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alien abduction

"...despite the fact that we humans are great collectors of souvenirs, not one of these persons [claiming to have been aboard a flying saucer] has brought back so much as an extraterrestrial tool or artifact, which could, once and for all, resolve the UFO mystery." --Philip Klass 

"Aliens, if and when we find them, could be so alien, so different from humanity as to undermine the meaning of any exchange we might have, or even make such exchange impossible." --Henry Gee

"Choose the nearest star; decide how long you're willing to travel, how fast you will need to go to get there in that time, what you will have to take with you, and how many should be in the crew. Make it a one-way suicide mission if you wish. As a final step, calculate the kinetic energy that must be imparted to the spaceship to get you there in that time (one half the mass times the velocity squared.) I suggest you stay away from the relativistic limit; it complicates the calculation and won't help you anyway. The good news is that you will then sleep secure in the knowledge that UFOs from elsewhere in the galaxy are not subjecting humans to hideous experiments." --Bob Park

There is a widespread belief that alien beings have traveled to Earth from some other planet and are doing reproductive experiments on a chosen few. Despite the incredible nature of this belief and a lack of credible supportive evidence, a cult has grown up around it. According to a Gallup poll done at the end of the twentieth century, about one-third of Americans believe aliens have visited us, an increase of 5% over the previous decade.

According to the tenets of this cult, aliens crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The U.S. Government recovered the alien craft and its occupants, and has been secretly meeting with aliens ever since in a place known as area 51. The rise in UFO sightings is due to the increase in alien activity on Earth. The aliens are abducting people in larger numbers, are leaving other signs of their presence in the form of so-called crop circles, are involved in cattle mutilation, and occasionally provide revelations such as the Urantia Book to selected prophets. The support for these beliefs about aliens and UFOs consists mostly of speculation, fantasy, fraud, and unjustified inferences from questionable evidence and testimony. UFO devotees are also convinced that there is a government and mass media conspiracy to cover up the alien activities, making it difficult for them to prove that the aliens have landed.

It is probable that there is life elsewhere in the universe and that some of that life is intelligent. There is a high mathematical probability that among the trillions of stars in the billions of galaxies there are millions of planets in age and proximity to a star analogous to our Sun. The chances seem very good that on some of those planets life has evolved. It is even highly probable that natural selection governs that evolution (Dawkins). However, it is not inevitable that the results of that evolution would yield intelligence, much less intelligence equal or superior to ours. It is possible that we are unique (Pinker 1997: 150 ff.).

We should not forget, however, that the closest star (besides our Sun) is so far away from Earth that travel between the two would take more than a human lifetime. The fact that it takes our Sun about 200 million years to revolve once around the Milky Way gives one a glimpse of the perspective we have to take of interstellar travel. We are 500 light-seconds from the sun. The next nearest star to Earth's sun (Alpha Centauri) is about 4 light-years away. That might sound close, but it is actually something like 24 trillion miles away. Even traveling at one million miles an hour, it would take more than 2,500 years to get there. To get there in under thirty years would require traveling at more than 100 million miles an hour for the entire trip.* At 100,000,000 mph you could get to the center of our galaxy in 200,000 years; you could reach the edge of the universe in a mere 92 billion years. Our fastest spacecraft, Voyager, travels at about 40,000 miles an hour and would take 72,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri.

Despite the probability of  life on other planets and the possibility that some of that life may be very intelligent, any signal from any planet in the universe broadcast in any direction is unlikely to be in the path of another inhabited planet. It would be folly to explore space for intelligent life without knowing exactly where to go. Yet, waiting for a signal might require a wait longer than any life on any planet might last. Finally, if we do get a signal, the waves carrying that signal left hundreds or thousands of years earlier and by the time we tracked its source down, the sending planet may no longer be habitable or even exist.

Thus, while it is probable that there is intelligent life in the universe, traveling between solar systems in search of that life poses some serious obstacles. Such travelers would be gone for a very long time. We would need to keep people alive for hundreds or thousands of  years. We would need equipment that can last for hundreds or thousands of years and be repaired or replaced in the depths of space. These are not impossible conditions, but they seem to be significant enough barriers to make interstellar and intergalactic space travel highly improbable. The one thing necessary for such travel that would not be difficult to provide would be people willing to make the trip. It would not be difficult to find many people who believe they could be put to sleep for a few hundred or thousand years and be awakened to look for life on some strange planet. They might even believe they could then gather information to bring back to Earth where they would be greeted with a ticker tape parade down the streets of whatever is left of New York City.

abduction and rape?

