John Mack Remembrance and Fundraiser in Los Angeles on Dec 9

November 4, 2004

You are invited to join friends of John Mack at 6 pm on Thursday, December 9th in Malibu at the home of Andrew Beath for a commemoration of John Mack’s life and a fundraiser for the John Mack Institute. Join friends of John Mack for shared remembrances of John, video clips, and discussion of the Institute.

WHERE: 20178 Rockport Way, Malibu (7 miles north of Santa Monica on PCH)
WHEN: Thursday, Dec 9 at 6 PM

The executive committee of the Institute has unanimously affirmed our intention to honor Dr Mack by carrying forward his mission. We believe, as John did, that the essence of science is an open-minded spirit of inquiry and a tradition of public validation of knowledge.

We understand that some knowledge may seem so remarkable that nothing less than cultural transformation may be required in order for the knowledge to be appreciated. We are dedicated to fostering this transformation.

To realize the Institute’s mission, we need your support. Please consider making an immediate tax-deductible gift to the Institute. Gifts can be made online or sent via mail.

Memorial Service for Dr. John Mack at Harvard Memorial Church

November 2004

Memorial Service for Dr. John Mack in Cambridge, MA

The family of John E. Mack wish to announce that there will be a memorial service in his honor at the Harvard Memorial Church in Cambridge, MA on Saturday, November 13th at 12:00 Noon.

Harvard’s Memorial Church is located in the center of Harvard Yard, only a short stroll from the Harvard Square subway station on the Red Line; see memorialchurch.harvard.edu for map.

Laurance Rockefeller, early funder of Dr. Mack’s work, dies at 94


Front to Back: Laurance Rockefeller, John Mack, Trish Pfeiffer, Whitley Strieber

July 11, 2004 – Laurance Rockfeller, an early funder of Dr. John Mack’s research into alien encounters, has passed away.

Read the full obituary notice at the New York Times:
www.nytimes.com

Excerpt: Laurance Rockefeller, the middle brother of the five prominent and philanthropic grandsons of John D. Rockefeller, who concentrated his own particular generosity on conservation, recreation, ecological concerns and medical research, particularly the treatment of cancer, died today at his home in Manhattan. He was 94.

Harvard researcher (not John Mack) publishes study on “experiencers” of alien contact

June 29, 2004

Harvard psychologist Richard J McNally has published a study of “experiencers” of alien contact in the journal Psychological Science, Vol 15, No. 7, pp. 493-497.

Harvard psychologist Richard J McNally has published a study of “experiencers” of alien contact in the journal Psychological Science. The National Institute of Discovery Science (NIDS) obtained permission to reprint the article:

Click here to read the study at www.nidsci.org [no longer available].

The study, which showed that people who claim to have been abducted by aliens show the same physiological signs of distress shown by people recalling more plausible traumatic events, was previewed a year ago; see archived press reports by clicking here.

Colm Kelleher, Ph.D., a research scientist at NIDS, notes:

“The journal Psychological Science is one of the more prestigious journals in psychology and is also one of the flagship journals of the American Psychological Society. It is read by thousandsof professional and research psychologists worldwide. Cumulatively Psychological Science readers hold tens of millions of dollars in research grants from NIMH and other grant giving bodies.”

“My hunch is that the data in this paper will surprise many Psychological Science readers in the psychology research community, since it greatly undermines their common perception that abductees are merely attention seekers, charlatans etc who want nothing more than to get their 15 minutes of fame. The data in Dr McNally’s paper are saying that the responses of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) victims and abductees are almost indistinguishable and will therefore demolish some commonly-held stereotypes. I believe that Dr MacNally’s paper may stimulate members of the psychological research community to take the next research step: to use the tools of fMRI and other brain-imaging techniques to take these (to their readers, very surprising) data to the next level. That is precisely what is needed in this field.”

“As such, I believe Dr McNally’s paper is a positive contribution.”

Dr McNally’s interpretation of his data, which relies upon his opinion that alien encounters are not real events, is said to have been criticized by colleagues at Harvard’s 2003 Mind/Brain/Behavior Junior Symposium “Schizophrenia, Dreams, and Alien Encounters”, who noted that his data just as easily supported the theory that the encounters were real.[1]

McNally explained his position to the Harvard Crimson in 2003. “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’s paper concludes by cautioning that “the physiological markers of emotion that accompany recollection of a memory cannot be taken as evidence of the memory’s authenticity,” while simultaneously noting that “one should not conclude that PTSD patients are reporting false memories of trauma” in the case of “more conventional and verifiable” traumatic memories.

