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A Brief Review of Issues Relating to the Reality of the Abduction Phenomenon

John Mack, M.D.

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Summary: Since the publication of the hardcover edition of "Abduction", questions have been raised about the reality of the alien abduction phenomenon. These questions relate to the nature of the physical evidence which accompanies the abduction reports; the clients' expectations and possible investigator influence; the reliability of memory; the degree to which hypnosis influences the accuracy of memory; and alternatives to the hypothesis that what the experiencers describe is what has occurred. These are questions that can only be answered fully by a great deal more research. This appendix has been added to begin a discussion of these questions…

John Mack ,  M.D.

author's bio

Published as Appendix A in the revised paperback edition of "Abduction"

Since the publication of the hardcover edition of Abduction in April 1994, a number of questions have been raised about the reality of the alien abduction phenomenon and the evidential basis for crediting the experiencers' accounts of what has happened to them. These questions relate to the nature of the physical evidence which accompanies the abduction reports; the clients' expectations and possible investigator influence; the reliability of memory in relation to the experiences; the degree to which hypnosis influences the accuracy of memory; and alternatives to the hypothesis that what the experiencers describe is, allowing for the ordinary reconstructions of memory, what has occurred. This is an entirely new area of inquiry, and these are questions that can only be answered fully by a great deal more research. This appendix has been added to begin a discussion of these questions, especially by highlighting those aspects of the abduction phenomenon that, in my view, would need to be considered if such future explorations are to prove fruitful.

The ontological context

Before any of these matters may be usefully considered, it is important to place the abduction phenomenon in an ontological context. For the "reality status" of this, like any subject, will determine the relevance of more specific questions and criticisms. This book describes a clinical map of the abduction territory, which I believe shows that we are dealing with a phenomenon that may not originate in our physical reality but penetrates variably into it or manifests within it in a variety of ways. This very concept is somewhat revolutionary and difficult to understand within our current modern secular world view. Nevertheless, my experiences with abductees push me toward this conclusion.

In the case of some abduction experiences, the individual appears actually to be missing as reported by others. But other incidents seem more like out-of-body experiences, or even encounters with strange forms of light, sound, vibratory or other energies capable of creating strong tactile sensations but without the occurrence of anything that could be called an abduction in any literal sense. The phenomenon appears to operate in subtle, elusive, even "tricky," ways, as if a mischievous intelligence were at work. Yet I have come to the view after five years of involvement in this field that this subtlety is intrinsic to it and must be embraced if we are to penetrate the mysteries of the abduction phenomenon.

To some of my critics the possibility that the abduction experience actually occurred but not altogether in our physical reality, nor in any reality or dimension to which we have access by empirical means, would be a contradiction in terms. But others have been open to the possibility that these experiences are occurring, at least in part, in another reality. Scientists like Fred Alan Wolf, Rudolph Schild, Jacques Vallee, Carl Brunstadt and Ronald Bryan are confronting the possibility that there exist parallel universes or other dimensions of reality from which information and material may enter our physical world.

But if the possibility may be allowed that there are "unseen" domains of reality, and in exploring abduction experiences we are dealing with a realm or realms in which objective, direct, and external measurement is not possible, then we must, of necessity, rely for our knowledge on subjective reports of human experience. Even research like psychiatric social worker John Carpenter's accounts of experiencers abducted simultaneously, where the reports corresponded in minute detail, depends on the evaluation of subjective experience (Carpenter 1993).

It seems to me that a responsible and encompassing study of the abduction phenomenon calls for the development and application of a science of subjective experience, such as that described by Stolorow (1992). As personal reports are our principal source of knowledge of abductions, we must be especially rigorous in evaluating their authenticity, affective intensity, and consistency in comparing them with one another, as well as the motivation, skepticism, believability, and sincerity of the reporter in reference to his or her experience, and the relation of the abduction experiences to the story of the person's life. I might point out, however, that this kind of evaluation of subjective accounts without corroborating physical evidence is the principal data of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychiatry. A correct psychodynamic formulation explains past memories and current behaviors and predicts future behaviors. Similarly, an adequate analysis of subjective abduction experience should be corroborated by and inform physical findings as well as predict future events.

