Saturday, May 2, 2009

Smelling a Rat: John Mack’s Alien Abductees

Whitley Strieber, in his best-selling book Communion: A true story, used the supposedly unimpeachable evidence of smell memory to support his account of abduction by aliens, even as he systematically altered the recalled smells to fit his narrative. This sleazy maneuver is certainly one of the more creative uses of the myth of immutable Proustian odor memory. But Strieber wasn’t the only one to invoke smell in support of UFOs.

John E. Mack was a Harvard University psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who spent years taking alien abductees seriously. He was impressed by “the extreme consistency of the stories from person after person.” He argued that this consistency was so strong that any theory of abduction narratives—debunking or affirming—had to account for it. Such consistency ruled out medical disorders; it was something “you would not get simply by stimulating the temporal lobes. You would get very variable idiosyncratic responses that would differ a great deal from person to person.”

According to Mack, smells were invariably part of the ambience aboard alien spacecraft. In his 1994 book Abduction: Human encounters with aliens, he summarized the experience of typical abductees:
Once inside they may at first find that they are in a small dark room, a sort of vestibule. But soon they are taken into one or more larger rooms where the various procedures will occur. These rooms are brightly lit, with a hazy luminosity from indirect light sources in the walls. The atmosphere may be dank, cool, and occasionally even foul-smelling.
Later in the book he says: 
Once inside the craft the abductees see varying numbers of alien beings [ . . . ] who are engaged in a rather businesslike way in preparing to administer various procedures. The inside of the craft is generally rather cold, emotionally and physically, sometimes with a musty smell, with computer-like consoles along the walls. The walls tend to be white and curved, although black floors are sometimes described.
Perhaps it’s to be expected that alien spacecraft are consistently dank, musty, and foul-smelling, what with all the anal probing, sperm sampling, and embryo extracting going on. There’s only one problem: the case histories in Mack’s own book contradict his generalizations.

Mack devotes a chapter to each of thirteen individual case histories. Only three abductees mention smell at all. At 23% of the total that’s hardly an impressive rate of person-to-person consistency. Mack clearly overstates the true frequency of smell reports.

Another problem emerges from the detailed accounts. Here’s the woman named Jerry:
In one of the three episodes in 1991, Jerry recalls being taken by taller, more human-looking, fair-skinned, blond beings to what seemed like the top of a very large building with illuminated equipment in it. She had the sense that she was at a beach or a seashore, as she heard the wind and the water breaking, felt a breeze, and smelled the sea.
A woman named Catharine relates her abduction experience while under hypnosis. On board the alien ship she is confused by the apparently illusory size of its rooms; she finds herself in a forest and realizes this doesn’t make sense.
After the regression she reflected that she ‘looked way off in the distance’ and ‘could see walls, but it didn’t make much sense in context.’ She said that the forest even smelled like one and contained pine trees. She estimated it was ‘high school gym size.’
Finally, there’s the man named Dave:
His fear mounted in the session [of hypnosis] as he told of being forced onto a table on his back in a round, gray room in which there is an ‘earthylike’ smell. Several beings gathered around ‘to do something to me.’
Soon enough Dave gets anally probed. 

In sum, we have sea breeze, pine forest, and earthy-like smells. Of these, only the last might qualify as dank or musty but it’s certainly not foul-smelling. So at best only 8% of Mack’s subjects report the supposedly consistent smell phenomenon.

Early in the book Mack says
Particular sounds, smells, images, or activities that are disturbing for no apparent reason may later prove to be connected with the abduction experience.
As I described in What the Nose Knows, PTSD can be triggered by smells. The trouble with Mack’s claim that disturbing real-world smells are linked to abduction experiences is that he provides no examples at all.

So what to make of all this? Based on a narrow, nostril-centric view of his accounts, John Mack was an inaccurate summarizer of his own data. Perhaps this was due to sloppiness. Perhaps it was deliberate misrepresentation. Or perhaps, as his own interviewees may have done, Mack absorbed and retold an idealized account of alien abduction that simply doesn’t square with the details of a particular case. In any case, the whole exercise stinks.

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