William Bueché, communications director for the John E Mack Institute, told the Harvard Crimson in 2003 that McNally’s study is “a significant landmark in alien encounter research,” but criticized what he called McNally’s “leap of faith.” “McNally assumes that the alien encounters are just beliefs,” Bueché said, “but that’s not clear-cut.”

Harvard psychiatrist Dr John Mack, whose clinical interviews with more than 200 “experiencers” led him to conclude that prosaic explanations were insufficient to account for the phenomenon, argues “The claim (made to argue from an apriori position that this can’t be real) that people can cook up a genuine traumatic physiological state by simply imagining something that bears no actual relation to their experience goes against all our clinical knowledge accumulated over centuries.”

A Discover magazine article endorsing McNally’s interpretation is expected next month.


[1] Reporters and audio recording devices were prohibited from Harvard’s 2003 Mind/Brain/Behavior Junior Symposium in order to facilitate more candid discussion of this subject.

Announcement of John E Mack Institute

June 14, 2004

As long time friends, colleagues and associates of Dr. John E. Mack, Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, we are delighted to announce the birth of the new John E Mack Institute.

Effectively immediately, the Center for Psychology and Social Change, which Dr. Mack established in 1983, is renamed.

In dedicating the Institute in his name, we honor Dr. Mack’s courageous examination of human experiences, and his landmark explorations of the ways in which perceptions and beliefs about reality shape the human condition.

The Institute will honor his example by uncovering and developing areas of inquiry that profoundly contribute to our understanding of human experience, while providing a safe environment for healing discoveries.

On our website, johnemackinstitute.org, you can learn more about our plans for: research, education; interdisciplinary initiatives; educational programs, presentations and publications that will foster positive cultural changes and provide the basis for a more inclusive framework of knowledge for generations to come.

With your participation, we look forward to creating a world richer in understanding and possibilities.

Sincerely,

Richmond Mayo-Smith (Board Member and Chair Emeritus “92-“01)
and
Dennis Briefer (Board Member and Chair Emeritus ’01-’03)

TOUCHED wins best documentary at Female Eye Film Festival, Toronto

December 14, 2003 — Local filmmaker Laurel Chiten’s documentary “Touched,” about Harvard psychiatrist-turned-philosopher John Mack and “experiencers” of alien contact, won best documentary at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto earlier this month. This was the film’s first festival and first award.

The Female Eye Film Festival (FeFF) is a Toronto based international independent women’s film festival. The screening was held Saturday Nov 22 at 1:30 PM on the documentary screen of the festival. Filmmaker Laurel Chiten also took part in a panel discussion on Sunday. For more information on the film festival, please visit femaleeyefilmfestival.com.

Chiten is currently in New Mexico, where her film screened at the Santa Fe Film Festival. “Touched” played earlier this year at the Museum of Fine Arts. See previous article about Touched’s premiere.

The educational premiere of Touched was at Harvard University, at a Mind / Brain / Behavior Junior Symposium: “Schizophrenia, Dreams, and Alien Encounters” convened in September 2003 by Edward Kravitz, Ph.D. of the Neurobiology Department of Harvard Medical School.

2004 Updates: In response to the favorable reception of the film by the students and faculty at this day-long symposium, educational distribution of Touched to colleges and universities began in January 2004; institutions that have purchased Touched include Stanford University; Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio; Bates College, Lewiston, Maine; Cal State San Marcos; Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas; Argosy University, Twin Cities, Minnesota; Bosque School (6-12), Albuquerque, New Mexico; William Woods University, Fulton, Missouri; University of Great Falls, Montana; Covenant College, Georgia; Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio; Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut; The Hume Center, Concord, California.

Filmmaker Laurel Chiten was interviewed by Whitley Strieber on Dreamland.

Touched also won Best Documentary of 2003 in the “Abductee or Contactee” category (!) at a long-running UFO convention, The International UFO Congress in Laughlin, Nevada, in 2004.