The question of physical evidence

I have been faulted frequently by critics, especially by professional colleagues in science and medicine, and even by those in the UFO field itself who are seeking legitimacy within mainstream science, for not dealing in this book more fully with the physical evidence that does exist for UFOs and abductions. This is a fascinating and controversial field that invites further study by those best qualified to do so. But it is important to keep in mind that every aspect of the physical evidence-from the sightings of UFOs, burned earth they leave behind, and strange behavior of electronic devices in association with abductions, to the reported absences of abductees during the abductions, missing pregnancies, subcutaneous implants, bodily cuts, scoop marks and other skin lesions-is also, as described above, subtle, elusive, and difficult to prove. There is a large literature in this field which the interested reader might wish to consult (Hopkins 1987; Pritchard 1992; Vallee 1988; Jacobs 1992; Fowler 1979; Neal 1992; Howe 1989). I have chosen in this book to emphasize my strong suit as a psychiatrist, namely, the power of carefully evaluated experiential reports corroborated where possible by physical evidence.

From my perspective, the physical evidence is important to corroborate the experiencers' reports. But if taken out of this context, the physical phenomena are rarely sufficiently robust to stand in their own right. If, for example, I were to publish photographs of skin lesions, even from several experiencers who obtained them in the same night during reported abductions (as occurred in one case in Florida), I would, as a physician, be leaving myself open to the legitimate criticism by dermatologists that I could not prove that they were directly related to the abduction experiences and not caused by other factors.

Client expectations and possible investigator influence

Another central issue in the study of abduction experiences concerns the possibility of investigator suggestion or influence. Critics have speculated that experiencers are producing abduction accounts in compliance with my expectations or influence. As a psychiatrist, I am well aware of how powerful the caring intention of a therapist can be in helping people change their lives. I have, therefore, tried to be extremely scrupulous to avoid using that power to elicit abduction material. Colleagues and others who have observed my regression sessions, or who have transcribed regression sessions, verify that I do not lead my cases (Karen Speerstra, personal communication, 1994). Indeed, if I consciously attempt to lead experiencers, I find it peculiarly difficult to do so, in or out of hypnosis; they will directly contradict a statement which is incorrectly reflected back to them, and will clearly differentiate between material from their own experience and material they have heard or read about which is inconsistent with their own. Furthermore, I am often surprised and startled by the material revealed to me by experiencers. When I was beginning this work their reports shattered all expectations and continue to challenge my own sense of reality. For these reasons I find it unlikely that experiencers are trying to provide stories which conform to my expectations. Finally-and important for me to underscore as a clinician-in speaking to the experiencers in a manner that accepts the emotional truthfulness of their reports, I am not taking a position that validates the literal occurrence of these experiences in our physical reality; good clinical practice, especially in cases of traumatized individuals, must follow different guidelines than "objective" scientific investigation.

There is, however, the possibility that the experiencers are responding to more subtle pressures or expectations. I cannot altogether dismiss this possibility, but there are factors which argue against it as a significant distorting element. Current research delineates two areas of suggestibility which may, at first glance, be relevant to the retrieval of biased abduction reports. The first area concerns post-event suggestibility. Laboratory memory researchers have shown that apparently innocuous but leading questions about the details of a slide show or film can significantly impair accuracy of responses (Loftus 1993). But abduction experiences differ from laboratory experiences in that the former are first-hand, emotionally charged, and of central importance. Indeed, researchers of events of impact have concluded that memory for these events are retained better than laboratory audio-visual stimuli (Christianson 1992). Second, the more involved a person is in an event, the greater the likelihood that the central event is accurately remembered over time (Yuille and Tollestrup 1992). Emotion has been shown to aid memory for the central event of the story, although it undermines memory for more peripheral details (Reisberg and Heuer 1992). Thus, the lower levels of accuracy found in laboratory memory research are not likely to be directly applicable to abduction research. Clearly, investigators should try to minimize the use of leading questions in any case.

