Finally,we come to the relevance of this debate to the topic of the UFO: the veridicality or otherwise of the alleged “phenomenon” of regression.
Quite clearly, this question lies at the very heart of many cases in the annals of UFO reportage, dependent as they are upon recovered memory and enhanced recollection. This being especially the case in regards the lore of alien abduction.
Memory is itself a troublesome topic about which there are many outdated notions and popular myths. Key among these being that memory is the manifestation of the brain acting as a kind of tape-recorder. Pause for a moment and wonder whether that idea could have been currency before the invention of the tape-recorder? Before the advent of photography? What then, was memory a kind of illuminated script? In fact, this is perhaps a better analogy than that of a tape recording.
Enough evidence now exists for us to reliably agree that whatever it is, memory is not reliable. It is plastic, malleable, subject to alteration, reinterpretation and corruption. In fact, enough evidence now exists that the notion of people being legitimately convicted of crimes on the basis of eye-witness testimony is coming to seem very questionable. Most readers will be aware of how hypnotic memory recovery procedures can accidentally result in false recollections. But it is also the case that this can happen where no hypnotic procedure is employed.
So the notion of a process whereby the tape recording of memory can be re-wound and replayed is very dubious. We need to consider this in some detail. I am going to cheat by simply pasting in a passage from my aforementioned book, Beyond Erickson. I have made only a few modifications and one addition.
Along with hypnotic anaesthesia and hallucination, regression is one of the central elements of the lore of hypnosis. The idea that a hypnotised person can be ‘taken back’ to an earlier time in their experience like a tape-recording being re-wound has entered into the popular imagination and appears frequently throughout our culture, not merely in the claims of hypnotists but in films, plays and books where it sometimes forms a key to plot and in which its reality is never questioned.
The supposedly “authoritative” Hartland’s reference text, under the editorship of David Waxman credulously asserts the following:
“Sometimes the revised memories of the regressed subject can be checked. It has been reported that when an adult subject, regressed to her seventh birthday, was asked what day of the week it was, she replied ‘Friday’ without the slightest hesitation and subsequent investigation proved this to be true. This is a feat of memory that few of us could achieve in the waking state.” (Hartland’s, Waxman, ed.. 1989, p180).How misleading this passage is will become apparent when we review the research on this supposed feat. Meanwhile, Harry Aaron’s described the idea in the following terms: “Scientific research has demonstrated that the mind – or the brain – seems to have the capacity for retaining all impressions which enter it, like a giant tape recorder” (Aarons, 1967).
‘Scientific research’ has shown nothing of the kind. Although someone like Aarons might enthusiastically leap to this conclusion on the basis of an interpretation of the work of Wilder Penfield. Penfield, a Canadian neuro-surgeon, performed over a thousand pioneering operations to cure some types of epilepsy. In these operations, the patient was conscious, having been given local anaesthetic to the scalp, cranium and sub-cranial tissue. The skull was opened up but, as noted earlier [in Beyond Erickson], and is indeed well illustrated by this practice, the brain yielded no sensation, let alone pain. In order to locate the specific place at which to work Penfield electrically stimulated selected sites on the cortex of the patients brain. The patient could report what they experienced in response: sometimes sounds, sometimes sights, sometimes other sensations; combinations of these things or all of them at once. In effect, resembling momentary flash-backs in time.
The reporting and popular re-reporting of such events as a patient remarking that she could hear a piano being played in an adjoining room (at home, in the past) when a certain spot was stimulated no doubt did much to help fuel the notion that the brain records everything, electrically, like a tape-recorder. Indeed, that most credulous ‘authority’ on ‘hypnosis’, David Waxman ingenuously asserts: “It was said of these experiments that the recall is total and equal to that which can be achieved with patients under hypnosis” (Waxman, 1981, p42) thereby arrogantly implying that the reality and power of ‘regression’ under hypnosis was actually more certain than the physical effects of an electrode stimulating the brain.
However, as Stephen Rose, in his book the “The Making of Memory”,( Rose, 1992 ) remarks: “… there is the problem of deciding whether what is being elicited by such stimulation is a ‘real’ memory for some event which has actually occurred, or, like a dream or hallucination, some type of confabulation. The very nature of the records means that one can never be sure about this; the Penfield studies remain fascinating, challenging, but ultimately uninterpretable.” (Rose, 1992. P 130).
Even in Hartland’s, edited by Waxman, we find the concession that: “It is a fallacy to believe that every event or experience, however trivial, is somehow registered in the mind, never to be forgotten.”(Hartland, 1989, p467)
Nonetheless, a great many writers and ‘experts’ continue to maintain exactly that. Harry Aarons was very far from unusual in holding ideas such as those expressed in the earlier quote.
Indeed, it remains commonplace for therapists to sell the notion that everything we ever experience is recorded comprehensively and with absolute veracity somewhere in our head. Even a close friend of mine who was at the time lecturer in biology at a leading medical school, in her ex-curricula capacity as a private therapist expressed exactly this dogma. Moreover, the naive conception of memory as a kind of tape recording, which can be rewound in regression has been extrapolated to ever more absurd extremes. Weitzenhoffer (1989) points out how absurd it is for supposedly intelligent professional people to treat seriously the claim that it is possible through this procedure to recover memory of intra‑uterine experience which would not in fact have been subject to processes of memory formation in the first place.
But many who consider themselves ‘hypno-therapists’ go further, and it is not unusual to see in the press or on television, hypnotists billed as “hypno-therapists” claiming an ability to routinely regress clients to earlier incarnations.
Indeed, as a hypnotist doing stage-shows I have found that the number of individuals asking off-stage if I can stop them smoking are almost matched by those asking “Can you do regression”. Invariably, I discover that by this they mean regression to a former life!
There is a need here to distinguish between various ‘strengths’ of alleged regression phenomena. At the strongest we have the metaphysical past-life regression. This is championed as a literal reality and an actual therapeutic tool by a former recovered-memory therapist, B.L.Weiss, in Through Time Into Healing (Weiss, 1992).
Then there is the ‘major’ version of present-life regression that is based on the idea that all experience is remembered and that this recording can be re-played, re-entered, zoomed into, enhanced, etc., exactly as if it were a video, championed by, among many others, the advocate of forensic hypnotism, Martin Reiser (Reiser, M. 1980; Ofshe and Watters, 1995, p37).
