Is it normal to believe you have been abducted by aliens?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“To put it in the crudest terms, in the presence of anomalous experiences, it is normal for humans to form bizarre beliefs.”

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Strange beliefs are rife among humans, from the recent rise of the anti-vaccination movement,1 to the prominence of the Flat Earth movement,many of us have very strange beliefs. At the time of writing, 1.6 million Facebook users have marked themselves as attending a storming of Area 51, the Air Base in Nevada, United States. The reason for this? ‘To see them aliens’, presumed hidden by the United States government. There are all sorts of explanations we can give for the prevalence of conspiratorial beliefs, including the make-up of our social groups, and the wide access to an internet packed full of conspiratorial claims (researchers ran a Google search for ‘vaccination’ and ‘immunization’ which turned up results 43% of which were anti-vaccination websites3).

Why might some people believe that there are aliens being hidden by the United States government? Sure, via the usual routes of one’s social group and internet activity, but also because many people claim to have been in contact with aliens. For some, this contact is a matter of aliens visiting their bedroom at night, but for others it can mean being abducted, taken aboard a spaceship, and once there, being subjected to medical experimentation including the removal of eggs or sperm. Some abductees claim to have formed sexual relationships and produced hybrid offspring with their abductors, as well as having received important information about the fate of the Earth. The prevalence of these beliefs is unknown, but estimates vary from ‘at least several thousand worldwide’,4 to 3.7 million in American alone.5 If aliens are visiting and abducting (at least) thousands of us, the idea that the United States government might be hiding aliens in a secret military base begins to look less outlandish, and more, perhaps, utterly plausible.

So why do people believe that they have been abducted by aliens when, presumably, they haven’t? Psychologists looking to answer this question have appealed to awareness during sleep paralysis (ASP) and accompanying hallucinations. During Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the sleeper is immobilized. In ASP, the sleeper wakes up before the paralysis has disappeared and is aware that they are unable to move. 75% of subjects will hallucinate whilst experiencing ASP.6 Abductees report a variety of these experiences; the hallucinations may be visual, including ‘lights, animals, strange figures, and demons’, or auditory including ‘heavy footsteps, humming or buzzing noises’.7 Several reports from abductees chime well with this explanation. Consider one:

A male abductee awoke in the middle of the night seized with panic. He was entirely paralyzed, and felt electricity shooting throughout his body. He felt his energy draining away from him. He could see several alien beings standing around his bed.8

 

Now, of course, not everyone who has an experience of this kind ends up believing they were abducted by aliens. It might be thought that for those that do, something is pathologically amiss. However, there is ‘no convincing evidence for higher rates of serious psychopathology amongst abductees compared to the general population.What has been found though is that abductees often entertain New Age beliefs (in, for example, astral projection, foretelling the future, and so on), which perhaps make them more prone to explaining their nighttime experience by appeal to alien abduction. New Age views, though, are perfectly normal, which is to say, they are widespread in the healthy population. As psychologist Brendan Maher puts it, normal people are:

prone to believe in the Bermuda Triangle, flying saucers, spoon-bending by mental power, the Abominable Snowman, and return to life after the out-of-body experience of death. This list does not even mention such marginalia of normal science as prebirth hypnotic age regression, multiple personalities, […] and so forth.10

 

What is interesting about the case of alien abduction beliefs then, is that they are extremely bizarre, and yet are formed by individuals reasoning in a perfectly normal (albeit non-ideal) way. It is thus a case which highlights the importance of normal range (if irrational) contributions to bizarre beliefs, and might inform our accounts of bizarre beliefs as they occur in the clinical population. Researchers interested in explaining clinical delusions (beliefs like ‘my mother has been replaced by an imposter’ (Capgras delusion) or ‘I am dead’ (Cotard delusion)) often appeal to the idea that people with delusions reason in clinically abnormal ways. However, the case of alien abduction belief teaches us that clinically abnormal reasoning need not be part of our explanatory toolbox when we are seeking to understand why many of us believe strange things – perhaps what is going on is perfectly normal range irrationality. So although we may expect to learn little about aliens from the Facebook organized Area 51 raiding party, the existence of its participants may shed light on what is going on in clinical cases of delusion. To put it in the crudest terms, in the presence of anomalous experiences, it is normal for humans to form bizarre beliefs.

References:

  1. Hussain, Azhar, Ali, Syed, Ahmed, Madiha, and Hussain, Sheharyar 2018: ‘The Anti-vaccination Movement: A Regression in Modern Medicine’. Cureus. Vol. 10, no. 7, pp. 1–8. 
  2. Weber, Matt 2018: ‘How the Internet Made us Believe in a Flat Earth’. Medium.
  3. Hussain et al 2018, p. 3.
  4. French, Christopher C., Sanromauro, Julia, Hamilton, Victoria, Fox, Rachel, and Thalbourne, Michael A. 2008: ‘Psychological Aspects of the Alien Contact Experience’. Cortex. Vol. 44, pp. 1387–95, p. 1387. 
  5. Hopkins, Budd; Jacobs, David M., and Westrum, Ron 1992: Unusual Personal Experiences: An Analysis of the Data from Three National Surveys Conducted by the Roper Organisation. Las Vegas, CA: Bigelow Holding Corporation.
  6. McNally, Richard J., and Clancy, Susan A. 2005: ‘Sleep Paralysis, Sexual abuse, and Space Alien Abduction’. Transcultural Psychiatry. Vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 113–22, p. 114.
  7. Holden, Katharine K., and French, Christopher C. 2002: ‘Alien Abduction Experiences: Some Clues from Neuropsychology and Neuropsychiatry’. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry. Vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 163–78, p. 167.
  8. McNally and Clancy 2005, p. 116.
  9. Holden and French 2002, p. 163.
  10. Maher, Brendan 1988: ‘Anomalous Experience and Delusional Thinking: The Logic of Explanations’. In Oltmanns, Thomas and Maher, Brendan (eds.) Delusional Beliefs. USA: John Wiley and Sons, pp. 15–33, p. 26.

