A surprisingly large number of people report having had paranormal experiences. For example, in a 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll of 1,000 American adults, 32% of respondents answered yes to the question: “Have you ever had any experiences that you would consider to be ‘paranormal,’ that is, experiences which cannot be explained by current scientific understanding?”
A paranormal experience could, of course, include a number of different things. For some, this might include saying they’ve seen a ghost; for others, it might include saying they’ve witnessed a UFO, or perhaps having been abducted by aliens.
As someone trained in the scientific method, I’m admittedly quite skeptical of paranormal reports like this. My mind is trained to go to alternative explanations—explanations rooted in science that could potentially explain them.
In this post, we’ll focus on such explanations for those who report having been abducted by aliens specifically because, as you’ll see later on, there’s an interesting connection between alien abduction claims and sadomasochistic fantasies (and, after all, this is the Sex and Psychology blog!).
In a fascinating 1996 paper published in the journal Psychological Inquiry, social psychologists Leonard Newman and Roy Baumeister explored some of the possible scientific explanations behind reports of UFO abductions .
One is that this might be part of the false memory phenomenon. Psychologists have long known that human memory is fallible, but many people fail to realize just how easy it is for false memories to be implanted. For example, in the 1980s, people were in a panic about ritualistic child abuse taking place in Satanic cults.
“Many people fail to realize just how easy it is for false memories to be implanted.”
There was a fear that widespread abuse was taking place and that people were repressing these memories because they were so traumatic, which prompted some psychotherapists to help bring them back as a means of relieving unexplained distress. As psychologist David Ley writes:
“In this era, therapists promoted a nationwide quest to root out evidence of children being sexually abused by hidden Satanic cults. The memories of those experiences were suppressed by psychological mechanisms, but through a blend of hypnosis and careful questioning, therapists could bring those memories flooding back…Families were disrupted, lives destroyed. Though it seems hard to believe, across the country, numerous people went to jail for decades, convicted for hideous crimes where the sole evidence was these recovered memories of long-forgotten abuse. But groundbreaking research by Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated that the very techniques used by therapists to ‘recover’ memories also worked extremely well to implant false memories and to create realistic, recalled experiences of things that never happened.”
As Newman and Baumeister discuss in their article, many people who report UFO abductions recalled or “recovered” their experiences during hypnotic states, which are precisely the circumstances under which many false memories have been shown to be implanted. It’s easy to see how this could happen if, say, the person performing hypnosis has a strong belief in UFOs and is working with a highly suggestible client who is motivated for answers behind their feelings of psychological distress.
Related to this, another possibility is the fact that some people just seem to have a more difficult time distinguishing dreams from reality. For example, consider people with the sleep disorder narcolepsy, a condition in which people suddenly fall asleep at undesired times, such as in the middle of a conversation or during a social activity.
“Some people just seem to have a more difficult time distinguishing dreams from reality.”
They move very abruptly between states of sleep and consciousness, and it’s thought that this might lead to more dream-reality confusion. In fact, in one study of narcoleptic patients, 83% reported having confused dreams with reality before . For example, as noted in this study:
“One man, after dreaming that a young girl had drowned in a nearby lake, asked his wife to turn on the local news in full expectation that the event would be covered. Another patient experienced sexual dreams of being unfaithful to her husband. She believed this had actually happened and felt guilty about it until she chanced to meet the ‘lover’ from her dreams and realized they had not seen each other in years, and had not been romantically involved. Several patients dreamed that their parents, children, or pets had died, believing that this was true (one patient even made a phone call about funeral arrangements) until shocked with evidence to the contrary, when the presumed deceased suddenly reappeared.”
Narcoleptics aren’t the only ones who sometimes confuse dreams with reality, of course. In this same study, researchers recruited a control group of healthy, age-matched individuals, of whom 15% reported having had experiences of not being able to separate dreams from reality (or “dream delusions,” as the researchers termed this). Thus, while narcoleptics experience this at highly elevated rates, people without sleep disorders sometimes have this experience, too.
This study didn’t specifically address alien or UFO abductions, but dream-reality confusion could provide another plausible means through which some people might come to believe they have had a paranormal experience.
There’s at least one other possible explanation—and this is where we get to sex. As Newman and Baumeister argue, sexual masochists are a subgroup of people who might be especially susceptible to believing they have been abducted by UFOs.
Why is that? Because, in their view, escape from self-awareness is one of the defining elements of masochistic activities, such as being bound, humiliated, or subjected to pain. In their words, “masochism is a particularly effective means to deconstruct meaning and escape the self. It temporarily undermines key aspects of the self.” It is “an escape from everyday life and the ongoing pressures of modern selfhood.”
“Sexual masochists are a subgroup of people who might be especially susceptible to believing they have been abducted by UFOs.”
What masochists fantasize about and desire sexually holds a lot of parallels to the activities that abductees describe. As Newman and Baumeister argue: “The main features of masochism—both actual activities and fantasies—are pain, loss of control, and humiliation. All three of these themes dominate UFO abduction accounts.”
For example, when you look at the scenarios that abductees describe, pain is often one of the main features—people frequently say they were subjected to unpleasant and painful activities aboard UFOs. They also often report being restrained—tied or pinned down—in a way that makes them lose their sense of control. They say they are frequently subjected to humiliating sexual acts, too, such as being led around by the genitals or having unwanted devices inserted in their rectums.
Incidentally, my own research on sexual fantasies is consistent with this: I surveyed more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies for my book Tell Me What You Want, and among the many things I asked about were fantasies involving aliens. Alien fantasies were correlated with having more fantasies in general about receiving pain, being humiliated, and being tied up.
Newman and Baumeister go on to claim that: “Abductees overall seem to fit the profile of people who would be expected to be drawn to fantasies of escaping the self. These people would thus be especially likely to construct a classic UFO abduction narrative when hypnotized.”
Thus, they are not suggesting that masochists in general tend to believe they have been abducted by UFOs or aliens; rather, their claim is really that this is a subgroup of persons who might be especially prone to false memories or dream-reality confusion involving UFO abduction. The motivation to escape the self that underlies many masochistic desires may predispose masochists to construct such scenarios and, under the right circumstances (e.g., recovered memories during hypnosis), they might even come to believe them as true.
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 Newman, L. S., & Baumeister, R. F. (1996). Toward an explanation of the UFO abduction phenomenon: Hypnotic elaboration, extraterrestrial sadomasochism, and spurious memories. Psychological Inquiry, 7(2), 99-126.
 Wamsley, E., Donjacour, C. E., Scammell, T. E., Lammers, G. J., & Stickgold, R. (2014). Delusional confusion of dreaming and reality in narcolepsy. Sleep, 37(2), 419-422.
Image Source: 123RF/imogi
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