Between you and me, I’m so not into the idea that karma will eventually get me and drag my poor soul back into a new body after I die. At the risk of appearing a gloomy Gus, to me one life seems just about enough.
The very idea of reincarnation, of course, has a long tradition not only in Eastern religions but also in Western philosophy. From the days of Socrates and Pythagoras, the idea of repeated lives has survived in writings of Renaissance thinkers like Giordano Bruno and finally became absorbed in New Age ideologies from the nineteenth century, where they have lingered up to the present day. Today, professional philosophers seriously consider the question of reincarnation only occasionally. In a discussion of the problem of personal identity, Derek Parfit suggested the type of empirical evidence that might convince him:
“One such piece of evidence might be this. A Japanese woman might claim to remember living a life as a Celtic hunter and warrior in the Bronze Age. On the basis of her apparent memories she might make many predictions which could be checked by archaeologists. Thus she might claim to remember having a bronze bracelet, shaped like two fighting dragons. And she might claim that she remembers burying this bracelet beside some particular megalith, just before the battle in which she was killed. Archaeologists might now find just such a bracelet buried in this spot, and at least 2,000 years old. This Japanese woman might make many other such predictions, all of which are verified” (Parfit, 1984, p. 277).
In the 1960s, the respected Canadian-born psychiatrist Ian Stevenson single-handedly created a new field of unorthodox science by trying to find indications of truth in reincarnation anecdotes. Stevenson set himself apart from most previous authors writing on phenomena suggestive of reincarnation through his scientific credentials and his rigorous methodology. A seasoned and widely respected professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, Stevenson rejected hypnotic regression as a method to uncover supposed memories of past lives, and instead investigated hundreds of spontaneous claims of reincarnation memories through interviews and cross-examinations of claimants and witnesses.
Typically, a case investigated by Stevenson would look like this: A child alarms their parents by claiming to be a different person, someone who had died. To the parents’ added horror, the child would also often demand to be reunited with their ‘real’ family. Despite disencouragement (and sometimes threats and caning) from their parents, the child continues to exhibit highly unusual and specific memories and behaviours, which are eventually used to identify an actual person who had lived and died in an often considerable distance, and whom the child and their family in all likelihood has had no conventional knowledge of. Perhaps most incredibly, the strongest cases also involve birthmarks which strikingly correspond to (usually) fatal wounds in the ‘remembered’ person, who had nearly always died of an unnatural cause such as accident, murder and suicide.
Attempting to match the details in question, in dozens of rigorously documented cases Stevenson was able to locate ‘previous personalities’ by following the claims made by these children. Most though by no means all of Stevenson’s investigations took place in India and other countries where the belief in reincarnation is widespread and claimants not as difficult to come by and to openly investigate as in the enlightened West.
An unlikely advocate of Stevenson’s research was the great sceptic regarding otherworldly things, Carl Sagan. In his popular science classic, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan observed that this new field of study into children who “sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation”, deserved “serious study” (Sagan, 1995, p. 285).
This, however, was the last we heard of Sagan on the matter. But other investigators – such as the Icelandic psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson, the Canadian anthropologist Antonia Mills, and the German-born psychologist Jürgen Keil at the University of Tasmania – began to independently research similar cases. Stevenson died in 2007 but has been succeeded at the University of Virginia by fellow psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker, who specialises in the investigation of Western cases. Another leading and scientifically hard-nosed expert of reincarnation research is the anthropologist James G. Matlock, currently a Research Fellow at the Parapsychology Foundation, whose bibliography of online resources is a useful collection for serious literature on this mind-boggling phenomenon.
Together with Stevenson’s records, well-documented cases published by these and other authors display features that dramatically exceed those suggested by Parfit as acceptable evidence for reincarnation. Phenomenologically, they comprise the following variable but quite robust features:
- talk about alleged past-life memories begins at the age of 2-5 and ceases at the age of 5-8;
- alleged memories are narrated repeatedly and with strong emphasis;
- social roles and professional occupations of the alleged previous personality (PP) are acted out in play;
- mention of the cause of (usually violent) death
- emotional conflicts due to ambiguity of family or sex membership;
- display of unlearned skills (including basic foreign language skills) as well as propositional knowledge (of names, places, persons, etc.) not plausibly acquired in the present life
- unusual behaviour and traits corresponding to the PP, such as phobias, aversions, obsessions, penchants;
- occasionally, alcohol or drug addictions that were manifest in the PP;
- sexual precocity and gender dysphoria (where the PP belonged to a different sex);
- birthmarks, differing in etiological features such as size, shape and colour from conventional birthmarks and other relevant birth anomalies, significantly corresponding to wounds involved in the death of the PP;
A more recent finding is that children relating a violent death in the PP occasionally display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which do not seem to correlate with any biographical events, but to circumstances of the allegedly remembered mode of death (cf. Haraldsson, 2003).
