A brief history of ontological shock

‘Ontological shock’ is a term that has entered the world of Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAPs) in recent years.  It is used to indicate the disorientation and anxiety that people encounter when they learn of the existence of non-human intelligence (NHI).  This could include anxiety from realising that humankind may not be the ‘apex predator’ here on Earth, through to the fact that we may have been lied to by governments and authorities for decades.

The UAP community points to Lue Elizondo’s famous “sombre” speech as a compelling articulation of what this means.  Speaking on the ‘Theories of Everything’ podcast [1] with Curt Jaimungal in October 2021,  Mr Elizondo said:

“Imagine everything you’ve been taught…about who we are right, in our background in our past, what if all that turned out to be not entirely accurate in fact? The very history of our species, the meaning of what it means to be a human being and our place in this universe what if all of that is now in question? What if it turns out that a lot of the things we thought were one way aren’t? Are we prepared to have this question with ourselves? Are we prepared to recognise that we are not at the top of the food chain that we are not the alpha predator, and that we are maybe somewhere in the middle.”

The term ‘ontological shock’ is linked to the term ‘ontological security’ and can be traced back to 1960 when it was used by the psychologist R. D. Laing in his book ‘The Divided Self’ [2].  However, the original, psychological sense of the term relates to symptoms of schizophrenia and self-disorders.  The decontextualised and sociological use of the term comes later: in 1991 Anthony Giddens refers [3] to ontological security as a sense of order and continuity in the way in which an individual sees the world.  Meaning is found in experiencing positive and stable emotions, and by avoiding chaos and anxiety.  If an event occurs that is not consistent with the meaning of an individual’s life, this will threaten that individual’s ontological security.  Such an event is an ontological shock.

The Harvard Professor, the late John Mack, famous for his psychiatric work with ‘experiencers’, used the term “ontological shock” in his 1994 book, ‘Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens’ [4].  He wrote:

“Abductees also experience what I have called “ontological shock” as the reality of their encounters sinks in. They, like all of us, have been raised in the belief that we on Earth are largely alone in the universe and that it would simply not be possible for intelligent beings to enter our world without using a highly advanced form of our technology and obeying the laws of our physics. Abductees tend to persist in the hope that a psychological explanation for their experiences will be found.”

In other words, it would be less damaging to abductees’ ontological security, if the experience could be explained away as a hallucination as it would keep their world view more intact.

Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall discussed the difference between the physical and ontological threat of UFOs in their 2008 paper ‘Sovereignty and the UFO’ [5].  They argued that:

“Threats can take two forms, physical threats to life and ontological threats to identity or social being… The physical threat, of course, is that ET presence in “our” solar system would indicate a vastly superior technology to human beings’, raising the possibility of conquest and even extermination…The ontological threat is that even if the ETs were benign, their confirmed presence would create tremendous pressure for a unified human response, or world government.”

Whereas a physical and direct threat would engender a deep-rooted ‘flight or fight response’, an ontological threat is much more diffuse in that it affects the top ‘self-actualisation’ part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In 2009, Thomas Rabeyron, Renaud Evrard and David Acunzo set up a teletherapy counselling service in France specialising in anomalous experiences: the Center for Information, Research and Counselling about Exceptional Experiences (CIRCEE, Centre d’Information de Recherche et de Consultation sur les Expériences Exceptionnelles). CIRCEE is also a network that brings together French researchers and clinicians interested in anomalous experiences (psychologists, psychiatrists, philosophers, neuroscientists, etc.).  It undertakes therapies with around 90 patients per year.

In a 2022 paper [6], Professor Rabeyron reflects on the lessons from CIRCEE and notes that most clinicians are still not taught or trained to recognise anomalous experiences.  The danger is that an attitude of rejection can develop, and it is better for the therapist to welcome the unusual experiences in a way that conveys to the patient that they are understood, even when these experiences challenge the therapist’s conception of reality.  Professor Rabeyron concludes:

“Such a clinical attitude helps the person to “go through” the ontological shock associated with some of these experiences, developing the capacity to regain a state of psychological balance and the ability to give a meaning to the experience. This process can also be an opportunity for maturation and transformational processes sharing certain characteristics with post-traumatic growth.”

In the iconic June 2023 Debrief Article [7] by Lesley Kean and Ralph Blumenthal that first brought the claims of former US intelligence officer David Grusch to the world, Grusch is quoted as saying:

“I hope this revelation serves as an ontological shock sociologically and provides a generally uniting issue for nations of the world to re-assess their priorities.”

That is, Grusch appears to be suggesting that the existence of a non-human intelligence could jolt the world onto a new, more unified course.  Perhaps Grusch is echoing Ronald Reagan’s famous speech to the United Nations in 1987 when he said [8]:

“In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”

Maybe.  But such an optimistic view does seem to be looking at the world through giant rose-tinted spectacles.  More likely, should disclosure or confirmation take place, we will encounter anxiety and distress on an unprecedented societal level.  What strategies are available for something of this magnitude?  What mechanisms are available to help and support the billions who will be affected?  This is why we have set up uNHIdden as an organisation to help manage and mitigate ontological shock.  The size of the task is huge, but every journey begins with some initial steps.  We are taking our first steps now.

[1] Theories of Everything Podcast – “Luis Elizondo on Biological UFO Samples, Remote Viewing, and explaining ‘Somber’” – premiered 21st October 2021  – available at: Luis Elizondo on Biological UFO Samples, Remote Viewing, and explaining “Somber” #UFOamnesty – Theories of Everything with Curt Jaimungal | Podcast on Spotify

[2] ‘The Divided Self: a study of sanity and madness’ by R. D. Laing 240 pp. TAVISTOCK PUBLICATIONS London, 1960.

[3] ‘Modernity and Self-Identity – Self and Society in the Late Modern Age’ by Anthony Giddens 264pp. STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, Stanford, 1991.

[4] ‘Abduction – Human Encounters with Aliens’ by John E. Mack 432 pp. CHARLES SCHRIBNER New York, 1991.

[5] Wendt, A., & Duvall, R., (2008), ‘Sovereignty and the UFO’, Political Theory 36(4) pp607-633 SAGE PUBLICATIONS

[6] Rabeyron, T., (2022), ‘When the Truth Is Out There: Counseling People Who Report Anomalous Experiences’, Frontiers in Psychology

[7] Kean, L., and Blumenthal, R., ‘Intelligence Officers say US has retrieved craft of non-human origin”, The Debrief, first published 5th June 2023.

[8] Address to the 42nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York from 21st September 1997 – available at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum at www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/address-42d-session-united-nations-general-assembly-new-york-new-york