Alien drawing by someone who is out of this world
Despite the fact of the improbability of interplanetary travel, it is not impossible. Perhaps there are beings who can travel at very fast speeds and have the technology and the raw materials to build vessels that can travel at near the speed of light or greater. Have such beings come here to abduct people, rape and experiment on them? There have been many reports of abduction and sexual violation by creatures who are small and bald or are white, gray, or green; have big craniums, small chins, large slanted eyes, and pointed or no ears. How does one explain the number of such claims and their similarity? The most reasonable explanation for the accounts being so similar is that they are based on the same movies, the same stories, the same television programs, and the same comic strips.

The alien abduction story that seems to have started the cult beliefs about alien visitation and experimentation is the Betty and Barney Hill story. The Hills claim to have been abducted by aliens on September 19, 1961. Betty first "remembered" her abduction during a series of nightmares, which she told Barney about. Barney claims the aliens took a sample of his sperm. Betty claims they stuck a needle in her belly button. She took people out to an alien landing spot, but only she could see the aliens and their craft. The Hills recalled most of their story under hypnosis a few years after the abduction. Barney Hill reported that the aliens had "wraparound eyes," a rather unusual feature. However, twelve days earlier an episode of "The Outer Limits" featured just such an alien being (Kottmeyer).  According to Robert Schaeffer, "we can find all the major elements of contemporary UFO abductions in a 1930 comic adventure, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century."

The Hill’s story has been repeated many times. There is a period of amnesia following the alleged encounter. There is then usually a session of hypnosis, counseling or psychotherapy during which comes the recollection of having been abducted and experimented on. The only variation in the abductees’ stories is that some claim to have had implants put in them and many claim to have scars and marks on their bodies put there by aliens. All describe the aliens in much the same way.

Whitley Strieber, who has written several books about his alleged abductions, came to the realization he had been abducted by aliens after psychotherapy and hypnosis. Strieber claims that he saw aliens set his roof on fire. He says he has traveled to distant planets and back during the night. He wants us to believe that he and his family alone can see the aliens and their spacecraft while others see nothing. Strieber comes off as a very disturbed person, but one who really believes he sees and is being harassed by aliens. He describes his feelings precisely enough to warrant believing he was in a very agitated psychological state prior to his visitation by aliens. A person in this heightened state of anxiety will be prone to hysteria and be especially vulnerable to radically changing behavior or belief patterns. When Strieber was having an anxiety attack he consulted his analyst, Robert Klein, and Budd Hopkins, an alien abduction researcher. Then, under hypnosis, Strieber started recalling the horrible aliens and their visitations.

Hopkins demonstrated his sincerity and investigative incompetence on the public television program Nova ("Alien Abductions," first shown on February 27, 1996). The camera followed Hopkins through session after session with a very agitated, highly emotional "patient". Then Nova followed Hopkins to Florida where he cheerfully helped a visibly unstable mother inculcate in her children the belief that they had been abducted by aliens. In between more sessions with more of Hopkins' "patients", the viewer heard him repeatedly give plugs for his books and his reasons for showing no skepticism at all regarding the very bizarre claims he was eliciting from his "patients". Dr. Elizabeth Loftus was asked by Nova to evaluate Hopkins' method of "counseling" the children whose mother was encouraging them to believe they had been abducted by aliens. From the little that Nova showed us of Hopkins at work, it was apparent that Mr. Hopkins encouraged the creation of memories, though Hopkins claims he is uncovering repressed memories. Dr. Loftus noted that Hopkins did much encouraging of his "patients" to remember more details, as well as giving many verbal rewards when new details were brought forth. Dr. Loftus  characterized the procedure as "risky" because we do not know what effect this "counseling" will have on the children. It seems we can safely predict one effect: they will grow up thinking they've been abducted by aliens. This belief will be so embedded in their memory that it will be difficult to get them to consider that the "experience" was planted by their mother and cultivated by alien enthusiasts like Hopkins.