Then we have the ‘minor’ version of regression, which accesses repressed material or inhibited recall by giving the patient licence to report it as though really replayed; in which the reality or otherwise of the effect is not relevant to its utility in accessing and ventilating that material. This is as illustrated by William Sargent in his accounts of treating battle survivors during WWII (Sargent, 1957, 1974).
Then there is an entirely ‘soft’ version of regression which is really not even assumed to be a hypnotic reality but is a method of aiding recall and accessing memory. Such that it may not even be referred to or presented as a regression whilst undoubtedly on this same continuum. Into this camp we can put the vast swathe of ‘recovered memory therapy”, illustrated by Bass and Davis (The Courage To Heal, 1988 ). A field thoroughly examined in its full diabolical implications in Making Monsters, False Memories, Psychotherapy and Sexual Hysteria by Ofshe and Watters (Ofshe and Watters, 1995 ).
Into this category we can also place a ‘pure pseudo-regression’, in which it is not even considered important whether the visualised information is a memory or just something immediately imagined, described by one ‘therapist’, Renee Fredrickson, in these extraordinarily shameless terms: “Whether what is remembered around the focal point is made up or real is of no concern…” (Fredrickson, 1992).
Then, beyond this, at the extreme, we have a ‘retense pseudo-regression’ that is not even a memory strategy but is openly an act, as has been in the past used in demonstrations. In other words, the routine of acting as-though of a certain age.
Clearly, what we are concerned with here are the “strongest” and “major” versions of the alleged phenomenon. The “minor”, “soft” and “purely pseudo” versions do not entail the necessary reality of a substantive and questionable phenomenon. They do, however, have very serious implications for both those engaged in such processes of recollection and those who the supposedly “recovered” memories involve.
Even without the supernatural or metaphysical dimension of “past-lives” the claims associated with regression are such that they indicate a failure on the part of those who make them to grasp the enormous implications of what it would mean. Moreover, although claims for the veracity of regression are largely accepted by an uncritical public, experimental support for this belief would be remarkable and is as yet unforthcoming.
It would be especially remarkable in consideration of it contradicting everything that is today known about memory. Although at one time it was indeed contended by some speculative psychologists that every experience is recorded for perpetuity, this is now realised not to be the case. The brain contains a vast number of pathways and potential for the registering of ‘N-Grams’. The brain, as everyone knows, is the most complex known structure in the universe. But knowledge from computing tells us that the information storage capacity required to register even one second in any one of our senses is such that even that vast potential would be used up long before we reached adulthood.
This cosmologically immense data encoding and storage requirement would necessitate a truly astronomical tape-recorder indeed. The only way that the idea of every sensation in every moment being recorded could be realised is if our brains were in some way connected to a virtually unlimited storage capacity in another dimension. A kind of neo-dualism.
At the start of the twenty-first century, one can obtain a visceral sense of this problem through our infuriating practical experience of the limitations on digital information storage, transfer and retrieval. Use digital photography, let alone video, and transmit the images over the internet, via optical relays, let alone a mobile phone and we find immediately how even some of our most powerful systems are capable of handling only a tiny sliver, not even a whole stream of the information we experience. This effect will gradually disappear; as processing speeds, bandwidth and memory capacities increase, our experience of information processing will lose the visceral sense of struggling to cope with the sheer volume of data in a picture, a sound, a moment, that at the start of the twenty-first century it is still characterised by. Indeed, compare file sizes for a book and a photograph and you can establish for yourself that a picture certainly paints vastly more than a thousand words!
Although our technology is expanding to ever more immense storage and transmission rates, today even the most powerful super-computers perform equivalent to only a tiny proportion of the work required of a human nervous system to process a single second of consciousness. Even the most extensive computer memory could not handle as much information as is stored in a few minutes of human vision; immensely more subtle than any camera yet devised.
Multiply these ratios to match the data processing and storage capacity requirements of a lifetime and we would also many times exceed the even astronomical scale of capacities of the human brain.
The only way it can manage to complete this lifetime of information-processing is by expending relatively little on memory, re-using cycles of activation and consuming resources conservatively. To do otherwise would be like trying to keep every digital photo we ever take, deleting none, on the memory card the camera came with. It would soon be full to capacity. We are obliged to delete images and re-use the space. The analogy is not precise, but is indicative of the economic principle.
One researcher who has devoted a career to studying the biochemical basis of memory put it like this: “I have already made the point in connection with the filtering process of short-term memory. Information stored in such a memory need not be transferred to a more long-term store – and indeed there is a biological necessity that much of it must be filtered out if we are not to collapse with memory overload.”
The reality of human memory is that it is less like a tape-recorder and more like a tradition in a culture. A certain ritual may be passed on from generation to generation – a cultural memory. If the process is not repeated the link is lost. Any society can only devote a finite amount of resources to sustaining the most important cultural memories or traditions in this way.
Each memory is to an extent a record of the last time that it was recalled. Just as each generation of morris dancers repeats what it was taught by the last – although we may wish they wouldn’t! It is an active and dynamic process in which the limited resources available mean that only a tiny amount of the sensory information associated with only a small number of temporal junctures is retained and passed on in this way. It is possible to break the chain or improve the link, alter or insert new ones entirely. As Stephen Rose again puts it:
“Obsessed with the attempt to see how far back in my childhood I can remember, I have taken out these internally filed photographs, redeveloped and reprinted them, cropped them a little differently, made them matt or gloss, black-and-white or colour, enlarged them to fit a new frame just as much as Bergman has transformed his for public viewing. Every time I remember these events, I recreate a memory anew…” (Rose, 1992. p.35).
The fact is that it would be impossible to ‘replay’ with any accurate detail what happened in a single mundane one of your yesterday’s let alone ‘re-wind’ to an event in the remote past and not only ‘replay’ but ‘zoom-into’ and ‘pan-around’ as has often been claimed (Reiser, M. 1980).
