A Second Look at Hypnotic Regression Experiments

Willy Smith
Magonia 6, 1981.

In the last few years the UFO literature has been permeated by papers (1,2,3) under the signature of A. H. Lawson predicating the analogies, if not the identity, of real abductions with experimental abductions created by the author under laboratory conditions. Although some ufologists, like Druffel, and Rogo, have pointed out (4) the lack of validity of Lawson’s research for numerous and elementary reasons, his claims have considerable impact on the lay public, as some of his contributions have appeared in popular publications.
If Lawson’s opinions and arguments were to be taken at face value, all that hypnosis has accomplished from the days of Mesmer could be considered only as a mixture of bunk and fantasy, and relegated to the reject file without further ado. This is also a disservice to ufology, which, although badly needing to streamline its techniques, will gain nothing by supporting research devoid of proper scientific methodology, as seems to be the case here.I will deal with some of the issues arising from Dr Lawson’s most recent paper in Frontiers of Science (5), but my criticism will also encompass other published papers which, I admit, I have used to gather ammunition.

As stated by Dr Lawson, the great majority of entities described as associated with UFO sightings can be classed into six categories: humans, humanoids, animals, robots, bizarre beings, and ghostly creatures. What Lawson does not say is that the incidence of the reports of these six types is essentially different, and as far as the abduction cases are concerned, the predominant form is definitely humanoid, as shown by considerable research that has been done on the point. The Brazilian investigator J. U. Pereira has made a remarkable study (6) of 333 cases of crews associated with UFOs and after rejecting 103 cases from his original sample due to insufficient or dubious information, concluded that only 4.2% of the remaining cases showed nonhuman forms. More recently, David Webb made an analysis of 51 abductions (7), and his results show that the great majority of the reported entities were humanoids. Likewise, Ted Bloecher’s (9) report of 60 close encounters of the third kind for 1977 also seems to confirm that the vast majority of the observed entities were humanoid.

Considering the exuberance of human imagination, one would expect that if the source of the UFO reports was internal, the described entities would be extremely varied and numerous, perhaps never repeating themselves. Yet, although Lawson’s six categories are omnipresent in the fantastic literature, science fiction, TV programmes, comic books, etc., the UFO witnesses’ reports evidence a limited taxonomy, as one would expect to be the case if the percipients were responding to an external and very real stimulus.In Lawson’s experiment with imaginary abductions, it was found that six of his eight first subjects described entities in each of the six categories previously indicated, and this even distribution was interpreted as underlining a parallelism with real abductees. This is a non-sequitor. If anything, this result points out a fundamental difference with the real abductions, where the predominant forms are humanoids and moreover, clearly indicates that Lawson’s subjects extracted the categories from the surrounding cultural milieu, in which indeed the six categories are present with similar incidences. This is, accepting the basic premise that the subjects of the experiment were really illiterate in ufological matters.

This brings us to the crucial flaw in Lawson’s work. In non of the published articles that I have seen is there a description of the exact procedure followed to eliminate from the experimental group those subjects knowledgeable about the UFO topic. To simply say that the subjects were quizzed before and during the hypnosis to verify they possessed no significant UFO knowledge (5, p.33) is far from enough. Some addition­al details are provided in a previous paper (2), as well as in a more expanded version that appeared in UFO Phenomena. (3) The sub­jects were unpaid volunteers from local colleges and communities, recruited by an advertisement in a student paper asking for “creative, verbal types for an interesting experience (sic) in hypnosis and imagination”. The group ranged in age from 12 to 65 (3), and the selection was made by screening those who seemed informed about UFOs.
We are kept in the dark about how this fundamental step was taken in practise, ex­cept for ambiguous reference to an informal questionnaire, which creates the impression that the selection was rather perfunctory. Yet, I dare say that at this time it would be impossible to find several or even one individual in a student community in the United States who had not been exposed, consciously or subconsciously, to the UFO folk lore. With the billing given the experiment it is easy to guess the type of unpaid vol­unteers who would be attracted. Must I say any more?
I dare say that at this time it would be impossible to find even one individual
in a student community in the United States who had not been exposed, consciously or subconsciously, to the UFO folklore

Lawson recognises that “no hypnotic session can entirely avoid unconscious bias and cueing” (3, p.321), but asserts that the imaginary series was generally free from such flaws. How can this be? The experimental protocol necessitated the creation of a suitable scenario for the abduction sequ­ence, which Lawson admits was obtained by organising the questions in eight steps par­alleling the events usually found in real ablutions. To do this, the subjects only had to add details, which they did to their hearts’ content. Add on to this the well proven desire of hypnotic subjects to please the hypnotist, and the results obtained in the experiment are almost to be expected. In fact, the opposite would have been surpri­sing. Finally, but not least, is there not a bias in the care with which Lawson calls the real abductions “real”?

