Many of us would like to think that there’s life after death. And while many religions embrace the concept of heaven and hell, others believe in reincarnation. This is a fascinating idea – and it’s a source of interest for more than just the religious amongst us. One qualified psychologist, in fact, dedicated his life to actually investigating the notion. And more to the point, he allegedly uncovered evidence to suggest that it was possible.
It’s not entirely clear where the idea of reincarnation first developed. In fact, the belief appears across multiple historic civilizations, with the ancient Greeks and the Celtic Druids referencing it. In India, it was documented in the Upanishads, a collection of philosophical writings which were started thousands of years ago.
Today, reincarnation is an important belief within several major world religions, including Sikhism and Hinduism. According to such teachings, an element of every living creature endures death and comes back in another body. This new being bears the essence of its previous existence, but isn’t typically conscious of what this had been like.
Other religions believe in slightly different forms of reincarnation. In Buddhism, for instance, the idea of “rebirth” is essential. However, this notion breaks from reincarnation, as Buddhists do not believe in a “self.” Without a self – or an enduring soul – reincarnation cannot exist. Rather, rebirth relates to the idea that the passing of one individual leads to another being brought into existence.
Monotheistic religions, meanwhile, tend to reject reincarnation, with Islam, Christianity and Judaism all teaching of one single life on Earth. But still, a significant minority of people still reportedly believe in the concept. In fact, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Forum, one in four Americans are believers. And what’s more, 24 percent of Christians in the U.S. are supposedly taken by the idea.
On top of all this, certain members of the scientific community have shown an interest in reincarnation over the years. For instance, psychiatrist Ian Stevenson spent much of his life investigating the notion. Eventually, in fact, Stevenson came to believe that it could explain specific personal traits that couldn’t otherwise be explained by genetics or environmental factors.
Born in Montreal in 1918, Stevenson was raised in Ottawa by his Scottish father and his mother, who owned numerous books on theosophy. It was through these texts, in fact, that Stevenson first developed his own preoccupation with the supernatural. Theosophy refers to an occultist religion which sprung up in the U.S. towards the end of the 19th century. It includes reincarnation among its teachings.
As a younger man, Stevenson’s scientific field of focus was biochemistry. However, he eventually took an interest in psychiatry, beginning to explore psychosomatic medicine towards the end of the 1940s. Specifically, he considered how a person might be impacted by stress, noting how one person’s reactions might differ from another’s.
During the 1950s Stevenson started to study psychoanalysis, eventually becoming the head of the University of Virginia’s psychiatry branch. Towards the end of the decade, he published a contrarian paper disagreeing with the assertion that personality is more “plastic” – in other words, malleable – in children. The paper was poorly received by his peers.
Undeterred by this early pushback, Stevenson started to seek other explanations for the development of a person’s specific traits. In doing so, he ended up considering the accounts of children who insisted that they remembered things from “previous lives.” It was this notion, of course, which would end up becoming the defining aspect of the rest of his career.
While researching the kids’ accounts, Stevenson noted a few surprising patterns. For instance, the children largely seemed to begin telling these tales at two to five years old. By around eight or nine, though, they’d slipped out of their minds altogether. Meanwhile, many of the youngsters recalled dying violently, often demonstrating vivid memories of what had supposedly happened.
These patterns were in line with Stevenson’s interest in why people react differently to the same conditions. As he saw it, genetic or environmental factors couldn’t account for every illness or phobia that a person might experience. In such circumstances, he posited, the explanation could potentially be a memory from a previous life. Nevertheless, the psychiatrist maintained a cautious outlook, acknowledging a lack of hard evidence.
To that end, Stevenson made an effort not to commit fully to his theory. Rather, he suggested simply that “reincarnation is the best – even though not the only – explanation for the stronger cases we have investigated.” But he nonetheless pursued the notion, authoring an essay titled “The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations” in 1958. For this work, he considered 44 instances of individuals claiming to have previous-life memories.
Stevenson’s essay took top prize in a contest hosted by the American Society for Psychical Research. In turn, this sparked an interest in his work from Irish medium Eileen J. Garrett. Seemingly keen for Stevenson to explore his research further, she funded a trip to India. Here, he conducted a firsthand interview with a kid that claimed to remember a previous life.
