Psychophysiological Responding During Script-Driven Imagery in People Reporting Abduction by Space Aliens: Response to “How to Misread a Research Article & The Hazards of Not Doing Your Homework”

This PDF research article was provided by Doug Mesner in response to my post “How to Misread a Research Article and the Hazards of Not Doing Your Homework.”

The link to the PDF is abduction_imagery.pdf  Reformatting done by this blogger for easier reading

Research Report

Psychophysiological Responding During Script-Driven Imagery in People Reporting Abduction by Space Aliens

Psychological Science, (RECEIVED 4/14/03; REVISION ACCEPTED 8/27/03)

Richard J. McNally,1 Natasha B. Lasko,2,3,4 Susan A. Clancy,1 Michael L. Macklin,2 Roger K. Pitman,3,4 and Scott P. Orr2,3,4

1Harvard University; 2Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Manchester, New Hampshire; 3Massachusetts General Hospital; and 4Harvard Medical School

ABSTRACT—Is recollection of highly improbable traumatic experiences accompanied by psychophysiological responses indicative of intense emotion?

To investigate this issue, we measured heart rate, skin conductance, and left lateral frontalis electromyographic responses in individuals who reported having been abducted by space aliens.

Recordings of these participants were made during script-driven imagery of their reported alien encounters and of other stressful, positive, and neutral experiences they reported.

We also measured the psychophysiological responses of control participants while they heard the scripts of the abductees.

We predicted that if ‘‘memories’’ of alien abduction function like highly stressful memories, then psychophysiological reactivity to the abduction and stressful scripts would be greater than reactivity to the positive and neutral scripts, and this effect would be more pronounced among abductees than among control participants.

Contrast analyses confirmed this prediction for all three physiological measures (ps < .05). Therefore, belief that one has been traumatized may generate emotional responses similar to those provoked by recollection of trauma (e.g., combat).

Few controversies in psychology have been as contentious as the one concerning recovered memories of trauma (McNally, 2003b). Especially contentious has been the claim that some people may recover ‘‘false memories’’ of traumatic events that never occurred (e.g., Ceci & Loftus, 1994; Lindsay & Read, 1994). Only recently, however, have researchers begun to study memory function in people reporting recovered memories of trauma (e.g., Clancy, McNally, & Schacter, 1999; McNally, 2003a; McNally, Clancy, Barrett, & Parker, in press; McNally, Clancy, & Schacter, 2001). Adapting Roediger and McDermott’s (1995) procedure, we found that adults reporting recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse were more likely to exhibit false recognition of nonpresented words than were adults who reported always remembering their abuse (Clancy, Schacter, McNally, & Pitman, 2000). A subsequent study revealed similar false memory effects in people reporting recovered memories of alien abduction (Clancy, McNally, Schacter, Lenzenweger, & Pitman, 2002). People who have developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) usually exhibit heightened psychophysiological reactivity (e.g., increased heart rate, HR) when recalling their trauma in the laboratory (for a review, see Orr, Metzger, & Pitman, 2002). Clinical reports suggest that recovering memories of improbable traumatic events (e.g., being ritually abused by satanic cults) is likewise accompanied by intense emotional reactions (e.g., Young, Sachs, Braun, & Watkins, 1991), and some therapists interpret these reactions as evidence that something horrific must have happened to the person (e.g., Bloom, 1994). In the present study, we investigated whether recollection of highly improbable traumatic events provokes psychophysiological reactions indicative of intense emotion. We recruited individuals who reported having been abducted by space aliens and asked them to participate in a script-driven imagery protocol (e.g., Lang, Levin, Miller, & Kozak, 1983; Pitman, Orr, Forgue, de Jong, & Claiborn, 1987). Each abductee furnished material for five personalized, autobiographical scripts: two scripts related to his or her abduction trauma; a script related to a different, extremely stressful experience; a script related to an extremely positive experience; and one related to an emotionally neutral experience. A control group consisted of individuals who denied ever having been abducted by aliens, but who listened to and imagined the scripts provided by the abductees. We predicted that if ‘‘memories’’ of alien abduction function like highly stressful

Address correspondence to Richard J. McNally, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA 02138; e-mail: rjm@wjh.harvard.edu.

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