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Reincarnation research investigates reincarnation, the transmigration of consciousness from a dead body into a new one. Methods used include the review of children's reports of past lives, and the use of hypnosis to investigate past life regression. The field is controversial and it has been described as pseudoscience in the The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience[1] and also by the philosopher Paul Kurtz, of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.[2] It has also been described as fringe science by science writers such as Martin Gardner, who grouped it with research into beliefs such as astrology and alien abduction.[3][4]




Early childhood memories and birthmarks

One avenue of research pursued by Ian Stevenson consisted of comparing the reports of young children who claim to remember a past life with events that occurred during the previous life. Stevenson collected more than 2,500 reports over the course of his lifetime, publishing them in books such as Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. This book was nearly not published, as the publisher found out that an interpreter Stevenson had used had been accused of dishonesty; Stevenson claimed that the translator was dishonest, but had never deceived him.[5]. Nevertheless, he returned to India, where the interpreter had been used, and examined the cases in question again, with different interpreters. He found them to be even stronger evidence for reincarnation than he had previously thought.[6]

According to his research, the memories normally occur between the ages of three and seven years, and fade after that. Evidence of past lives included birth marks or deformities on the child which occurred at the location of fatal wounds in the deceased, unusual behaviors such as phobias for the thing that killed the deceased, and in some cases the mother having a dream in which the deceased announces their intention to reincarnate in the child.[7][8] Stevenson also compared the memories with reports of people known to the deceased, attempting to do so before any contact between the child and the deceased's family had occurred,[9] as well as searching for other explanations for the reports aside from reincarnation.[10] He believed the most important proof of reincarnation was the existence of birth marks or defects on the new children corresponding to wounds of the deceased. He conducted research on the subject throughout the world, including North and South America, Africa and Asia.[5] Chester Carlson, the founder of Xerox, donated funds to Stevenson to investigate the survival of consciousness after death, including research on reincarnation as well as near death experiences.[11] The funding was cut off by Carlson’s widow in 1973.[5]

Reception to the University of Virginia work has been mixed. In 1977, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases devoted most of one issue to Stevenson's work and the journal's editor described Stevenson as "a methodical, careful, even cautious investigator."[10] Other reviews of this work have been more critical. For example, theologians Jonathan Edelmann and William Bernet argue that the investigations of Stevenson and Tucker, while an interesting basis for further research, provide no conclusive evidence for the existence of past lives and that the work suffers from methodological problems.[12]

The philosopher Paul Edwards and the journalist Richard Rockley reviewed some of Stevenson’s published cases, and raised concerns that they were often gathered in cultures with preexisting belief in reincarnation.[8] James Randi noted that in such societies, a child from a poor family may have an incentive to claim to be the reincarnation of a person from a rich family since this can lead to the adoption of the poor child by the rich family and therefore provides an incentive for fraudulent claims of reincarnation.[13]

Hypnotic regression

Past life regression involves the use of hypnosis to recover alleged memories of previous lives, sometimes with a goal of resolving issues in past lives that are causing psychological distress in the current one.[14] The person undergoing regression is placed in a trance and asked a series of questions by the hypnotherapist about the alleged past life and identity.[15] The images created are vivid and indistinguishable from actual memories, but research suggests their sources are cryptomnesia and confabulations that combine past experiences, knowledge, imagination and suggestion or guidance from the hypnotist than recall of a previous existence. Once created, the memories are indistinguishable from memories based on events that occurred during the subject's life.[5][16] A series of experiments by Nicholas Spanos in the 1990s found that subjects who reported memories of past lives exhibited high hypnotizability, and patients demonstrated that it was the expectations conveyed by the experimenter that were that was most important in determining the characteristics reported by the patients while hypnotized. The degree to which the memories were considered credible by the experimental subjects was correlated most significantly to the subjects' beliefs about reincarnation and their expectation to remember a past life rather than hypnotizability. Spanos' research leads him to the conclusion that past lives are not memories, but actually social constructions based on patients acting "as if" they were someone else, but with significant flaws that would not be expected of actual memories. To create these memories, Spanos' subjects drew upon the expectations established by authority figures and information outside of the experiment such as television, novels, life experiences and their own desires.[17] Religious and cultural expectations can also have a strong influence on what is reported about past lives by hypnotized subjects.[18] When the reports of specific subjects famous for their apparent recall of past lifes (such as Bridey Murphy and Jane Evans) were investigated, significant errors and omissions were found in their accounts, suggesting the "memories" were actually a form of cryptomnesia drawing from forgotten memory, suggestions from the therapist and their own beliefs.[5][16][15][19][20][21][22] The greatest predictor of individuals reporting memories of past lives appears to be their beliefs about the existence in reincarnation - individuals who believe in reincarnation are more likely to report such memories, while sceptics or disbelievers are less so.[5][23]


One objection to reincarnation is that there is no evidence of a physical process by which a personality could survive death and travel to another body,[24] and researchers such as Stevenson recognize this limitation.[10] Another fundamental objection is that most people simply do not remember previous lives, although it is possible that only some, but not all, people reincarnate, or that the conditions necessary for remembering a past life are specific enough to narrow the population which can do this. For instance, the vast majority of cases investigated at the University of Virginia involved people who had met some sort of violent or untimely death.[7][9]

Critics suggest that claims of reincarnation originate from selective thinking, confabulation, and the psychological phenomena of false memories. At least the first of these three claims has not been proved broadly among those who remember past lives. The second concern, the possibility of confabulation (by the children, their parents/relatives, or the researcher), is a scenario that is difficult to disprove. Skeptics note that many of the reincarnation research studies are based on anecdotal evidence provided by the child or family, and also note that it is difficult to prove or disprove the veracity of anecdotal claim.