On this same trip, Stevenson encountered a further 25 instances of children with similar accounts. Then, in 1966, he published a book titled Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Shortly thereafter, Chester Carlson – the innovator behind xerography – was introduced to Stevenson by his spouse. Carlson was soon responsible for funding Stevenson’s work.
In 1968 Carlson suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving $1 million to the University of Virginia for Stevenson to carry out his research. Owing to the questionable character of this work, Carlson’s request was initially met with some resistance by the university. In the end, though, his money was welcomed, and Stevenson was subsequently made the inaugural Carlson Professor of Psychiatry.
The funding permitted Stevenson to dedicate himself to his research full-time. As a result, he dove headfirst into investigating the possibility of reincarnation. He began traveling regularly, searching for new case studies. All in all, he clocked up to 55,000 miles annually, interviewing around 3,000 kids from all over the world.
In one case study, a young child from Sri Lanka was said to have noted her mom mentioning a town which the youngster had herself never visited. The little girl then recounted to her parent that she had died in this town. According to the toddler’s detailed claims, she’d drowned in a river because of the actions of her intellectually challenged sibling.
The girl also spoke of her past-life father, a bald florist called Herath. She spoke of her home having a skylight, with dogs bound up in the backyard and a large Hindu temple being beside it. She even mentioned people breaking coconuts on the floor outside this temple. So, after hearing this, Stevenson sought to confirm the details for himself.
Remarkably, many of the child’s statements seemed to reflect reality. Apparently, there really had been a florist in this town. Moreover, he’d been the father of a two-year-old girl who’d drowned while playing with her intellectually challenged brother. There had supposedly been dogs to the back of the man’s home, and a temple had stood beside it. Outside this place of worship, people broke coconuts as a religious act.
However, not all of the details from the toddler’s story proved accurate – although they were close. The father of the tale wasn’t actually bald, for instance, but the girl’s uncle and grandpa apparently were. In all, 27 of her 30 assertions allegedly checked out. The little girl’s family had never come into contact with the family from this town. So, it’s easy to see why the story seems so convincing – at face value, at least.
However, that wasn’t enough for Stevenson. The professor worked tirelessly to explain his findings through rational means, until he was left with only one explanation. “We can strive toward objectivity by exposing as fully as possible all observations that tend to weaken our preferred interpretation of the data,” he wrote.
In Stevenson’s obituary for the Washington Post in 2007, journalist Tom Shroder backed up the professor’s assertion. “Dr. Stevenson searched for alternate ways to account for the testimony: that the child came upon the information in some normal way, that the witnesses were engaged in fraud or self-delusion, that the correlations were the result of coincidence or misunderstanding,” he wrote. “But in scores of cases, Dr. Stevenson concluded that no normal explanation sufficed.”
Stevenson’s work culminated in what Jesse Bering called his “magnum opus” in a 2013 Scientific American article. This was a 2,268-page, two-volume book, first put out in 1997, titled Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. The work focused on – as the title suggests – birthmarks, and their supposed relevancy to reincarnation.
A number of Stevenson’s subjects possessed rare bodily defects from birth, including ears which hadn’t full developed and abnormal fingers. Others had peculiar birthmarks or moles in unusual places. Reincarnation and Biology focuses on more than 200 reports of kids with past-life memories who also sported these strange physical features.
The key to Stevenson’s puzzle was that these anomalies often lined up with physical injuries sustained by the person whom the child claimed to have memories of being. Indeed, in several cases, he was able to confirm his findings by checking the autopsy record of the deceased person. In others, he consulted photos of their corpses.
For example, a kid from Turkey with an underdeveloped face claimed to recall the existence of a man killed with a shotgun. Another in Thailand had birthmarks on the front and back of his head, which apparently looked like a bullet wound. This corresponded with the boy’s memories of a man who’d been shot in the head with a rifle. And in Burma, a girl missing a leg from birth told Stevenson about how a train had hit her in a past life.
The list of unbelievable stories goes on. An Indian boy with stubs in place of where his right-hand fingers should’ve been recounted the life of another child. This other kid had apparently lost the digits from his right hand in a mechanical accident. To make this case even stranger, the Indian child’s birth defect which led to his stubbed hand is incredibly uncommon. In fact, Stevenson was unable to locate even one other published example of the condition.
