Friday, November 13, 2009

Reading Notes – Dark White

This post is reviewing a 15-year old book on the alien abduction phenomenon. Although there is nothing really new in this book, it provides a very good overview of the phenomenon, as well as how it was researched, and what are the main findings since the 1970s. This confirms, however, that ufology has not produced anything of substance on this issue for quite a long time. The full notice is:

Schnabel, Jim. (1994). Dark White: Aliens, abductions, and the UFO obsession. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Beyond “nuts-and-bolts,” electromagnetism and abnormal psychology

Schnabel provides a good overview of Michael Persinger’s research on electromagnetism and UFOs, including its limitations, and the usual critiques coming from the “nuts-and-bolts” ufologists. Schnabel is quite right in underlining that a purely bio-physical approach is not sufficient,

“Moreover, the postulation of a largely subclinical continuum of ‘temporal lobe lability’ to explain odd experiences such as abduction was largely based on reports of such experiences by clinically normal people; Persinger and other such researchers did not know that such experiences always stemmed from temporal lobe lability. In fact, reports of such experiences might alternatively be seen as evidence for how widespread the abduction phenomenon had become.” (p. 160).

But then, it is also clear that the “nuts-and-bolts” ufologists have also a serious problem. Once again, this materialist ET hypothesis demands, by definition, a material proof, yet it is simply not there.

“But even so, [Budd] Hopkins and the others would have liked to see some alien artefacts, or perhaps photographic evidence that nuts-and-bolts spacecraft were zooming into abductees’ backyards in the death of the night. They couldn’t help but acknowledge that continual absence of such evidence, even as the number of abduction accounts recorded by ufologists climbed into the thousands in the late 1980s, was bothersome”. (p.162).

Although Hopkins claimed to have a case where the actual movement in the sky of an abductee was seen by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and wrote a book about it, Hopkins was actually victim of a hoax. George Hansen (2005), who investigated the case, found very easily that the people behind the claims were indeed playing a prank on Hopkins.

To explain all this, a number of psychologists proposed that are people who are more prone to fantasy, and when combined with a traumatic past, they can have very strange experiences taking the form of abduction by strange beings. Among some of psychological findings on these unusual experiences, several similarities were found between people who had near-death experiences and UFO abductions.

“The results were striking. Near-death experiences and UFO abductees to be distinct from other people—even other New Agers and ufologists—in several remarkable respects: they were relatively likely to have claimed rough childhoods, involving physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, neglect, and a negative household atmosphere overall. During childhood they were also likely to have had encounters with ‘nonphysical beings’—imaginary playmates or fairies—and were likely to consider themselves as having been psychically sensitive. They were easily hypnotizable. And often ‘blanked out’ spontaneously during routine tasks.” (p. 197).

Although powerful these findings may be, they are not sufficient to explain a number of key elements of such experiences. First, some events involve more than one individual, like the Barney and Betty Hill story. A personality-based explanation cannot provide for simultaneous individual experiences. Then, there are some cases involving independent witnesses who observe strange lights in the sky at the same that of the reported event. Once again, a personality-based explanation cannot account for such physical manifestations. Lastly, many witnesses tend to report many small details which are identical to other unrelated witness accounts, and this during the period prior to when the so-called CE4 became part of popular culture. A personality-based explanation cannot account for such cognitive similarities. The inclusion of the electromagnetic component to the personality-based findings, however, can provide some explanations for the simultaneous events, and the physical manifestations. Yet, from a statistical standpoint, such conjunction of event should be quite rare. In the end, there are still missing elements to any serious explanation. The ETH could, in theory, provide them but the ETH is pure conjecture as there is no physical evidence to support it.

The necessity to include parapsychology

Schnabel presents some of the key views of what he called the “psi school,” which appears to be in a better position to account for the missing explanatory elements to the UFO abduction syndrome. It is in this context that research in parapsychology becomes useful for understanding the UFO abductee phenomenon. As Schnabel notes, the UFO abduction scenario is very similar to other paranormal stories, and the content such stories can be explained in part by the empirical research in the parapsychology, and thus pointing towards a fundamentally human origin of these experiences.

“The literature in demonology, ghosts, and sorcery was full of examples where different people had experienced the same imagery, despite that imagery being non-photogenic. The mechanism was unknown but it seemed clear, from anecdotal evidence as well as from parapsychological ‘remote-viewing’ experiments, that two persons with sufficient empathy and/or psychic ability could communicate information to one another through unconscious telepathy, perhaps involving the same dominant-subordinate principle as that involved in mass hysteria. In cases where two or more people ‘experienced’ a close-encounter, telepathic transmission of imagery might be facilitated by the altered-state inducing factors which triggered the encounter in the first place. [...] According to the psi school, UFO abductees were people whose electromagnetic or crisis-induced or spontaneous altered-state experiences had been made to conform to the abduction lore by archetypical or cultural imagery, and by abduction researchers harbouring their own stereotyped imagery, who remained blithely ignorant of the damage they were inflicting on their subjects’ pliant minds”. (p. 148-149).

As one can notice, this description is very close to the PEMIE model I developed in earlier posts, but like most other researchers, Schnabel does not provide much explanation about what he means by “archetypical or cultural imagery” and how such imagery comes about in these experiences. Once, again, it is clear that there parasociology is needed to provide a more comprehensive explanation.

Schnabel summarizes his views about the UFO abduction syndrome as follow:

“[...] I find it difficult to ignore the evidence that, as far as UFOs themselves are concerned, there is something real and strange out there. But I also find it difficult to ignore the phenomenological, sociological, psychological, and apparent parapsychological links between alien abductions and a host of other unusual experiences. I am impressed by the evidence that these experiences have been with us for ages, never far from the levers of history, even though their actual nature has tended to be obscured by religious zealots and scientistic scoffers alike.” (p. 283).

