Thursday, July 8, 2010

Missing Time and the Mystery of Memory

Alien abductions are frequently marked by periods of what has come to be called 'missing time'.

For example, Betty and Barney Hill, the first 'official' modern abductees and certainly the most famous, were driving on a well-traveled highway when they saw a UFO with some strange small inhabitants visible through the windows.

The UFO began to follow the Hill's car, and very soon landed in front of them, blocking their progress.

The next thing the Hills knew, it was two hours later and they were far away from the spot where they spied the craft, driving along as if nothing had occurred.

The two hours between the time the Hills saw the UFO and the time they realized they were driving again many miles away from the location of the sighting is called 'missing time'.

What is really missing though, is not the time itself but any memory of the missing hours. This discontinuity of experience is behind the title of the book and movie describing the Hill's ordeal, Incident at Exeter: The Interrupted Journey.

Later, under hypnosis, both Betty and Barney Hill separately 'remembered' remarkably similar events that involved being forcibly taken aboard that same UFO, examined medically, and then released and sent on their way. Betty Hill remembered being shown a star map showing where the aliens were from, and was able to reproduce it under hypnosis years later.

Much has been made of the unreliability of this kind of hypnotically recovered memory. What is not often discussed is the fact that we actually know that ALL memory--not just recovered memory--is creative, selective, and mutable. That's why three different people in the same family can all remember the same family gathering differently, and why our parents seem one way when we are in our teens, another way when we are in our 30s, and different still when we are elderly ourselves.

Our parents are still our parents. They are the same people no matter how we remember their past behavior. The same events comprise the story of our lives no matter how we interpret those events. But our memories of people and events change as we change, and evolve as our circumstances and our understanding evolve.

Normal memory constantly shuffles and adjusts the 'facts' of an experience to fit our current situation and what we know now; highlighting some bits that we discarded earlier, and discarding other bits that we cling to for years.

This process is not the same as lying or fudging the truth; it is adaptive and normal. It is as if memory is less like a bank of discrete bits of data stored on some internal hard drive, and more like language.

Language is symbolic. It means nothing until we put it together to form a story and share it with others or use it to understand our environment. Memory is like this too: It is not just a collection of facts, but also a constellation of meanings. 

Letters are just letters until we actively form them into words. Words are just sounds until we use them to tell stories. Stories that are irrelevant get discarded in favor of ones that shed light on current circumstances. Language and memory are both ongoing processes that help us figure out where we are in relation the rest of the worth and to other people.

So what happens when a period of time simply vanishes after a strange event? What happens when there is a big gaping hole in a story that has just gotten a little too interesting?

Skeptics say that human cognition abhors a vacuum, so memory automatically makes stuff up to create an illusion of continuity--even if the made up stuff is outlandish and strange.

The idea here is that there are really two kinds of memory: 'true memory' tied to things that really happened; and 'false memory' implanted by the hypnotist or created by the subject in order to explain hours of inexplicable amnesia.

This idea is actually profoundly deceptive.

What skeptics don't say is that memory itself is in part the the process by which we take random experiential data and make a story out of it, and that all memory is partially false and partially true. All memory is full of errors and highly personal interpretations, and is subject to change over time.

If there is no such thing as strictly 'true memory', there can be no such thing as strictly 'false memory'. Even memories that are not 'real' in a material sense often are rich in symbolic emotional content and therefore do contain a kind of truth, even though it might not be reductive or empirical. For that matter, material reality itself is a LOT more slippery than we generally assume.

Things are not always what they seem.

I personally distrust UFO 'researchers' who get ALL their data from hypnotic regressions and take whatever emerges as material fact, but I also don't think it's right to trash the phenomena just because the methodology has been sloppy and the facts are baffling.

If anything, you'd think that would encourage more serious study.

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