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DSM-IV Religious and Spiritual Problems

LESSON 3.9 Alien Encounters
Table of Contents

Description Alien Encounter Experience and PsychopathologyAssociated Clinical problemsTreatmentCase ExamplesWWW Library

The recent (2000) book Varieties of Anomalous Experience published by the American Psychological Association Press includes this definition:

Alien abduction experiences are characterized by subjectively real memories of being taken secretly and/or against one's will by apparently non-human entities, usually to a location interpreted as an alien spacecraft (i.e., a UFO).
(p. 254)

In addition to reports from the U.S., accounts from England, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Australia show the same content themes:

capture, examination
communication with aliens
otherworldly journey
theophany (receipt of spiritual messages)
return to earth

Such extraordinary experiences, which to many seem sheer fantasy, are prevalent and cannot be ignored in clinical practice. Professionally, I personally have worked with schizophrenic and PTSD patients who have reported alien encounter experiences. I have also seen people with no mental disorder who reported such experiences.

John Mack,MD a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, makes the clinical case for the need to explicitly address such extraordinary experiences:

I began to see people in 1990 who seemed of sound mind but were describing experiences which simply did not fit into any kind of psychiatric category of which I could conceive. Child abuse, psychosis, neurosis, organic brain disease, fantasy-prone personality... No diagnostic category came close to explaining what I was seeing.
Studying Intrusions from the Subtle Realm audio or trasncript of talk by John Mack, MD

Alien encounters are included within this course on religious and spiritual problems because such extraordinary events function for some individuals as transcendent experiences.

Gallup Polls reveal how widespread beliefs are in UFO-related phenomena.. Fifty percent of a representative sample of the U.S. population reported that they believe there is life on other planets. This is up from 34% in 1966. UFO sightings are also widespread. The Gallup Poll asked a representative national sample:

Have you, yourself, ever seen anything you thought was a UFO?

12% answered Yes.
The Next American Spirituality : Finding God in the Twenty-first Century by Timothy Jones, George, Jr. Gallup

A 1997 Time/CNN poll found that 22% of Americans believe that the earth has been visited by space aliens. There are now thousands of cases of alien encounter published, and researchers have studied over 1700 cases. Whitley Strieber (who wrote Communion a best-selling book about his abduction experience) claims to have received over a quarter of a million letters from people about their similar experiences. Based on an extrapolation from a group of students, another researcher suggested 15 million Americans may have had such experiences. (Statistics from Varieties of Anomalous Experience, p. 256)

After Effects
Both positive and problematic effects are reported by alien abduction experiencers. Bullard analyzed 270 abduction reports and found a range of physical and psychological after effects.

11 cases: Injuries such as cuts, bruises, & puncture wounds
22 cases: Eye problems
23 cases: Skin burns and irritation
13 cases Gastrointestinal distress
14 cases: Equilibrium and balance problems
12 cases: Thirst and dehydration
13 cases: Healing from a preexisting ailment

Fear, anticipation, anxiety, and recurring nightmares were also frequently reported, as were paranormal experiences and personality changes.

Association with Spirituality
Many report that their lives have been radically altered on a deep spiritual level by their encounters with aliens. They developed a heightened reverence for nature and human life, and transformed their lives in ways similar to what happens with people after an NDE. Kenneth Ring, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Connecticut and one of the world's chief authorities on near-death experiences, conducted research indicating that both alien abduction and NDE may be,

in effect alternate pathways (Ring's emphasis) to the same type of psychospiritual transformation...that expresses itself in greater awareness of the interconnectedness and sacredness of all life and necessarily fosters a heightened ecological concern for the welfare of the planet. (The Omega Project)

Reality of Alien Encounters
Regarding the problematic question of the reality of the experience, Jung took the following position (that I share) regarding the physical reality of flying saucer reports, as they were called in the early 1950s:

As a psychologist, I am not qualified to contribute anything useful to the question of the physical reality of UFOs. I can concern myself only with their undoubted psychic aspects, and in what follows shall deal almost exclusively with their psychic concomitants.
(Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, p.7)

In fact, there have been accounts of moon beings since the days of Plutarch. With the advent of powerful new telescopes in the 1800's, there were many reported "sightings" of winged demons on the moon's surface. Current fascination with extraterrestrial life has achieved greater prominence than ever before, as evidenced by reports of encounters with space aliens in media news, nonfiction first person accounts such as Communion, science fiction literature and movies such as ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Signs. The question of extraterrestrial life has also become an important topic in stretching the scientific imagination to its limits..