I am reluctant to adduce a-priori arguments against the possibility of something, but in this connection there are a couple more which are so obvious that they cannot be resisted.For a start, human vision is highly ‘hierarchical’. That is to say, at the centre of our optical field is a tiny point of focus and everything around that is progressively less focussed outwards from that centre. We perceive the world in terms of a focussed image because our eyes are continually scanning and our brain synthesises a representation from the data thus gathered. However, we do not scan, focus upon or examine every aspect or possible point of focus in our visual environment. To do so would take an infinite amount of time, because the subject under scrutiny would have changed before the task could be completed. These things considered, it is quite obvious that anyone really ‘regressed’ to a particular time and place would nonetheless still be unable to focus upon, let alone examine every aspect of their experience of that occasion at will. They could only access the same material as would have been stored as regular memory traces. If all we mean by ‘regression’ is therefore enhanced access to such conventional memory traces the core defining aspect of the alleged ‘strong’ or ‘major’ versions of ‘regression’ are passed over in concession to something ‘minor’ or ‘soft.
Considering the above also should give one pause to consider the fact that our perception of the world and our experience in time is a construct of our nervous system, integrating various sensory inputs according to diverse biological parameters and prior experiences. We do not store the original inputs. This can be illustrated by analogy to digital photography once again. Some cameras have a RAW facility which records the original data as it arrived in the processor from the imaging sensor, before processing. We can take this RAW data to our computer and then adjust it according to our desired interpretation to produce a finished image file, a JPEG. However, from this JPEG it is not possible to reconstruct the image in others of the many thousands of possible alternative forms from which it could have been constructed using the data in the original RAW file. Although it can still be slightly altered it is relatively fixed. This is one reason why professionals typically prefer a camera that produces a RAW file to one that immediately makes one of the possible versions of the image from that data and stores it solely as a JPEG. (Another reason is that of avoiding compression, which is not relevant here).
By analogy, the human nervous system is one of the latter variety of devices, lacking a RAW storage capacity. It stores as ‘memories’ the processed cognition, analogous to the JPEG. Without the existence of the analogue of a RAW file, comprising the unprocessed sensory data, it is impossible to zoom, pan and enhance even if regression were real.
All this leaves is the possibility of enhanced recall, which is a lot less than the proponents of regression try to sell us. Strictly described as hyperemnesia, this is discussed further, below. Suffice for the moment to mention the dominant question thereat being not whether psychological techniques can enhance recall, which is not disputed, but whether ‘hypnosis’ contributes anything to such techniques that would constitute evidence for its reality.
Experimental demonstration of the phenomenon of the ‘strong’ or ‘major’ versions of regression would require a complete re-think of the relationships of consciousness, memory and our connection to the physical universe.
Nonetheless, attempts have been made to obtain such evidence. In 1949, R.M.True published a report of a study in which subjects were regressed to the ages of 11, 7 and 4 years and correctly named the day of the week in which their birthday and Christmas Day occurred. Barber points out that it is possible for a determined subject to calculate this and, more importantly, that the method employed by True of eliciting the date via a yes or no arrangement (in which the experimenter asked, “…is it Wednesday, …is it Thursday,…is it Friday…” and so on) allows the subject to discern cues for the appropriate day unwittingly given by the questioner in their tone of voice. However, the damning verdict on the study is that numerous researchers have attempted to replicate the positive findings and obtained only a negative, contradictory, outcome. Including:
- Living Out ‘Future’ Experience Under Hypnosis’. Best, H.L and Michaels, R.M., in Science (1954, Issue 120, p1027)
- ‘Experimental Evidence for a Theory of Hypnotic Behavior: 2: Experimental Controls in Age-Regression’, by T. X. Barber in The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (1961, Vol. 9, pp181-193 b)
- ‘Problems of Interpretation and Controls in Hypnotic Research’, by Fisher, S., in Hypnosis: Current Problems. (1962, Ed G.Estabrooks, Harper, New York,
- ‘An Investigation of Hypnotic Age-Regression’, by Leonard, J.R. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Kentucky. (1963)
- ‘Accuracy of Specific Days Given during Hypnotic Age-Regression’, by Cooper, L.M. and Morgan, A. Hawthorne House Research Memorandum, (1966, no 44)
These studies all yielded negative findings for the supposed reality of “regression”. Which poses the question, ‘How true was True?’
Gidro‑Frank and Bowersbuch (1948) famously claimed to have restored in adults by means of hypnotic regression the ‘Babinski Reflex’, supposedly exhibited by infants of between four and six months of age. This finding has since been touted by some authors as proving that regression is real, for example by Karle and Boys (1987, p17). This Babinski Reflex was the alleged tendency of infants of that age to flex their toes in a certain manner when touched upon the sole of the foot. It is sometimes called the Plantar Reflex. It follows that, if major regression was the veritable reality that it has been claimed to be, adults who have been hypnotised and regressed to that phase of infancy should exhibit this reflex. Gidro‑Frank and Bowersbuch claimed that this is exactly what happened. However, as Barber (1969) has pointed out, the supposed Babinski Reflex” had already been shown by that time to be mythical. In a 1921 survey of nine infants no clear sign of such a reflex was found (Burr,1921). In another study from nine years later 389 infants under seven months of age were tested and only thirteen showed what might have been described as the Babinski Reflex (Wolff,1930). There is no such invariable pattern of response peculiar to that period of infancy.
It seems, observes Barber, that various authors copied their description of the mythical reflex from each other without making any critical observations of their own. Ironically, therefore, the fact that some subjects exhibited that reflex when supposedly regressed actually casts doubt upon the authenticity of what actually took place! In other words, the positive result was negative for the hypothesis! The experimenters scored an own-goal, they ‘shot themselves in the foot’, or worse.
According to Wagstaff (1981) Sarbin discerned that the subjects in the Gidro‑Frank and Bowersbuch experiment had discovered the expected outcome and had sought to deliberately satisfy what they thought of as the experimenters expectations of them. Ironically, they evidently did “no favours” for evidence of “hypnotic regression”.
A study by Parrish, Lundy and Liebowitz ( 1969 ) entailed regressing adults to the ages of 9 and 5 at which they reportedly exhibited the response to Ponzo and Poggendorf illusions appropriate to those ages. However, no fewer than three separate attempts to replicate these findings proved negative: Ascher, Barber and Spanos (1972); Porter, Woodward, Bisbee and Fenker (1971) and Perry and Chisholm (1973).