Next, Dr Lawson brings into play Karl Jung’s archetypes, and what he calls abduction analogues, that is, altered states of consciousness, such as near-death experien­ces, hallucinations, birth trauma, and rel­igious ecstasy. He attempts to correlate the imagery associated with all of this to the imagery reported in real and imaginary abductions, as indeed it seems that the same elementary components are present, such as, for instance, bright lights, geometric pat­terns, doors, and many others. But do they appear in the same context, as a common de­nominator in all of those phenomena? I do not think so, and the ‘reality’ seems to be that those elements, instead of contributing to classing all of the categories named above into the same pigeonhole rather tend rather make the UFO experience quite separate and distinct. As it would take too long to dismember all the supposed analogies, and moreover, as the Jungian archetypes are a little pass€, I will briefly discuss only one of them: the bright lights.

In the context of UFO encounters the lights are invariably described by the per­cipients as attached to a definite some­thing, which can be a solid object, or a vague structure dimly viewed through the haze created by the same brightness of the lights. But the light is undoubtedly real, whatever it might be, often turns on and off, and is clearly remembered in the after­math of the episode. In the other types of experience, altered states of consciousness if you please, the lights are there they are bright, but they are hard to pin down, they change position and shape, they are not att­ached to specific objects, and all that is left after the experience is the concept: bright light. In a near death experience we know quite well that theme is not a real light, so the light perceived by the subject was in his brain, with no real existence, and he will not remember, a posteriori, a proper source for it. So, where is the sim­ilarity? I see only differences, and rather important ones at that. The same can be shown for most of the patterns developed in Lawson’s encounter matrix, and it is point­less to continue, as the astute readers has by now recognised the drift of my argument.

All that Lawson has 'really' shown is that the imaginary abductees describe the experiences containing the same task ele­ments as in the birth trauma and other alt­ered states of consciousness, which is only to be expected, as the source of all of them seems to be the same and internal to the individual. On the other hand, the victim of a true abduction, although s/he might re­fer under hypnosis to the same basic ele­ments appearing in the imaginary abductions displays in addition numerous indicators that neatly set aside the real experience from the induced one. Among others we have the emotional content that is evidenced by physical syndromes difficult to fake when the experience is revived; the fact that a recollection of the UFO previous to the ex­perience exists; the physical traces that are left behind; the frequently suspected and often verified presence of a time lag, and, more important, the almost universal description of humanoids. All of these factors point to an external and objective cause like a real UFO, which on occasion we have managed to photograph, while Jung’s archetypes, of course, have never been caught by the camera.

But all is not lost! One thing we have learned from Dr Lawson’s work is that we should be very cautious in how and by whom we obtain information from abductees, real, “real”, or imaginary by using hypnotic re­gressions, as the problem is not a simple one. His efforts have helped in separating the real cases from the “real” stories and, by recognising the fundamental elements in each case, in validating the new cases that might come down the road.

It is questionable whether Dr. Lawson has done a service or a disservice to ufo­logy with his collection of assumptions and opinions, lacking in scientific rigor. From the viewpoint of the layman, unfortunately, when he states that “all of the dual and multiple witness abductions I have studied seem either incompletely investigated, or lacking in independent corroboration”, (5) he creates unwarranted doubts about the seriousness of the research done in cases like those of Betty Hill, Betty Andreasson, Hickson and Parker, and many others, plan ting the idea that all we have learned about abductions is either incorrect or worthless. That is not the case, and it is then fair to ask Dr Lawson: Promoter or Debunker?

  1. LAWSON, Alvin H. “Hypnotic Regressions of Alleged CEIII Encounters; Ambig­uities on the Road to UFOs.” Proceedings of the 1976 CUFOS Conference.
  2. LAWSON, Alvin H. “What Can We Learn from the Study of Imaginary Abductees?” 1977 MUFON UFO Symposium Proceedings.
  3. LAWSON, A. H. “Hypnosis of Imaginary UFO ‘Abductees” UFO Phenomena, 3,1, 1978/9, Bologna, Italy.
  4. DRUFFEL, A. and ROGO, D. S. The Tujunga Canyon Contacts, Prentice Hall, 1980.
  5. LAWSON, ALVIN H. “Archetypes and Abductees”, Frontiers of Science, 2,6, Sep/Oct 1980.
  6. PEREIRA, J. U. see: Phenomenes Spatiaux, No. 24, June 1980.
  7. WEBB, David. “Analysis of Humanoid/Ab­duction Reports”. Proceedings of the 1978 CUFOS Conference.
  8. BLOECHER, TED. “A Survey of CE III Re­ports for 1977″. 1978 MUFON Conference Symposium, Dayton, Ohio.