2004 Screenings of TOUCHED:

MASSACHUSETTS
Cambridge: MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Wednesday, February 11, 7:00 pm
Showing as part of the “Chicks Make Flicks” series sponsored by Women in Film/New England. Filmmaker Laurel Chiten will be speaking. MIT is located at 77 Massachusetts Avenue. Screening will take place in Building 4, Room 270. Free admission. For more info contact Women in Film at 617.612.0091.

CALIFORNIA
San Francisco
Friday, Feb 20th, tentatively planned for 6:00 pm.
Join Dr. John Mack and filmmaker Laurel Chiten for a special screening and reception in the Penthouse of 3220 Sacramento Street (near Lyon), San Francisco. $40 admission per person, proceeds to support the making of the film; please contact us for more information.

Sonoma
Saturday, Feb 21 at 7:00, Sonoma Film Institute, Darwin Hall, Rm 108.
Sunday, Feb 22 at 4:00 Warren Auditorium, Ives Hall.
Filmmaker Laurel Chiten in Person! Dr. John Mack present Saturday night only. For more information and ticket information, visit www.sonoma.edu

Los Angeles
Join Dr. John Mack, filmmaker Laurel Chiten, and host Shirley MacLaine for our first Los Angeles screening and discussion.
DATE TO BE RESCHEDULED: CHECK BACK SOON! The date we had planned was so close to the Academy Awards that we felt it would be in the best interests of everyone if we changed it to another weekend, probably in April or May. We are checking in to possibilities now and expect to announce a new date soon!

ARIZONA
Tuscon
Monday Feb 23rd, Time TBA
Tuscon Medical School Auditorium of Tuscon University (students and the public are both welcome).

NEW MEXICO
Santa Fe
Tuesday Feb 24th, 6:00 pm
The Screen at the College of Santa Fe with John E. Mack and Laurel Chiten.

NEW MEXICO
Wednesday Feb 25th, 7:00 pm
The Madstone Theater Albuquerque at San Mateo
with John E. Mack and Laurel Chiten.

MASSACHUSETTS
Newburyport Firehouse Center for the Arts, One Market Square
Thursday, April 1st, 7:30pm
with filmmaker Laurel Chiten present for Q&A

NEW YORK [This screening was added after the death of Dr. Mack in Sept 2004]
A screening of the 65 minute film, and a tribute to Dr Mack’s life hosted by Alan Steinfeld of the New Realities cable tv series, with speakers Trish Corbett and Michael Mannion of the Mindshift Institute, Harold Eglen, director of S.P.A.C.E., and Alex Grey, visionary artist. Sponsored by: New Realties; Healing Gifts; The Concordia Foundation; Spirit New York; and FIONS (Friends of the Institute of Noetic Sciences) as part of the FIONS film series.
WHERE: Healthy Yoga, 4th floor, 540 West 27th (between 10th & 11th Ave)
WHEN: Saturday December 11th, 7pm


Feedback from the Screenings of TOUCHED:

“I screened Touched at a symposium for undergraduate juniors. Students’ initial skepticism about the subject was replaced with curiosity, tolerance, and a desire to understand. They could not stop asking questions!”
—Edward A. Kravitz, Ph.D.
Professor, Harvard Medical School

“Chiten’s masterful accomplishment combines great tenderness towards the ‘experiencers’ with rigorous questioning. It’s a mind-expanding journey that will ignite any classroom debate.”
—Eleanor Nichols Director,
Sonoma Film Institute,
Sonoma State University

“Touched opens up questions about the complexity of human psychological experience, human relationships, and scientific investigation. It does all this with sensitivity, humor, and impressive cinematic flair. Highly recommended for a lively classroom discussion.”
—Anne Harrington, Ph.D.
History of Science,
Harvard University

“An extraordinary evening. I highly recommend bringing this film to communities around the world if you want to spread the message of the possibility of intelligent life beyond the earth and our unfolding role in the evolving universe.”
—Gary E. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
University of Arizona

“Touched shone as a piece of filmmaking… I’d recommend the film highly, if one wants to hear human stories about seemingly normal, yet torn people, and the people in their lives. I’d also recommend it as a superb piece of documentary filmmaking… Ms Chiten is to be commended for her artistry.”
—Nick DiCiaccio,
Freedom of Mind Resource Ctr

