Why the Abduction Phenomenon Cannot Be Explained Psychiatrically by John E. Mack, M.D.
This paper appears in Alien Discussions: Proceedings of the Abduction Study Conference (North Cambridge Press, 1992).
Alien Discussions is the proceedings of what may be the best scientific conference ever convened on abductions, held at MIT, Cambridge, MA, June 13-17, 1992. This volume serves as a multidisciplinary introduction and a research reference to the abduction phenomenon. It is a 684 page volume containing a glossary, a 50 page index and audience questions and critical comments made after each paper or group of papers. Among the experts presenting papers or reports are: 12 Abductees, 1 Anthropologist, 3 Author-Investigators, 3 Experts in Related Fields (NDE, Old Hag, Ritual Abuse), 2 Experts in Scientific Analysis (Dermatopathology, Neuroradiology), 1 Folklorist, 1 Historian, 12 Investigators, 3 Media Representatives, 5 M.D.’s, 1 Neuropsychologist, 11 Ph.D. Psychologists, 1 Philosopher, 3 Physicists, 2 Religious Studies / Ministers, 4 Social Workers, and 3 Sociologists.
Upon first hearing reports of alien beings taking men, women and children aboard UFOs and subjecting them to various intrusive procedures most people assume that we are dealing here with some form of contemporary psychiatric syndrome. This was certainly my initial reaction.
When a colleague invited me in the fall of 1989 to meet with Budd Hopkins (whom I had not heard of at the time), explaining that he took seriously the reports of the abductees he was seeing, I assumed that both he and his subjects must be mentally disturbed. For the phenomenon lies outside the range of realities that are possible in the Western world view, and what is mental illness but thinking and behavior that do not fit that which we have become accustomed to including within the boundaries of accepted reality?
There is a natural human tendency to fit any new phenomenon into familiar patterns and structures, even when a procrustean bed must be stretched beyond recognition in order to do so, for we tolerate mystery and uncertainty poorly. Those of us who work in the mental health professions are particularly well furnished with possible diagnoses that we think of applying to the abduction phenomenon when we first hear about it. The reports, for example, surely sound delusional, or like hallucinations. They even defy our physical laws, suggesting some sort of psychosis. Abductees are often anxious, or suffer from bodily aches and pains, indicating some form of neurosis. Their recall of what they have been through is frequently spotty, so perhaps they have an organic impairment of the brain, for example temporal lobe epilepsy. The experiences are traumatic and often contain reproductive or sexual intrusions, which seems to point to a history of rape or possible childhood sexual abuse. The abduction experiences bring about, or occur in, an altered state of consciousness, so we might be dealing here with a condition commonly connected with a dissociative response, such as multiple personality disorder or even Satanic cult abuse. Inasmuch as we live in the aerospace age, and the abduction phenomenon has received so much attention in the mass media, is it not likely that there is a collective process at work here, a mass hysteria or delusion? Bedroom experiences suggest dreams or hypnogogic phenomena. Even attention-getting motivation has been suggested.
The various aspects of the abduction phenomenon suggest one or another of these diagnostic possibilities, especially if one does not study the field too carefully. The difficulty is that each diagnosis fails to consider, let alone account for, several fundamental elements of the abduction experience. There are five dimensions that must be included in any possible theory.
1) The reports of abductees from all over the United States (I am writing only of the United States as cultural differences might modify this statement) are highly consistent with one another among people who have had no contact with each other. They include details that even now have not been reported in the media among people who come forth reluctantly, have nothing to gain and risk ridicule in speaking of their experiences.
2) There are important physical signs which accompany the abduction experience. These include independent reports by witnesses that the abductee is indeed missing for a time; nosebleeds and various cuts, scoop marks, bruises and other complexly patterned skin lesions, sometimes appearing on the bodies of several abductees simultaneously, and implants that can be felt under the skin following abductions even though none of these have been proven to be of non-biological or “foreign” origin.
3) Abduction reports occur in children who are too young to have developed the psychiatric syndromes listed above. A two-year-old boy that I interviewed said that he was taken into the sky by a man who bit his nose. A not yet three-year-old boy said that owls with big eyes (it is common for children to remember the alien beings disguised in animal forms) take him up to a ship in the sky, and he is afraid he will not be able to get back to his mother.
4) Although not every abductee sees the UFO into which he or she is taken, the phenomenon is consistently associated with sightings of unusual flying objects by the abductees themselves and other witnesses. One woman with whom I have been working was shocked the morning after an abduction, during which she did not see a UFO, to learn from the media that many people had seen one passing the vicinity of her abduction site at the time of her experience.
5) Psychiatric evaluations and psychological studies of abductees, including several of my own cases, have failed to identify consistent psychopathology. Abductees may, of course, suffer from mental and emotional distress as a result of their often traumatic experiences, and a few have been found to have accompanying psychiatric conditions. Many come from troubled family backgrounds. But in no instance has the emotional disorder provided an explanation for the abduction experience.
With these basic aspects of the abduction phenomenon in mind let us consider once again the above diagnostic possibilities. Any form of psychosis can be ruled out simply on the grounds that abductees, with rare exceptions, are clinically quite normal, and, despite the stress related to their abduction experiences, generally function well in society. Three of my own cases that I have subjected to an extensive battery of psychological tests were diagnosed as mentally healthy. Psychoneurosis can be ruled out by the fact that abductees do not appear to suffer from the sorts of intense personal conflict that characterizes the neuroses. Similarly, the experiences cannot be explained as fantasies since they do not appear to relate to other aspects of the subject1s personality or emotional life.
