Imaginary traumas are as terrifying as the real thing
By Michael Shermer
Science Image: Michael Shermer
Image: BRAD HINES
In the wee hours of the morning on August 8, 1983, while I was traveling along a lonely rural highway approaching Haigler, Neb., a large craft with bright lights overtook me and forced me to the side of the road. Alien beings exited the craft and abducted me for 90 minutes, after which time I found myself back on the road with no memory of what transpired inside the ship. I can prove that this happened because I recounted it to a film crew shortly afterward.
When alien abductees recount to me their stories, I do not deny that they had a real experience. But thanks to recent research by Harvard University psychologists Richard J. McNally and Susan A. Clancy, we now know that some fantasies are indistinguishable from reality, and they can be just as traumatic. In a 2004 paper in Psychological Science entitled "Psychophysiological Responding during Script-Driven Imagery in People Reporting Abduction by Space Aliens," McNally, Clancy and their colleagues report the results of a study of claimed abductees. The researchers measured heart rate, skin conductance and electromyographic responses in a muscle that lifted the eyebrow--called the left lateral (outer) frontalis--of the study participants as they relived their experiences through script-driven imagery. "Relative to control participants," the authors concluded, "abductees exhibited greater psychophysiological reactivity to abduction and stressful scripts than to positive and neutral scripts." In fact, the abductees' responses were comparable to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients who had listened to scripts of their actual traumatic experiences.