following article was published in The Guardian
October 14 2008
do people have paranormal experiences?
team of researchers has been trying to find out
do people believe they have been abducted by aliens?
is the question arch sceptic and professor of psychology Chris
French set out to answer in a research project that began five
in a unique UK-based study to be published this month, French
has come up with an intriguing explanation. Alien abductees,
or "experiencers" as he describes them, have a different
psychological profile to people who do not claim to have
had these experiences, the research shows.
have higher levels of paranormal belief, paranormal experience,
self-reported psychic ability and fantasy proneness, more
vivid imaginations, a greater tendency to hallucinate and more
self-reported incidences of sleep paralysis.
paralysis is a scientifically accepted condition. It usually
happens between sleeping and waking, when the sufferer experiences
a terrifying feeling of being paralysed, unable to move
or speak, while an unidentifiable horror lurks in the dark.
of the experiencers in the study had suffered sleep paralysis
and in searching for an explanation concluded they had had
a close encounter, French says. "If you have had a really vivid
experience like that and you can't make any sense of it, and
you come across an article or a book or a documentary that says
you may well have been abducted by aliens, it gives you an explanation,
and it also means you're not crazy.
we can see why some people may go for that and may then, as a
consequence, end up going for hypnotic regression, already with
the idea in their head that they have been abducted by aliens
- and, surprise, surprise, what kind of memory then appears
to surface? It's being taken on board a spaceship."
of the experiencers had undergone hypnotic regression, which French
believes can implant false memories. The research also found
the abductees showed higher levels of dissociativity (a tendency
to switch off or have altered states of consciousness, such
as out of body experiences and missing time episodes) and absorption
(an ability to lose themselves in some activity such as
watching a movie or reading a novel).
who is head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at
Goldsmiths College, University of London, led a team of researchers
who studied 19 experiencers and a control group, matched
for gender and age. In each group, there were eight men and
11 women, aged between their early 20s and early 70s.
experiencer category included anyone who claimed to have had extraterrestrial
contact. These included UFO sightings; direct contact
with a variety of alien life forms as well as telepathic communication
with aliens; six reported believing that the aliens
had implanted some device in their bodies; one believed that
his terrestrial parents were not his real parents (his real parents
being extraterrestrials); two reported finding marks on their
bodies caused by the aliens; and three reported that aliens
had removed foetuses from them or caused them to have miscarriages.
participants completed seven questionnaires and were interviewed
by researchers. The
article, called Psychological Aspects of the Alien Abduction Experience,
is published in the neuroscience journal Cortex. Its
is a vindication of French's field of research, anomalistic
psychology, which he defines as "the psychology of weird
experiences that people have and the beliefs that are associated
with them", and which he has pursued for more than 20 years.
He also edits a semi-satirical publication, the Skeptic Magazine.
very used to defending my interest in this because, even now,
I get the impression from certain colleagues that it's not quite
a respectable thing to be interested in, even though you may
have the word sceptic tattooed across your forehead.
truth is, looking at the opinion polls [see below], most people
do believe in the paranormal and a sizeable minority claim
to have direct personal experience. This can mean one of two
things, either that paranormal forces really exist, and if that
is the case, scientists should accept that and get on and study
it in the same way we study and try to understand anything else.
Or it's telling us something really interesting about human
psychology. Either way, I think it's worth taking these kinds
of beliefs seriously.
possibility is that people really are being abducted by aliens
and taken on board space ships and being probed in interesting
ways. I'm not convinced that the ET [extraterrestrial]
hypothesis is true. So the challenge for the psychologist
is to try to explain what is going on. I think the most
plausible explanation is these are false memories."
profile of French's field of research is about to be raised still
further following a decision by one of the biggest examination
boards in the UK, the AQA, to introduce the study of anomalistic
psychology as an option in the curriculum for its psychology
A-level from September next year.
who is writing a chapter on the subject for one of the board's
psychology textbooks, is delighted his rather niche specialism
will reach a wider audience in schools. "I'm very excited
about it," he says. "The reason I like teaching this topic
is the material is a great hook to get people interested.
they are believers or sceptics, most people find these claims
of aliens and ghosts and strange powers interesting. Once you've
got the interest, it raises all kinds of issues about the nature
of evidence and what should we accept as convincing evidence,
and about using it as a tool for critical thinking more
French going to be turning out a generation of disbelieving sceptics? "To
be properly sceptical you have to be open to the possibility
you might be wrong, and willing to be persuaded by evidence.
Scepticism is not about dismissing claims before you look
at the evidence. It's about saying, show me the evidence."
a recent lecture, French cited figures from an opinion poll of
a representative sample of 1,000 British adults. The figures in
square brackets indicate those reporting direct personal
of the phenomenon in question:
64% believe that some people have powers that cannot be
by science [16%]
63% believe in God [14%]
52% believe in life after death [11%]
49% believe in ghosts [13%]
49% believe in precognitive dreams [19%]
49% believe in heaven (only 28% believe in hell) [2%, 2%]
47% believe in thought reading [14%]
41% believe in communication with the dead [9%]
34% believe in psychokinesis [4%]
26% believe in angels [ 3%]
25% believe in reincarnation [-]