Thursday, May 27, 2010

Alien Abduction and Dissociation

Dissociation is a term from clinical psychology that refers to a pathological state of detachment.

An online medical dictionary describes the condition as follows:

Dissociation: In psychology and psychiatry, a perceived detachment of the mind from the emotional state or even from the body. Dissociation is characterized by a sense of the world as a dreamlike or unreal place and may be accompanied by poor memory of the specific events, which in severe form is known as dissociative amnesia. 

Over the course of the 1990s, dissociation became a sensational topic on talk shows and in the popular press under the rubric of multiple personality disorder. 

MPD  has since that time been changed to the more clinically precise dissociative identity disorder.

The concept of personality is vague, subjective, and currently out of favor with clinical psychologists, (who BTW change their minds a LOT). Identity is--at least for now--seen as a more neutral term that refers to the individual characteristics by which a thing or person is recognized or known.

Abductees and researchers alike take great pains to 'prove' that abduction experiences are not the result of mental or emotional pathology, and yet even a casual observer can recognize problems of dissociation and dissociative identity in alien abduction accounts.

Many abductees say openly that since remembering their abductions, they have realized that they possess a 'dual identity', and now understand themselves as both human and alien.

People who believe abductions are real say that abductees experience something similar to PTSD post-abduction because the experience is so terrifying. Symptoms such as amnesia for the event, hypervigilance, nightmares, confusion, persistent anxiety, etc., are all common.

People who believe that abductions are fantasies, dreams, or out of body experiences suggest that people who already suffer from PTSD for some violent earthly trauma can be induced to believe they were abducted by aliens as a kind of 'screen' for the memory of the real event.

At first glance, the idea that alien abduction memories make good 'screen memories' might seem ridiculous. Abduction researchers commonly protest that the consequences of coming forward with an alien abduction story are so negative (people accuse abductees of being crazy or of being attention-seekers, for instance) that no one would choose to do this unless the experience was genuine.

This point only makes sense however if the alternative is saying nothing and feeling fine. If a person is already feeling anxious and disturbed, or is plagued by nightmares, or is baffled by a relatively non-emotional instance of missing time, the mind has a strong inclination to resolve this tension.

What is less upsetting in this context? The notion that you might have blocked out a brutal assault, rape, or murder--which, seriously, no one wants to hear? Or the possibility that you were abducted by aliens, which, although upsetting and bizarre, lots of people are ready to validate?

I'm not saying the alien abductees are all victims of earthly trauma suffering from PTSD and a culturally suggested delusion. All I'm saying here is that researchers often fail to ask hard questions because they want so badly to believe the phenomenon at face value.

In fact, MPD came under fire for similar reasons shortly after it made the rounds of the talk show circuit back in the 1990s. Debunkers appeared hot on the heels of the dramatically damaged, armed with 'false memory' research, damning studies, and convincing examples of lying and hysteria.

After a time, clinical psychology had to to admit that at least some of the 'multiple personalities' who had written books based on their supposed early sexual traumas were not what they appeared to be, and some of the therapists who had been treating them were quacks.

The problem was that some of the MPD patients were not lying and their originating traumas could be proven. Many reputable psychologists came forward to defend dissociation as a clinical reality.

In the furor and uproar that ensued, both at universities and within clinical practice, much confusion was generated and little was accomplished. In the end, the DSM-IV changed some terms around and refined diagnostic categories, pitching the term 'MPD' in favor of 'DID', and adding subcategories and variants that were meant to provide clarity.

Is anyone feeling better yet?

Well, not really. PTSD is now one of the most common mental illnesses, and dissociation is pretty much a feature of everyday life for most people.

It always was, really.

Who hasn't had the experience of driving home from work only to realize that absorption in some issue or thought process has all but blanked out the entire trip? Who doesn't act one way in one situation and another way in another, to the point that it sometimes feels like two different identities altogether? It's hard to hold a corporate job these days if you don't know how to put on a identity and remove it on command as if it were a three-piece suit.

I personally believe that something real and interesting is going on with abduction experiences, but that we are asking all the wrong questions--those of us who are even asking questions.

"...a perceived detachment of the mind from the emotional state or even from the body..."

Doesn't that describe the normative way we approach the world as a culture? Doesn't science always attempt to detach itself from emotion? Isn't the body seen as separate from the mind? Aren't human beings seen as separate from nature?

