Govardhan Hill Publishing--Weekly Feature

Govardhan Hill Publishing

Weekly Feature

December 25, 1995

Alien Identities
Ancient Insights into Modern UFO Phenomena
by Richard Thompson
with Foreword by Whitley Strieber


The following are a couple of sections from the second chapter of Alien Identities which discuss the reliability of witness's memories of UFOs abductions and the phenomena known as the false memory syndrome.

On Misperception and Failings of Memory

The psychiatrist Ian Stevenson has made some observations about misperception and failings of memory that are applicable to the evaluation of UFO reports. Stevenson has spent many years studying what he calls spontaneous cases in the field of parapsychology. These are cases in which a person reports some ostensibly paranormal experience outside the confines of a controlled, laboratory situation. These include telepathic and precognitive impressions, out-of-body experiences, memories of past lives, poltergeist cases, and apparitions. Stevenson has specialized in the study of past-life memories in young children, and he has carefully studied the use of interviews with witnesses as the main method of researching these cases.

I will briefly summarize some remarks that Stevenson made about evaluating the evidence for spontaneous cases. Although he did not mention UFOs in his discussion, his observations are quite relevant to the evaluation of UFO reports.

One of his first points was that the adjectives "authentic" and "evidential" are applied to spontaneous cases. A case is authentic if the witnesses and the reporting are highly reliable, so that one can justifiably believe that the events in question happened as reported. It is evidential if it is authentic and there is justification for thinking that the case has paranormal features.

J. Allen Hynek expressed similar ideas. He spoke of a credibility index and a strangeness index. The credibility index measures the reliability of UFO witnesses, as indicated by their reputations, medical histories, occupations, sharpness of eyesight, and other factors. He also said that single witness cases should be given "no more than quarter-scale credibility." The strangeness index measures how far the reported events seem to defy explanation in normal physical terms. Hynek felt that there are UFO cases of high credibility and strangeness, and Stevenson similarly felt that there are spontaneous cases that are authentic and evidential.

Stevenson pointed out that one defect in many spontaneous cases is that the case was not described in writing until considerable time had elapsed. This is also true of many (but by no means all) UFO cases. It leads to the problem that human memories may erode with time and that accounts may be filled in with reconstructions or supplemental material. However, Stevenson pointed out that retention of detail in memory depends on the emotional intensity of the experience, on repetition, and on motivation to remember. Many paranormal experiences involve high emotional intensity and motivation to remember. The same is reported by many UFO close-encounter witnesses.

Stevenson went on to point out four cases in which it could be demonstrated that witnesses retained good memory of paranormal experiences over several years. In one example, a man and his wife wrote detailed accounts in 1909 of an apparently precognitive dream that he had in 1902. Eight years later, the woman wrote another account without consulting any memoranda or discussing the case with her husband. This account differed in only one minor detail from her husband's earlier account. Stevenson pointed out that in all four cases there was not only little loss of detail but also little elaboration of new detail.

It is often charged that percipients in spontaneous cases tend to embellish their memories as time passes, and this makes it impossible to find out later what they originally experienced. Although Stevenson acknowledged that embellishment does happen, he said, "In my own experience embellishment of the main features of an account occurs very rarely." He said that he had checked this many times by coming back unexpectedly after one or several years and requestioning a witness about his experiences. I am not aware of any feature of UFO witnesses that would make them more prone to embellishment than witnesses of paranormal events not involving UFOs.

Stevenson noted that embellishment is more apt to occur in accounts given by secondhand reporters of a case than it is by primary witnesses. However, even these reporters do not always embellish the case. He commented, "Quite as often, if not more so, they drop important details and thus diminish its evidentiality."

These tendencies could have a serious effect on UFO reports presented in secondary literature. The authors of UFO books may be more likely to distort testimony than many original witnesses. The only way to guard against this is to be aware of the reputations of UFO authors and identify the biases of particular presentations by surveying a wide variety of books and reports. My own impression after making a broad survey of the literature is that certain popular UFO authors do tend to introduce their own biases into UFO accounts. Often they do this by omitting features of UFO accounts that do not fit into their favored hypotheses.

Another problem with reports of spontaneous cases is malobservation. There have been many studies by lawyers and forensic psychologists in which an event is staged before witnesses, who are later asked to tell what happened. It is observed that the witnesses will frequently make many errors in their accounts of what they saw. For example, in a staged confrontation with guns, they may fail to correctly identify which party pulled out his gun first.

Stevenson commented that, "Such experiments certainly have some relevance to our field, but again I resist their use to reject all human testimony in spontaneous cases." One reason he gave for this is that witnesses may be confused about details that are crucial in a court of law, such as who drew his gun first. But they are not confused about the basic fact that the main event occurred--in this case an argument in which guns were drawn.

The False Memory Syndrome

Can a person falsely remember a complete event--such as a bank robbery--which never actually occurred? When we are dealing with a clear, conscious memory by a sane adult of an event which occurred a no more than a few years ago during adult life, it seems unlikely that this will occur. However, memory does have its gray areas. If a person does not have a clear memory of a particular event, then persuasive social pressure may induce the person to "remember" that event, at least vaguely, even though it never happened. This may take place when the person is dominated by an authority figure, such as a psychotherapist, who strongly believes that the person has repressed memories of certain experiences and is able to recover them. It is even more likely to happen when a highly suggestible person is hypnotized for the purpose of recovering lost memories.