The physical symptoms from which abductees suffer appear to be the result of specifically recalled intrusive procedures that are intrinsic to the abduction phenomenon. Similarly, the cuts and other lesions that appear following abductions seem to follow no psychodynamic pattern as in religious stigmata. The inability of abductees to recall details of their experiences appears not to be due to organic brain dysfunction but to the repression of memory that frequently follows traumata, and possibly to forces that are intrinsic to the alien encounters themselves.
Trauma is certainly an important feature of most abduction experiences, but there is not a single documented case where the source of the trauma proved to be any event in an abductee’s life other than the abduction itself. Finally, the invoking of dissociation as a possible diagnostic explanation avoids the question of causality altogether. For dissociation is a response, a coping mechanism whereby the memories of painful or disturbing experiences are split off from consciousness in order to permit the individual to preserve his or her psychological energies for daily functioning. Abductees do “dissociate” in relation to their traumatic experiences, i.e. separate off into the unconscious the memories of their troubling encounters. But this tells us nothing about the source of those experiences.
Even if abduction cases were to manifest one or another aspect of these various diagnostic categories, we would still be left to account for the occurrence of the phenomenon in small children, the various physical manifestations, the association with UFOs and, above all, the striking similarity of the narratives among individuals widely separated from one another. In that regard abduction stories have many of the characteristics of real events happening to people in the physical world. This is not made less true by the fact that we do not understand the cause or source of these occurrences.
The question of psychosocial causation is more complex. Certainly the abduction syndrome is a collective phenomenon in the sense that similar experiences are happening to many people in the United States and in other parts of the world. If not examined carefully the phenomenon looks like a mass hysteria, delusion or belief, fed perhaps by a great deal of material in the public media (see Richard Hall paper). But the abduction syndrome does not behave like a collective disorder. The experiences are highly personal and individual among people who are isolated from one another and often have only the vaguest acquaintance with UFOs or the subject of abductions. They are not manifesting a culturally prevalent or accepted belief as is common in historical instances of mass hysteria. Rather, abductees are going against prevailing societal notions of reality, risking ostracism and ridicule when they reveal to someone else what they have been experiencing.
It is true that there has been a great deal of attention to abductions in the electronic and print media, especially in recent months. But my impression is that this is more the result of reports of actual abductions by abductees and abduction researchers than the cause of the experiences. For the actual stories of abductions are highly consistent throughout our society and rich in details that have not been available in the media. Finally, as noted above, any psychosocial explanation must still account for the occurrence of abductions among small children, the accompanying physical manifestations and, of course, the association with UFOs.
Finally, we might, as Carl Jung suggested in an article on flying saucers, written long before abductions were being widely reported, stretch our notion of the collective unconscious and consider the UFO/abduction phenomenon as a kind of contemporary myth, a structure of belief manifesting throughout a culture at a given time. Jung called phenomena of this sort “psychoid,” insofar as they included a kind of resonance between the psyche or inner world and physical phenomena in the outside world (including in this instance the UFOs themselves and the physical manifestations that accompany abductions). But it seems to me that if we were to stretch the notion of the collective unconscious to this degree then the distinction between internal and external, psyche and reality, would be lost. World and psyche or consciousness become one, existing in some sort of harmony or resonance, whose design we are left to discover.
I would not rule out this possibility, but if it should provide a workable picture of the cosmos then we will have abandoned the dualistic paradigm of Western science, whereby inner and outer reality are made separate and the physical world obeys laws that have little to do with consciousness in any form. With the help of the abduction phenomenon we will have discovered a new picture of the universe in which psyche and world manifest and evolve together according to principles we have not yet fathomed.
In summary, we can receive little help from psychiatry per se in explaining the abduction phenomenon. No psychiatric diagnosis applies usefully to these cases. Even psychosocial or cultural explanations, if they were to include all of the major dimensions of the syndrome, would force us to stretch our notions of the collective unconscious to such a degree that the distinctions between psyche and world, internal and external reality, would be obliterated.
There is no evidence that anything other than what abductees are telling us has happened to them. The people with whom I have been working, as far as I can tell, are telling the truth, and this has been the impression of other abduction researchers. We are left then with a profound and important mystery, and we do not know what it forebodes. Some sort of intelligence seems to have entered our world, as if from another dimension of reality. It has great power (many abductees speak of a feeling of “awe” in relation to this power), and we do not have any way of controlling its effects. We do not know what its ultimate purpose may be. All we can do is try to learn more about the abduction phenomenon and have the courage to look at it honestly, resisting the natural impulse to try to force it into familiar categories.
There is some evidence from my own work that when abductees can overcome their terror and accept fully the reality of what they are undergoing the phenomenon shifts to one that is less traumatic. A relationship with the alien beings that is more reciprocal, and even loving, evolves. Information about fundamental ecological and other global dangers is passed on to the abductees who may experience profound emotional and spiritual growth. More studies of these dimensions of the phenomenon, undertaken with an open mind, are very much needed.
© 1992 John E. Mack, M.D.