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  • Sheryl Gottschall
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    1. At 1:52AM on 26 July 2019, wrote

    Dear Ema. I read your article with much enthusiasm as I'm always interested in the views of psychologists in regard to the subject of close encounters. While I agree that the UFO field is replete with personal beliefs making it a minefield for UFO researchers like myself, there are very well documented cases of alien abduction experiences from experiencers and their families. I've personally interviewed many hundreds of witnesses and although I have not had any formal training in psychology, I have found them to be highly intelligent, well-balanced individuals, and so have other psychologists such as Dr John Mack, Dr Ken Ring and Dr Berthold Schwartz, just to name a few off the top of my head. If anyone decides to write about this field of enquiry, I suggest they speak to the witnesses personally, then decide for themselves as to whether they are delusional or if there could be a real possibility that they are telling the truth. I would love to read another article by yourself after having done so. Perhaps that experience might challenge your own beliefs and change your mind.

  • Julie Woodhouse
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    2. At 12:15PM on 01 August 2019, Julie Woodhouse wrote

    In your article you haven't mentioned that 'Black Operations' experiments could have been responsible for targeting families within the Military Industrial Complex. The reason why these 'targeted individuals' would not be believed could be put down to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by the 'powers that be'. I have come across reports of inter-generational 'abductions' and this 'keep it in the family' approach helps to control called test-subjects. In America there are clusters of abductee reports from particular regions; those near to military air-bases. Nome, Alaska, where reports come up again and again, is very cut off and if 'aliens/governments/other' wanted to ring-fence a small population this would be an ideal way to do it.

    Regarding sleep-paralysis, this is something that I have often experienced but I know 100% that I haven't been abducted. It's just nature's way to stop me from rolling out of bed! I suspect that what is happening to self-described abductees is so outlandish and outside of the normal laws of physics, space and time that 'victims' are attempting to describe something that manifests in a similar way to sleep paralysis initially but is coming from a completely different origin. Directed energy weapons could be being used to induce these trance-like states in a lot of cases. The brain is, after all, an electro-chemical computer that can be affected by strong electromagnetic fields.

    Lumping abductees with 'flat-earthers'; witnesses who've seen 'bigfoot' or have an interest in the Bermuda Triangle is a way to label anyone interested in the 'other' as being on the lunatic fringe and it's never helpful, as, just a small investigation into any of these subjects opens up more questions than answers and leaves 'conventional wisdom' full of unexplained holes.

  • Tly
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    3. At 8:34PM on 03 August 2019, Tly wrote

    Her insan olağanüstü şeylere inanmak ister. Hatta yaşadığını düşünür. Ayrıca gizemli olaylara ve uzaklara ilgi ve merak çoktur . Ben de Uzaylılarla ilgili bir masal yazdım. Çocuk kaçıran uzaylıları anlatıyorum. Yakın zamanda kitapçılarda. Nano, uzaylılarla nasıl başedebilir?

  • Isa
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    4. At 6:52PM on 16 August 2019, Isa wrote

    am happy to be here

  •  Brodie Anderson
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    5. At 8:31AM on 21 August 2019, Brodie Anderson wrote

    Anunnaki might be a good philosophy for everyone on this? or not :P

  • Jeffrey Plummett
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    6. At 2:05AM on 22 August 2019, Jeffrey Plummett wrote

    For those seeking high calibre psychological grounded research into this phenomenon with open minds, factual research and non-foundational bias - see the works of Harvard professor of psychiatry John E Mack.

  • Annabelle Montrose
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    7. At 2:15AM on 22 August 2019, Annabelle Montrose wrote

    Unfortunately this field attracts as many individuals seeking attention, paranoid conspiracy junkies, those with actual mental health issues, those misunderstanding psychological expressions of the subconscious - that the real cases get lost in an ocean of noise. This is a real phenomenon that is incredibly complex. Yet luckily there has been great research. Read a lose Encounters of the Fourth Kind by award winning Washington Post journalist C D Bryan, into this phenomenon. He takes an excellent journalistic approach as well as interviewing John Mack mentioned above and Budd Hopkins and others. The abduction phenomenon however seems to have abated around 2007, peaking in the 1990’s. This is not to say it’s not still happening, yet we are living in very different times and whatever ‘was’ happening before certainly isn’t at this time. There are many theories for this and that is essentially what we can derive from the factual evidence, theories not fact. Yet the material evidence for contact itself is overwhelming and can discounted as simply creating a bizarre belief to understand an individual phenomenon. There is too much collective evidence to the contrary as Dr Mack himself, a previous sceptic, discovered.

  • Arran
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    8. At 11:52PM on 23 August 2019, Arran wrote

    vote labor

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