Perspectives on the abduction phenomenon

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This article is about the paranormal abduction phenomenon. For other uses of related terms, see abduction (disambiguation).

Various perspectives on the abduction phenomenon have formed in order to explain the fantastical claims some have made of being forcibly taken and often examined by apparently otherworldly beings. The prime differences between these perspectives lie in how much credence is to be ascribed to the claims themselves. Perspectives range from the assertion that all abductions are hoaxes to the literal belief that the claims are happening objectively and separately from the consciousness of the claimants.

Some are intrigued by the entire phenomenon, but hesitate in making any definitive conclusions. Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack, a leading authority on the spiritual or transformational effects of alleged alien abduction experiences[1] concluded, "The furthest you can go at this point is to say there's an authentic mystery here. And that is, I think, as far as anyone ought to go."[2] Mack was also unconvinced by piecemeal counterclaims and countered that skeptical explanations naturally need to "take into account the entire range of phenomena associated with abduction experiences," up to and including "missing time," directly contemporaneous UFO sightings, and the occurrence in small children.[3]

The mainstream scientific perspective is that the abduction phenomenon has its roots in human psychology, neurology and culture. That is, it is effectively a psychosocial phenomenon rather than actual cases of alien abduction. However, many among the general public, conspiracy theorists, and ufologists hold to the idea that actual extraterrestrials have been temporarily abducting people against their will.

Extraterrestrial hypothesis[edit]

This is the theory that alien abduction is a literal phenomenon: extraterrestrials kidnap humans in order to conduct studies or experiments on them and the reason we have not discovered them is that their technology is so advanced that they are able to evade detection. However, this account is not widely supported by most mainstream scientists due to the complete lack of physical evidence and the contradictory nature of most abduction accounts.[4]

Literary perspectives[edit]

Literature professor Terry Matheson argues that their popularity and their intriguing appeal are easily understood. Tales of abduction "are intrinsically absorbing; it is hard to imagine a more vivid description of human powerlessness." After experiencing the frisson of delightful terror one may feel from reading a ghost story or watching a horror film, Matheson notes that people "can return to the safe world of their homes, secure in the knowledge that the phenomenon in question cannot follow. But as the abduction myth has stated almost from the outset, there is no avoiding alien abductors."[5]

Skeptical perspectives[edit]

According to Brian Dunning proposed psychological alternative explanations of the abduction phenomenon have included hallucination, temporary schizophrenia, epileptic seizures and parasomnia—near-sleep mental states (hypnagogic states, night terrors and sleep paralysis). Sleep paralysis in particular is often accompanied by hallucinations and peculiar sensation of malevolent or neutral presence of "something," though usually people experiencing it do not interpret that "something" as aliens.[6]

One example of a comprehensive, skeptical analysis that focuses on the effects of mass marketing is art historian John F. Moffitt's 2003 book Picturing Extraterrestrials: Alien Images in Modern Mass Culture.[7]


Many skeptics believe alien abductees to be outright lying about their abduction experiences. The main motivators for such hoaxes are believed to be financial gain from books or films that may be made about their experiences, and psychosocial factors, such as attention from others and the possibility of fame or other such opportunities they would not otherwise have. However, most abductees do not go public with their stories and so it is believed that the majority of them genuinely believe in their abduction experiences. In this sense, simple fabrication is not a sufficient explanation for the majority of abduction claims.[4][8]


A common view among the general public (and, in the past, by the scientific community)[9] is that those who believe they have been abducted by aliens must be mentally ill. This view, however, has very little support from scientists and academics as most studies have found alleged abductees to be no more likely than the general population to suffer from psychopathologies.[4][8][9]

Nevertheless, abductees do differ from the general public in a few other, significant ways. For example, abductees often score higher than average people on hypnotic suggestibility, absorption, magical ideation and dissociative experiences. Put simply, these measures mean abductees are more likely to accept suggestions of a hypnotist as true, they are prone to becoming fully engrossed in their imaginations and fantasies, they are more likely to believe in unusual phenomena, and they experience more alterations in consciousness (such as ‘spacing out’).[10][11]

False memory hypothesis[edit]

This is one of the most widely accepted theories in the scientific community.[citation needed] It involves a thorough explanation, using psychological theory and research, of how psychologically healthy individuals may come to believe that they have been abducted and how they maintain that belief. It involves several different steps or series of events, though not all steps are required to lead to a false memory of abduction.[4]

Sleep paralysis[edit]

The vast majority of abduction experiences are thought to originate from an episode of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is often accompanied by a feeling of a heavy weight pressing down upon one's chest, as well as hypnopompic hallucinations. These typically include the feeling of flying or levitating, flashing lights, feeling a presence in one's bedroom, and hallucinations of figures (such as a person or an animal) near one's bed.[9][11] The content of these hallucinations tends to be strongly influenced by the individual's cultural beliefs.[9] For example, in the past such hallucinations were interpreted as attacks by incubus and succubus demons, whereas in Newfoundland a witch-like creature is most commonly hallucinated.[4][8] In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan pointed out that the alien abduction experience is remarkably similar to tales of demon abduction common throughout history:

"There is no spaceship in these stories. But most of the central elements of the alien abduction account are present, including sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments on the human species. Unless we believe that demons really exist, how can we understand so strange a belief system, embraced by the whole Western world (including those considered the wisest among us), reinforced by personal experience in every generation, and taught by Church and State? Is there any real alternative besides a shared delusion based on common brain wiring and chemistry?".[12]

The events experienced during sleep paralysis are often unusual and terrifying, but most people dismiss them as being a minor sleep disorder. Others, however, are convinced that the event was so unusual and unpleasant that the explanation must be equally as unusual and unpleasant, and so they search for such an explanation.[13]

Lucid dreams[edit]

It is possible that some alleged abductees may experience spontaneous lucid dreams. This was reportedly proven by the OOBE Research Center during their mass alien abduction experiment (Los Angeles, USA, October 2011).[14]


Hypnosis is frequently used by abduction researchers to help recover memories of so-called missing time periods, and has been done so since the Betty and Barney Hill abduction.[15] In their search for an explanation for the unusual event they have experienced, many people seek out the help of professionals. It has been found that individuals who already have an interest in UFOs are extremely likely to end up seeking the help of therapists with similar views or beliefs to their own. This particular therapist-patient combination is exceptionally likely to result in the creation of false memories of alien abduction, particularly under the use of hypnosis.[4] Hypnosis has been shown to increase the number of recollections a person has, but this applies to both real and false recollections. This is due to the drastically increased suggestibility of hypnotised individuals.[4] Abduction researcher and folklorist Thomas Bullard noted that hypnotized subjects become suggestible, "edit[ing] their thoughts less rigorously," thus becoming more likely to confabulate, or even opening themselves to the implantation of memories.[15]

Although the unreliability of memories recovered during hypnosis is now widely agreed upon, not all academics share this view. As Budd Hopkins writes,

" ... the Hill case bears upon one popular theory which has been widely but uncritically accepted by many skeptics: the idea that such accounts must have been implanted by hypnosis, consciously or unconsciously, or by manipulative practitioners who 'believe in' the reality of such events. Simon, who hypnotized the Hills, was avowedly skeptical about the reality of the Hills' abduction recollections. Yet the Hills stubbornly held to their interlocking, hypnotically recovered accounts despite Simon's suggestions at the end of treatment that their memories could not be literally true. It can therefore be concluded that the bias of the hypnotist had nothing to do with the content of their hypnotic recall." (emphasis as in original; Hopkins, 218)

When under hypnosis, an individual will attempt to fill in gaps in their memory with any information possible, including fantasies. The information used to fill such gaps can come from both the hypnotist and the individual under hypnosis. For example, the hypnotist may either knowingly or unknowingly use loaded questions that influence the already ambiguous memories of abductees in such a way that the patient creates an alien abduction narrative for them.[4] Skeptics Robert Sheaffer and Phillip J. Klass agree that individual abduction researchers appear to exert influence on the characteristics of narratives retrieved during hypnotic recall.[16] This influence tends to shape recovered abduction narratives in a way that reinforces the preconceived biases of the individual researcher.[16]

The hypnotised subjects existing beliefs may also lead them to create an alien abduction story under hypnosis as hypnotised individuals tend to believe that thoughts, images, or ideas that they have whilst under hypnosis derive from personal experience rather than other sources (such as the therapists suggestions).[4] This can explain the observation by Budd Hopkins mentioned above, that the patients came to believe they were abducted even though their hypnotist was skeptical of the abduction phenomenon. Thomas E. Bullard, while not an abduction skeptic per se, has noted that the presence or absence of hypnosis as a method for memory retrieval in abduction claimants seems to effect descriptions of the abductors themselves.[17] Hypnotically assisted recall is more likely to produce descriptions of the "standard" grey humanoid, while cases where hypnosis was not used "include more variety."[17]

As Newman & Baumeister (1996) say, "there is increasing evidence that hypnosis does not simply reveal the UFO abduction phenomenon- it plays a major role in creating it". Although it is widely accepted that memories of alien abductions are false, they are generally believed wholeheartedly by the individual.[8]

The vast majority of abduction memories emerge after the use of hypnosis. However, a minority of abductees come about their abduction memories unassisted by this technique. In this case, it is believed that imagination inflation plays a major role in the development of their abduction memories, as it is similar to the “imaginative role-playing” techniques used in hypnosis (Baker, 1992b, as cited by [4]). The idea of alien abduction may be suggested by an authority figure, such as a therapist. The presence of authority figures and their encouragement and confirmation of the reliability and accuracy of such memories is a key factor in the development of false memories.[4][18]