John Mack

Another alien enthusiast was the Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Mack (1929-2004), who wrote books about patients who claim to have been abducted by aliens. Many of Mack’s patients had been referred to him by Hopkins. Dr. Mack claimed that his psychiatric patients were not mentally ill (then why was he treating them?) and that he could think of no better explanation for their stories than that they were true. However, until someone produces physical evidence that abductions have occurred, it seems more reasonable to believe that Dr. Mack and his patients were deluded or frauds. Of course, the good doctor could hide behind academic freedom and the doctor/patient privacy privilege. He could make all the claims he wanted and refuse to back any of them up on the grounds that to do so would be to violate his patients' rights. He could then publish his stories and dare anyone to take away his academic freedom. He was in the position any cheat would envy: he could lie without fear of being caught.

Dr. Mack also appeared on the Nova "Alien Abductions" program. He claimed that his patients were otherwise normal people, which is  a debatable point if his patients are anything like  Hopkins' patients who appeared on the program. Mack also claimed that his patients have nothing to gain by making up their incredible stories. For some reason it is often thought by intelligent people that only morons are deceived or deluded and that if a person's motives can be trusted then his or her  testimony can be trusted, too. While it is true that we are justified in being skeptical of a person's testimony if she has  something to gain by the testimony (such as fame or fortune), it is not true that we should trust any testimony given by a person who has nothing to gain by giving the testimony. An incompetent observer, a drunk or drugged observer, a mistaken observer, or a deluded observer should not be trusted, even if he is as pure as the mountain springs once were. The fact that a person is kind and decent and has nothing to gain by lying does not make him or her immune to error in the interpretation of perceptions.

One thing Dr. Mack did not note was that his patients gain a lot of attention by being abductees. Furthermore, no mention was made of what he and Hopkins have to gain in fame and book sales by encouraging their clients to come up with more details of their "abductions".  Mack received a $200,000 advance for his first book on alien abductions. Mack also benefited by publicizing and soliciting funds for his Center for Psychology and Social Change and his Program for Extraordinary Experience Research. Dr. Mack, by the way, was very impressed by the fact that his patients’ stories were very similar. He also believes in auras and has indicated that he believes that some of his ex-wife’s gynecological problems may have been due to aliens. Harvard kept him on staff in the name of academic freedom.

Robert Bigelow

Another contributor to the mythology of alien abductions is Robert Bigelow, a wealthy Las Vegas businessman who likes to use his money to support paranormal research (see entry on Charles Tart) and who partially financed a Roper survey on alien abductions. The survey did not directly ask its 5,947 respondents if they had been abducted by aliens. Instead it asked them if they had undergone any of the following experiences:

--Waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strange person or presence or something else in the room.

--Experiencing a period of time of an hour or more, in which you were apparently lost, but you could not remember why, or where you had been.

--Seeing unusual lights or balls of light in a room without knowing what was causing them, or where they came from.

--Finding puzzling scars on your body and neither you nor anyone else remembering how you received them or where you got them.

--Feeling that you were actually flying through the air although you didn't know why or how.

Saying yes to 4 of the 5 "symptoms" was taken as evidence of alien abduction. A 62-page report, with an introduction by John Mack, was mailed to some 100,000 psychiatrists, psychologist and other mental health professionals. The implication was that some 4 million Americans or some 100 million Earthlings have been abducted by aliens. As Carl Sagan wryly commented: "It’s surprising more of the neighbors haven’t noticed." The timing of the mailing was impeccable: shortly before the CBS-TV miniseries based on Strieber’s Intruders.

Some of those who claim to have  been abducted by aliens are probably frauds, some are very stressed, and some are probably suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder, but most seem to be fairly normal people who are especially fantasy prone. Most do not seem to be money grabbers, using their weird experiences as a chance to get on television or to have movies made of their lives. In other words, the testimony is often, if not mostly, made by reasonably normal people without known ulterior motives. If their claims were not so bizarre, it would be indecent to distrust many of them. Defenders of the reasonableness of belief in alien abductions point to the fact that not all of the stories can be accounted for by confabulation. However, hypnosis and other suggestive means are often used to access memories of abduction. Hypnosis is not only an unreliable method of gaining access to accurate memories, it is a method that can be very easily used to implant memories. Furthermore, it is known that people who believe they have been abducted by aliens are very fantasy prone. Being fantasy-prone is not an abnormality, if abnormality is defined in terms of minority belief or behavior. The vast majority of humans are fantasy prone, otherwise they would not believe in gods, angels, spirits, immortality, devils, ESP, Bigfoot, etc. A person can function "normally" in a million and one ways and hold the most irrational beliefs imaginable, as long as the irrational beliefs are  culturally accepted delusions. Little effort is put forth to try to find out why people believe the religious stories they believe, for example, but when someone holds a view outside of the culture's accepted range of delusional phenomena, there seems to be a need to "explain" their beliefs.