“Touched, a documentary by Laurel Chiten, offers a uniquely contemplative perspective on the alien abduction phenomenon. It avoids cheesy flying saucer footage and tabloid hyperbole to focus on real people looking for the truth behind their unique experiences. Chiten presents the ‘experiencers’ and their stories with sensitivity and without judgment, and does not attempt to prove or disprove their theories. She was introduced to their world by John Mack, M.D., a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard Medical School professor whose research into alien abductions has brought him professional ridicule. Initially uninterested, Chiten became intrigued once she met the human beings behind the wild stories. Mack is an eccentric presence throughout the film, which allows him a dignity he doesn’t often receive in the press. Along with Harvard colleague Alan Dershowitz, he provides some amusingly outspoken commentary on the university’s academic politics. Brazilian experiencers and a surprisingly open-minded Vatican demonologist also provide intriguing commentary.”
—Amy Roeder, Boston’s Weekly Dig (April 9, 2003)

Terrorism and Consciousness Explored by Dr. John Mack in Noetic Sciences Magazine

June 2, 2003

The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) June quarterly science magazine, IONS REVIEW, includes an article on terrorism and its link to consciousness and worldviews. In this difficult time of violent chaos and widespread outburst of hatred and destruction, is it possible to search beyond the acts of evil to gain an understanding of these behaviors? Can a search for new knowledge and insight help generate a more just and secure world for future generations?

John E. Mack,M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, writes in his article, “Deeper Causes: Exploring the Role of Consciousness in Terrorism,” that “terrorism does not arise in a vacuum, or from some inchoate reservoir of evil out of which particular bad people may spontaneously emerge at certain times in history.” A broader, more complex worldview needs to be explored that allows a deeper understanding about the causes of this terrorism. “Without understanding what breeds these acts and drives the terrorists to do what they do … we have little chance of preventing further such actions, let alone of ‘eradicating terrorism.'”

James O’Dea, president of IONS said, “In this courageous and insightful article, Mack quotes former Governor Cuomo: ‘The only way to solve the terrorist problem is to change the minds of those who practice terrorism.’ In order to change their minds and murderous hatred in their hearts, we must demonstrate a greater understanding about how we are perceived by the growing numbers of suicidal terrorists and also better understand the roots of their rage.”

Dr. Mack writes that humanity is “at a turning point…a kind of race to the future between the forces of destruction and creation.” He concludes that what will be required is no less than a worldwide shift of consciousness that “enable the citizens of the Earth to become a genuine family of people…in which each of us can come to feel a responsibility for the welfare of all.”

IONS Noetic Sciences Review, June/August 2003, Issue 64, pp.11-17:
http://www.myions.org/Online Library/nsrev/review_archives/issue64/r64mack.pdf

Deeper_Causes_2003_06_IONS.pdf

Spirituality and Reality: New Perspectives on Global Issues, vol. 2 no. 2 in press

March 26, 2003

The mission of our UN program is to bring spiritual values to global issues. Our representative, Nancy Roof, Ph.D., has an announcement:

Spirituality and Reality: New Perspectives on Global Issues, vol. 2 no. 2 is now at the printer and will be available in about a week. It presents an introduction of Spiral Dynamics and an Integral worldview to the international community. Spiral Dynamics Integral is a developmental approach to global issues which includes the interior life, culture, social systems and behavior, which helps us to understand the different worldviews and core values that often clash in the global domain. It addresses the deep core values that determine surface behavior and interpretations. Tolerance, justice, peace, etc., mean different things to different people and this helps us understand why. Feature articles include: Integral Principles and Designs to Untie the Global Knot by Don Edward Beck, Integral Approaches that Transform Us and the World by Nancy Bath Roof, What Really Matters? A Youth’s Quest for Effecting Global Change by Barrett Chapman Brown, and articles by Don Edward Beck, Petra Pietrese, and Georgie Anne Geyer.

Spirituality & Reality is distributed to all United Nations missions around the world. To order, please your name and address by e-mail and a $5 donation for US ($7.50 overseas) by check or money order made payable to the Center for Psychology & Social Change.

Alien ‘abductees’ show real symptoms; meaning of results in dispute

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
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3077224/

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.

