Those who have reported alien abductions are often written off as out of their minds, but one scientist is suggesting that the mind actually might be a good place to start to potentially offer an earthly explanation for such experiences.
Anne Skomorowsky, a doctor practicing psychosomatic medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a psychiatry professor at Columbia University, wrote an article in Scientific American that proposes that alien abductions are incidents of "accidental awareness," or the consciousness waking up while a person is under general anesthesia.
Skomorowsky wondered if the account from Barney Hill and is wife, Betty, in 1961 about an alien abduction was really just related to a tonsillectomy surgery he experienced while under anesthesia.
"While in a hypnotic trance, Barney Hill told his psychiatrist, 'I don’t want to be operated on.' He described a spacecraft lit by blue fluorescent light, which didn’t cast any shadows, as in a surgical suite. The aliens had oddly shaped heads with large craniums, and indistinct lips and nostrils; they were all foreheads and eyes," Skomorowsky wrote for Scientific American. "Though he was terrified, he felt sluggish. He was struck by the all-business, professional bedside manner of the alien 'doctors,' and impressed by their determination to do whatever it was they meant to do."
But Skomorowsky said she thinks that Hill could have been describing a flashback of his real-life surgery, not an alien abduction.
"He was cold. His eyes were closed. He didn’t want to be operated on. Then he woke up under general anesthesia, to full-blown terror, surrounded by distorted beings, squinting in the blue light of the OR. Perhaps the pain and horror of awareness overwhelmed his mind, or maybe it was the anesthetic drugs, but somehow the experience disappeared from his working memory — until he and Betty came to believe they had crossed paths with an unidentified flying object on a dark and lonely New Hampshire road," she wrote.
Citing a recent report from the Royal College of Anaesthetists, which investigated incidents of accidental awareness that occurred during general anesthesia, Skomorowsky wrote that alien encounters might actually be recovered memories.
"Alien abduction has been considered a fantasy, a hoax, and even to some, a fact; but it is now clear that it may also represent a recovered memory," Skomorowsky wrote.
"For one thing, the report discusses different types of memory, including 'trauma memory,'" Skomorowsky said. "Everyday memories are not terribly descriptive. Intense emotional states, such as those experienced during awareness, create memories that are rich in sensory detail and tend to burst out inappropriately, as in a flashback. Trauma memories are not encoded as logical narratives, but as globs of sensation. Thus a sensory experience—like seeing a hospital worker in scrubs—can cause an awareness survivor to feel overwhelmed with panic and to relive the sensation of paralysis she suffered through while anesthetized."
After later hearing himself speak about his encounter while under hypnosis, Skomorowsky wrote that Hill said he started feeling as if "parts of my life that had been missing were added to it again."
"Similarly, the Royal College concluded that the awareness experience is less traumatic when patients understand what is happening, or receive an explanation after it has occurred," she continued.
If more was done to help identify and coach people who had accidental awareness experiences, Skomorowsky wrote that the future might hold fewer alien abduction stories.
But not everyone agrees with Skomorowsky's assumption that alien encounters can be discredited by the suggestion that someone has had an accidental awareness experience while under general anesthesia and just didn't remember it.
"If, as the article implies, alien abductions can be explained by the accidental awareness and a flashback to it, where is the evidence that so-called 'abductees' have all had some type of surgical procedure under anesthesia?" a commenter on Skomorowsky's article wrote. "It seems to me that for this hypothesis to be true, we need data that these abductees all had some type of anesthetic in their lives which would have supplied the basis for this 'flash-back' abduction type of experience.
"While there certainly can be other explanations for the abduction experience (simple suggestibility, neurosis/psychosis, fraud, etc.), the hypothesis presented here seems to be proposing a solution without evidence. I would like to see some correlation between 'abductees' and the number of times they were under anesthesia to provide credence to this explanation," the commenter continued. "I think this theory requires some other explanation, such as why would an abductee recall bug-eyed little aliens instead of doctors, why would there be 'memories' of being taken into a spacecraft, talking about the state of the world (especially disasters, which seem to be a common theme), etc."
The UFO website Open Minds also countered that "while Skomorowsky makes a very interesting observation, and a good argument that some alien abduction experiences may be misinterpretations of instances of accidental awareness, her theory does not fully explain the Hill’s experience. Not only did the Hills see a UFO before their experience, they also both had the experience at the same time."
Previous research to "explain" alien abductions — if said abduction didn't really happen — has included episodes of sleep paralysis and false memories.
"It probably doesn't matter much to the abductees whether they are right or wrong," Susan Clancy, a Harvard University Press author, told the Harvard Gazette in 2005 about this research. "They simply feel better because of what they believe."
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