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,
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
3 Experts in Related Fields (NDE,
Old Hag, Ritual Abuse)
2 Experts in Scientific Analysis
3 Media Representatives
11 Ph.D. Psychologists
2 Religious Studies/Ministers
4 Social Workers
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
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.
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.
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"
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.
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
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
With these basic aspects of the
abduction phenomenon in mind let us consider once again the above
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
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
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
Rather, abductees are going against
prevailing societal notions of reality, risking ostracism and
ridicule when they reveal to someone else what they have been
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
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
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
More studies of these dimensions of the
phenomenon, undertaken with an open mind, are very much needed.