Thursday, July 24, 2014

Which Came First: Aliens or Sci-Fi?

What is the relationship between UFO sightings and UFOs in fiction, stories, and film?

Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, courtesy XRay Delta @ Flickr
You might think that imaginative sci-fi comes first, spawning subsequent actual 'sightings' and experiences as people unconsciously amend their memories to include sexy aliens.

In 1974 Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer conducted research into the development of 'false memories', that is, real memories accompanied by strong emotion and certainty of things that never actually happened. They found that it was possible to implant 'memories' into people, and that some people were more suggestible and easily influenced than others.

By the mid-90's Loftus's research created a firestorm in the psychological community. Some therapists had been uncovering sensational 'repressed memories' in a number of patients.

As a result, lawsuits were filed, talk show hosts were happy and busy, and people seeking help for emotional problems found themselves in the middle of a heated insider battle that was not overly helpful to them. 

Believe it or not, 'repressed memory', 'recovered memory', and 'false memory syndrome' are nowhere to be found in the DSM-IV, the standard diagnostic manual used by psychologists and psychiatrists today. False memory syndrome is as controversial today as the controversial 'recovered memories' it was popularized to fight.

Whenever I see this kind of polarized, heated, go-nowhere debate I think, "What is being obscured by all this arguing over two and only two outcomes?"

In other words, what is getting lost in the messy middle, where most of us actually live?

Much the same argument goes on with the question of which came first: aliens or sci fi stories about them?

The relationship between experience and imagination is complex. On the one hand, if you can't even imagine something you aren't likely to see it or experience it in the material world. On the other, if an experience is toxic, 'hot', or confusing, you may well invoke a more structured fiction to make it understandable.

Extremely unwelcome information can also be screened by memories more palatable to society at large. (I've often thought that people would much rather hear about an alien abduction, for example, than a violent real rape involving all-too-real human beings.)

Some people are also sensitive to the extent that they can tune in to 'big stories', emerging cultural myths, and shepherd them into material reality as an organizing or healing principle. Although we do not recognize such people as legitimate in our modern technological society, every other society that has even existed on this earth does.

None of this answers the question posed by this post. Or, it does.

We never consider than answers to questions can be multiple, that reality can be so disorganized and confusing as to seem alien all on its own, that to get to the heart of a matter you sometimes have to tolerate not having a pat answer for a very long time indeed.

That's what a scientist would do anyway:

Tolerate the confusion. Stand in the center. Watch. Take notes.