Structurally there are parallels between alien encounters and ancient mythic patterns which can be traced back to 30,000 BC. The shaman's journey shares many elements with alien abduction. The abductee is taken taken aboard a spaceship ("other worlds" or a "cosmic pillar" in a shamanic journey), is forcibly examined (which parallels the painful dismemberment of the shaman). Then the abductee returns with a message (just as the shaman returns with songs and other instruments of healing). Ralph Metzner, PhD, considers space alien/UFO themes to be a variation of the shaman's "upper world journey":

experiences in which we are granted a preview or vision of our life or of some aspect of the world. They are usually accompanied by insights, intuitions, and new images; and they often instigate a mood of playful and euphoric creativity. (The Unfolding Self: Varieties of Transformative Experience, p. 118)

The concept of "believed in imaginings" (subjectively compelling distortions in the perception of reality) is also relevant to this question. Theodore R. Sarbin, PhD points out that the popular belief in the existence of angels is considered normal by mentally "healthy" people while belief in the existence of aliens is considered abnormal and a sign of mental illness. Yet, insofar as angels and aliens are both hallucinations (that is, self-reported imaginings), there is no difference between believing in angels and believing in aliens. Moreover, people who believe in angels are just as adamant in claiming the reality of angels as are those who insist on the reality of aliens. The difference between these two hallucinations has to do with the off-putting effect of these self-reported imaginings on others (See: Sarbin, T. Towards the Obsolescence of the Schizophrenia Hypothesis in Challenging the Therapeutic State: Critical Perspectives on Psychiatry and the Mental Health System by David Cohen, Editor).

Alien Encounter Experiences and Psychopathology
While some patients have delusions involving alien abduction (I personally have worked with two patients who did [1], psychopathology cannot explain all of the phenomena associated with these experiences. A recent summary of research on Alien Abduction Experiences concluded,

While psychopathology is indicated in some isolated alien abduction cases, assessment by both clinical examination and standardized tests has shown that, as a group, abduction experients are not different from the general population in term of psychopathology prevalence.
(Varieties of Anomalous Experience, p. 268)

John Mack,MD, who has studied over 200 alien abductees and written two books on this phenomenon during the past 10 years, found,

The reports, for example, surely sound delusional, or like hallucinations. They even defy our physical laws, suggesting some sort of psychosis. Abductees are often anxious, or suffer from bodily aches and pains, indicating some form of neurosis. Their recall of what they have been through is frequently spotty, so perhaps they have an organic impairment of the brain, for example temporal lobe epilepsy. The experiences are traumatic and often contain reproductive or sexual intrusions, which seems to point to a history of rape or possible childhood sexual abuse.

[However] Psychiatric evaluations and psychological studies of abductees, including several of my own cases, have failed to identify consistent psychopathology. Abductees may, of course, suffer from mental and emotional distress as a result of their often traumatic experiences, and a few have been found to have accompanying psychiatric conditions. Many come from troubled family backgrounds. But in no instance has the emotional disorder provided an explanation for the abduction experience. (See Blowing the Western Mind by John E. Mack, MD.)

In PEER's survey of abduction experiencers, the percentages of the sample seeking help for psychological symptoms were mostly comparable to the proportions in the general U.S. population:

depressive symptoms (17 percent)
schizophrenia (1 percent)
bipolar (1 percent)

However, at 17%, the sample was about two times more likely to seek help for anxiety as the general population. The findings are similar to those of other researchers of encounter experiencers, who have found a low incidence of serious psychopathology among individuals reporting such experiences (John Mack, MD Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters).. Thus a client's report of a alien encounter experience cannot be assumed to be related to psychopathology.

Associated Clinical Problems
Alien encounter experiencers often suffer from post-traumatic symptoms such as nightmares, trouble concentrating, phobic avoidance of situations and objects symbolically linked to the encounter material

Other symptoms and potential problems following their experience include:

  1. Anxiety and irritability
  2. Intrusive thoughts about aliens and abduction
  3. Labile mood
  4. Disorientation, derealization, and depersonalization
  5. Psychic experiences presumed to be from an extraterrestrial source (e.g., telepathic messages)
  6. The belief that their thoughts are being shared with an extraterrestrial being
  7. Change in spiritual or religious values, beliefs, and practices
    (The Differential Diagnosis of Close Extraterrestrial Encounter Syndrome by Richard Boylan, Ph.D.)