Maybe, just maybe, abduction experiences happen not so much to provide us with the answers we seek, as to get us to ask better questions, different ones.

Or, maybe I'm just being too detached about it all.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Aliens and Faeries

The ET hypothesis in ufology is more controversial than its adherents like to admit.

Briefly, the ET hypothesis is the notion that UFO sightings and alien encounters are instigated by intelligent creatures from outer space. Some branches of ufology even name the specific part of the galaxy the visitors call home.

Betty Hill, who was abducted with her husband Barney from a rural New Hampshire road in 1961, claimed under hypnosis that the aliens who abducted her had shown her a star map--a map which she was later able to reproduce and which coincided accurately with a cluster of stars around Zeta Reticuli.

Thereafter the Hill abduction came to be known as "The Zeta Reticuli Incident."

But many of the most prominent features of alien abduction experiences, as well as some of the features of UFO sightings (that is, experiences that do not include direct contact with alien beings) were present for hundreds of years in faery lore.

Today faeries mostly inhabit children's books. At least, that's what we tell ourselves. 

The faeries of old were experts in messing with human perception. They could appear to humans in any form them wished and could alter the experience of time. Like the aliens of today, faeries abducted children and young people, and were especially drawn to young women, with whom they were thought to mate in order to strengthen their line. Faeries sometimes took human babies and left faery children--called 'changelings'--in their place.

Faeries depicted as cute, Disney-like imps that flutter around trees and flowers are not the same faeries of medieval times and earlier. Before the rise of science, faeries were considered dangerous, and every culture had them. Being taken by the faeries was like being taken to the realm of the Dead. You might not ever come back, and if you did return, you might not be right ever again.

Like today's abductees, people taken by faeries typically went missing for a period of hours, days, or even longer, and then reappeared suddenly with no memory of what had happened to them and no sense of the amount of time that had passed. When the memories of faery abductees did begin to return, they included the recollection of coming upon small beings unexpectedly, and being invited into their circle.

Today's abductees usually do not remember what happened at first either, but only notice that some time is strangely missing from their lives. Their memories come later, under hypnosis, in dreams or in spontaneous surreal fragments.

Documented examples of fairies arriving in small airships are also plentiful The similarities between these creatures and the smaller 'grey aliens' described my modern abductees are striking, though saying so won't usually garner a round of applause in ufology circles.

It may not be the case that fairies and aliens are one and the same creature, but it seems to me at least worth considering that SOME 'aliens' are possibly not from outer space at all, but from right here on earth.

Every other culture, except ours has thought so.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Roswell, Bamboozelment & False Scholars

I suppose ufologists will still be debating Roswell if we make it to the 22nd century. Yet everytime Roswell comes up I have the same thought:

There goes the Jedi mind trick.

Every American knows the story by now.

In the summer of 1947 something technological crashes just outside Roswell, New Mexico. At first the Air Force sends out a press release announcing that they've recovered a flying saucer. The next day however, they hold a press conference explaining it was really a weather balloon.

Major Jesse Marcel, the Air Force officer who initially accompanies rancher 'Mac' Brazell back to the crash site spends the rest of his life insisting that no, it really was a flying saucer. Rumors of recovered alien bodies surface, and for the next 60+ years writers like Kevin Randle and Stanton Friedman write books and go around the country insisting that there was a big government coverup.

Meanwhile, skeptics and debunkers like Joe Nickell--English major and UFO hater of Skeptical Inquirer fame--perform lame experiments meant to show that the whole thing is not true. So we have lame UFO researchers on the one hand insisting on veracity, and lame debunkers on the other insisting it's all a big lie. Harsh words are exchanged. Believers and non-believers come forward to voice their positions and contribute snark.

Every so often the military comes out and denies something, or denies a denial, or releases some heavily censored document a la The X-Files to keep the argument going.

Every fire needs an occasional shot of gasoline--even one as old and tired as this. This puppet show is still going strong, right now, right this minute--which in itself is unbelievable, because the discussion is not complex, interesting, or especially polite.

The Roswell problem is always framed this way:

Either UFOs are physically real and their material reality can be readily proven by 'science', or else UFOs are figments of the public's hungry imagination (and therefore 'not real') and 'science' must therefore do everything it can to laugh them off.

Yet neither side of this debate is very scientific and both sides use dubious research and logic so rudimentary and so bad that even I can see it is kind of pathetic. The government deliberately adds periodic confusion.