To these studies we should add the coup de grace for ‘major’ regression in the guise of an experiment reported by Barber and Calverley 1966: ‘Effects on Recall of Hypnotic Induction, Motivational Suggestions and Suggested Regression’, by Barber,T.X. and Calverley, D.S., Journal of Abnormal Psychology (Issue 71, pp. 95-107. In this experiment ‘regression’ in its various convincing and impressive aspects was successfully simulated by non-hypnotised control subjects. Those who believe in the reality of hypnotic regression could have long ago tried several simple, obvious, experiments by which they could have proven their case.
Firstly, one could place subjects in a specific environment, exposing them to particular occurrences. Then, several days, weeks or months later, induce a ‘regression’ to that occasion and ask them to report what they see and what occurs. They can be asked to ‘zoom in’, ‘pan’ and ‘enhance’ just as has been done in many contentious instances of forensic regression.
Secondly, subjects could be ‘regressed’ to a distant time in their own life and these various evaluations performed. They could then be regressed to that time again, after a lapse of several years, and their new accounts compared with their original accounts.
Thirdly, several subjects who had been at a given place and time could be ‘regressed’ and their accounts compared.
In each case, there would of course need to be control subjects given a matching task without ‘regression’. There are also numerous variations of these possible formulas controlling for different aspects of the situation. That we have not heard of such obvious studies having been conducted appears to indicate that either they have not been attempted or they were negative for the supposed veracity of ‘regression’.
One study that came close to such a project was only in 2002 de-classified by the CIA. Not published in any scientific context, it was conducted in 1954 in a hotel suite under the supervision of Sidney Gottlieb (who later became the head of various CIA assassination projects). Code-named ‘Monkey Ward’ the study involved a version of the first of these exercises and the last. The name of the hypnotist remains classified (it is actually inked-out on the released documents). Arguably, this study was more about hypemnesia than regression, but in any case, the results were negative. Undoubtedly, the potential for use of regression as a tool of intelligence would have been immense had it been found to have any basis in reality (Gottlieb, 1954, 2002). Presumably the truth or otherwise of memories is more important for spies than it is for therapists.
Studies of the regular memory of real-life events and its subsequent retrieval without the hypnotic element serve to demonstrate how fallacious ‘vivid’ recall tends to be. For example ‘Phantom Flashbulbs: False Recollections of Hearing The News About Challenger’ by Neisser, U. and Harsch, N., in Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of Flashbulb Memories, Ed. Winograd and Neisser, Cambridge, 1992. (Neisser, 1992)
This study referred to the concept of the ‘Flashbulb Memory’, an event of significance burned into the memory permanently with everything associated with it. For example, illustrated by the idea that everyone who heard contemporaneously of the death of John F. Kennedy remember what they were doing at the time. The senior author realised that the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 constituted a similar event. The very next day, he had his students fill in a questionnaire into every aspect of the circumstances under which they had heard the news. These questionnaires were then filed away, unseen, for three years. Then the same students were gathered, asked to fill out the same questionnaire again and to express their confidence in their recollection on a scale of 1 (Just guessing) to 5 (Absolute certainty). The new answers were then compared to the original forms and scored for accuracy on a scale of 1 to 7 according to an impartial system.
Of the 44 students only three scored 7, whilst fully eleven scored zero! The average score was a pathetic 2.95. The memories were not simply wrong, they were utterly wrong: remembering having been in totally different places and engaged in completely different activities at the time of the incident. Moreover, it was those who were the most confident in the accuracy of their recall who’s memories were the most dramatically wrong!
The study developed on these findings when, the following spring, the students were each interviewed about the questionnaire and shown how wrong their memories were. In spite of this, they exhibited a shocking insistence that even though they now had the evidence in front of them, they all the same could not help remembering things according to the false memory!
+Factor in a subject’s belief in ‘hypnosis’ and ‘regression’ and we can understand the powerful conviction that the procedure can induce in what may actually be entirely inaccurate recollections! In fact, this set of beliefs is undoubtedly very dangerous. Offshe and Watters (ibid) examine the case of a man now serving a life sentence in the U.S. for a murder of which there was no evidence of it having occurred, for which there was no body, nor any record of the alleged victim having ever lived, merely on the basis of his having ‘confessed’ and pleaded guilty on the strength of his belief in the reality of the ‘recovered memories’ of his estranged daughter, extracted in ‘regression’ by a cult leader! The man so believed in the truth of hypnosis and regression that he insisted that his daughters vague images of his having killed an imaginary friend in her childhood must be true and insisted on going to prison!
Over time, he too began to ‘remember’ things. One of the authors visited the man in pre-trial and was able to prove that he could easily cause him to imagine that he remembered things that definitely had not occurred but had been made up for the purpose! This is a case that anyone contemplating the question of dangers of hypnosis should study. For it illustrates that it is not the imaginary ‘state’ of hypnosis but the continued belief in ‘hypnosis’ that is dangerous.
I would agree that the ritual of ‘regression’ may provide an effective pretext for the ventilation of repressed material and as such may be a potent therapeutic tool. No better account of its power as such a tool can there be than William Sargent’s description of his work with men suffering post-combat stress. His patients were often severely afflicted with the anxieties provoked by recent immensely distressing experiences that were repressed and unaccessible by normal means. Such experiences as being trapped in a burning tank. He found that by using hypnotism he was able to overcome resistence to the access of such material and discharge a portion of the after-effects of such experiences through their re-living them in a ritual of regression. An abreaction exercise. (Sargent, 1957). However, it must also be accepted that regression is a fantasy, albeit a useful one. To deny this is dangerous and not in the psychological sense usually associated with the ‘dangers of hypnosis’.
In the United Kingdom forensic regression has been prohibited. Indeed, a committee formed to evaluate its use lead to the declaration by the UK Home Office that “There is no real proof that you can obtain information by hypnosis that could not be obtained in other ways … We do not think it is a practicable weapon for the police to use against crime.” (Inglis, 1989, p178). In the United States the practice of regression to ‘zoom’, ‘pan’ and ‘enhance’ some extremely poor witness memories into Technicolour vividness has been championed by Martin Reiser, one-time director of the Behavioural Sciences Services department of the Los Angeles Police. It has resulted in some very suspect and serious convictions. In particular the case of People versus Kempinski (1980), in which alleged regression, zoom and light-enhancement lead to the ‘identification’ of a man seen momentarily at a distance of 270ft in a dark alley at night, and on this testimony alone his trial for murder. He spent five months in custody. At the trial, an ophthalmologist testified that it would not have been physically possible to identify a person under those conditions. Fortunately, the regression testimony, shown on video, was so ridiculous and inconsistent that the accused could only be found not-guilty.
