In the 1966 futuristic short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” writer Philip K. Dick introduces Douglas Quail, an unhappy office clerk who dreams of traveling to Mars. Set in the future, the story describes Quail as a man haunted by a dream that cannot be fulfilled. Even though trips to Mars are possible, only important people may travel to the distant red planet. Kirsten, his wife, reminds him of this every day, telling him his obsession is unhealthy. Quail goes to Rekal, a company that specializes in memory implants. One visit to Rekal, says the salesman, will have the customer believing they actually traveled to Mars. Salesman McClane tells Quail the memories will be more convincing than the real thing. Quail undergoes the treatment, only to discover that his memory has already been tampered with. He realizes that all of his memories, including his childhood and marriage, were memory implants. In the case of Quail, all of his memories were false (2002).
While much of Dick’s story remains in the realm of the fantastic, false memories have frequently arisen when patients undergo Alien Abduction Therapy, an unethical form of psychotherapy that can be emotionally damaging to patients and reflects poorly on the mental health profession.
The Abduction Experience
The accounts of alien abductions, as told by Harvard professor of psychiatry and alien abduction advocate John E. Mack (2003), all have similarities. The subject, alone in bed, feels a presence and hears a low-pitched hum. Many subjects reported seeing lights and feeling vibrations. The subject report seeing short beings, bald and gray skinned, over him or her. Paralyzed, the subject is unable to move. The person, according to Mack’s report, floats out of the room’s window and enters a large spaceship.
The extraterrestrials examine the paralyzed person. Telepathically, they communicate to him or her that they are performing a series of surgical procedures. In many accounts, these procedures include sexual experiments such as the taking of sperm from males and eggs from females. After the procedures, the subjects are told, again telepathically, that an implant has been put inside of them so the visitors can track him or her.
Frequently, most patients who claimed to have regained memories of being abducted by aliens had no memory of the events until they entered Alien Abduction Therapy (Shermer, 2003, 73). In one case, a woman, who had memories of being sexually abused as a child, entered therapy. After a few sessions, she believed that she had been abducted by aliens and that her parents were co-conspirators with the extraterrestrials (Eisner, 2000, p. 198). The subjective methods used by alien abduction therapists demonstrate how fragile human memory can be.
Methods of Recovered Memory Therapy
Alien Abduction Therapy is a concentration of the wider field of Recovered Memory Therapy, which is based on the Freudian belief that physical and mental health issues are the result of forgotten trauma (Eisner, 2000, p. 67). Many patients leave Recovered Memory Therapy believing they were sexually abused as a child, involved in a satanic rite, or the victim of an alien abduction. According to Mack, the memories of alien abduction may not be immediately accessible and “specialized techniques” may be needed to release the experiences (as cited in Eisner, 2000). The techniques commonly used to retrieve these memories are journaling, body work, pharmacologically assisted interviews, hypnosis, and other non-traditional therapy techniques.
Journaling is when a therapist assigns a patient to write down his or her thoughts. However, according to Donald Eisner, alien abduction therapists shape the direction these journals take. According to his book Death of Psychotherapy, therapists have told patients to indicate “any clues regarding the abuse” (2000). Patients are encouraged to write a story about being abused. The therapist offers the patient’s story as proof that he or she has a repressed memory of alien abduction. While journaling is used in traditional therapy, recovery memory therapists shape the content of the patient’s words to support a preconceived idea: the patient was abducted by aliens and harbors repressed memories.
Body work includes massage, Rolfing and Bioenergetics. A therapist specializing in Recovered Memory Therapy will interpret any sign of tension or physical pain as a sign of a forgotten trauma. Even a simple muscle cramp is perceived as proof that the patient is hiding a traumatic memory (Eisner, 2000, p. 72). As with journaling, the therapist has control over the interpretation of the pain.
Some therapists administer sodium amytal, a powerful barbiturate, to patients intravenously, and interview them (Eisner, 2000, p. 75). However, the method used, and praised, by most alien abduction therapists is the use of hypnosis.
According to David Meyer’s Exploring Psychology, hypnosis is “a social interaction in which one person (the hypnotist) suggests to another (the subject) that certain perceptions, feelings, thoughts, or behaviors will spontaneously occur” (2008). The accepted uses of hypnotism, according to A. Weitzenhoffer (“Hypnosis”), are the following: symptom control, motivation tool, treatment of addiction, and pain control. Weitzenhoffer, an expert in the field of hypnotism, remains critical of the validity of hypnotism. Under hypnotic suggestion, claims David Jacobs, subjects reveal hidden experiences involving extraterrestrials (2003).
