Alien Abductees Show Emotion Can Cloud Truth
July 21, 2004 -- 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.
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