Moreover, the uncritical acceptance of ‘regression has resulted in the substantive cultural phenomenon of False Recovered Memory Syndrome. This, too, has resulted in some dreadful miscarriages of justice. These issues have very real consequences and are far from academic.
This chapter deals specifically with scientific studies and so I shall reserve observations made on the basis of my own conduct of ‘past-life’ regression until later.
There is a final point to be made, an important one, in relation to ‘soft’ regression or memory recovery in therapy. Such therapy usually entails relaxation, whether with the rituals of ‘hypnosis’ or not. There is reason to believe that relaxation aids recall (Higbee, 1988. Pp64-67, citing Yesavage, 1984; Yesavage and Jacob, 1984; Kirkland and Hollandsworth, 1980).
Perhaps the name most deeply associated with the use of recovered memory testimony and the idea of alien abduction is John Mack. Mack was professor of psychiatry at Harvard. An authoritative position, to be sure, yet inspection of his writings, conduct and thinking soon reveals him to have been a marvellously extreme example of the phenomenon which I described at the top of this essay. An ‘expert’ who is either very ill-informed or tells whoppers!
Specifically, Mack has gone a very long way out on a limb in declaring his belief in the literal truth of the claims of many of his clients, that they have been abducted by aliens. When I refer to Mack’s ‘clients’ I am, in particular, avoiding reference to them as ‘patients’. The majority of them, it appears from his published cases, are not referring to him for therapy but exegesis. He has declared the reality of the testimony of such people on the basis of seventy-six such clients, the cases of thirteen of whom were presented in detail in his best-selling book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (Mack, 1994). Mack is at pains to emphasise that it is not possible to make generalised statements about ‘abductees’; that they come from all walks of life. As one of his clients put it, with being chosen by aliens comes “…a feeling of specialness”. The relevance of which becomes apparent when we evaluate Mack’s declaration that “None of the efforts to characterise the abductees as a group have been successful. They seem to come as if at random from all parts of society.” (p16); an assertion which an audit of his declared cases flatly contradicts.
Of the thirteen, at least eight were ‘into’ the UFO culture before manifesting as abductees. This including attending UFO conventions, reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion, watching the film of the same, and watching the CBS TV series about alien abduction, Intruders, to which Mack was a contributor.
With such a small group it is easy to overlook the statistical implications. Eight out of thirteen is 61%! Again at least eight of the thirteen were drawn to Mack as a direct result of either seeing him on television, reading newspaper articles about him or being referred to him by others who knew of his belief in alien abduction. To some extent, this in itself indicates that Mack is creating a circular process of first directly or indirectly suggesting the ‘phenomenon’ in some individuals, then confirming that which has been suggested by recruiting them to ‘regression’ and in turn re-iterating the suggestion with these cases as new material.
The desire to meet aliens was explicitly stated aforehand by several of the abductees, including ‘Catherine’, of whom Mack says:< “Ironically [sic] she had recently been reading about UFO’s and ‘halfway hoping to see one and halfway hoping I don’t” ( p143 ).
‘Carlos’ appears to have devoted much of his life to seeking contact with aliens before reporting such experiences, along with a lot of other material of a paranormal nature. The one highly successful entrepreneur whose case is discussed but whose identity is shielded seems to have been obsessed with a longing to meet aliens and, essentially, do business with them, but of an ecological and messianic kind.
Given that in at least ten of the cases (76%) the abduction experience entailed metaphysical, ‘spiritual’ or environmental messages to humanity it must be considered significant that at least twelve of the cases (92%) involved such people, with a manifest tendency to ruminate upon metaphysical, ‘spiritual’ and paranormal topics prior to presenting as abductees. This including a ‘health care worker who’s experience in Tai Kwon Do lead him to believe that he was struggling with immense powers in the form of an almost uncontrollable personal abundance of “Chi” and who sought Mack to help him ‘work through’ this challenge. He also believed that he had an alien girlfriend called Velia.
The aforementioned artist, poet and writer, called ‘Carlo’, claiming to be “of mixed Spanish, Scottish, Irish, German and German-Jewish extraction” with a surname “…somehow related to the Spanish Armada” yet who grew up in a Catholic family in Pennsylvania, sought to relate his special alien-reincarnation connection to the Hebridean isle of Iona.
At least two others harboured a belief in their recollection of past-lives, including a company secretary who ‘remembered’ having been a wealthy North African trader, ‘Omrishi, in the fifteenth century. She believed herself to be “An energy form given a body to carry out a certain mission” (p259). A hotel manager stated that he had a “dual human / alien identity”, whilst yet another man had been maintaining a sexual relationship with a “human-alien hybrid”.
If we leave aside the use of cognition-affecting drugs by 15% of the group (one of them connected the abductions to using LSD, and at least one other used cannabis) the abductees can clearly be characterised as largely composed of people with fantasy prone personalities. The measure of this being perhaps the fact that in spite of all these assembled flights of metaphysical, ‘spiritual’ and apocalyptic ruminations in which they engaged, not a single individual so preoccupied reported having actually read metaphysics or theology, practised a formal religion or studied the environment. Their ruminations were thus of the vague, ‘woolly’ or ‘alternative”’kind that indeed characterise the important ‘messages that these abductees were in turn instructed by aliens to convey to the rest of us.
Such cosmic messages of absolute importance as that which ‘Ed’ received telepathically at the moment of orgasm from a female alien who had sex with him as a teenager: “The way humans are conducting themselves here in terms of international politics, our environment, our violence to each other, our food and all that.” (p53) About which Mack comments “Although the information was largely new to ‘Ed’ it somehow ‘made sense’ to me.” (p54) Presumably Ed wasn’t “up to” Mack’s intellectual standard, seeing as “his father was a machinist”, he was “working class” “and all that”. So maybe, in Mack’s conception of the world, such a fantastically original critique of international politics, ‘our food and all that’ would be beyond Ed’s capacity to invent.
