterrestrials have visited Earth.
Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally, author of the forthcoming book “Remembering Trauma,” isn’t one of them. Indeed, he said he selected the subject for study precisely because memories of such abductions were “almost certainly false.”
The point of McNally’s research, presented here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was to see whether the emotional impact of a false memory generated physiological signs similar to the post-traumatic stress suffered after authentic experiences. Along the way, McNally developed a profile for typical abductees.
PORTRAIT OF AN ALIEN ABDUCTEE
The Harvard research team placed an ad in Boston newspapers to recruit their subjects. Most of those who responded were pranksters, but 10 people were selected as sincere reporters of abduction experiences.
McNally said the screening interviews indicated that the typical abductee:
DOING THE EXPERIMENT
Once the 10 abductees and eight control subjects were selected, McNally put them through a standard procedure for gauging post-traumatic stress disorder.
The abductees were asked to record their memories of a neutral, positive and stressful event from everyday life, as well as two abduction experiences. Then the abductees listened to their audiotapes while hooked up with equipment to monitor heart rate, skin conductance (which detects sweaty palms) and facial muscle tension. Separately, each member of the control group listened to an abductee’s tapes to gauge an outsider’s reaction to the same descriptions.
When they listened to accounts of their own alien encounters, the abductees exhibited the physiological signs you might expect from someone suffering post-traumatic stress: heightened heart rate, increased sweating. McNally said three of the 10 abductees showed “subclinical” signs of post-traumatic stress disorder — which other experts have said affects 5 to 15 percent of Americans.
All this led McNally to the conclusion that falsely believing you’ve been traumatized could create the same reaction as actual trauma.
“The fact that somebody shows this reaction does not prove that the event actually occurred,” he said. “What it does seem to indicate is the sincere belief in the emotional intensity of the memory, whether true or false.”
He emphasized that the abductees were not considered patients and did not require psychiatric treatment. Rather, they were all considered psychiatrically healthy.
McNally said his findings, which have been submitted to a scientific journal but not yet published, could have an impact beyond “The X-Files.” For example, in child sexual abuse cases, some therapists have argued that if a child shows signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome, that serves as evidence that the child had in fact been abused — a type of claim known as “syndrome evidence.”
“I don’t think you can make that claim, based on what we found,” McNally said.
Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine who has conducted years of research into false-memory implantation, said McNally’s research is helpful for bringing the question of plausible vs. patently false memories into sharper focus.
“He feels pretty safe in saying these are false memories,” Loftus said. “Of course the individuals who have them don’t believe it, nor do some of their handlers, but most of us would accept that those are false memories. And most of those individuals get there in a way that’s very analogous to the way people get to believe that they were satanically abused.”
This isn’t McNally’s first brush with the UFO crowd: He was involved in another study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology last year, that concluded abductees were generally prone to create false memories. [see note below]
“That caused a big uproar in the alien-abductee community. And now I was told … that they love the psychophysiology study, because they’re going to think, ‘Oh, here it is, it really happened,’” he said with a laugh. “First we’re the bad guys, now we’re the good guys. We’re just trying to do the science on this.”
He said he had no intention of deprogramming his experimental subjects, since they seemed to have transformed their negative memories into something positive.
“These individuals had embraced the identity of abductee in such a way that we felt that they were happy with it,” he said.
McNally said only one of the abductees asked detailed questions about the point of his research.
“I mentioned the sleep paralysis stuff,” he recalled, “and she crossed her arms and said, ‘You scientists need to learn how to think outside the box. There are things outside there in the universe that you really don’t know about.’
“We have no interest in disabusing them of their beliefs.”
Note from Center editor: The earlier study to which McNally refers, a “thematic word-list” experiment conducted by McNally’s associate Susan Clancy was also derided by Harvard Medical School’s leading authority on memory, Daniel P. Brown, Ph.D., editor of Memory, Trauma Treatment, and the Law
Comments left on MSNBC website
Name: David Hennessy
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The Australian branch of ABC News Online ran the following story
News in Science 17/2/2003
‘Alien abductees’ suffer post-traumatic stress
Even false memories of being taken by a UFO can trigger post-traumatic stress
Alien abduction stories may be triggered by false memories, but sufferers still exhibit many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a U.S. study.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver, Professor Richard McNally, a psychologist at Harvard University in Boston, said people who recover false memories exhibit many of the same emotional effects as real trauma victims.
His team studied 10 adults who reported having been abducted by aliens, and compared these to eight control subjects who denied ever having been abducted, to measure physiological responses elicited when recalling these memories.
The ‘abductees’ were asked to record a narrative of their abduction, then another stressful experience in their life, followed by a happy memory and a neutral memory. Tapes of the discussion were later played back to the participants while their heart rate and galvanic skin response (or sweat response) was measured.
The control group, who denied ever having been abducted by aliens, were also measured whilst listening to the same tapes.
McNally found that those claiming to have been abducted exhibited the same physiological responses – increased heart rate and sweating – as victims of real trauma who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as Vietnam veterans and firemen.
“This underscores the power of emotional belief,” McNally told reporters.
Many remembered the experience as terrifying, but also very spiritual, said McNally. This differs greatly from the experience of a PTSD sufferer.
‘Sleep-paralysis’ occurs when a person wakens from REM sleep (named after the rapid-eye movement made in deep sleep) and is partly conscious but not fully awake. Dreams often intrude into reality in this state. About 30% of the population experiences sleep-paralysis, and 5% experience hypnopompic hallucinations.
Eight out of the 10 study participants who believed they had been abducted had visited a psychologist or memory recovery specialist, which McNally believes could have translated their waking dreams and hallucinations into ‘memories’ of alien abduction.
Maryke Steffens – ABC Science Online