Investigation of interrogatory suggestibility clearly demonstrates that, under situations of extreme social pressure, false beliefs about actions and events can be created (Gudjonsson 1991; Brown, in press). My interactions with experiencers do not approach the conditions under which such false beliefs develop. First, my relationship with experiencers is not closed or exclusive. Individuals contact me and meet with me irregularly, with meetings weeks, months, or years apart. After initial disclosure to a willing listener, many experiencers are reluctant to continue to discuss their experiences, as they find it necessary to distance themselves from the material in order to cope with their daily lives. Second, there is little or no social value to be gained from reporting abduction experiences. Third, no repeated questioning or intense focus on past events is necessary to bring forth these experiences; abduction material arises quite readily, often with a minimum of relaxation and an attentional shift from an external focus.

Lastly, experiencers are not motivated to believe in the "truth" of their experiences. Often they prefer to believe that they have had some sort of bad dream, and become intensely distressed when they realize in the interview that they were not asleep when the experience began. Or they hope that I will find some sort of psychiatric explanation that can be treated so that the experiences can be stopped. Not only does the discovery of the actuality of the abduction experiences "shatter" their sense of reality, but this realization means that they may be subject to these disturbing experiences in the future.

Accepting the presence of these extraordinary events in their lives helps experiencers cope with some of the negative repercussions from those experiences. However, even after the powerful "reliving" of abduction experiences, these individuals usually continue to resist accepting the actuality of what they report at some level. Catherine, for example, who told me the story described in chapter seven, became upset when I recently gave her a scientist's report of media accounts of UFO sightings along the Northeast Atlantic coast in March 1991. These accounts corresponded to the time of one of her most powerful abduction experiences. This circumstantial corroboration of her experience in the physical world undercut some of the remaining denial of its actuality, which had enabled her to remain productive in a culture which also denies this reality, and tends to discredit people who report such experiences.

Reliability of memory

The apparently false accusation in some instances of parents and other adults by individuals claiming they have been sexually abused has led to a contemporary controversy regarding the accuracy of reports of previously forgotten memories, especially as recovered in the context of psychotherapy (Lindsay and Read 1994; Brown, in press). The criticism of "false" or inaccurate memory has, not unexpectedly, been leveled at abduction reports. Here, again, the problem of responding to the relevant arguments is complicated by the fact that we are still in the process of trying to learn what has happened. In what reality is this phenomenon occurring? Since we cannot answer the matter of the accuracy of abduction memories by offering physical proof, the appropriate questions might be: did something happen to these individuals and, if so, how do we decide what it was?

There is good evidence that we can, indeed, trust that something extraordinary has happened to experiencers. As mentioned above, most research in the memory field indicates that memories associated with events that are of central importance to the individuals' lives tend to be more accurate than those that are of more peripheral significance (Christianson 1992). In such core experiences, as previously noted, emotion tends to aid memories of the central events of the story while undermining memory for more peripheral events (Reisberg and Heuer 1992). Adding complexity to this picture, however, are the findings that traumatic memories, or experiences occurring under conditions of high arousal, may be stored differently in the limbic system of the brain than less intense events (van der Kolk 1994; Ledoux 1993). In these situations memory appears to be encoded along sensorimotor, olfactory and visual channels, rather than within the semantic framework of normal memory. This may make traumatic memories less vulnerable to the same reconstructive but distorting tendencies of normal memory processing (van der Kolk 1994; Corbisier 1994; Brown, in press). However, at the present time this is merely speculation. There is little hard data about the accuracy of material transformed from traumatic to semantic memory. More research is needed in this area.

Clearly abduction experiences are of vital importance to their experiencers and they are sometimes, although not always, highly traumatic. Virtually everyone who has been with an abduction experiencer while he or she was recovering abduction material has been impressed with the affective power and the intensity of the bodily sensations that the individual is undergoing. These observers, like myself, have been impressed that something important has happened, even if we cannot know exactly what took place, or that every detail reported was exactly accurate. Similarly, in commenting on the controversial application of laboratory memory research to the courts, Scheflin notes: "it is illogical to reason from the fact [emphasis his] that a memory has false details to the conclusion that there is no real incident from which this false memory is an accurate depiction" (Scheflin, in press).

As has so often been said, there is, as yet, no recorded abduction experience that proved, upon investigation, to be a reflection of some other trauma or experience, despite a great deal of effort on the part of investigators to find some other source for these experiences. Nevertheless, therapists must be very careful not to validate the literal truth of what abduction experiencers report, helping experiencers keep an open mind as to what "happened" while exploring all possibilities. It seems clear to me at this time that we are not dealing with "false" or confabulated memories. However, because we are so dependent in abduction research upon subjective recall, it is vitally important to continue to collect abduction accounts from many different individuals so that the consistencies, variabilities, and other qualities of these narratives may be more firmly established.

