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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2002 > Nov > Nov 8

Starship Memories

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <post.nul>
Date: Fri, 08 Nov 2002 13:39:16 -0500
Archived: Fri, 08 Nov 2002 13:39:16 -0500
Subject: Starship Memories

Starship Memories:
"Alien abductees" provide clues to repressed, recovered memories

By Beth Potier
Gazette Staff

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.

=46rom 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

"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

'I was so na=EFve'

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

"Three years ago, I was so na=EFve. 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

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

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

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."


Copyright 2002 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

[UFO UpDates thanks www.theanomalist.com for the lead]

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