Mack is keen to emphasise that the abductees do not as a group appear to exhibit pathological morbidity. He excuses the lack of psychometric testing of any but one of the cases on the grounds that it is an expensive procedure; something which sales of the best-selling book ought surely have rectified in time for later editions. However, ruling out pathological traits as a characteristic of the group does not eliminate psychodynamic processes as the latent source of presenting attributes in the individual case. In other words, we need not imagine the abductees to be mentally ill in order to recognise that their idea’s about being abducted by aliens may be a manifestation of other, possibly repressed topics in their lives. Topics that in conventional terms might be thought of as the unconscious reality underlying the manifest content of the clients imaginings.
Although of the thirteen cases, nearly all sought Mack specifically with the declared intention of unearthing experiences of alien abductions in the past, and some even begun to have them to order, as it were, after starting to see him, they nonetheless mostly presented with latent problems of a personal nature. In not fewer than eight cases (77%) there can be identified personal problems that relate directly to the imagery and manifest content of the “alien-abduction” scenario. For example, in at least five of the cases (38%) there was at least some indication of having been sexually abused in childhood (relating directly to the sexual abuse by aliens). In one case the abduction episodes were reported in regression to begin at about the same period of her childhood at which her parents separated. Thereafter her family moved continuously, prompting the remark “Perhaps we were Gypsies at heart”: (like the aliens, thought to wander space and time perhaps!) A ‘psychotherapist’ began to present with dreams of alien abductions ten days before the birth of his first child.< Another client who had lost an eye in his youth ‘remembered’ violent deaths in the adolescent years of former lives.
Several other cases involved recent bereavement crises. One social-worker began to have alien encounters ten days after her mothers death. In another case ‘abduction’ experiences began one year exactly after the death of an important relative. In two cases bereavement in adolescence related clearly and directly to the manifest content of abduction episodes obtained by regression to the same period.
In one case, a woman who referred to her grandfather as a ‘benevolent’ figure in her past, when regressed to the same period as his death and to the same geographical location ‘recovered’ a memory of an encounter with a wise and benevolent alien. A striking parallel offering a very straightforward explanation of the content of the regression but which Mack nonetheless does not consider. Instead, he creates the implication that the grandfather might actually have been some kind of illusion created by the aliens.
So whilst Mack may fairly rule out mental-illness as characteristic of abductees, we cannot ignore the fact that most of the cases that he recounts exhibit strong correlations between the manifest-content of their alien encounter tales and distressing events in their personal life. Indeed, I use the term ‘manifest content’ with specific reference to the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams. The irony here being that Mack actually does with his clients’ dreams the very opposite of what previously a psychiatrist would do. Instead of taking the bizarre images in a dream and interpreting them in terms of the dreamers real life-events, he interprets the mundane aspects of those dreams as a mask for truly bizarre experiences. Connections which in some cases the client had not previously considered. It is in itself very worrying that a professor of psychiatry at a leading medical school would have done this
Although Mack is at pains to emphasise that the abductees are not suffering from a mental illness and he does not explicitly raise the obvious psychological processes underlying the alien experiences reported in many of the cases, he nonetheless finds it significant that the subjects make vivid expressions of distress during regression to the alleged episodes. In particular, he boasts that a film which he made of one of the regressions was so distressing that some among a group of sceptics whom he showed it to turned away. Whilst not questioning his version of events I would wonder if those who turned away would agree with his interpretation of why they had done so?
Moreover, the most that such a display of anguish might feasibly prove is that the subject believes in the reality of the supposed recollections, or perhaps only that they can vividly imagine the experience being described. After all, as a hypnotist, one is able to induce a great range of apparent emotional states. Then again, someone merely watching a movie can be induced to tears, anger or distress. Additionally, the subject who presents with a problem in terms of an alien abduction experience that may be masking real psychological objects of distress will naturally be inclined to express the pain in terms of any regression to that supposed occurrence. Here then are at least three commonplace explanations for Mack’s subjects displaying distress, the citation of which displays evidently proves nothing.
In a way, I take pride in the fact that a part of me has never grown up. Too big a part of me, some might say. But I can take my mundane peculiar experiences and construct from them as baroque an elaboration of fantasy as anyone: involving reincarnation, aliens, conspiracies, secret experiments, etc, etc, etc. The difference is that I know that these are only fantasies. Whereas, that section of the population referred to as having a ‘fantasy prone personality’ (Wilson and Barber, 1982) often fail to distinguish between these flights of imagination and the reality around them. I have conceived fantasies of being the reincarnation of a thirteenth century Albigensian martyr and thought how odd it is that Arthur Guirdham found through regression so many who truly believed this of themselves in close geographical proximity to where I live! (Inglis, 1989).
I have known a Siberian ‘Princess’ who I could have imagined to be the reincarnated form of the mummified warrior-priestess of Alma Ata. When it comes to imagination and flights of fancy, Mack and his abductees have nothing to hold a light to my creativity, yet I am not even a professional fantasist. Interestingly, Whitley Strieber, author of the best-selling first-hand account of alien abduction, Communion was already a professional fantasist. His previous work included Wolfen, a tale of mysterious killings in a derelict ghetto wrought by a pack of intelligent wolves. The film version, starring Albert Finney as a Mack-like investigator into this ‘unexplained’ – in a sense alien ‘phenomenon’, used a distinctive wolf’s-eye-view technique. This visual conceit was later copied in the alien-murder abduction movies Predator and Predator Two.
These considerations present us with a rich context of creativity rife with alien imaginings against which backdrop the written-as-though-true tale of Communion, itself turned into a film only eight years later, takes on a different complexion. To be fair though, the garbled narratives full of arid cliche and fetid B-movie grand-guignol that comprise Mack’s ‘cases’ are bereft even of any spark of originality or invention. They are quite so obviously a feeble regurgitation of third-rate books and movies that it is hard to understand how an intelligent man could take them seriously for even a moment. The supposedly profound ‘spiritual’ messages conveyed are the stale generalities of Seventies’ sub-Rousseauesque Eco-Politics. The ‘clinical’ procedures described are the clumsy bumbling-about of extra’s in a fifties space movie or the Roswell Autopsy film. The spaceships and costumes resemble cheap props, silver and gold-spray-painted and made from egg-cartons. The ability of aliens to fly through walls yet their need to peer primitively through windows is but one of many contradictions that pepper these scripts like holes in a Swiss cheese.