Accuracy of hypnosis

The potential inaccuracy of memories recalled under hypnosis must be considered in evaluating abduction reports (Frankel 1993). Studies do show that inaccurate material may be recovered under hypnosis (McConkey 1992; Scheflin and Shapiro 1989). For this reason, hypnotically obtained reports must be compared to reports made from conscious recall, and to other corroborating evidence. However, it is wrong to assume "that because hypnosis can interfere with memory it inevitably must do so" (Scheflin, in press).

My personal experience is that abduction material recovered under hypnosis parallels what has been obtained by conscious reporting. And, although research shows that some subjects have greater confidence in both these and false memories, recalled under hypnosis, the abduction experiencers with whom I have worked retain, for the most part, a skeptical and inquiring attitude regarding the factual accuracy of their encounters-this in spite of the emotional power of the apparent memories that are recovered. Furthermore, in some of my cases (see, for example, Ed and Sheila in chapters 3 and 4) the material recalled during the regression seemed more likely to be accurate than that reported in face-to-face interviews because 1) the information was less self-serving or compatible with positive self-esteem, or, conversely, more disturbing to self-regard, and, in some instances, even humiliating; 2) the material that emerged in the regressions was more believable in the sense that it was consistent with accounts provided by other experiencers-it lacked the gloss and ordering of recollections in conformity with conventional reality that tends to occur with conscious reporting; and 3) although emotional involvement is no guarantee of the accuracy of memory with or without hypnosis, the intensity of affect and expressed bodily feeling that occurs during the regression sessions of abduction experiencers is so powerful that even the most determined skeptic would be hard-pressed to conclude that something quite extraordinary and reality-shattering did not occur. Sheila's psychiatrist, for example, who had worked with her for seven years, came away from the two regressions he observed convinced that if not actual alien abductions, something very much like them had occurred.

It is hard to imagine how the psyche could generate so intense a level of emotion without some kind of exposure to an extraordinary experience as the template for that emotion. Most importantly, it might be useful to restate that a large proportion of the material relating to abductions is recalled without the use of an altered state of consciousness, and that many abduction reporters appear to relive powerful experiences after only the most minimal relaxation exercise, hardly justifying the word "hypnosis" at all. The relaxation exercise is useful to relieve the experiencer's need to attend to the social demands and other stimuli of face-to-face conversation, and to relieve the energies involved in repressing memories and emotion. In the case of the abduction phenomenon this process appears to fill out the recalled experience. Ongoing research is needed to explore the degree to which significant distortion occurs with hypnosis in abduction cases.

Alternative explanations

It is useful, I think, to observe that the most intense demand for alternative explanations tends to come from those who are either unfamiliar with the rich complexity of the abduction phenomenon itself, or from those who are so wedded to a world view in which the idea of an intelligence or beings from outside of the earth visiting us is simply not possible, that they find unacceptable the idea that such experiences might actually be occurring. These individuals might believe in the existence of a personal God or a supreme being, yet not find possible the notion that cosmic entities such as these might enter our physical and mental world. What some of these critics may not realize is that frequently abduction experiencers have already been subjected to intense investigations of their abduction-related symptoms by physicians and various mental health professionals seeking a variety of neurophysiological and/or psychological and emotional explanations, sometimes with frustrating and even damaging effects (see, for example, the cases of Scott, Sheila, and Paul in this book).

It is not possible within the confines of this study to review all of the alternative explanations that have been offered to account for the abduction phenomenon. They range from various forms of psychopathology to physiological disorders or responses of the brain to psychosocial and cultural interpretations. Most of these ignore fundamental aspects of the phenomenon, such as the strong doubting of the experiencers themselves, the tight association with UFOs (sometimes observed independently in the experiencer's community), the various physical findings (including the fact that the experiencer is sometimes observed to be missing), or the occurrence of the phenomenon in small children. For any theory to be taken seriously it must, at least potentially, take into account the entire complex range of phenomena associated with alien abduction experiences.