shared cultural delusions

Those who claim to have been abducted by aliens may be neither crazy nor telling the truth. It might be better to think of them as sharing a cultural delusion. They are similar to the people who have near-death experiences of going down the dark tunnel to the bright light, or who see Jesus beckoning to them. These shared experiences do not prove that the experiences were not fantasies. They are likely due to similar brain states in the near-death experience, and similar life experiences and death expectations. The alternatives are not either that they are totally crazy or that they really did die, go to another world, and return to life. There is a naturalistic explanation in terms of brain states and shared cultural beliefs.

Alien abductees might also be seen as similar to mystics. Both believe they have experienced something denied to the rest of us. The only evidence for their experience is their belief that it happened and the account they give of it. There is no other evidence. The comparison of abductees to mystics is not as farfetched as it might at first seem.  The accounts of mystical experiences fall into two basic categories: the ecstatic and the contemplative. Each type of mysticism has its history of anecdotes and testimonials. Like the stories of abductees, the stories of each type of mystic are very similar. Ecstatic mystics tend to describe their indescribable experiences in terms clearly analogous to sexual ecstasy. Going from darkness into the light recalls the birth experience. The contemplative mystics describe their experience of perfect peace and bliss in ways which are reminiscent of a good night's sleep. In the more advanced stages of mysticism, the experience is clearly analogous to death: a state of total unity, i.e., no diversity, no change, no anything. In short, the fact that mystical experiences are described in similar ways by mystics born in different countries and in different centuries is not evidence of the authenticity of their experiences. The similarity speaks more to the uniformity of human experience. Every culture knows of birth, sex and death.

Abductees are very much analogous not only to mystics, but to medieval nuns who believed they'd been seduced by devils, to ancient Greek women who thought they'd had sex with animals, and to women who believed they were witches. The abductees’ counselors and therapists are like the priests of old who do not challenge delusional beliefs, but encourage and nurture them. They do everything in their power to establish their stories as orthodox. It will be very hard to find an abductee who has not been heavily influenced in their belief by reading stories of aliens, or books like Strieber’s Communion or Intruders, or by seeing movies featuring aliens. It will be even more difficult to find an abductee who has not been greatly encouraged in their delusion by a counselor like Hopkins or a therapist like Mack. Given a great deal of encouragement by a believing community, and reinforced by the high priests of the alien abduction cult, it is not very difficult to understand why there are so many people today who believe they have been abducted by aliens.

Yet, if there are beings clever enough to travel around the universe today, there probably were some equally intelligent beings who could have done so in ancient or medieval times. The delusions of the ancients and the medievals are not couched in terms of aliens and spacecraft because these are our century's creations. We can laugh at the idea of gods taking on the form of swans to seduce beautiful women, or of devils impregnating nuns, because they do not fit with our cultural prejudices and delusions. The ancients and medievals probably would have laughed at anyone who would have claimed to have been picked up by aliens from another planet for sex or reproductive surgery. The only reason anyone takes the abductees seriously today is that their delusions do not blatantly conflict with our cultural beliefs that intergalactic space travel is a real possibility and that it is highly probable that we are not the only inhabited planet in the universe. In other times, no one would have been able to take these claims seriously.

Of course, we should not rule out wishful thinking as being at work here. Although, it is a bit easier to understand why someone would wish to have a mystical experience than it is to grasp why anyone would want to be abducted by an alien. But the ease with which we accept that a person might want to have a mystical experience is related to our cultural prejudice in favor of belief in a god and the desirability of union with the divine. The desire to transcend this life, to move to a higher plane, to leave this body, to be selected by a higher being for some special task....each of these can be seen in the desire to be abducted by aliens as easily as in the desire to be one with the supernatural or to have an out-of-body experience (OBE).

It is possible, too, that abductees may be describing similar hallucinations due to similar brain states, as Michael Persinger argues. Likewise, the ecstatic and contemplative accounts of mystics may be similar due to similar brain states associated with bodily detachment and a sense of transcendence. Using electrodes to stimulate specific parts of the brain, Persinger has duplicated the feelings of the sensed presence and other experiences  associated with near-death-experiences (NDEs), OBEs, mystical experience and the alien abduction experience. The language and symbols of birth, sex, and death may be nothing but analogues for brain states. Shared recollections of experiences do not prove that the experiences were not delusions. The experience which abductees think of as an alien abduction experience may be due to certain brain states. These states may be associated with sleep paralysis or other forms of sleep disturbances, including mild brain seizures. Sleep paralysis occurs in the hypnagogic state or the hypnopompic state. The description abductees give of their experience--being unable to move or speak, feeling some sort of presence, feeling fear and an inability to cry out--is a list of the symptoms of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is thought by some to account for not only many alien abduction delusions, but also other delusions involving paranormal or supernatural experiences.