In surveys returned to PEER on abduction experiences, 7 percent of the sample described their memories in a manner that made PEER staff wonder about preexisting or coexisting psychopathology because the reports showed pervasive lack of coherence, grandiosity, or paranoia. But for the rest, the experience itself seemed to be the major cause of distress and associated symptoms.

Some alien encounter experients seek therapy to help them integrate their anomalous experiences. The issue of hypnotizing such persons to obtain a fuller account of the experience is controversial and tied up with the larger debate about "false memories." Aggressive use of suggestive memory recovery procedures can increase distress and feelings of helplessness.

The risk of providing therapy can be minimized, and positive outcomes best assured, when the focus of treatment deals with education clients about possible explanations for the AAE, encouraging them to understand the AAE in terms of its meaning in their life, and otherwise working on coping strategies that transcend the inevitable inconclusiveness about the AAE's objective reality. (Varieties of Anomalous Experience, p. 271)

The Program for Extraordinary Experience Research (PEER) was established in 1993 by John Mack,MD to forge an approach to alien encounter experiences that addresses their clinical dimensions and also leads to a scientific understanding of the phenomenon.

PEER's efforts to deepen the understanding of abduction reports have shown that it is difficult in our culture to credit and trust extraordinary experiences...The listener attempting to comprehend what is being communicated may find it easier to dismiss the experience and the experiencer as irrational.

There are some unique challenges to working with alien experiencers. Many therapists find their own values challenged by the assertions of abductees, and this can interfere with their trust and empathy for the client:

What we hear may seem so bizarre or impossible from the standpoint of the world view in which we were brought up that our minds rebel and want to intervene with the reality-testing confrontations that psychiatrists know so well. But to do this would abort communication and destroy trust. We are, of course, aided in this curious "suspension of disbelief" by the fact that we are concerned only with the authenticity and honesty of the client's report, and the presence or absence of psychopathology or another biographical experience that might account for it. There is no injunction to establish the literal or material actuality of the reported experiences...I do not consider that abduction reports necessarily reflect a literal, physical taking of the human body (John Mack, MD Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters, p. 29, 31).

The clinical approach developed at PEER involves being able to tolerate not knowing about the reality status of the experience, while paying attention to the feelings and struggles of the person involved. PEER also uses a combination of hypnosis and a breathing technique as treatment in helping the abductees confront and move through the terrifying memories of the experiences.

Therapists also need to be sensitive to and acknowledge the growth potential in such extraordinary experiences. That speaks to the need to avoid judging the reported phenomena by the standards of normal awareness; rather, therapists should consider whether this unusual experience points to new possibilities for the client that are alternatives to or even superior to their prior functioning. As with other forms of spiritual emergency, therapy with alien abductees involves the integration of spiritual issues raised by the experience. The therapist's role is helping experients learn

what meaning these experiences have for them, and in what reality they hold the experiences. We are very clear in our work with them that we can never say for certain what these experiences are. This is a mystery. But they need to integrate and understand how to bring their experiences into their world.

PEER operates a clinic in the Boston area for both treatment and research. Clients are allowed to return as often as needed to integrate their experiences and obtain suppport while living in a society that does not recognize the vast new realms of the psyche to which they have been opened. They have published an

Integrating Extraordinary Experiences by Roberta Colasanti,LCSW

Case Examples

UFO Encounters -- Four Classic Cases

WWW LIBRARY of Religion and Spirituality
The WWW Library of Religion and Spirituality includes interviews with John Mack, MD and articles on the symbolic and archetypal dimensions of alien experiences.

1 Lukoff, D. (1988). Transpersonal therapy with a manic-depressive artist. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 20(1), 10-20.


UFO and Alien Encounter Experiences ...

a) are confined to people in certain cults
b) are reported by millions of people
c) are always associated with psychopathology

Record your answers for later insertion into the Quiz.



Possession occurs

a) only to people in tribal cultures
b) only in ancient cultures such as Egypt
c) throughout history and around the world
d) rarely in contemporary societies

Record your answers for later insertion into the Quiz.




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