The elaborate “explanations” of the perpetual suspension of linearity and chronological, spatial and physical consistency as symptomatic of a ‘higher reality’ is like a pathetic attempt by a talent-less film director to rationalise a lack of plot by attributing to it a spurious artistic profundity!
His example illustrates the mutual self delusion of hypnotist and subject in yet other ways. A strong factor at play throughout Mack’s case accounts is that of his directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, suggesting abduction experiences to his clients. This, as I mentioned earlier, can be seen in the way that his appearances in and influence upon the media, convey suggestions to potential abductees. Their attention is captured, rapport created by his deploying references to various trivial and commonplace experiences that a minority of subjects will recognise that they have had. Among these, those who are easily suggestible will be liable to attach to these experiences certain significance that the ‘good doctor’ asserts, regarding his status as legitimising the indicators of having had abduction experience.
Suggestions are floated onto this rapport base and what is in effect an open-ended set of pacing statements. What are known to magicians and mind-readers as Barnum Statements (after P.T.Barnum the circus impresario). These are statements so calculated as to maximise the likelihood of being coincidentally applicable to the individual they are addressed to, like a weather forecast. His vivid description of the paradigms of abduction experiences constitute the ideational content that he is suggesting.
This all taking place before he even meets the subject. From among that pool of potential subjects so reached, those who are sufficiently suggestible as to have already bought-into the scenario on offer, whether as a result of his suggestions or beforehand, will be the minority exhibiting extreme predisposition to acceptance of this fantasy who actually make the effort to meet him. Thereafter, the process with any subject so extremely predisposed is inevitably going to be easy.
Moreover, not only does Mack accept and reinterpret under his own imprimatur the claims of those who present him with the manifest belief that they have been abducted by aliens (most of the cases) but he also displays an ample ability to convert a ‘neutral’ client to such an interpretation of events. Indeed, he represents a very powerful example of the way in which an operator employing hypnotic regression can influence the content of his clients supposedly recovered memory.
This is clearly demonstrated in his own account of the case of ‘Catherine’, a 22 year old music student. As quoted earlier, she recounted having already been reading about UFO’s and harbouring a desire to have an alien encounter. On the day after she had gone out for a drive at night there were local press reports of aerial activity, being some form of meteor shower in the region in which she had been driving. Moreover, she declared a period of forty-five minutes during that drive which she could not account for. These are the kind of coincidences that typify Macks cases. They are used to imply the desired interpretation of events yet actually beg certain questions that rarely get asked. Such as, how frequently did Catherine go out for a drive by night (perhaps hoping to see her UFO)? Surely this occasion was not unique. And if she was liable to go for such drives it ceases to be a notable coincidence that she did so on an occasion preceding a meteorite fall.
Does Mack have any idea how frequent and common-place meteorite showers are? The total mass of celestial material raining down on the Earth is of the order of several thousand tonnes a year! Moreover, of any evening selected at random, how likely is it that Catherine would have been able to account for every minute. In other words, how numerous in reality would be periods of forty-five minutes or more that cannot be accounted for? Indeed, ask yourself, how hard would it be to find a period of forty-five minutes of which one can remember nothing in any evening of a day or two ago. Especially involving a car journey! One can really only remember something when there is something there to remember. Forty-five minutes of vague rumination on an empty country road furnishes us very little to recall later.
So commonplace is the inability to recall the events of a car journey that M. H. Erickson used this as an example of an ‘everyday trance’. Or would Mack say that those frequent periods of ‘hghway hypnosis’ as it has often been called, are all incidents of alien abduction? So that we would have to count even the estimable Dr Erickson among America’s millions of abductees!
That ‘Catherine’ sought out Mack to confirm her ruminations about the possibility of having had an alien experience is not then remarkable. Specifically, she presented him with no actual indications or recollections of such an event other than these. Plus the fact that she had since experienced “…an unexplained nosebleed, the first in her life.” I would wager that most nosebleeds are ‘unexplained’ to the person having them, and possessing no explanation for a commonplace event does not make it unusual. Nor of course does it mean that it cannot be explained by someone with the appropriate information. Whilst the implication of Mack’s stating it to be the first in her life is that it was unusual, he elsewhere cites frequent nosebleeds as also unusual. Moreover, we do not know whether ‘Catherine’ would have attached any significance to or remembered the nosebleed had it occurred at any other time. How many nosebleeds has one had in ones life? When? Would she really be able to say with certainty that it was the first?
Mack then found that ‘Catherine’: “scored positively on most of the questions indicative of possible UFO encounters in a book about abductions.” Yet, apart from these vague points, there was nothing to indicate that any such thing might have happened. Delving further, Mack found that she had a fear of needles! Not normally assumed to be due to nasty experiences at the hand of aliens. But in this case so assumed to be. Finally ‘Catherine’ said she “… was in something of a career crisis, feeling that ‘I’m not using all of the skills that I have’
Is a “career crisis” an odd thing for a student to have?
Nonetheless, she as yet did not claim to remember an actual alien encounter. Until Mack had been to work on her. This started with his instructing her to: “…see what other memories would surface in the days to follow and asked that she call me in about a week.”
This is clearly a suggestion to her that she should create such ‘memories’. For a start, it constitutes an Ericksonian ‘presupposition’. Secondly, he is implicitly declaring that as a figure of authority he not only endorses her manifest desire to move on to detailed imagining of such an event but expects that very thing of her. This is implicit in his expectation that she would have something to tell him when she called as instructed a week later.
It happened that she did not call back a week later but wrote to him nine months later ( ! ) to report, as she carefully put it: “…impressions (memories is too strong a word)…” Plus, the report that she had become ‘panicky’ whilst watching the movie version of Communion (the supposedly true story of an alien abduction saga, so told as to hopefully make viewers feel uneasy, as such movies are intended to). Also, she had “seen an odd light” and, to splendidly round things out she had discovered a small ‘unexplained’ scar under her chin.
