By Amy Alkon
Q: This will sound crazy, but … should I tell my girlfriend, the love of my life, that I was abducted by aliens? It happened a long time ago, and I have no proof—just my own recollection. Yes, it could’ve been a dream, but even so, it changed how I see things and opened me up to new possibilities. My girlfriend is a schoolteacher and probably wouldn’t believe me. Whether she’d still stay with me, I don’t know. I want to be completely honest with her. Is that crazy?—UFO-napped
A: Strange how nobody ever manages to shoot video when there’s an alien spaceship in the vicinity—perhaps because they’re too busy recording that guy, two traffic lanes over, who’s picking his nose.
Like you, science historian and Skeptic magazine founder Michael Shermer felt like he had a little meet-’n’-greet with some outer space dudes. However, he realized that his supposed abduction was just the effects of “sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion” because he had just cycled 83 straight hours in a bike-athlon. This—mixed with a “distant memory” of a TV episode about aliens taking over the earth—made for what Shermer calls “nothing more than a bizarre hallucination.”
Shermer notes that UFOs and alien abductions are: “1. unaccepted by most people in astronomy, exobiology” and SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), “2. extremely unlikely (although not logically impossible), and 3. … largely based on anecdotal and uncorroborated evidence.”
However, Shermer explains, “the human capacity for self-delusion is boundless, and the effects of belief are overpowering”—leading many people to swear that they actually did go on a ride with the little green men. As “evidence,” they’ll tell you they have really vivid “memories”—of, say, the aliens bickering: “Just put him in the trunk of your flying saucer. Nah, got all my intergalactic soccer gear in there. You take him!”
But such “memories” are probably due to what memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues call “imagination inflation.” This describes how repeatedly imagining an experience can, over time, lead us to forget that the particular event—“Heyyy, how ’bout them aliens!”—came out of our imagination or a dream. We can start to believe it really happened.
For example, Loftus and her colleagues told research participants that a dream they’d revealed to the researchers probably meant that they’d had an upsetting experience before the age of 3, “like being bullied by an older child.” The participants insisted that they didn’t recall anything like that. Yet, about two weeks later, many reported experiencing the bullying they were simply told about—even offering details on how they were supposedly oppressed by some other 3-year-old.
This makes sense, considering cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork’s finding that “using one’s memory shapes memory”—meaning that the more we recall something, the bigger and stronger it grows in our memory. Also, in recalling some event—for ourselves or others—we have a tendency to “decorate,” adding details that can easily get merged into the particular “memory.” We quickly forget that we just threw them in to, oh, put on a good show at the alien abductee party because we were feeling all “my tinfoil hat is so last season.”
Also consider “cognitive dissonance”—the discomfort from simultaneously holding two opposing beliefs, like thinking that your worldview was transformed by UFOs while also thinking that it’s stupid to believe in UFOs. We tend to smooth out the clash by going with whichever belief works best for our ego. So, in your case, to continue believing that you’re intelligent and also not cockadoody in the head, you tell yourself that your memory of your special vacay with the 00100010111 family has to be real.
As for what to tell your girlfriend, what counts is that you had these insights—not the sense that a space alien opened your skull up with some high-tech can opener and dumped them in. If you mention the alien thing at all, explain it in light of the science on how our memory likes to dabble in fiction writing.
While you’re at it, give yourself credit for your insights. It may help to understand our brain’s “default mode” processing. Our mind doesn’t just turn off when we take a break from directed, focused thinking (like reading, studying or pondering something). Wider neural networks take over and do subconscious background processing—gnawing on ideas and problems that we’ve been working on. This can make insights seem like they came out of nowhere. But chances are, yours are a product of your mind and your real-life experience—an explanation that, sadly, lacks the panache of claiming that the space dudes were going to use the anal probe on you but weren’t sure whether you could afford the copay.