June 22, 2004 When people remember traumatic events, they'll show signs of their distress, like increased heart rate, sweating and muscle tension. These reactions are often seen as a testament to the authenticity of the memory - some have gone so far as to use physical reactions to memories to prove their validity, even when the memory is as far-fetched as ritual abuse by satanic cults. Recently, though, a team from Harvard has challenged the significance of these reactions by looking into one of the most widely reported and least likely memories people claim: alien abductions.
The study, conducted by Richard McNally, Natasha Lasko, Susan Clancy, Michael Macklin, Roger Pitman and Scott Orr at Harvard University, will be published in the July issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.
The researchers recruited people who reported being abducted and had them describe the alien encounters as well as other stressful, happy, and neutral memories. The researchers converted these stories into 30-second audiotaped narratives and played them for the "abductees" while recording heart rate, sweat production, and facial muscle tension, three strong indicators of stress. The researchers also played the tapes for a control group of people who had no memories of alien encounters.
The researchers found that those who claimed to have been abducted had similarly strong reactions to the stressful narrative and the alien abduction, and weaker reactions to the happy and neutral narratives. The control group barely reacted to any of the stories.
When people believe they've been abducted by aliens, recalling their abduction can evoke reactions not unlike those evoked by a genuine memory that is stressful. This suggests that a person's reaction to a memory doesn't indicate whether the event happened, but only whether the memory, real or not, is traumatic.
To read the article, visit http://www.psychologicalscience.org/media.
Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.
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