There are, of course, certain psychiatric disorders which are characterized by delusions. Many people with these disorders are treated with drugs which affect the production or functioning of neurotransmitters. The treatments are very successful in eliminating the delusions. Persinger has treated at least one person with anti-seizure medication which effectively stopped her from having recurring experiences of the type described by alien abductees and those with sleep paralysis. Countless people with schizophrenia or manic-depression (bi-polar disorder), when properly medicated, cease having delusions about gods, devils, the FBI, the CIA, and aliens.

Even though the stories of alien abduction do not seem plausible, if there were physical evidence even the most hardened skeptic would have to take notice. Unfortunately, the only physical evidence that is offered is insubstantial. For example, so-called "ground scars" allegedly made by UFOs have been offered as proof that the aliens have landed. However, when scientists have examined these sites they have found them to be quite ordinary and the "scars" to be little more than fungus and other natural phenomena.

Many abductees point to various scars and "scoop marks" on their bodies as proof of abduction and experimentation. These marks are not extraordinary in any way and could be accounted for by quite ordinary injuries and experiences.

The most dramatic type of physical evidence would be the "implants" which many abductees claim the aliens have put up their noses or in various other parts of their anatomy. Budd Hopkins claims he has examined such an implant and has MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) to prove numerous implant claims. When Nova put out an offer to abductees to have scientists analyze and evaluate any alleged implants, they did not get a single person willing to have their so-called implants tested or verified. So, of all the evidence for abduction, the physical evidence seems to be the weakest.

See also area 51, cattle mutilation, crop circle, flying saucer, men in black, Roswell, sleep paralysis, and UFOs.

See also The Skeptic's Refuge review of the Nova program on alien abductions.

further reading

reader comments

books and articles

Baker, Robert. "The Aliens Among Us: Hypnotic Regression Revisited," The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1987-88.

Clancy, Susan A. (2005). Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. Harvard University Press.

Dawkins, Richard.The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design(W W Norton & Co., 1988).

Dudley, William, ed. UFOs (At Issue - Opposing Viewpoint Series) (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999).

Frazier, Kendrick. Editor, The UFO Invasion: The Roswell Incident, Alien Abductions, and Government Coverups (Prometheus, 1997).

Klass, Philip J. UFO-Abductions: a Dangerous Game (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Kottmeyer, Martin S. "Entirely Unpredisposed: the cultural Background of UFO Abduction Reports," Magonia (January, 1990).

Loftus, Elizabeth. The Myth of Repressed Memory (New York: St. Martin's, 1994).

Matheson, Terry. Alien Abductions - Creating a Modern Phenomenon (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998).

Persinger, Michael. Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (New York: Praeger, 1987).

Persinger, Michael A. "Religious and mystical experiences as artifacts of temporal lobe function: A general hypothesis," Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1983, 57, 1255-1262.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997).

Randle, Kevin D., Russ Estes, and William P. Cone.The Abduction Enigma (St. Martin's Press 1999).

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark, ch. 4, (New York: Random House, 1995).

Schaeffer, Robert. "Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs)", in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996), pp. 767-777.

Schaeffer, Robert . The UFO Verdict (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986).


Kidnapped by UFOs?

Abduction by Aliens or Sleep Paralysis? by Susan Blackmore

"An Alien Taxonomy," by Robert Baker

"CIA's Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-90" by Gerald K. Haines

The Doctor's Plot by James Gleik

A Critique of Budd Hopkins' Case of the UFO Abduction of Linda Napolitano by Joseph J. Stefula, Richard D. Butler, and George P. Hansen

news stories

UFO study finds no sign of aliens

Your Mama Looks Like E.T.

Explaining Those Vivid Memories of Martian Kidnappers

Alien Abductions: The Real Deal? By Kaja Perina --Psychology Today, Publication Date: Mar/Apr 2003

reprinted with permission of Brian Zaikowski

Last updated 08-Nov-2015

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