Psychiatric examinations and numerous psychological tests have failed to reveal forms of mental illness that could, conceivably, explain the abduction phenomenon (Mack 1995; Bloecher, Clamar, and Hopkins 1985; Parnell and Sprinkle 1990; Rodeghier, Goodpastor, and Blatterbauer 1991; Zimmer 1984; Spanos, Cross, Dickson, and DeBreuil 1993). Some have suggested that we might be dealing with some sort of displacement from another kind of trauma, especially sexual abuse (Klass 1988). It is true that abduction experiencers do show some of the symptoms associated with post-traumatic states, but these symptoms appear to be the result, not the cause, of what the experiencers have undergone. Furthermore, there is much more involved in the complex narratives of abduction experiences than human trauma per se. There are, for example, consistent details of passage to and from the craft, the rich descriptions of the alien beings and the intricate relationships to them, the many non-traumatic activities and observations that occur within the craft, and the elaborate communications concerning the earth's ecology and other psychospiritual matters which are, in my experience, a frequent, if not regular, dimension of the abduction phenomenon. I have never encountered anything similar to this in patients I have known to be traumatized by humans, or in psychotic patients suffering from delusions.

Some experiencers do have histories of sexual abuse and other traumas. One investigator has even found a higher than average incidence of sexual abuse among individuals reporting UFO encounters (Ring 1992). If abduction were acting as an effective screen memory, one would expect the prevalence of sex abuse to be lower, not higher. Furthermore, abduction experiencers seem able, when interviewed carefully, to distinguish the residua of their alien abduction experiences from other kinds of trauma they may have undergone. It bears repeating that no case has yet been reported where the alien abduction story masked another kind of traumatic experience. The reverse, however, has frequently been noted, including in my case experience -- i.e. that a client presenting with a complaint of possible sexual abuse or trauma has discovered a history of alien abduction experiences, even when being treated by a therapist unfamiliar with the phenomenon and certainly not expecting that an abduction story would emerge. Others have suggested that abduction experiences are a reworking of imagery related to birth trauma. Lawson (1984) and his colleague McCall found that imagined abduction imagery in a small sample of nonexperiencers was related to aspects of their birth histories, but this has not yet been replicated with individuals reporting abduction experiences. Obviously, the relationship between abduction phenomena and other forms of trauma needs to be investigated further.

Others explain abduction phenomena based on the notion that abduction experiencers have personality traits, such as fantasy proneness, hypnotizability, or a strong tendency to dissociation, which predispose them to these experiences. Individuals who are highly hypnotizable have the capacity to generate rich images and fantasies which are reported to rival real events in intensity (Wickramaseka 1986). Studies by Rodeghier et al. (1991) and Spanos (1993) found that experiencers were neither more hypnotizable nor more fantasy prone than the general population, although these results remain to be replicated. Abduction may be related to dissociation, a tendency to split off some elements of the ego from disturbing mental content in order to preserve the stability and functioning of the psyche (Jacobsen 1995; Powers 1994). But as already discussed in this book, dissociation is a coping mechanism; a strong tendency to dissociate tells us nothing per se about the source of the stress that gave rise to this mode of adaptation.

Neurophysiological explanations include sleep paralysis and temporal lobe epilepsy (Spanos et al. 1993; Persinger 1992; Blackmore 1994), but researchers exploring these possibilities have either failed to find such pathology among abduction experiencers or have chosen to overlook important aspects of the phenomenon. For example, many abduction experiences occur under conditions that do not appear to be associated with sleep. Second, abduction experiences are often corroborated by independent UFO sightings or physical evidence. Third, neurophysiological explanations do not account for hyperarousal and anxiety triggered by certain events or images symbolically linked to abduction. With the integration of the specific abduction-related traumatic experience, these reactions sometimes resolve, as predicted by theories of post traumatic stress disorder.