In recent years these failings of human memory have become a topic of heated controversy. Many people undergoing certain forms of psychotherapy have supposedly recovered repressed childhood memories of sexual abuse by parents or close relatives. Families have been disrupted when these recovered memories led to bitter accusations and expensive lawsuits directed at family members.

This has resulted in a strong backlash in which accused family members have charged that the recovered memories of abuse are really fantasies generated in the accusers' minds by the psychotherapeutic process. This generation of pseudomemories has been named the false memory syndrome (FMS), and it has become the focus of a great deal of psychological research.

Proponents of the false memory syndrome argue that human memory is a highly malleable, reconstructive process. Some maintain that repressed memories may not even exist and that the apparent recovery of lost memories is an illusion. Thus sociologist Richard Ofshe maintains that "The notion of repression has never been more than an unsubstantiated speculation tied to other Freudian concepts and speculative mechanisms."

Others say that repressed memories can be recovered, but false memories may also be generated by the recovery process. Extreme statements abound in this controversial area, but the following statement from the American Psychological Association gives a moderate summary of the basic FMS hypothesis: "It is possible for memories of abuse that have been forgotten for a long time to be remembered. . . . It is also possible to construct convincing pseudo memories for events that never occurred. . . . There are gaps in our knowledge of the processes that lead to accurate or inaccurate recollection of childhood sexual abuse."

A review of the evidence suggests that false memories can, indeed, arise in peoples' minds under the influence of suggestion. This observation can always be used to cast eyewitness testimony into doubt, particularly if the testimony may have been influenced by social pressures. However, the general rejection of human testimony has serious consequences. Child victim expert Lucy Berliner observed: "I don't think all eyewitness accounts should be discredited as a result [of the false memory syndrome]. Many of the cases in our criminal justice system depend on eyewitness accounts. If an environment is created in which we say not to listen to those accounts, then what do we do?"

I would suggest that a reasonable position is that human memory is imperfect, but not totally imperfect. The existence of false memories does pose complications for the interpretation of eyewitness testimony, but it does not imply that all eyewitness testimony should be disregarded.

Unfortunately the idea of the false memory syndrome can be used to totally rule out certain categories of testimony as invalid. This is shown by some of the examples of false memories cited by FMS researchers. For example, Nicholas Spanos and his colleagues cited three categories of false memories in an article published in The International Journal of Hypnosis. These are (1) hypnotically induced memories of past lives, (2) memories of UFO close encounters, and (3) memories ritual abuse carried out by members of satanic cults. The article took it for granted that the memories in the first two categories must be false since, after all, past lives and UFOs do not exist. The memories of satanic abuse were dismissed as unreal because investigations by law enforcement agencies have failed to show the existence of the alleged satanic cults.

Ian Stevenson has pointed out that hypnotically induced memories of past lives are often spurious. But he also maintained that "rarely--very rarely--something of evidential value emerges during attempts to evoke previous lives during hypnosis," and he cited two studies of his own in which this happened.

It would seem that memories of past lives recovered through hypnosis are not necessarily false. In a few cases, such memories may actually be evidential. If so, then these are presumably part of a larger set of cases that are genuine but not strong enough to be considered evidential. In still other cases, the memories may contain genuine elements as well as elements produced by imagination.

The situation of reports of satanic ritual abuse may be similar. FBI investigator Kenneth Lanning, who has spent years investigating the sexual victimization of children, has pointed out that many accusations of satanic sexual abuse are being made that law enforcement agents have been unable to corroborate. However, Lanning does not dismiss all of these satanic abuse reports as false. He stated that, "Some of what the victims allege may be true and accurate, some may be misperceived or distorted, some may be screened or symbolic, and some may be `contaminated' or false. The problem and challenge, especially for law enforcement, is to determine which is which."

I would suggest that similar observations might be made about reports of UFO close encounters. The failings of human memory make it likely that many of these reports may contain spurious material. This is particularly true of uncorroborated reports in which hypnosis was used by a zealous investigator to recover lost memories from a highly suggestible witness.

However, since human memory is not completely imperfect, and sometimes works remarkably well, it also seems reasonable to suppose that many reports of UFO close encounters contain realistic material and some may be quite accurate. This is particularly true of multiple witness cases and cases involving responsible adults with clear, conscious memories. The use of hypnosis to recover memories of UFO encounters is controversial, and I will discuss it in Chapter 4.

I should also note that, according to Stevenson's analysis, suggestion and social pressure often tend to suppress rather than encourage the reporting of unusual phenomena. Some researchers argue that human errors in paranormal cases "are nearly all in the direction of reinforcing previously held favorable beliefs about paranormal events." Stevenson said he has encountered this kind of amplification and it is particularly common among people seeking to cash in on their experiences. But he pointed out that many people report paranormal events with great reluctance due to fear of ridicule. And "many subjects also insist that prior to their experiences they had no settled convictions or knowledge about the experiences which parapsychology studies." He suggested that these people are not likely to amplify normal events into paranormal ones and may do just the opposite. Very similar observations have been made by investigators of UFO close encounters.


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Last updated on December 25, 1995.

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