Neither Stevenson himself nor any of his colleagues have claimed that their material actually provides compelling proof of reincarnation. While Parfit appeared curiously unaware of this literature (as far as I’m aware, he never betrayed the slightest knowledge of it), other respected philosophers like Curt Ducasse, Robert Almeder and Stephen Braude have taken it seriously as an empirical basis for discussions of the age-old question of reincarnation.
But what about the ‘scientific community’? Isn’t the fact that you probably never heard about this kind of research sufficient evidence that there must be something fundamentally wrong with it?
After all, according to a rather widespread assumption about standards of scientific practice, anomalies irresistibly attract scientists like light attracts the proverbial moth. For in order to be a ‘real’ scientist you are expected to constantly challenge your pet theories about how the world works, always look for refuting instances that may indicate you’re wrong, and follow the evidence wherever it leads and whether you personally like it or not. The more outlandish an anomaly reported by more than one qualified and critical observer, so the myth goes, the quicker it attracts other scientists, ultimately producing a true landslide of opinion in the ‘scientific community’, which is then faithfully reflected on the pages of mainstream science journals and in textbooks.
If you did hear about the work of Stevenson and colleagues, chances are that your informants weren’t trained scientists who personally scrutinized the data with an open mind, and published their critiques in peer-reviewed science journals or discussed them at academic conferences. Instead, the public discourse – including entries on all sorts of unorthodox matters on Wikipedia – is dominated by self-appointed guardians of ‘Science and Reason’ organised worldwide in so-called Skeptics associations, represented by professional enlightenment crusaders such as James Randi and Michael Shermer in the US and Richard Dawkins and Richard Wiseman in the UK. As previously observed by my colleague Rebekah Higgitt, some of the most active and visible representatives of the Skeptics movement profess to impartially stick to evidence, but ultimately give science a bad name by relying on aggressive polemics and derision of opponents.
Stevenson himself sometimes complained that what frustrated him much more than misrepresentations of his research particularly in the popular media was the almost complete silence by the ‘scientific community’. Rather than offering informed criticisms of Stevenson’s research, most fellow scientists have in fact simply ignored it. That’s why there’s a good chance that we will never know what is behind the strange facts collected and published by Stevenson and colleagues. Stevenson is dead, other senior researchers are retired, and there is no next generation of serious, qualified researchers in sight, let alone career opportunities for young scientists who might want to give this potentially revolutionary kind of research a shot.
But why am I telling you all this? Certainly not because I want to convince you that reincarnation is a fact. Impressive as the best cases and the scientific credentials of their investigators are, personally I’m not convinced that they unambiguously prove reincarnation. But to me it seems that we are dealing with a quite robust body of anomalous data in serious need of explanation.
And given my historical research on the links between science and the ‘occult’, I cannot but note a striking consistency in the academic reception of elite unorthodox science over time. Presently, I’m working on an article reconstructing the work of William James, the ‘father’ of modern American psychology, with the spiritualist medium Leonora Piper. In one of his articles on psychical research, James problematized certain “social prejudices which scientific men themselves obey”, and briefly described his futile attempts to motivate scientific colleagues to independently test Mrs. Piper as an example:
“I invite eight of my scientific colleagues severally to come to my house at their own time, and sit with a medium for whom the evidence already published in our Proceedings [of the Society for Psychical Research] had been most noteworthy. Although it means at worst the waste of the hour for each, five of them decline the adventure. I then beg the ‘Commission’ connected with the chair of a certain learned psychologist in a neighbouring university to examine the same medium, whom Mr. Hodgson [the main investigator of the medium] and I offer at our own expense to send and leave with them. They also have to be excused from any such entanglement. I advise another psychological friend to look into this medium’s case, but he replies that it is useless, for if he should get such results as I report, he would (being suggestible) simply believe himself hallucinated. When I propose as a remedy that he should remain in the background and take notes, whilst his wife has the sitting, he explains that he can never consent to his wife’s presence at such performances. This friend of mine writes ex cathedra on the subject of psychical research, declaring (I need hardly add) that there is nothing in it; the chair of the psychologist with the Commission was founded by a spiritist, partly with a view to investigate mediums; and one of the five colleagues who declined my invitation is widely quoted as an effective critic of our evidence” (James, 1901, p. 15).