Stevenson drew several conclusions from his work. For one, he stated that there’s only a short period in a child’s life – from two to five years old – in which they can access these recollections. Such claimed memories can be tested by confirming the existence of the people the child is remembering. And while past lives might not be rare, not every child has memories of them.
Indeed, in India – where reincarnation is widely believed – just one in 500 children apparently met the criteria for past-life memories. Furthermore, Stevenson concluded that these memories can’t be simply extracted by adults through direct questioning. Instead, the child needs to recall them naturally, a process often triggered through an external event.
Because most of the kids he interviewed had “died” in their past lives quite violently, Stevenson also drew links between intense emotions and past-life recollections. More specifically, he thought that harrowing deaths were most likely to inspire those memories in a child. But that wasn’t the only pattern he identified in his research.
Reincarnation, Stevenson believed, never seems to occur straight away. Each time, the gap between lives runs by a number of years. The process also tends not to happen over too wide an area, with “souls” remaining rather local. Meanwhile, kids often had phobias related to the way they’d died in their past lives. For example, those with memories of drowning tended to be afraid of water.
In addition to all this, Stevenson found suggestions of reincarnation from adults, too. In Burma, for instance, he came across the case of a woman who’d had a dream about an old sage. This sage informed the woman that a man who’d recently died was to be “entrusted” with her. The next day, the dead man’s wife visited the woman, claiming to have dreamt of the sage, too. This widow also asserted that the woman was going to bear her dead husband. Shortly after, the woman fell pregnant.
These kinds of dreams can be experienced by expectant parents or others in their lives. They’ve been referred to as “announcing dreams,” and they can apparently happen in anticipation of conception right through to childbirth. According to University of Virginia researcher Jim Tucker, announcing dreams comprise a significant number of reincarnation claims. However, critics have dismissed these dreams as mere psychological projecting.
While journals published Stevenson’s work, his findings were largely overlooked by the scientific community in the early days. But in 1977 psychiatrist Harold Lief wrote of him in the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to Lief, “Either he is making a colossal mistake, or he will be known (I have said as much to him) as ‘the Galileo of the 20th century.’”
Indeed, not everyone rejected Stevenson’s work. In fact, award-winning physicist Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf endorsed his research before her death in 2010. “The statistical probability that reincarnation does in fact occur is so overwhelming… that cumulatively the evidence is not inferior to that for most if not all branches of science,” she concluded.
Nevertheless, Stevenson had his fair share of critics. In an obituary for The New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote that his detractors saw him as “earnest” and “dogged” – but also that he was “led astray by gullibility, wishful thinking and a tendency to see science where others saw superstition.” Others proposed that he asked his subjects leading questions, and was too quick to believe their answers.
In 2003 Terence Hines wrote, “The major problem with Stevenson’s work is that the methods he used to investigate alleged cases of reincarnation are inadequate to rule out simple, imaginative storytelling on the part of the children claiming to be reincarnations of dead individuals.” Indeed, he suggested that in the professor’s more notable cases, the children involved did, in fact, know people close to the deceased person.
Stevenson’s focus on case studies in India also brought criticism to his door. Philosopher and parapsychology expert C. T. K. Chari called him “naive,” claiming his findings lacked cultural context. According to Chari, for a child in India – where the notion of reincarnation is widely accepted – remembering a previous life is comparable to having an imaginary friend.
Perhaps the most damning account of Stevenson’s research, though, is that of one of his assistants, Champe Ransom. Indeed, philosopher Paul Edwards has claimed that Ransom wrote an unpublished account detailing Stevenson’s methods. Among the accusations were a propensity for asking leading questions, filling in the subjects’ stories, and conducting all-too-brief interviews.
What’s more, Ransom is said to have alleged that there’d been prior contact between the two families involved in all but 11 of the 1,111 cases he worked on. And even then, seven of these 11 investigations had supposedly been conducted in an unsound manner. The one-time assistant to Stevenson concluded that the researcher’s evidence was completely anecdotal.
Before his death in 2007, Stevenson prepared a lock with a code that only he knew. Then, he informed his colleagues that he would attempt to give them the code after he’d died. By 2014, however, the lock remained unopened. In his wake, psychiatrist Jim Tucker has carried on Stevenson’s research into past life memories. But given Ransom’s account – and the general criticism Stevenson endured – he faces an uphill battle.