The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer


published February 2005
Imaginary traumas are as terrifying as the real thing
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In the wee hours of the morning on August 8, 1983, while I was traveling along a lonely rural highway approaching Haigler, Neb., a large craft with bright lights overtook me and forced me to the side of the road. Alien beings exited the craft and abducted me for 90 minutes, after which time I found myself back on the road with no memory of what transpired inside the ship. I can prove that this happened because I recounted it to a film crew shortly afterward.

When alien abductees recount to me their stories, I do not deny that they had a real experience. But thanks to recent research by Harvard University psychologists Richard J. McNally and Susan A. Clancy, we now know that some fantasies are indistinguishable from reality, and they can be just as traumatic. In a 2004 paper in Psychological Science entitled “Psychophysiological Responding during Script-Driven Imagery in People Reporting Abduction by Space Aliens,” McNally, Clancy and their colleagues report the results of a study of claimed abductees. The researchers measured heart rate, skin conductance and electromyographic responses in a muscle that lifted the eyebrow—called the left lateral (outer) frontalis — of the study participants as they relived their experiences through script-driven imagery. “Relative to control participants,” the authors concluded, “abductees exhibited greater psychophysiological reactivity to abduction and stressful scripts than to positive and neutral scripts.” In fact, the abductees’ responses were comparable to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients who had listened to scripts of their actual traumatic experiences.

The abduction study was initiated as a control in a larger investigation of memories of sexual abuse. In his book Remembering Trauma (Harvard University Press, 2003), McNally tracks the history of the recovered memory movement of the 1990s, in which some people, while attempting to recover lost memories of childhood sexual molestation (usually through hypnosis and guided imagery), instead created false memories of abuse that never happened. “The fact that people who believe they have been abducted by space aliens respond like PTSD patients to audiotaped scripts describing their alleged abductions,” McNally explains, “underscores the power of belief to drive a physiology consistent with actual traumatic experience.” The vividness of a traumatic memory cannot be taken as evidence of its authenticity.

The most likely explanation for alien abductions is sleep paralysis and hypnopompic (on awakening) hallucinations. Temporary paralysis is often accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations and sexual fantasies, all of which are interpreted within the context of pop culture’s fascination with UFOs and aliens. McNally found that abductees “were much more prone to exhibit false recall and false recognition in the lab than were control subjects,” and they scored significantly higher than normal on a questionnaire measuring “absorption,” a trait related to fantasy proneness that also predicts false recall.

My abduction experience was triggered by sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion. I had just ridden a bicycle 83 straight hours and 1,259 miles in the opening days of the 3,100-mile nonstop transcontinental Race Across America. I was sleepily weaving down the road when my support motor home flashed its high beams and pulled alongside, and my crew entreated me to take a sleep break. At that moment a distant memory of the 1960s television series The Invaders was inculcated into my waking dream. In the series, alien beings were taking over the earth by replicating actual people but, inexplicably, retained a stiff little finger. Suddenly the members of my support team were transmogrified into aliens. I stared intensely at their fingers and grilled them on both technical and personal matters.

After my 90-minute sleep break, the experience represented nothing more than a bizarre hallucination, which I recounted to ABC’s Wide World of Sports television crew filming the race. But at the time the experience was real, and that’s the point. The human capacity for self-delusion is boundless, and the effects of belief are overpowering. Thanks to science we have learned to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

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2 Comments to “Abducted!”