Here's what I think:

I think that some UFO sightings/experiences are genuine and worthy of further study, and that their material reality (or lack thereof) is their least interesting and least germane attribute. Information scientist Jacques Vallee, a guy who now runs venture capital firms and is hardly a nut, thinks the same thing.

I also think that whether or not a UFO was recovered at Roswell is by now almost certainly less important than the fact that the main players in this boring game are now running an old con also commonly known as "baffle them with bullsh*t, or "control through the confusion."

Street thugs know that one good way to lift a wallet quickly is to confuse the victim by presenting contradictory, baffling cues that distract and disorient the person marked for robbery. Create a diversion, take that cash. Similarly, hypnotists sometimes use a technique of deliberate confusion and contradictory cues to get stubborn subjects to relinquish conscious control long enough that they can be 'put under' and be made open to suggestion.

In short, UFOs may well be a real phenomena worthy of study on many levels, and many different and separate phenomena might be unfolding simultaneously. A UFO might have crashed at Roswell AND the government may well be opportuntistically using that to mess with the public's mind.

Or not.

One certainty is that a disinformation campaign waged by the U.S. military to divert attention away from their own unsavory activities--and there are many--is not at all hard to imagine, and they've certainly done such things before. And why not keep it going for 60 years, Roswell bodies or no Roswell bodies? It's working. If a thing ain't broke, you don't fix it.

When people are arguing about the reality of UFOs (or their unreality), they are not arguing about weapons development, biological weaponry, military intrusions on civilian life, poisonous chemicals, medical experiments (Google 'Tuskegee' for more on that), or any number of other legitimate issues that the general public maybe just ought to care about a little more--or at all.

In 1947, the U.S. military needed attention diverted away from the bomb and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Today, the dangers we should not be considering (per the military) are so many and so lethal it would take far more than a blog post to list them all.

"Look over there!" is a sad distraction, but it's a distraction that works, and really well too.

Distraction and deception is a definitely a part of UFO lore and history, but it isn't the most interesting or most valuable part--just the most annoying one.

To get to the heart of the matter, I'm convinced we have to think outside of that tired old box.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Charles Fort: A Man Ahead of his Fortean Times

Fortean Times is a classic British magazine about the paranormal and other odd ephemera.

Founded in 1973 to provide "...news, reviews and research on strange phenomena and experiences, curiosities, prodigies and portents," Fortean Times is based on the work of the little-known but fascinating philosopher Charles Fort, who lived from 1874 to 1932.

Fort spent a good part of his brief time on earth researching scientific literature in the New York Public Library and the British Museum Library.

Charles Fort did not leave a huge body of written work, but what he did write packed quite a punch. He annoyed big people, but also found a few fast friends in the world of publishing--friends who respected the uniqueness of his mind, his wit, and his vision. His most famous works, The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932), all concern themselves with what Fort felt was a serious flaw in scientific explanations of what constitutes 'reality'.

Fort argued that science, when rigorously examined, looks a lot more like a belief system than a methodology, and that its conclusions can only stand if anomalous data and experiences are systematically excluded, suppressed, or explained away. Fort blasted the reductionism embraced by mainstream science and its tendency to isolate, separate, and objectify phenomena. He saw science as a force that actually distorts understanding by denigrating mystery in an effort to maintain control.

Fort thought that everything in the known world was in a constant state of flux, always becoming one thing or another, and that the interconnectedness of all things was an obvious given. Like Lovelock (only earlier), he speculated that the universe itself might be more akin to a living organism than to a infinite expanse of inert matter.

Fort was one of the first to wonder publicly whether UFO phenomena might well be craft from outer space, and to this day Fortean Times is one of the first and most willing to publish new UFO findings, theories, and sightings.

Fortean Times has a weird, tabloid sort of vibe that earns it derision by logically minded persons and scientists, but this absurdist quality is grounded in a carefully constructed and always entertaining philosophy that goes back nearly a century. The mocking tone is part of the point.

Fort was notoriously critical even of his own theories, contradicting the oft-made charge that ufologists and lovers of weirdness are unthinking zealots in the process constructing a new religion. Although sometimes this charge rings true, it is by no means true across the board, and the kneejerk need by science to make it true often feels like defensiveness... perhaps because it is.

Fort famously said of science, UFO speculations, and his own work that:

"I conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while."

That's a perspective that, true or false, leaves room for the creative expansion of the human mind and heart.