Bear with me for further details on this intriguing episode, which I hope to unpack in my article in the context of the professionalization of psychology occurring at the time of James’s mediumship research.
Now to me it seems obvious that radically empirical research into mediumship and children claiming past lives can provoke profound fears and irrational knee-jerk responses, touching as they do on deep and potentially scary existential issues – the question of life after death, the privacy of the self, the very nature and limits of knowledge, etc. As a historian, that’s why I find the study of the complex links between science and the ‘occult’ so rewarding: it cuts right through a massive thicket of basic assumptions about the supposed intrinsic rationality of scientific practice. Not least, a critical comparison of actual events and debates with their representations in retroactively whitewashed popular histories of science highlights the important function of history as a powerful means to determine and maintain the very scope and limits of permissible scientific questions.
At the same time it would be wrong to claim that unorthodox sciences investigating reported phenomena traditionally associated with metaphysical problems stand isolated in their academic neglect. You really don’t have to be a historian or sociologist of science, or familiar with the writings of Thomas Kuhn or Harry Collins, to realise that scientists as a rule have never been particularly fond of anomalies or serious challenges of scientific and medical paradigms even in less fundamental and comparatively trivial matters. Especially not, perhaps, since the sciences were transformed into professional careers during the nineteenth century.
If you’re a scientist or academic yourself, or have friends who are, you’re probably already well aware that intellectual freedom only goes as far as resources, time, career opportunities, peer and institutional support, and not least cultural biases regulated to an alarming degree by self-appointed reality sheriffs and their journalistic henchmen permit it to go.
Almeder, R. (1992). Death and Personal Survival. The Evidence for Life After Death. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Haraldsson, E. (2000). Birthmarks and claims of previous-life memories: I. The case of Purnima Ekanayake. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 16-25 [PDF link].
Haraldsson, E. (2000). Birthmarks and claims of previous-life memories: II. The case of Chatura Karunaratne. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 82-92 [PDF link]
Haraldsson, E. (2003). Children who speak of past-life experiences: Is there a psychological explanation? Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 76, 55-67 [PDF link].
Haraldsson, E., & Abu-Izzeddin, M. (2004). Three randomly selected Lebanese cases of children who claim memories of a previous life. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 68, 65-85 [PDF link].
James, W. (1901). Frederic Myers’s service to psychology. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 17, 13-23.
Keil, J., & Stevenson, I. (1999). Do cases of the reincarnation type show similar features over many years? A study of Turkish cases a generation apart. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 13, 189-198 [PDF link].
Keil, J., & Tucker, J. B. (2005). Children who claim to remember previous lives: cases with written records made before the previous personality was identified. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 19, 91-101 [PDF link].
Kelly, E. W. (Ed., 2013). Science, the Self, and Survival after Death. Selected Writings of Ian Stevenson. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Matlock, J. G. (1990). Past life memory case studies. In S. Krippner (Ed.), Advances in Parapsychological Research, Vol. 6 (pp. 187-267). Jefferson, NC: McFarland [PDF link].
Matlock, J. (1997). Review of Reincarnation: A Critical Examination by P. Edwards. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 11, 570-573 [PDF link].
Mills, A., & Tucker, J. B. (2014), Past life experiences. In E. Cardeña, S. J. Lynn, & S. Krippner (Eds.) Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence (second edition, pp. 303-332). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Mills, A., Haraldsson, E., & Keil, J. (1994). Replication studies of cases suggestive of reincarnation by three different investigators. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 88, 207-219 [PDF link].
Sagan, C. (1995). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House.
Stevenson, I. (1974). Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (Preface by Curt Ducasse). Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Stevenson, I. (1997). Reincarnation and Biology. A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (2 vols.) Westport: Praeger.
Stevenson, I. (2003). European Cases of the Reincarnation Type. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.
Tucker, J. B. (2009). Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives. London: Piatkus.
© Andreas Sommer