Some have suggested that in alien abductions we are dealing with some sort of mass psychosis, hysteria or hallucination (Sagan 1993). But abductions do not resemble mass phenomena (Hall 1995). Abductees are generally individuals who have, at least before being brought in contact with other experiencers for purposes of support, been isolated from people having similar experiences. Many of the details they report are not known in the culture or, at least until recently, reported in the mass media. Although it cannot be proven that no elements of abduction experiences have been incorporated from these media, by and large abductees avoid media accounts of abductions and are uniquely distressed by them. My impression is that the traffic is stronger the other way-i.e. that abduction stories, based on actual clinical cases, find their way into the work of media producers hungry for this material. Careful research on the complex relationship between the electronic and print media and the evolution of the alien abduction phenomenon waits to be undertaken.

Finally, a Jungian depth psychological explanation of abductions might be fertile ground for further explanation, especially since Carl Jung pioneered the exploration of this field (Shubow 1994). Abductees may, in fact, communicate in their reports material suggestive of the Tungian archetypes of birth, death, cosmic powers, joining with the source of creation, etc. This material, I believe, is important insofar as it reflects the profound psychological impact, opening and meaning of the abduction experiences. I have considered a Jungian interpretation, but a radical application such as this of Jung's notion of archetypes would inevitably introduce a wealth of new philosophical and scientific questions, without the possibility of doing justice to them. Unless we are to consider the whole universe in its psychospiritual and physical dimensions as but the play of consciousness, we would be hard-pressed to explain UFOs and all the physical elements associated with the abduction phenomenon in these purely depth psychological terms. In addition, a Jungian approach, to be really helpful, would need to account for the rich complexity, the detailed narrative consistency, and the specific contemporary forms of the UFO phenomenon and the abduction experiences.


In sum, the position to which I have come, after many hundreds of hours of work with abduction experiencers, is that we are dealing here with a profound mystery that has potentially vast implications for our contemporary world. For I have no basis for concluding as yet that anything other than what experiencers say happened to them actually did. The experiential data, which, in the absence of more robust physical evidence, is the most important information that we have, suggests that abduction experiencers have been visited by some sort of "alien" intelligence which has impacted them physically and psychologically. Indeed, this conclusion fits so tightly with the data that I and other abduction researchers have collected, that it is doubtful to me that this possibility would be so vigorously resisted if the phenomenon did not violate our scientific world view and the implied control of our living environment that accompanies it.

It seems impossible to avoid the observation that the alien abduction phenomenon is occurring in the context of a planetary ecological crisis that is reaching critical proportions and that information about this situation is often powerfully conveyed by the alien beings to the experiencers. As part of our effort to explore whether the abduction phenomenon, as has been suggested, is primarily a Western occurrence, my colleague Dominique Callimanopulos and I have been exploring alien abductions in other countries and among American indigenous peoples.

In November 1994, we interviewed Credo Mutwa, a Zulu medicine man in South Africa, who described classical abduction experiences, and we also talked with many children in a school outside Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, who reported seeing in broad daylight during a classroom break several UFOs and two alien beings just outside the schoolyard perimeter. Mr. Mutwa, who was seventy three when we interviewed him, recalled vividly, for example, a terrifying experience he had when he was thirty seven. While on a mining job in the bush he was suddenly transported to an enclosure with curved walls where he found himself on a table surrounded by alien beings whose description was similar to the small "grays" with which we are familiar in this country. He was then subjected to the kinds of humiliating experiences described in this book. In February 1994 a farmer in Brazil reported to us with intense feeling a similar encounter with small gray beings.

Mr. Mutwa and the children were both distressed by their experiences. But they also spoke spontaneously of receiving powerful communications from the alien beings, especially through their huge black eyes, about the failure of our species to take proper care of the earth. This unsolicited information is quite consistent with what I have been learning from American experiencers. A recently interviewed geologist and abduction experiencer wrote me that his experiences have taught him that "We are a run-away species bent on self-destruction, because we (collectively) are unwilling to impose self controls to stop our growth and to plan for our future with forethought and higher purpose" (Bruce Cornet, letter to the author, December 1994).

The interpretations and conclusions in this book are hypotheses, designed to invite others to join me in the exploration of this important mystery. The alien abduction field is a new one, and it deserves a broad and systematic multi-disciplinary inquiry. It is my hope that, if nothing else, this book will encourage at least some of the skeptics who have criticized my methods and hypotheses to immerse themselves in the primary data of this field, namely the experiences of those who have undergone the abduction encounters, and draw their own conclusions about what is taking place here and what it might mean for the human future.

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John Mack, M.D.