Strange beliefs are rife among humans, from the recent rise of the anti-vaccination movement,1 to the prominence of the Flat Earth movement,2 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.9 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.
- 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.
- Weber, Matt 2018: ‘How the Internet Made us Believe in a Flat Earth’. Medium.
- Hussain et al 2018, p. 3.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- McNally and Clancy 2005, p. 116.
- Holden and French 2002, p. 163.
- 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.