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John E. Mack – 2
claims. If people aren’t being contacted by aliens, then it appears that something equally weird is going on–because for a large number of psychologically healthy people these experiences are undeniably real. Exactly how they are “real” is the question. The experiences can’t be explained away as simply psychiatric illness, because psychological tests demonstrate that, as a group, the “experiencers” are as mentally healthy as the general population.
There is also sometimes physical evidence that accompanies the abductions–such as scars on the body, recovered “alien implants”, UFO photographs, radar records, and reports of people missing during the time of the supposed abduction. But the physical evidence is oddly inconsistent, and Dr. Mack has suggested that these experiences may be occurring in an alternative reality–in another realm or dimension, where objectivity and subjectivity blend together indistinguishably. Currently there is no acceptable scientific theory to explain all the evidence that has emerged over the years, and–regardless of how one interprets the evidence–anyone studying this phenomenon is sure to have their notion of reality stretched. After studying the alien encounter phenomenon for over fourteen years, Dr. Mack no longer thinks the question of how literally true these experiences are is nearly as important as how the experience effects people’s lives in the long-term.
The alien abduction phenomenon has generated a lot of media attention and popular interest, and Dr. Mack took the spotlight as the most distinguished researcher in the field. Concerned about all the publicity that Dr. Mack had been receiving, and about their prestigious name being used in connection with such a controversial area of study, the Dean of Harvard Medical School began conducting an investigation into Dr. Mack’s alien abduction research methodology in 1995. Not since Dr. Timothy Leary’s psychedelic drug experiments in the early 1960’s had there been such a storm of controversy over scientific research at Harvard. A committee was formed at Harvard to look into whether or not Dr. Mack had complied with the university’s research standards. After fourteen months of investigation, the medical school took no adverse action, and Dr, Mack continued his research.
Dr. Mack maintains two web sites, www.passporttothecosmos.com, which archives many of his writings on the abduction phenomenon, and www.centerchange.org, for the Center for Psychology & Social Change. He also continues to teach trainees in psychiatry. I interviewed John three times–first in 1996, then on January 20, 2004, and again a few weeks later on February 12. I was happy to be able to be able to speak with John at such length and really explore his ideas. I find him to be an extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking individual. He’s also very persuasive, and he has a remarkable versatility with words. His calming voice and gentle manner of speech allows me to see why he is able to gain the trust of so many traumatized people. We spoke about the common characteristics of the abduction phenomenon, the relationship between the abduction experience and altered states of consciousness, transpersonal experiences, shamanism, and the limitations of the Western materialist paradigm.
David: What originally inspired you to become a psychiatrist?
John: Back when I was around twelve years old I became curious about psychology. I wanted to know what was inside people, what made them tick, what made them feel and act the way that they did. I was interested in the inner world, and was quite introspective. It’s interesting that in many ways current psychiatry in the United States is anything but introspective, but it was my own introspection that led me into it. The interest in understanding myself came out of my own struggle to know why I felt the way I did at different times. It was particularly the dark feelings that I didn’t understand, and nobody seemed to talk about.
So psychiatry seemed to be the field that would help me understand this. My initial experience of psychology at Oberlin College was anything but introspective or clinical, as the program was highly experimental. Actually, it seemed to have very little to do with human beings, as I was interested in them, and very little to do with culture, or people’s inner lives and deeper drives. They discussed emotions in a very mechanistic and behavioristic way, which wasn’t what I knew of emotions.
When I was planning to go to medical school in the late forties early fifties, psychiatry was more psychodynamic and behavioristic. Psychology itself has become much more clinical in the decades since,