Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Susan Clancy on recovered memories, alien abductions, and how to believe weird things

Over at Reason I found this informal and fascinating interview by Kerry Howley.

It's about recovered memories and the increasing claims of alien abduction.

Claims of alien abduction have become increasingly common over the past thirty years, Clancy reports, as has a general belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life. Recruiting people who truly believed they were abducted by extraterrestrials, she found a way to study memory creation without directly engaging the bitter debate over recovered memories of abuse. And listening to their grotesque and often sexually explicit accounts, she could be reasonably sure that the memories she was studying were not vivid recollections of traumatic abuse, but imaginative reconstructions of the latest Spielberg flick.
Susan Clancy makes a serious attempt to understand how people come to believe in something that is obviously false and she found that recovered memories is only imagination.

Reason: You are convinced that most people who believe they have been abducted by aliens are normal people, and that every one of them with vivid memories got them in therapy. How does that happen, exactly?

Clancy: I do think these people are fundamentally normal. The belief in alien abduction is much less weird when you consider the process by which the belief is acquired. It doesn't happen overnight. Nobody wakes up and says, "Holy shit, I was abducted last night, they took me, there were rotating vibrating devices and then they extracted my sperm." People say, "I have these weird experiences. I wonder what it could be?" They look for explanations and at some point they'll say, well, maybe I was abducted. I know it sounds weird but it's just like what Whitley Strieber wrote about, or it's just like what happened to Betty and Barney Hill. There are a lot of people out there who believe aliens are real and a lot of people who believe aliens have been on earth—look at the Roper polls and the Time/CNN polls—and it's not that weird that some people would say, maybe I've been abducted.
Normal people truly believe they've been abducted by aliens because they've experienced intense and emotional memories. But it's all in their imagination.

I also recommend visiting How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens and read the first chapter (PDF).

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