Monday, July 14, 2008

Not Alien Abductees, Call Them Cryptomnesiacs

It seems I have been hearing quite a bit about UFOs and alien abductions lately. CNN's Larry King Live has devoted two whole hour-long shows in the last two weeks to UFO hunters and debating the "truth" about what happened in Roswell, NM in 1947. There was a recent article in Scientific American telling the story of a scientist who's working on a "real flying saucer" (I wrote about it here), and now I find this.

It's a story on the io9 blog about a 1993 report, which was published in Skeptical Inquirer. The report, written by professor of sociology at Rutgers University Ted Goertzel, calls into question the findings of a 1992 report that found 3.7 million Americans suffer from "alien abduction syndrome."

The original report, the one on which Goertzel wrote his, offered five experiences that might suggest one was abducted by aliens. But since there have never been any scientifically confirmed cases of alien abduction, I am at a loss as to how these five experiences were chosen. The descriptions of the experiences were as follows:

1. "Waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strange person or presence or something else in the room."
2. "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."
3. "Feeling that you were actually flying through the air although you didn't know why or how."
4. "Seeing unusual lights or balls of light in a room without knowing what was causing them."
5. "Finding puzzling scars on your body and neither you nor anyone else remembering how you received them or where you got them."

If a participant in the study claimed to recognize four or more of these experiences, he or she would qualify as an "abductee." Again, how the researchers were able to come to such a conclusion based upon what amount to assumptions about what a "real" alien abduction feels like, I do not know.

In an attempt to remedy methodological and logical deficiencies in the original report, Goertzel tasked one of his research methods classes at Rutgers with redesigning the study.

"Our questionnaire included the same items which they believed were indicators of UFO abduction, but added other items designed to place their items in a broader psychological context."

Goertzel's class conducted interviews with 697 residents of Southwestern New Jersey. They found that 3.7% of the residents interview were considered "abductees" by the standards set down by the original study. The 18 other questions designed to gain a more in-depth psychological picture of the respondents asked about beliefs in government conspiracies, astrology and the respondents' ease of trusting others.

The addition of the new questions revealed the "alien abduction syndrome" for what it truly was, a psychological phenomenon known as cryptomnesia.

"Psychologist Robert Baker (1992: 78) states that this phenomenon of 'seeing complex visual images in one's head that you cannot remember ever having seen before or...suddenly hearing voices from unknown and unrecollected sources is not only a much more common occurrence than is generally known but is also one of the more interesting and intriguing anomalies in the field of 'normal' human behavior.'"

"To investigate the cryptomnesia phenomenon, Goertzel mapped out the correlation between the various survey responses and the reports of unusual personal experiences. People who believe that high government officials were involved in the Kennedy assassination, for example, had a 21% correlation with those supposed 'abductees.' There was a 20% correlation between 'abductees' and those who think the Air Force is hiding evidence of flying saucers. But the most overlap occurred with two separate groups of survey respondents: Those who admitted to feeling that others were conspiring against them, and those who said they enjoyed 'reading books about UFOs and other strange phenomena.'"

Further analysis by Goertzel suggested that cryptomnesia was rooted in a lack of trusting relationships. The ability to trust others, such as friends or neighbors, was one of the deeper psychological aspects Goertzel's revised study sought to explore.

"The path analysis suggests that cryptomnesia is rooted in a lack of trusting relationships. This problem may have its origins in early childhood, but it continues into adult life with a lessened feeling of trust of friends and neighbors. This lack of trust leads to feelings of anomie and anxiety which make the individual more likely to construct false memories out of information stored in the unconscious mind. People who think in this way are susceptible to belief in conspiracy theories since these theories help them to make sense of an otherwise incoherent world."

Goertzel cautions that his study is hardly comprehensive. He has not done the psychological case studies necessary to prove the conclusions made in his analysis. All his study does, Goertzel writes, is "...provide a more plausible interpretation of the data than the UFO abduction hypothesis." In this case, Goertzel has shown more scientific integrity than the authors of the original study. For one think, he didn't claim that 3.7% of Southwestern New Jersey residents are cryptomnesiacs.

Why do some people feel the need to complicate an incredibly interesting psychological phenomenon such as cryptomnesia with useless nonsense about alien abductions? The same can be said for sleep paralysis, which is a documented condition whose symptoms are incredibly similar to those described by alleged alien abductees; indeed a condition which can account for three of the five experiences described in the original study. When did the wonders of the labyrinthine human mind get replaced by myths?

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