I was thinking about alien abductions the other day while I was driving around. It has always puzzled me that abductees seem to report similar accounts, especially when it comes to physical descriptions of the aliens themselves. Basically, these nocturnal, body-snatchers are always strangely humanoid in appearance: laterally symmetrical, bipedal, possessing large craniums, large stereoscopic eyes, and slender limbs with articulated hands and fingers. This has always seemed strange. After all, why would a being from another world possess a similar appearance to our own? It could easily look like a giant crab or something. It seems unlikely. Yet, this common description also suggests that there is some shared dimension to each individual abduction story. Either the abductees are making up or remembering similar experiences, or, the aliens, if they exist in any fashion manufactured or otherwise, are humanoid in appearance. There are two basic possibilities: abductees are wrong (for whatever reason) or these abductions occurred in some sense.
If we break it down further, these abductions, if based on memories, could be explained in order of increasing strangeness or practical likelihood by different theories. The reasonability of each theory is determined by your particular world view. For example, assuming the abduction memory is based on an actual experience you could posit multiple scenarios:
- Psychological explanation: Repressed and recovered memory An alien abduction experience could be the outgrowth of a repressed memory of an actual physical molestation by a human being, either in sleep or during childhood. The abductee could be ‘remembering’ the repressed memory of the experience in a more psychologically comprehensible way. These memories could also be faulty as is the case in many instances of recovered memory. “An experiment conducted by Harvard psychologists suggests that people who believe they have been abducted by extraterrestrials, when they try to recall a word list, make the same kinds of errors as people with recovered memories of childhood sexual molestation. The psychologists conclude that these two experiences have common roots.”
- Psychological explanation #3: Sleep paralysis One of the most prevalent and compelling theories for abduction narratives is the possibility that alien abductions are dream-like hallucinations induced by episodes of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain is awakened from a REM state into essentially a normal fully awake state, but the bodily paralysis is still occurring:
In a typical sleep-paralysis episode, a person wakes up paralyzed, senses a presence in the room, feels fear or even terror, and may hear buzzing and humming noises or see strange lights. A visible or invisible entity may even sit on their chest, shaking, strangling, or prodding them. Attempts to fight the paralysis are usually unsuccessful. It is reputedly more effective to relax or try to move just the eyes or a single finger or toe.
Spanos et al. (1993) have pointed out the similarities between abductions and sleep paralysis. The majority of the abduction experiences they studied occurred at night, and almost 60 percent of the “intense” reports were sleep related. Of the intense experiences, nearly a quarter involved symptoms similar to sleep paralysis.
I found this especially interesting because I did experience an episode of sleep paralysis about ten years ago. The details here are very similar to my own experience. I did awake with fear into a semi-conscious dream state and did sense the presence of someone else, although in my case I thought someone was jiggling the handle of my front door and found myself unable to rise out of bed to investigate or fight them off. I struggled to move, but could only barely move my lips and a finger on my right hand. This inability to move while you think someone is breaking into your apartment is very disconcerting.
Since I’m reading Moby Dick, here’s an episode of sleep paralysis depicted in the book:
At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it – half steeped in dreams – I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, s%emed closely seated by my bedside. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it.
Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round me. But at length all the past night’s events soberly recurred, one by one, in fixed reality, and then I lay only alive to the comical predicament. For though I tried to move his arm – unlock his bridegroom clasp – yet, sleeping as he was, he still hugged me tightly, as though naught but death should part us twain.
One last thing, how do you reconcile the common alien descriptions with the sleep paralysis / recovered memory theories? One way is to attribute the common physical descriptions of the aliens to depictions in popular culture of alien lifeforms that may influence memory and recall in the group who report alien abduction memories. This is very plausible. However, what if another factor affecting these descriptions is related to how our own minds process the senses, especially vision. We know that our minds are attuned to faces and hands more so than other parts of the body like knees, etc. What if when we have to make up a person in our mind, we use a descriptive, visual shorthand: eyes, face, hands, and the rest that connects it all together?
What if when our minds are storing/creating these memories they focus mainly on information related to the face and hands? Human aspects that our brains are attuned to (see sensory homunculous). I don’t think most of us are internally creative enough to completely create a new type of creature completely foreign from experience. We use what’s nearby, our shared cultural / media experiences, and our normal shorthand for remembering people.