A 2001 survey of 183 college students at a regional university in North Carolina found that nearly one in four reported having a unidentified flying object (UFO)-like experience or anomalous light sighting of some kind (Dewan 2006). This finding was relatively comparable to similar studies undertaken over the past several decades.1 Additional follow-up interviews were conducted with students willing to discuss their experiences further and with other individuals reporting similar experiences from around the country. Because such tantalizing data necessitate a more holistic approach to analysis, the use of folklore theory, the experience-centered approach of David Hufford, and insights from cognitive anthropology suggest that UFO accounts may be understood more fruitfully to be based on real, unusual experiences that instigate a complex interaction between the event, existing cultural traditions, and mental schemas. Accounts of anomalous light experiences are best categorized as a particular type of personal experience narrative, the memorate. A detailed case study of interviews conducted with three members of a single family illustrates the integration of these three theoretical perspectives in the analysis of narratives, concluding that personal experiences play a major role in the development and maintenance of the UFO phenomenon.
Whereas much of the past research focused on the study of anomalous lights as a whole, my study particularly emphasizes aerial anomalies generally included within the realm of the UFO phenomenon, in part because of its exceptional growth and popularity in American culture during the past fifty years. The UFO domain has grown to include, for example, animal mutilations, crop circles, mysterious figures known commonly as “men in black” (or MIB), alien abductions, and speculations concerning varying degrees of government conspiracy. For the purposes of this article, UFOs themselves are placed within the more straightforward category of anomalous lights while concurrently understood to exist as part of a broader social movement.
Culture, Perception, and Anomalous Experience
Although the interaction of belief and experience is certainly complex, the incorporation of cognitive anthropology enriches a folkloric analysis of this issue. In doing so, the extent to which culture holds dominion over individual perceptions of experience must be addressed. A central issue involved in the study of extraordinary experiences relates to the question of how they are perceived, reported, and interpreted in a cultural sense. Cognitive anthropology maintains that recollections of past memories are not mental copies of stored originals. Rather, they are schematized, mental reconstructions of past events that are reassembled in particular circumstances for particular purposes . As Robert Schrauf has found, the cognitive analysis of autobiographical memories reveals several key elements: “[R]ecollection of the personal past is (1) essentially a reconstruction of the past, (2) prompted by a person’s affective states and ongoing beliefs and goals, and (3) constituted by the sociocultural world of the rememberer”
During an experience, a process of revision in light of the person’s beliefs and expectations occurs immediately, if not simultaneously with the experience. Once the memory is encoded, subsequent recalling acts as a reconstruction that involves the affective (emotional) states and social circumstances (e.g., campfire story) of the rememberer. Furthermore, sociocultural factors shape one’s expectations about reality, and what one remembers directly depends on one’s expectations. Although Schrauf’s study examines autobiographical memory across a long span of time and is not directly applied to single, specific memories of events, the ability to apply this approach to specific memories appears to be implied. There is also no discussion in Schrauf’s work of whether different types of experiences are recalled differently. For example, how is the recall of a particularly traumatic or exciting event fundamentally different from a more mundane, yet equally significant, memory? Linda Garro has argued that individuals tend to remember specific events that have some emotional impact on them. Despite this fact, whether one is recalling an encounter with Bigfoot in Yosemite National Park or Mr. Miller in the town grocery store, it remains understood that both memories are, in reality, social reconstructions.
The author, StunnerCold (Alias), is an Electrical engineer specializing in cutting edge semiconductor technology with an eye out for the long overdue galactic rendezvous. Checkout the nifty blog on Alien Civilizations for a thorough scientific account of the Life Beyond, without the speculative conjuncture.
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