These few scraps of whispy, ethereal rumination are recounted on p144 of Mack They were enough for him to invite her back to begin a series of five hypnotic regression sessions spanning eight months. Such that by p147 she was recounting vivid ‘recovered memories’ of alien abductions, full of lurid detail and long, complex plot-lines involving her childhood and that “…feeling of specialness” attached to the attentions of the aliens (the attentions of the top alienist, as seen on TV). Moreover, these tales not only encompassed all of the usual stereotyped clichés that Mack expects to find but went on into tales of pregnancies caused by aliens, babies in incubators and a guided tour of rooms full of alien foetuses kept in towering banks of a kind of automat sandwich-vendor.
Mack concludes his discussion of ‘Catherine’s’ case with the observation that “…it raises more questions than it answers”. Quite! Leaving aside the fact that an explanation of a clients situation should by definition leave fewer questions at the end, not more, yet other questions arise along the lines of:
1) Is Mack aware of what he is doing?
2) If he is, why is he pretending not to be?
3) If he is not, how can he be so obtuse?
4)Is he really as susceptible to believe those fantasies which he foments in others as he seems?
5) What are the implications of his example for all other procedures involving hypnotism and regression to ‘recover memory’ of events that are part of the usual operators’ set of expectations?
It has been established that regression does not in reality constitute the objective and literal re-winding of a hypothetical ‘tape’ of memory as it is so widely pretended to be. Yet it is nonetheless a powerful device for the exploration of issues concerning either the subject or operator or both. It is capable of facilitating the articulation of sensitive repressed material, overcoming the social barriers to the expression of such material: fears, delusions, imaginings, ruminations and indeed memories. But it does not in reality fulfil the claim to objectively recover otherwise non-accessible memory nor can it permit the replay of, or going to, the remembered occasion as is so often pretended.
What it can do is facilitate the ventilation of material in terms of such a notion. This can result in the subject becoming convinced of the objective reality of their own thought content and also that which has been suggested to them as well as that which the operator, consciously or more often unconsciously, leads them into imagining.
Curiously, Mack even describes one case involving a very disturbing young man who had earlier induced the suggested response of an alien experience in a poor unwitting therapist in whom he inspired terror. The therapist had initially refused to accept his reports of alien abduction but after intense interaction possibly engendering an amount of counter-transference and a high degree of rapport, she began to relate to him terrifying experiences that had been occurring after their meetings and which she could not explain. Clearly, if Mack’s client was not fabricating this tale the therapist in question must have lacked a sense of professional detachment from her patient and the development of dyadic interaction involving suggested alien experiences makes an interesting parallel to that between the client and Mack himself.
I have written extensively and in some detail in Beyond Hypnosis, about Mack, his book and his cases. Having done so, came an incident which I recounted therein as follows:
I find it an immensely entertaining and apt fact that whilst working on this section, Mack’s vivid descriptions of his cases eventually induced me to have a suggested alien-abduction experience! It went as follows:
Logicus-Interruptus: A Suggested Abduction Experience.
I awoke in what seemed to be the middle of the night, with a sense of an eerie presence. “You aren’t fooling me…” I thought “… I read too much of that John Mack last night, is all.” Then I dosed off slightly. Then I was suddenly aware that there were three creatures alongside my bed, standing shoulder to shoulder and apparently trying to lift me up. They were about three feet high and had oblate heads like the eponymous protagonist of Hey Arnold. My subconscious must have made an oversight here, because, as I later realised, given my preferred style of Japanese bed, very close to the floor, even such ‘little fellers’ would have been towering over me. Yet, at the time this didn’t occur to me and instead I decided that I should scream out aloud for help, the warning cry “Alieeeeee…” At which point, my ‘Hidden Observer’ unwilling to ‘cry uncle’ for any bunch of floating midgets, I awoke, realising swiftly that in some sense I had been ‘had’. As I lay back, now fully awake and aware of the inconsistencies in the dream, I reflected on how very easy it had been for John Mack, through a book, never having met me, to have induced such a vivid experience by suggestion. In a mind ruminating upon the topic and fertilised by the myriad symbols and metaphors that litter the accounts of ‘abductees’ testimony that he had assembled, I could not have been the only person to be so affected …
Of course I cannot prove that I had this experience and you may choose not to believe my testimony. But why on Earth would anyone choose not to believe such a modest claim as to have had one,s dreams influenced by a book and yet be willing to believe the extremely lurid and bizarre claims of the supposed abductees that they have had their lives influenced by alien creatures from another dimension?
Then I turned on my bed-side television finding Scooby Doo and Scrappy. The Great Dane Scooby, along with his drug-addled friend Shaggy, tried to infiltrate a gang of villains by donning monster costumes: So the dog was convincingly behaving as a human in order to impersonate something non-human, then was discovered by real humans who reacted as if he were one of them. Then, to chase some villains, the dog Scooby inhaled into a mail-bag, inflating it to gigantic proportions and thereby creating a balloon that carried him and his friends into the air, zooming after the fugitive truck. Later, Scoob’ again impersonated a human to go on a date with a short-sighted girl who’s glasses were in for repair and thus believed his odd way of talking was due to his being a Dane! When she finally saw how right her brother was that someone had “fixed her up with a real dog” she kissed him anyway and the hound was flattered.
Scooby Doo lives in the same universe as John Mack. Mack’s ideas and his book represent superb illustrations of the processes of the folies a deux. The term first used by Orne to describe the dyadic interaction of hypnotist and subject in which each fuels the others fantasies. Moreover, those instances of the use of hypnotic regression which he specifically recounts illustrate clearly the tendency for the technique to serve as a vehicle for the induction of confabulation in others, reinforcing such flights of fantasy in the operator.
There are many cases to illustrate this in the annals of forensics, therapy, and ‘past life regression’. The data accumulated over decades of research endorses this interpretation. Mack and his case accounts serves as a point of intersection between these considerations and the topic of UFO investigation.
In my opinion, recognition of the confabulatory nature of hypnotic ‘regression’ would in no sense hinder the discussion of UFO cases. On the contrary, the repeated citing of material recovered using ‘hypnosis’ does a great deal to discredit the testimony of such witnesses as are interviewed using such techniques. As in many law enforcement jurisdictions (such as the UK, the use of ‘recovered’ testimony or that ‘enhanced’ by “hypnosis” should be excluded from investigations. It contributes nothing of factual substance. It reveals a naiivete (at best) on the part of the investigators. It muddies the waters!
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