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.

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