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You’re on the internet, so you probably know that people sometimes claim to have been abducted by aliens. When researchers start to look closely at these stories and where they come from, they begin to realize that there might be something really interesting happening here psychologically.

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Sources:
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13546800244000058
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10487786
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S105381009990404X
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1363461505050715
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/11233172_Memory_distortion_in_people_reporting_abduction_by_aliens
https://www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html
https://michaelshermer.com/2008/12/patternicity/
https://www.history.com/news/first-alien-abduction-account-barney-betty-hill
Thanks to CuriosityStream for supporting this episode of SciShow!

Go to CuriosityStream.com/Psych (that’s P S Y C H) to learn more. {♫Intro♫}. Every now and then, someone claims to have been abducted by aliens.

You know about this. You’re on the Internet. Considering we don’t have any substantial evidence of life beyond Earth, almost everyone tends to dismiss these claims, but… hear me out… maybe we shouldn’t.

Because, once you start looking at these stories and where they come from, you begin to realize that there might be something really interesting happening here psychologically. Ultimately, researchers don’t believe these claims can tell us anything about life in space. But they can tell us how our brains try to explain the unexplainable.

First, to be clear, experts have found that, on average, people who claim to have been abducted by aliens aren’t any more likely to have a mental illness that changes their perception of reality. Instead, supposed “encounters” might be a result of a common psychological phenomenon: false memories. Essentially, someone has a weird experience, and then they misremember it — sometime that misremembering is dramatic.

That experience can vary, but these days, researchers tend to focus on one: sleep paralysis. This is kind of what it sounds like: You wake up in the middle of the night, but your body won’t move. And not only that, but you’re also prone to some pretty specific types of hallucinations.

Often, people feel there’s a threatening intruder in their room, but they might also feel bodily sensations — like pressure on their chests, difficulty breathing, or like they’re floating around. Some people have even reported sensations of bliss. This all probably happens when normal parts of sleep, like paralysis and dreaming, don’t wear off once you wake up, so it’s usually not anything to worry about.

But if someone has never heard of sleep paralysis, this could be a really scary experience, and it’s easy to see why they’d need an explanation for it. And, at least in the West, there’s a pretty obvious one. Like, if you wake up with a being looming over you, and you’re terrified and spinning around like gravity doesn’t matter… well, that sounds like our stories about aliens.

Still, there’s a pretty big jump between “I woke up feeling weird” and “I woke up on a spaceship, which I can describe in detail.” Researchers believe this jump happens when people lean into those cultural narratives about ET — maybe because they want to believe, or maybe because someone asks them targeted questions. In any case, they can end up convincing themselves they were abducted by aliens, and can construct detailed, false memories of their experience. There’s even some evidence to back this up — like a 2002 study from the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

In it, researchers compared false recall and false recognition among three groups. One group never claimed to have been abducted by aliens. The second claimed they had been, but they couldn’t remember it.

And the third also claimed they were abducted, but they had supposedly recovered their memories after something like therapy. In the experiment, each group was played a list of words, then were given a short distraction task to stop them rehearsing what they heard. After thirty seconds, they were asked to jot down all the words they could remember.

Next, everyone was presented with another list of words — some they had just heard, some that had similar meanings, and some that were brand-new. Their challenge was to look at this list and recall and recognize the words they’d been played at the beginning of the experiment. The results showed that the group who claimed to remember their abductions was significantly worse at this.

They were more likely to misremember the original words they’d been played, often confusing them with similar words from the new list. What happened here was likely misattribution, or what the researchers called a source monitoring error. These participants had probably heard those words at some point, but they couldn’t remember when — so they assumed they’d been played during the beginning of the experiment.

This study was small, but the authors suggest this kind of misattribution has a big role to play in the creation of false memories. For example, if someone is thinking back on their sleep paralysis experience and is wondering if it might have been aliens, they could remember things that weren’t there — like the flash of a creature they once saw in a movie. Other studies about eyewitness testimony have reached similar conclusions, too.

They’ve highlighted just how easily events that didn’t happen can be incorporated into memories, either from other sources, or by leading questions. Like with other things in the field, more studies would help confirm this idea. But ultimately, this points to the fact that, when we’re trying to explain why weird things happen to us, our brains can propose explanations that aren’t entirely true.

And along the way, we can end up believing them. So while these stories can’t teach us much about ET, they can teach us about another kind of life: the human kind, here on Earth. If all this talk of aliens has gotten you wanting to learn about weird kinds of life — you do not need to look any further than Earth’s past.

Because millions of years ago, some strange stuff was walking around here. And if you want to see some it for yourself, you can check out the first season of Ancient. Earth on CuriosityStream.

CuriosityStream is a subscription streaming service with more than twenty-four hundred documentaries and nonfiction titles. They have content about psychology, biology, engineering, basically anything else you’d want to learn about. If you want to learn more, you can check them out free for thirty-one days if you sign up at curiositystream.com/psych and use the promo code “Psych.” After that, you can get unlimited access for just $2.99 a month — and you’ll be supporting SciShow along the way. {♫Outro♫}.