‘Abductees’
“If you genuinely believe you’ve been traumatised and recall these memories, you’ll show the same psycho-physiologic emotional reactions as people who really have been traumatised.”

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.”

New-age beliefs
It was typical of the stories they all had to relate. It is thought there are about four million Americans who believe they have been abducted by extraterrestrials.

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.”

Lab experiments
These frightening experiences usually prompted the individuals to visit therapists, who would frequently suggest alien abduction as a cause – an explanation which the abductees readily accepted, he said.

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.

Related articles:

The Harvard Crimson

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Study Explores ‘False Memories’
By JEREMY B. REFF
Contributing Writer

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.
Most researchers hailed the findings as significant in the field of recovered and false memories.

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
By Mark Henderson

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:
Studies question reliability of memory
By Clive Cookson in Denver

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
experiences on audiotapes, which were played back to them later in the laboratory
while researchers measured their heart rate, skin sweating and muscle tension.

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
MSNBC

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:

  • Endorsed a variety of “new age” beliefs — for example, a readiness to accept psychic phenomena.
  • Scored high on a measure of absorption, or “fantasy-proneness.”
  • Described an experience similar to sleep paralysis — in which a person emerges from rapid-eye-movement sleep into a half-waking state, able to move the eyes but not much else. McNally said about 30 percent of the population has had such an experience, which has been linked to jet lag and other sleep-cycle disruptions. In addition, the early stages of a reported abduction paralleled descriptions of hypnopompic hallucinations — nightmares that intrude into the half-waking state. About 5 percent of the population have reported such experiences, McNally said.
  • May recover detailed “memories” of being subjected to medical or sexual probing on spaceships.
  • May eventually come to regard the experience as positive and spiritually enriching, even though it was terrifying at the time.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.

    EARTHLY IMPLICATIONS

    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
    First let me state that I am a firm supporter of science as a “candle in the dark,” so to speak, in an age of so much rampant superstition and ignorance. However, something that bothered me — not about your article, but about the scientists involved — was the fact that they began their research with the assumption that the individuals they were interviewing were well-intentioned, self-deluded fantasy-prone individuals. How many bona fide psychology experiments begin with a de facto assumption of that kind, with the express intent of determining a conclusion about the reality of memories when the event itself is false? The number of assumptions that the experiment began with — begging the conclusion with assumptions as well — is staggering.
    The question, then, was, “Do alien abduction memories, which are false, lead to real trauma?” That is hardly a scientific question. It starts off with two major assumptions; a) it is aliens behind the phenomenon, and b) the aliens behind it don’t really exist. The right question to start with, if the…

    Name: Colin Burt
    It’s quite unscientific to make the utterly unsubstantiated assumption, based on absolutely nothing but what the “researcher” (McNally of Harvard) and obviously you clearly want to believe, that the abductees’ memories are false.

  • The Australian branch of ABC News Online ran the following story

    News in Science 17/2/2003
    ‘Alien abductees’ suffer post-traumatic stress

    [http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/s786169.htm]

    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.
    But there were significant differences between these adults and PTSD sufferers, said McNally. None of the participants were diagnosed as mentally ill, and when asked whether they would go through the experience of alien abduction again if they were given the chance, almost all of the participants said yes.

    Many remembered the experience as terrifying, but also very spiritual, said McNally. This differs greatly from the experience of a PTSD sufferer.
    Certain characteristics typified the subjects who believed that they had been abducted, McNally noted. ‘Abductees’ professed to have pre-existing ‘New Age’ beliastefs such as astral travelling, and a proneness to fantasy. Most importantly, they had episodes of ‘sleep-paralysis’ accompanied by hypnopompic (or upon-waking) hallucinations.

    ‘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

    TOUCHED premieres at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts: film documents lives ‘touched’ by alien encounters

    January 15, 2003

    A new film by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Laurel Chiten, TOUCHED, premieres at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on February 20. TOUCHED is much more than a look at alien encounters. It is about the human condition – about longing for connection and fear of separation.

    Dr. John Mack, the founder of the Center and a leading authority on the traumatic and transformational elements of alien encounters, invited the Emmy-nominated filmmaker to document the lives of several “experiencers” in the faith that she would see that the phenomenon – regardless of whether aliens are as real as they seem – is ultimately one that profoundly affects people’s lives.