Cultural impact[edit]

Although proponents have argued that there is a core narrative consistent across abduction claims, there is also variation in the details of reports across cultures. Skeptics like Robert Sheaffer assert that this variation supports a psycho-social hypothesis as an explanation for the origin of the abduction phenomenon.[16] These cultural factors can influence the memories retrieved both under hypnosis and without the use of hypnosis.[4]

For example, it is believed that many abduction accounts retrieved through hypnosis may be strongly influenced by science-fiction books or movies that subjects have recently encountered.[4] Kottmeyer (1989, as cited by [4]) pointed out that the abduction claims of Betty and Barney Hill bore a striking resemblance to a movie and television show that they had both recently watched. It has also been observed that accounts of alien abductions tend to coincide with wide held beliefs of the time. For example, Hynek[19] pointed out that until the late 1950s it was still believed that there may be intelligent life on other planets within our solar system,[citation needed] and until the late 1950s abductees reported aliens as coming from Mars, Jupiter, and Venus. Once scientists discovered otherwise, abductees claims changed accordingly.[citation needed] Although, Betty Hill did described star system the visitors were from which at the time was unknown until later in the century.[citation needed]

The biology and attitudes of the abductors are points of drastic divergence between the home countries of different abduction claimants. Robert Sheaffer says:

"In North America large-headed gray aliens predominate, while in Britain abduction aliens are usually tall, blond and Nordic, and South America tends toward more bizarre creatures, including hairy monsters."[16]

Sheaffer also sees similarity between the aliens depicted in early science fiction films, in particular, Invaders From Mars, and those reported to have actually abducted people. Commonalities exist in the appearances, behavior, technology and societies of fictional and allegedly real abductors.[16]

However, not everyone agrees with the idea of abduction claimants being influenced by science fiction sources. In an essay, Bullard writes that "The small showing for monstrous types and the fact that they concentrate in less reliable cases should disappoint skeptics who look for the origin of abductions in the influence of Hollywood. Nothing like the profusion of imaginative screen aliens appears in the abduction literature."[17] Similarly, folklorist Thomas E. Bullard asks, "If Hollywood is responsible for these images, where are the monsters? Where are the robots?"[20]

Maintenance of abduction memories[edit]

Some abductees come to recant their stories once faced with opposition or disbelief from others, particularly based on their lack of solid evidence. Most, however, do not.[citation needed] Faced with this dissonance between their confidence that their abduction memory is real and the potential inaccuracy of that memory as suggested by others, many abductees seek out support groups. In these support groups abductees are surrounded by like-minded others who have had similar experiences and, therefore, will confirm the accuracy of the individuals abduction experience.[4][21]

Drug-induced hallucinations[edit]

It is possible that some alleged abductees may be under the influence of recreational drugs. For example, it has been noted that Terence McKenna described seeing "Machine Elves" while experimenting with Dimethyltryptamine. The description of Machine Elves is often consistent with the description of "grey" aliens. In studies conducted from 1990-1995 at University of New Mexico, psychiatrist Rick Strassman found that approximately 20 percent of volunteers injected with high doses of DMT had experiences similar to purported alien abductions.[22]

Parallels with other phenomena[edit]

Many parallels have been drawn between the abduction phenomenon and various other unusual events. For example, Robert Sheaffer notes similarities between claims of witchcraft and claims of alien abductions. He notes similar imagery involving non-human creatures, uncovered memories and sex being involved in both the abduction phenomenon and the activities of those accused of witchcraft and believes these commonalities to suggests that the two movements share a common underlying psychopathology.[16]

Gwen Dean, Ph.D., noted forty-four parallels between alien abduction and satanic ritual abuse (SRA) at the Alien Abduction Conference held June 13–17, 1992, at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. Both emerged as widespread phenomena in the late 1970s and early 1980s and both often use hypnosis to recover lost or suppressed memories. Furthermore, the scenarios and narratives offered by alleged abductees and SRA victims feature many similar elements: both are typically said to begin when the experiencer is in their youth; both are said to involve entire families and to occur generationally; the alien examination table is similar to the satanic altar; both phenomena focus on genitals, rape, sexuality and breeding; witnesses often report that the events happen when they are in altered states of consciousness; and both phenomena feature episodes of "missing time" when the events are said to occur, but of which the victim has no conscious memory.[23]

Imaginal realm hypothesis[edit]

Various authors, for example Jacques Vallée, Graham Hancock and John E. Mack have suggested that the dichotomy, "real" versus "imaginary", may be too simplistic; that a proper understanding of this complex phenomenon may require a reevaluation of our concept of the nature of reality.[clarification needed]

Abductors as demonic manifestations[edit]

Some have argued that abduction experiences bear striking similarities to pre-20th century accounts of demonic manifestations, noting as many as a dozen similarities.[24]


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