  1. Riley Woods Says:

    My name is Riley, I live in a country environment with other houses spaced apart, this housing area resides near Springfield, MO. The following occurred at roughly 2015 on military time or 8:15 PM Central: October 3rd, 2012.
    Every night, around 7:00 to 7:30, I run around the circle that a dozen houses reside on. Occasionally I run at 8:00 or even 9:00 if I have been busy on the computer. Anyways, each house is roughly 300 feet apart, so I am in no means living in a suburbs. At 8:03, I got off my computer, threw on some athletic shorts, put on some running shoes and started up pandora on my phone. I quickly went to the bathroom and was out the door by 8:10 or so. It was roughly 65 Degrees out, and something that caught my attention was the moon. It was a 3/4 Moon. I normally disreguard the sky, but for some reason I kept looking up tonight because the whole corner to the South loomed pitch black while the other direction was just normal darkness of the night. When I started running, the direction I ran to was South. I ran about 0.4 Miles South then the road curved to the East. I ran on the eastern stretch for about 0.2 Miles. At this point, I had a strange feeling. This house at the end corner where The south stretch an east stretch is, there is a house that always has its house lights on from dusk to dawn. They were off, making it seem darker that it ever has before. While running, I always use my phone for light, using the white from the pandora application to guide my way. The corner where the East stretch and the North stretch turn, there aren’t any houses, just a big weedy area to my left that drops down maybe 100 feet and rises back up with a few trees on the hill. *Note* The hair just rose on my arms, and I got extremely light headed just now while typing, I am not sure what is causing this. It is similar to the marijuana euphoria and an adrenaline rush altogether. (I haven’t smoked marijuana in over two years), This is odd and almost scaring me.* *Note* Five Minutes has passed and the feeling is now gone* Anyways.. The phone company I am currently using is Virgin Mobile, and the service I recieve out in the countryside is slim to none, so pandora runs decent some days and skips and stops playing on other days, it is rather annoying. As I was saying earlier, I was running around the darkest corner of the block where there are very few houses, and lots of ragweed and old oaks. Pandora just stopped playing, I remember the song like I wrote it, Heartless: by Kanye West. I stopped running and caught my breath briefly. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and unlocked the screen. Pandora wasn’t running, the screen was all black with all kinds of IOIOIOIOIO.. all over it, It was scrolling down all on its own.. All I remember is holding the power button down to restart my phone.. *Note* My hands are shaking now, and the light headedness is back, I am Scared!..* I need to finish this, I NEED to tell somebody, but I cannot speak of it, my mind can’t work out the events.. After what seemed like 5 Minutes of holding the power button which was out of my control (Almost like I was stuck), my vision blurred and turned white. Black started forming around the white. This white was like nothing I have ever seen, I don’t know how to describe it, terrifying, soft, hard, blinding, whiter than white? I don’t know. It wasn’t what I knew white as.. Seconds later, Seemed like another five minutes, I was at the bottom of the 100 foot hill in the ragweed facing the road. My vision was blurred, I felt like I was intoxicated on alcohol, and my knees were very weak. Stumbling fowards, I fell onto my knees and sat there for maybe.. ten or so minutes before getting up on my feet and being fully aware of where I was. I started my way back up the hill and reached he road, panting and out of breath.. I reached in my pockets for my phone, but It wasn’t there, thats when I remembered I had headphones attached as well, they were on my head too. My phone wasn’t in my pocket, and my headphones werent on my head. At this point I started to panic, not because of my missing electronics, but because of my confusion. I still don’t know what happened, I am still trying to recall anything, anything at all, but I draw a blank. I turned behind me facing the exact point I remember being at before I “froze.” A white light was being emitted from the ground. I ran to the light because I just wanted to get to my house.. Lying on the ground was my phone, the screen was all white, which was weird because it seemed so dull. Such as this text box I am writing in, it just seems more dull and dim than I feel it was before this incident.. Anyways, I picked my phone up and my headphones were still connected. I literally sprinted home, ran all the way to the front door, ran inside, slammed the front door, locked the deadbolt, ran to my room, locked the door, closed the curtains, and just sat on my computer chair for maybe 15 minutes still in a daze. My computer was still on from before, but the movie I was watching on netflix was 5 minutes prior to where I was when I paused it to go exercise. I looked at the clock on my computer and it read 7:57 PM. I don’t know what to think of this, can anybody PLEASE help me. I am afraid to go to sleep at night because I read a few of the threads on this website already where people have had terrible dreams. PLEASE HELP ME, SOMEBODY! I AM TERRIFIED AND STILL COWERING AT MY COMPUTER DESK BEHIND MULTIPLE LOCKED DOORS WITH ALL THE LIGHTS ON! People say this shit is fake, I never was a believer, but I never doubted it either.. I am in the Army Reserves and I have been through quite a bit.. I’m scared, please help! PLEASE!

    Sir, I have read some of your columns, and you seem to understand this phenomenon. I need somebody out there to help me. There is nothing I can find on the internet to report something like this, and I would like to recieve some type of feedback from SOMEBODY, Please help Mr. Shermer. Send me an email of what you think of my situation. Please don’t hesitate, I am on edge and need an some type of answer soon!

  2. A friend Says:

    Riley. Chill buddy. You are OK now. Get to a friends house if you can. Stay with someone. Get into a city if that will make you more comfortable. Try to sleep while you have a friend in the room with you who is awake. Reading a book or watching TV or whatever.

    Read this:

    Watch “Dan Aykroyd Unplugged on UFO’s” on Netflix.

    I can’t believe how recent you posted this. I am so sorry no one has responded yet. Hopefully you have found comfort in either friends or family. Light a cigarette. Drink a Beer. Liquid Courage. I wish I could be there with you man.

    It is over. You are alive. Try to be strong. I’ll check back on this site over the next week. Please let me know how you are. If you do check back I’ll leave contact info next time. I am just a guy, nobody special, but I’ll talk if you need. verbal company.

    Much love brother.

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