    “Following the lead of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell the audience will witness an archetypal ‘Hero’s Journey.'” Chiten explains. “For the subjects of our film, their experiences have resulted in a kind of Holy Grail search for truth. Beneath the sensational aspects of alien encounters, these are real people looking for answers. TOUCHED will follow a human quest to solve a mystery – perhaps only to find that the answer is the quest itself.”

    The experiencers, Mack observed, were being forced to reevaluate their sense of the world, and how they relate to it. As one put it, “It makes you feel. It makes you move – sometimes violently – through things you don’t want to move through in your psyche and your ego and any of the other words you choose to call yourself.”

    At a Center event in 1999, an overwhelming majority of experiencers supported the position that their alien encounters are acting as a catalyst for their own – and humanity’s collective – evolution. The personal challenges that such an evolution entails for four experiencers, their friends and loved ones, are in evidence in Chiten’s new film.

    Chiten’s earlier films include The Jew in the Lotus, which explores the intersection of Buddhism with Judaism, and the Emmy-nominated Twitch and Shout, which focuses on people with Tourette Syndrome. Both of her earlier films have been shown nationally on PBS; TOUCHED is now on offer.

    TOUCHED premieres at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts
    Thursday February 20, 2003 at 8pm
    with reception following. The filmmaker and Dr. John Mack will be present.
    Three additional screenings of TOUCHED are planned:
    Sunday March 9 at 12:20 (film only);
    Friday April 11 at 8pm (filmmaker and Dr. Mack expected); and
    Wednesday April 16 at 6pm (filmmaker and Dr. Mack expected).

    For advance tickets and for more information visit blinddogfilms.com

    Touched will be released on home video after being screened around the country. There are no plans to release this documentary to television.

    Boston’s Weekly Dig
    April 2002

    Touched, a documentary by Laurel Chiten, offers a uniquely contemplative perspective on the alien abduction phenomenon. It avoids cheesy flying saucer footage and tabloid hyperbole to focus on real people looking for the truth behind their unique experiences. Chiten presents the “experiencers” and their stories with sensitivity and without judgment, and does not attempt to prove or dispove their theories. She was introduced to their world by John Mack, M.D., a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard Medical School professor whose research into alien abductions has brought him professional ridicule. Initially uninterested, Chiten became intruiged once she met the human beings behind the wild stories. Mack is an eccentric presence throughout the film, which allows him a dignity he doesn’t often receive in the press. Along with Harvard colleague Alan Dershowitz, he provides some amusingly outspoken commentary on the university’s academic politics. Brazilian experiencers and a surprisingly open-minded Vatican demonologist also provide intruiging commentary. Screening at the Museum of Fine Arts on April 11 at 8pm and April 16 at 6pm. See http://www.mfa.org for more information.

    Imagine Magazine
    Feb 2003
    Close Encounters with Laurel Chiten
    by Erin Trahan

    One snowy Boston evening changed the course of things for director Laurel Chiten. “I feel like John Mack abducted me,” she laughs.

    “I don’t know what was going on that night, I was being so goofy, making everyone laugh.” The snow prevented a colleague from introducing her film, THE JEW IN THE LOTUS. So she arrived at the MFA, appealingly disheveled, to take his place. It was her sense of humor and her edge that prompted John Mack to seek her out after the film. “I didn’t even know who he was. He wanted me to make a film about alien abductions.”

    So who is John Mack? Though a professor of psychiatry at Harvard and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, his celebrity is arguably more attached to his research on alien encounters than more “suitable” subjects for a person of his ilk. Since publishing the best selling book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens in 1997 (and outing him as a presumed extraterrestrial “believer” on shows like OPRAH and the TODAY SHOW), Mack grew frustrated, even bored by the predictable questioning of whether accounts of abductions were true or false. His next book on the subject, Passport to the Cosmos, is meant to move beyond the question of “if” and to a question that he believes is more relevant to earthly life “what do alien abductions mean for us?”

