Researchers at Harvard University called on aliens from outer space to help them solve a problem that surfaces frequently in everything from therapeutic sessions to criminal trials, or even just chatting with a friend.
How do you know if someone is telling the truth when he or she recalls memories of childhood abuse, or being raped by satanic cults, or some other traumatic insult?
One clue that many of us rely on is the emotional reaction of the person telling the story. If the victim breaks out in sweat and becomes extremely emotional while recalling those memories, it's more difficult to dismiss them as false.
But all that really means is the person truly believes his or her memories are true, not that they really are, according to the researchers.
"The person really believes something happened," says Richard McNally, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Harvard, lead author of a study in the July issue of Psychological Science. "But that doesn't necessarily mean it did."
True or False?
Deciding which memories are true, and which are false, is a real tough problem for therapists and law enforcement officials, and sometimes friends. That's especially true when long-buried memories suddenly surface involving traumatic events that may have occurred years ago. McNally has struggled with the problem for years, moving from combat traumas to memories of childhood sexual abuse.
He says that even a seasoned therapist can be influenced by the emotional state of the person recalling the memories.
"A therapist is more inclined to credit the account as authentic if it's accompanied by really intense emotion," he says. "The therapist thinks 'my goodness, something must have happened.' "
Years of research have convinced him that even false memories can stimulate a lot of emotion, but how do you prove that in the lab? That's where the aliens from space come in.
If someone claims to have been sexually abused years ago, it's almost impossible to prove those memories false. What the researchers needed was a group of people who sincerely believed memories of something that clearly never happened.
So they put an ad in newspapers asking for people who had been abducted by aliens from space.
Emotions Cloud Truth
They got a lot of weird phone calls, including some from people claiming to be aliens, but in time they had their subjects, six women and four men who believed they had been abducted by alien beings. Their average age was 47. Seven women and five men who had not been abducted also participated in the study.
The "abductees," as they came to be known, were interviewed and recorded as they told brief stories about their abduction, as well as other stressful, happy and neutral tales. All of the participants were wired so the researchers could monitor for heart rate, sweat production, and facial muscle tension, three strong indicators of emotional stress.
The emotional reaction among the abductees soared while listening to the stories of stress and abductions. But it was much weaker while listening to happy or neutral narratives.
The 12 participants who had never been abducted barely responded to any of the stories.
The verdict was clear, McNally says. The emotional reaction, which can be so convincing, had nothing to do with the veracity of the memories of the folks who believed they had been abducted.