Meaning and belief system: a methodological challenge

There is a particular point that Schnabel brings that requires special attention. He illustrates very well one of the fundamental difficulties of researching UFO, and close encounters in particular. Witnesses, as individuals or as part of a group, experience something extraordinary, and whatever one can say about it, it is something that was felt and lived at the time of the event. In other words, such event has a meaning and a symbolic force that is ultimately only available in full to the witnesses themselves. As he wrote, “I think that none of these terms can express adequately the strangeness conveyed by an abductee’s personal history, a history not as God or a fly on the wall has seen it but as the abductee has seen it, as she told it, as she has crafted—and I say this somewhat agnostically—her own mythology.” (p. 245).

But such meaning is usually acquired across time. The cultural and individual predispositions to see aliens versus fairies, for instance, are pre-event forces that will affect the meaning attached to it. Then, the post-event sharing with other people in abductees’ closer and wider social environment (to include ETH ufologist) is also contributing to shape the meaning given to the event. Further events of the same nature will just reinforce whatever meaning has been attributed to original event. The net result of all this is that the researcher, in most situations (and especially now that UFOs and aliens stories are firmly entrenched in the popular culture), is facing someone with particular beliefs and expectations about their experience. Metaphorically, the researcher is not facing a witness, but an emotionally-driven participant to a cultural trend. Such research work, thus, is not about finding “objective” facts like a detective, but much closer to an anthropologist trying to understand how other people make sense of their own reality.

This situation can be quite frustrating. From the serious people who wrote about it, and from my own experience of interviewing witnesses, I can say that if one’s line of questioning is not somehow congruent with the ETH, most witnesses will shut down. This is a serious difficulty from a methodological standpoint. Any data that would help to provide a wider meaning to the event are unconsciously evacuated by the witnesses, and anyone trying to solicit them is not welcomed because it could shatter the cherished meaning their ascribed to the event, which in turn has been fully integrated into their own self-concept as whom they are as individual. If you do not participate in the myth, then you are out of it. Schnabel eloquently described this issue:

“I listened to such stories with fascination and some sympathy, but also with frustration, for I suspect that participation in the underwordly experiences of Lucy and Nicole and their scarred sisters and brothers was off-limit to mortals like me. No sloe-eye alien, no sulphur-breathing rapist, would allow me to watch him at work or at play, or even sit for an interview. I could experience only the presence of morosely cheerful storytellers, and their stories, and their stories of stories” (p. 258).

The cultural and myth-making dimensions of the UFO abduction syndrome have already been studied by a number of anthropologists, folklorists, and sociologists. In many ways, there is little need to add to such body of literature. Given the widespread cultural expectations of UFO abductees towards the ETH, as described above, conducting empirical studies on this topic becomes decreasingly interesting for anyone engaged in understanding the underpinnings of the UFO experience. This shows, ultimately, that researching the UFO phenomenon is not something static both, epistemologically and methodologically.

Eric Ouellet © 2009


tanshihus said...

Eric: And again with the sleep disorder? The personality portion of the report involving sleep which you (maybe it's the author of the book) dismissed is actually quite revealing. Narcolepsy can be caused by a deficiency of Orexin which is produced in the hypothalamus. Damage to this portion of the brain can result from an autoimmune response due to genetic abnormalities. Personality traits would also be affected by these differences. Funny...the Trypansoma Brucei was originally theorized as lodging in this portion of the brain and affecting the sleep cycle through the decrease in Orexin. Oddly one of the observed symptoms was an increased appetite shortly before the parasite put the victim to sleep. Orexin along with Ghrelin also controls appetite. The parasite sleep mechanism is now thought to involve the release of the aromatic alcohol Tryptophol and not the reduction of Orexin.

Do you remember that I'd proposed in an earlier email to you that both of the Hills may have actually communicated details with each other during their sleep? There is a form of somnambulism going on here and I'm beginning to believe that it isn't just between husbands and wives. You mentioned Lorenz imprinting? Does that mean that both of the Hill's memories of their UFO experiences didn't solidify into objective memories until the hypnotist attempted to retrieve their stories from them? The investigator may have unduly influenced his investigation?

Eric Ouellet said...

Hi Don,
I think that in a number of "abduction" cases somnambulism is an important part of the equation. In the case of the Hill couple, they most likely talked to each other about the events long before going to see the psychiatrist who hypnotized them. For sure, Betty gave a presentation about her experience to a local UFO group while Barney was in the audience, and this was before Dr. Simon. In their case, no need for somnambulism talk.

I think that something happened to them while being on their way back from vacation around Indian Point, and yes a sort of imprint might have occurred about something really weird. But it seems that the detailed content came afterward. It is a normal psychological reflex to try filling something that was felt as significant and yet that one does not understand. There is a lot of research on that. As well, there is also a lot of evidence that enthusiastic ETH ufologists can influenced witnesses. The imprint is something occurring at an unconscious level, and shapes ways of thinking. For instance, on 9/11 media invited representatives of the Muslim community to talk about the unfolding events. Most of them try to explain the fine nuances between the great (inner) Jihad and the lesser Jihad (war). Instead of denouncing very clearly the perpetrators as not what is Islam is about, they went on a sort of fine theological discourse. The imprint happened at that time, implying that Muslim where all more or less sympathetic to the perpetrators. This false impression then became the "truth". Trump has played that card during the 2016 election, 15 years later.

Yet, when the event causing an imprint is a very ambiguous one, like most paranormal experiences, the imprint has limited content of its own, and it get filled with what people already believe, or have an interest in. Betty had a very strong interest in UFO already, while Barney did not. And they had different recollections of events.