    Chiten’s immediate reaction to exploring the topic of alien abduction was to push the project away. “I knew absolutely nothing about the subject, and more importantly, I didn’t care about it.” Her other films like TWITCH AND SHOUT and THE JEW IN THE LOTUS came from her kitchkes, they were personal to her. When she finally started sifting through the first-person accounts of missing time, bodily probing, sperm extraction, impregnation, and apocalyptic warnings, Chiten reacted like most first-time abductees: she was frightened. She acknowledges that the topic called up her deepest fears, fears she cannot necessarily name. “I was emphatic about not making this film,” she reiterates.

    But Mack’s persistence led to an encounter at the Harvard faculty club, where Chiten first heard “experiencers” (as they call themselves) speak. She was struck by how sane the speakers appeared. “One woman reached out her hand to describe how it felt to be touched by an alien . . . and she started to cry. Forget aliens, it was so human to me, this longing to connect.” It is the translation of ostensibly inhuman experiences into unavoidably human terms that Chiten explores in TOUCHED.

    TOUCHED is Chiten’s third documentary. For someone who never set out to be a director, she’s developed an impressive niche. She started with two series: TWO IN TWENTY, a five-episode satirical soap and a ten-part video series based on Robin Casarjian’s book, House of Healing. Would-be-directors may not want to hear Chiten’s thoughts about joining her ranks. “Don’t become a filmmaker unless you have to. It is extremely hard work.” And has she made money from her films? Not really. Yet every time she engages a new subject, she falls in love, only to revisit the stress and anxiety of wondering if the film will ever be seen or appreciated once completed. Since she is just wrapping production on TOUCHED, in preparation for its February 20 debut at the MFA, she admits to being stretched a little thin.

    Fortunately, she surrounded herself with a great crew: “I attract people who are much smarter than I am, they make me look really good.” Perhaps too modest, Chiten has had colleagues claim that it is her credibility as a filmmaker that will get them through the door of seeing her latest, potentially controversial film.

    TOUCHED has been unique for Chiten because it essentially has three coproducers: Chiten along with editor Sabrina Zanella-Foresi and DP Andy Abraham Wilson. Even with their camaraderie, the crew approached the subject matter with differing philosophies. “Let’s just say I was Scully and Andy was Mulder. We actually called each other that.” Apparently “Mulder” was eager to experience his own UFO ride.

    One unexpected (and still highly confidential) occurrence dramatically affected the film at its zero hour. Let’s just say something happened to a character that in Chiten’s words “had a ripple effect on the entire film.” She promises the newly integrated material makes for an even more intense ending.

    “TOUCHED is really the most provocative film I’ve done.” Chiten wishes the film could tour the world, with she and Mack answering Q and A. Not that the film is about answers. But it opens up questions about the reorganization and reevaluation of strongly held beliefs about the cosmos, the divine, and the ever-pressing need for human connection. Chiten calls it a “launch pad” for discussing the pain and healing of transformation, inevitably and ultimately human.

    Chiten’s next projects are in various stages of production. She is working on “Freedom Behind Bars”, in collaboration with The Lionheart Foundation, about a ten-day meditation retreat inside a maximum-security prison in Alabama as well as “Twisted” about a neurological disorder even more unknown than Tourette’s Syndrome. Chiten describes, “like a TWITCH AND SHOUT two.” Both of these have footage shot and she is looking for funding.

    Chiten chalks up her chance meeting with Mack as serendipitous. But when asked about how she chooses her next film project she says, “Most of the time I don’t pick a project, they pick me.” Maybe TOUCHED will explain exactly who “they” are. Or maybe it’s more exhilarating not to know.

    TOUCHED premieres at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on February 20th at 8 pm. Both Laurel Chiten and John E. Mack will be present.. And will screen again on March 9 at 12:20 pm, Friday, April 11, at 8 pm with John Mack present, and Wednesday, April 16, at 6 pm. For more information about TOUCHED or Laurel Chiten, visit www.blinddogfilms.com.

    Erin Trahan is a freelance writer who frequently contributes to Imagine Magazine. She is a member of the Board for Women in Film/Video New England and lives in Jamaica Plain, MA.

