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Scott Mendelson, M.D. Headshot

Need We Fear the Minds of Space Aliens?

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We are not alone in the universe. Statistics alone demand that life has sprung up on other planets in our own and other galaxies. It is almost certain that some of those life forms have evolved into intelligent beings. Someday, we will meet them.

Over the last decade there has evolved a new science, exobiology. It is the task of exobiologists to consider the physiology and biochemistry of extraterrestrial life forms. What do they look like? Are they carbon-based? Do they breathe oxygen? How do they reproduce? What do they eat?

Those of us who simply peer into the fathomless night sky also wonder about these things. However, as a psychiatrist I have an additional list of questions. If there are other sentient beings in the universe, what do they think about? What do they do when they are disappointed? Do any go crazy? Do any have personality disorders? Do they use illicit drugs? Do they gamble? Do they tell jokes? Do they tell dirty jokes?

Sigmund Freud considered the human condition and what makes us do what we do. Fundamental to Freud's psychoanalytic theory of human behavior was the Oedipal conflict, which he believed arose in every little boy out of feeling sexual attraction to his mother while fearing reprisal from his father. Each boy subconsciously wanted to kill his father and run off with his mother, but feared his father would cut his penis off in revenge. For Freud, this conflict explained what drove the behaviors of individuals and societies. He theorized that the manner in which the boy resolved the Oedipal conflict determined if he became a contented, law-abiding member of society or a twisted, social wreck.

Whether or not one subscribes to Freud's Oedipal theory, one must wonder what psychodynamic factors drive the thoughts and feelings of sentient alien beings. The historic challenge to Freud -- that is, the question "what do women want?" -- might thus be expanded to "what do aliens want?"

Sex molds and motivates much of human behavior. However, in the context of Freud's theories, not all alien species can be assumed to have the mother and father, or the protruding sex organ, necessary to generate the desires, jealousies, and fears that lie beneath the Oedipal conflict. Some might be all female and reproduce by parthenogenesis, such as some lizard species do on Earth. Some species might reproduce through the sexual congress of more than two partners. There is also the possibility that members of some species change their sex one or more times during their lives. This is a common phenomenon among various types of reef fish on Earth. These variations of reproduction and sexual behavior would nix any classical Freudian analyses of the psychosexual development of such alien species.

Freud's theories aside, there are certain things we can safely assume about the emotional lives of intelligent aliens. They undoubtedly feel and seek pleasure. Otherwise, they would not reliably pursue the things necessary for them to feed and reproduce themselves. Conversely, they likely feel pain rather than simply recoil like amoebas, numbly and reflexively, from things that damage their tissues. It is the phenomenon of pain that allows an organism to choose to persevere through dangerous circumstances to pursue necessary, even noble ends. Progress and civilization depend upon the phenomenon. The ability to tolerate pain is also the basis of the qualities of courage and sacrifice that we humans so greatly admire. Perhaps there are statues of heroes in the town squares of villages throughout the universe.

Life, whether on Earth or on the other side of the Milky Way, can never be completely predictable or controllable. Creatures will succeed in some plans but fail in others. They may fail repeatedly. Earth animals capable of learning can learn helplessness. Indeed, "learned helplessness" is a useful laboratory paradigm for the study of major depression. Intelligent alien species may similarly experience "learned helplessness" after repeated failures in their lives. They may grow pessimistic, despondent, and depressed. Aliens from other planets probably suffer many of the same trials and tribulations we face on Earth. I suspect that many fall in love but suffer marital problems. They seek God to explain the unknown but still fear death and mourn great loss. Beyond the vagaries of unpredictable life, these aliens must possess complex brains and physiological systems that, like our own, are subject to genetic error, accident, infection, or simply wearing out under trying circumstances. All in all, it is almost certain that sentient beings from other worlds suffer what we on Earth call mental illness. Do they have psychiatrists? Do they use medications to relieve severe symptoms? I suspect they do.

The brilliant theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has not been optimistic about the possibility of meeting space aliens. He famously stated, "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet." The cruel behaviors Europeans exhibited in the conquest of the Americas and the colonization of Africa would support his statement. However, the fact that humans can exhibit brutal, cruel, and selfish behavior does not diminish the fact that we can also exhibit bravery and altruism and create works of great beauty. The human race produced Adolf Hitler and J. S. Bach, Charles Manson and Elie Wiesel, Joseph Stalin and Thomas Jefferson, Lizzie Borden and Mother Teresa. There is no reason to assume that members of extraterrestrial species are all the same. It is likely that such species produce great philosophers, scientists, and artists, as well as drug addicts, beggars, and criminals.

What a magnificent adventure it will be to meet intelligent creatures from other worlds. It would be imprudent to ignore Stephen Hawking's words of caution. However, I believe we have little to fear. In all likelihood, the aspirations, longings, griefs, joys, anxieties, fears, failures, and foibles of the aliens from space are much like our own.