Campus & Community

Starship memories:

7 min read

“Alien abductees” provide clues to repressed, recovered memories

Susan Clancy: “One of the most bitter and volatile debates ever to occur in psychology concerns the reality of repressed and recovered memories of traumatic events.” (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

Susan Clancy’s research has taken her into alien territory.

For the past three years, Clancy, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s Psychology Department, has studied people who believe they were abducted by aliens from outer space. Her research, done in conjunction with Professors of Psychology Richard McNally and Daniel Schacter, former associate professor Mark Lenzenweger and Harvard Medical School professor Roger Pitman, was recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Yet Clancy’s interest is not in extraterrestrial beings at all.

“As far as science knows, nobody is being abducted by aliens,” she stressed.

Rather, Clancy wanted to explore conditions under which people develop false memories of traumatic events.

“One of the most bitter and volatile debates ever to occur in psychology concerns the reality of repressed and recovered memories of traumatic events,” she said.

From the very serious and plausible claims of childhood sexual abuse to the less credible ones of alien abductions, psychologists are at odds over the idea that people can forget traumatic events then “recover” intact memories of the trauma years later.

On the one side are clinicians, who observe that painful memories can be repressed, banished from a trauma survivor’s consciousness until they’re “recovered” with the help of certain psychotherapeutic techniques in adulthood.

Memory researchers, on the other hand, say that people don’t repress traumatic events; in fact they remember them all too clearly – sometimes they can’t stop thinking about the trauma. When people report recovered memories of traumatic events, assert these cognitive psychologists, they are most likely creating false memories.

Intrigued by this debate, and its enormous political, legal, and social implications, Clancy noticed something missing in previous studies when she came to pursue the Ph.D. at Harvard in 1996.

“I found it striking that despite how volatile this debate was, nobody had done any research on the population that was at the center of the controversy: those who were reporting recovered memories,” she said.

Using standard laboratory tests of memory, Clancy initially studied women who reported recovering memories of childhood sexual abuse, finding that they were more likely, in laboratory tests, to create false memories than women who had always remembered childhood sexual abuse. While her findings were interesting, they were limited: It was very difficult to corroborate whether or not the women with recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse actually had been sexually abused as children.

‘I was so naïve’

That gap in Clancy’s research on survivors of childhood sexual abuse led her into the world of people who believe they were abducted by aliens. Comfortable in her assumption that their experiences were false, she could test whether people who create false memories in the “real world” are also likely to create false memories in the lab.

But finding subjects and recruiting them for her study was more challenging – and sometimes humorous – than she could have imagined.

“Three years ago, I was so naïve. I just thought I’d put ads in newspapers asking ‘have you been abducted by aliens?’” she said.

She received hundreds of calls in response to her ads, but few of them qualified as research subjects. Out of every 10 calls, she said, only two were from people who believed they had been abducted by space aliens.

The other eight were from media seeking a good story, from citizens concerned that Harvard was wasting money on bogus research, from people playing jokes on friends, and even from aliens – or people portraying aliens – themselves. A few calls, she said, were from native Spanish speakers who misunderstood the ad to be looking for illegal aliens who had been abducted at the border by immigration officials.

Convincing the “legitimate” alien abductees to participate in the study was an enormous challenge, said Clancy.

“They’re very skeptical about what science is going to say about their beliefs,” she said.

In the end, Clancy rounded up enough subjects for two groups of people who believed they were abducted by aliens: one group of abductees who reported recovering memories of their experience, and one group who had no actual memory of the abduction. This second group attributed a variety of signs and symptoms – unexplained scars or birthmarks, waking up in strange positions, depression, sleep disturbance, or panic at seeing a picture of an alien – to what they believed was their own alien abduction.

Clancy also studied a group of people who said they were never abducted by aliens as a control.

Testing false memories

In the lab, Clancy used a number of standard laboratory paradigms to test memory and recall. One test, called the Deese/Roediger-McDermott paradigm, has subjects memorize then recall a list of semantically related words: brownie, cookie, sugar and candy, for instance. Clancy’s group of alien abductees who recovered memories of their abductions recalled the list of words successfully. There were no global memory deficits.

In fact, said Clancy, the people who recovered memories of alien abductions were seldom psychologically impaired. “They’re normal, very nice people with no overt psychopathology,” she said.

Yet the recovered-memory abductees as a group were much more likely to falsely remember the word sweet – not on the list, but suggested by it – than either of the other two groups. In this laboratory test, the recovered-memory group was more prone than the other two groups to create false memories.

And assuming, as Clancy and her colleagues did, that none of the subjects were actually abducted by space aliens, she drew the conclusion that people who develop false memories in the lab are also more likely to develop false memories of experiences that were suggested or imagined.

Additional research helped explain the recovered-memory group’s propensity toward false memories of alien abductions.

Everyone in this group developed his or her belief of alien abduction after describing an episode that is consistent with sleep paralysis, a harmless but nonetheless frightening desychronization of sleep cycles.

“You wake up from REM [rapid eye movement] sleep but you still feel the paralysis that normally accompanies REM sleep,” said Clancy.

Occurring across cultures in approximately 15 percent of the population, sleep paralysis is sometimes accompanied by hallucinations: a sensation of electrical tingling or levitation, hearing buzzing noises, seeing flashing lights or shadowy figures hovering near the bed.

That her subjects attributed this sleep paralysis to alien abduction is not surprising, said Clancy.

“There’s this widely shared cultural script that helps explain these frightening sleep paralysis experiences,” she said. From “The X-Files” to movies, books, and media, this group prone to creating false memories can choose from a wide array of sources for suggestion.

“I think these recovered memories are actually distorted memories of things they had read about or seen,” she said.

It’s not about the aliens

Clancy was pleased that the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, notoriously selective about papers it publishes, accepted this paper for its August 2002 issue with no reservations.

Collaborator Richard McNally, who was Clancy’s doctoral thesis adviser, attributed the paper’s acceptance to its use of well-established experimental paradigms that produced clear-cut results in an unusual population.

“It helps us to understand that there might be a link: People who show this elevated false recognition effect in the laboratory may be more likely to exhibit false memories in the real world,” added collaborator Daniel Schacter.

Clancy is leaving behind the spaceships and aliens to turn her attention back to survivors of childhood sexual abuse, where she hopes her work could have a real impact.

“Childhood sexual abuse occurs, and it’s terrible,” she said. “If we can understand more about how people remember and forget traumatic events and how people can develop false memories of traumatic events, we can help resolve the controversy over the reality of repressed and recovered memories.”