    NEFilm
    January 2003

    Drawn to Human Drama
    Director Laurel Chiten delves into the world of alien abductees in her latest documentary “Touched”
    By Amy Roeder

    Director Laurel Chiten says that she “keeps making the same film over and over again.” Of course, the parallels between Chiten’s stories of alien abductees, individuals with Tourette’s Syndrome, and a Jewish writer and group of rabbis on a trip to meet the Dalai Lama may not seem obvious, but each is driven by the search for a sense of connection, Chiten explains.

    Chiten recently completed the documentary, “Touched,” which will premiere on February 20, 2003 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The film focuses on people who believe that they have experienced alien encounters. This is not the typical tabloid treatment of the topic, but rather an exploration of real people looking for answers. Whether or not the subjects’ stories are real, it is clear that each individual’s life has been irrevocably transformed by their quest to solve the mystery of their experience.

    The central figure in the story is John Mack, M.D., a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard Medical School professor who suffered public and professional ridicule when he became a “believer.” Mack approached Chiten about making a film based on his research. She initially had no interest in the subject, but agreed to accompany Mack to hear some alleged abductees, or “experiencers,” speak. Chiten became intrigued once she met the human beings behind the wild stories of bodily probing and alien/human-hybrid breeding programs. She wondered, “What happens when the unexplained intrudes into our lives, and how do lives and relationships respond when credulity is strained to the breaking point?” The resulting film is “not really about aliens,” Chiten said. “It’s about what people do when they’re dealt something difficult.”

    “I’m interested in underdog stories,” Chiten said, “giving a voice to people outside of society’s norm. The films are all about going on a journey. And they all have a spiritual underpinning, and a similar sense of humor.”

    Chiten finds storytelling to be the most compelling aspect of filmmaking. A certified American Sign Language interpreter, she started her career writing and directing deaf theater productions. She was drawn to film as a way to use her own voice. Her first major project was as producer, director and co-writer or the 5-part satirical lesbian soap opera, “Two in Twenty. ” Originally shown on public access, the series has attained cult status on home video.

    She created her landmark documentary about people living with Tourette’s Syndrome, “Twitch and Shout,” with the intention of following it up with a narrative film. Diagnosed with a mild case of Tourette’s herself, Chiten hoped to raise awareness about this often misunderstood genetic neurological disorder which can cause uncontrollable muscle tics and vocal expressions. The film “put Tourette’s on the map,” Chiten said, and eventually garnered nationwide airplay on the PBS series “P.O.V.,” in addition to an Emmy nomination and numerous other honors. However, after five years in production, she was left debt-ridden, exhausted and vowing never to make another film.

    But Chiten did not keep that vow for long. Looking for spiritual solace on a Buddhist chat room one night, she discovered the book “The Jew in the Lotus” by Roger Kamenetz, a best-selling account of the 1990 visit of eight rabbis to India to meet the Dalai Lama and share “the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” Kamenetz, who was recovering from the death of his baby, tagged along to chronicle the event,
    and was transformed by the experience. Chiten was inspired to take on the difficult task of translating a book with very little narrative into a film. Over the course of production, the theme of the film evolved into an exploration of the ways in which spirituality can help people deal with suffering.

    “Filmmaking is a lot like falling in love,” Chiten wrote for the premiere of “The Jew in the Lotus” at the 1998 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. “We have no control over who we fall in love with. … I never look for a story but wait until I ‘fall in love’ with something that I simply cannot say no to. Then I become elated and driven totally amnesiac, forgetting how difficult the ‘relationship’ can be.”

    “The Jew in the Lotus” was broadcast nationwide on PBS’ “Independent Lens,” and has screened around the world. It was honored with the Most Outstanding Personal Vision award from the New England Film and Video Festival.

    Among Chiten’s other projects is “Houses of Healing,” a 10-part series she produced based on Robin Casarjian’s emotional awareness course for prisoners. Chiten also is a frequent public speaker, and a teacher at the Boston Film and Video Foundation, Maine Photographic Workshops and the Digital Media Workshops. An artist-inresidence at several prestigious artists’ colonies, Chiten was honored with the Artist’s Fellowship for creativity in video production from the Massachusetts Council for the Arts and Humanities in 1987. She served as a documentary juror at the 2001 Florida Film Festival.

    Chiten said that she still hopes to make a narrative film some day, but says, “Documentary ideas keep presenting themselves to me. Who knows what I’ll do next?”

    Amy Roeder is a Boston-based freelance writer.