Marian, the case study mentioned previously, knew she had suffered traumatic events as a child. She did not see a therapist because she believed she was suffering from repressed memories, but because she wanted help dealing with her known past. Soon, however, the therapist initiated hypnosis with the intention of revealing the forgotten trauma caused by alien abductors. After awakening, Marian was informed of her recovered memories and experiences. Still, however, she had no memory of the events the therapist related to her (Eisner, 2000, p. 198).
The news program 20/20 aired a segment about memory retrieval and alien abductions. The program showed clips of a patient under hypnotic suggestion. Critics of hypnosis as a memory retrieval tool point to the program as evidence of unethical behavior. According to one critic (Shermer, 2003, p. 93), it was clear that the therapist was priming the patient and cueing them toward the proper response. The therapist would, before putting the patient under hypnotic suggestion, inform the subject that there was no question that alien abductions exist.
Cueing during hypnosis is an important part of the process. David Jacobs, a professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia, believes that hypnosis is an important tool in retrieving alien abduction trauma (2003). However, he believes that confabulation, the mixing of fact with fiction, is a problem that needs to be addressed. Like most Alien Abduction Therapy advocates, he believes people abducted by aliens have filled in the memory gaps with fabrication. When a patient tells an abduction story that does not agree with the accepted alien abduction story, Jacob believes it is up to the therapist to help the patient discard the fictitious story so that the true alien abduction story can be revealed. The hypnotist guides the subject to the details that are corroborated by patients with similar experiences.
The relationship between patient and therapist in these situations is unhealthy. People seeking a therapist because they are experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue, may find themselves dealing with a therapist who is eager to believe in alien abductions. Under hypnotic suggestion, a patient may talk about fantastic images or strange feelings. With no verification available, the patient is led to trust the opinions of the therapist (Eisner, 2000, p. 79). Patients are never told that there are alternative explanations or that they should think critically about their experience. In some cases, as Eisner explains, patients were even told the government was watching them, knowing of the patient’s abduction.
Patients like Marian were told to break off all ties with family members (Eisner, 2000, p. 198). Collaboration is missing in Alien Abduction Therapy. Without the opportunity to discuss the retrieved memories with friends or family, it becomes easier for false memories to flourish. A study of the elderly revealed that couples with shared experiences tended to have better memories of events than single people. As collaborators, they could correct each other when one or the other made an error in explaining a past event. Likewise, they could support each other when accurate statements were made (Bower, 2004). By convincing a patient to break off family ties, or discouraging critical thinking, a therapist can create a loyal patient who will co-operate.
False Memories: Real Biology
Hypnosis expert Weitzenhoffer states that “through suggestions given to hypnotized individuals, it is possible to induce alterations to memories” (“Hypnosis”). Recent research has demonstrated that memories can be falsified.
A study conducted by neuroscientists at Northwest University took a group of subjects and showed them various combinations of words and images. In some cases, the word “frog” would be shown, followed by a picture of a frog. In other case, unrelated word and image combinations were shown. For example, the word “cat” was followed by a picture of a raspberry. Afterward, while in an FMRI brain scanner, subjects were shown images and asked whether or not they saw those images during the test. Subjects repeatedly recognized images shown in the second test as being in the original experiment. However, one-third of the images recognized were never part of the original experiment. Test subjects stated they remembered seeing the image of a cat, when all they had actually seen was the word “cat.” The FMRI scans revealed brain activity in the three areas associated with generating visual memories (Luden, 2004).
Researchers at John Hopkins University conducted an experiment and had similar results. Again brain scans noted activity in the left hippocampus tail as well as the perirhinal cortex, which is related to the encoding of memory (Imaging, 2005). In both cases, the evidence led to the conclusion that false memories are encoded in the brain the same way real memories are. A biological basis exists.
Many people suffer from problems related to mental health. Depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and many other conditions are treated by professional and caring therapists every day. Sadly, some of these people fall victim to fringe therapy, which costs patients a lot of money and, at times, alienation from loved ones.
Marian, like many patients who have undergone Alien Abduction Therapy, eventually found another therapist and recanted her false memories. She would eventually reconcile with her family (Eisner, 2000, p. 199). After recanting, many patients have filed lawsuits against unethical psychotherapists (Eisner, 2000, p. 77).
“The actual memory, with all its vagueness, omissions, and ellipses, not to say distortions—that’s second best,” McClane said to Douglas Quail as part of his sales pitch (Dick, 2002, 331). False memories, in the story, could be better than the real thing. Just like the fictitious Rekal Corporation, alien abduction therapists are motivated by profit. They make money treating patients and selling books directed toward those who believe in alien abduction. Profit margins, not clinical research, are on what they base their success. Sincere, well-educated psychologist and therapists need to be openly critical of this fringe element which only harms its patients.
This essay was original written December 2, 2009 as a term paper for a psychology class. Small adjustments have been from the original for editing purposes.
Copyright © 2009 Paul George
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