Beliefs about reincarnation

As well as the research described above that tries to test if reincarnation exists, another branch of psychology examines the prevalence of these beliefs in the population, which personality traits are most common in these people, as well as searching for any psychological problems that are associated with the belief in reincarnation. Where these ideas are a cause of distress, such as in the case of a young boy who was haunted by what he thought were memories of a past life, therapy has been tried that included psychotherapy and medication.[25]

One 1999 study by Walter and Waterhouse reviewed the previous data on the level of reincarnation belief and performed a set of thirty in-depth interviews in Britain among people who did not belong to a religion advocating reincarnation.[26] The authors reported that surveys have found about one fifth to one quarter of Europeans have some level of belief in reincarnation, with similar results found in the USA. In the interviewed group this group the belief in the existence of this phenomenon appeared independent of their age, or the type of religion that these people belonged to, with most being Christians. The beliefs of this group also did not appear to contain any more than usual of "new age" ideas (broadly defined) and the authors interpreted their ideas on reincarnation as "one way of tackling issues of suffering", but noted that this seemed to have little effect on their private lives.

Waterhouse also published a detailed discussion of beliefs expressed in the interviews.[27] She noted that although most people "hold their belief in reincarnation quite lightly" and were unclear on the details of their ideas, personal experiences such as past-life memories and near-death experiences had influenced most believers, although only a few had direct experience of these phenomena. Waterhouse analyzed the influences of second-hand accounts of reincarnation, writing that most of the people in the survey had heard other people's accounts of past-lives from regression hypnosis and dreams and found these fascinating, feeling that there "must be something in it" if other people were having such experiences.

In the US population, two studies have indicated that these beliefs are more common in survivors of violent psychological trauma and people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.[28][29] However, these ideas do not appear to be associated with improved outcomes from such traumas.[30] Indeed, one study noted that these ideas are "associated with more ill health and greater levels of trauma and suffering." and proposed that they are a coping mechanism to deal with past trauma.[28] However, a general review of the association between post-traumatic stress and spirituality and religion noted that this association does not show in which direction the relationship operates, postulating the existence of "negative religious coping" that could involve feelings of punishment and abandonment.[31]

Other researchers, examining the traditional belief in reincarnation in Nigeria, noted that the disease sickle cell anaemia might have contributed to this belief. The recurrence of this genetic disorder within families may have led people to conclude that the child involved is a malevolent spirit called a Ogbanje, which is chronically ill and repeatedly reincarnated within its target family.[32][33]

See also


  1. ^ Pat Linse; Shermer, Michael (2002). The Skeptic encyclopedia of pseudoscience. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. p. 204. ISBN 1-57607-653-9. 
  2. ^ Kurtz P. (2006). "Two Sources of Unreason in Democratic Society: The paranormal and religion". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 775: 493–504. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1996.tb23166.x. 
  3. ^ Michael Lemonick. "Science on the Fringe". Time.,9171,1064461,00.html. Retrieved 2009-06-24. "Here, and in the society's Journal of Scientific Exploration, such topics are standard fare, alongside research on reincarnation, UFOs and near-death experiences." 
  4. ^ Philip Anderson. "Wilder shores of nonsense". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 2009-06-24. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Carroll, RT (2009-05-18). "Ian Stevenson (1918-2007)". Skeptic’s Dictionary. Retrieved 2010-03-01. 
  6. ^ Ian Stevenson, The 1989 Flora Levy Lecture in the Humanities at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Available online: [1].
  7. ^ a b Cadoret, R (2005). "Book Forum: Ethics, Values, and Religion - European Cases of the Reincarnation Type". The American Journal of Psychiatry 162 (4): 823-4. 
  8. ^ a b Rockley, R (2002-11-01). "Book Review: Children who remember previous lives, A question of reincarnation, Ian Stevenson". Skeptic Report. Retrieved 2010-03-01. 
  9. ^ a b Tucker, Jim (2005). Life before life: a scientific investigation of children's memories of previous lives. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-32137-6. 
  10. ^ a b c Shroder, Tom. Ian Stevenson; Sought To Document Memories Of Past Lives in Children The Washington Post, 11 February 2007.
  11. ^ Roach, Mary (2005). Spook: science tackles the afterlife. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. ISBN 0-393-05962-6. 
  12. ^ Edelmann, J.; Bernet, W. (2007), "Setting Criteria for Ideal Reincarnation Research", Journal of Consciousness Studies 14 (12): 92, 
  13. ^ "An Interesting Account from India". James Randi Educational Foundation. 2006-04-01. Retrieved 2010-03-01. 
  14. ^ Plowman, J (1996). "Past life memories and present day problems". European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 3 (2): 36–39. 
  15. ^ a b Linse P; Shermer M (2002). The Skeptic encyclopedia of pseudoscience. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. pp. 206-7. ISBN 1-57607-653-9. 
  16. ^ a b Cordón LA (2005). Popular psychology: an encyclopedia. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. pp. 183–5. ISBN 0-313-32457-3. 
  17. ^ Spanos NP (1996). Multiple Identities & False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective. American Psychological Association (APA). pp. 135–40. ISBN 1-55798-340-2. 
  18. ^ Pyun, YD; Kim, YJ (2009). "Experimental Production of Past-Life Memories in Hypnosis". International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis 57 (3): 269–278. 
  19. ^ Wilson, I (1987). The After Death Experience. Sidgwick & Jackson. ISBN 0283994959. 
  20. ^ Wilson, I (1981). Mind Out of Time?: Reincarnation Claims Investigated. Gollancz. ISBN 0575029684. 
  21. ^ Edwards, P (1996). Reincarnation: A Critical Examination. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1573920053. 
  22. ^ Harris, M (2003). Investigating the Unexplained. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1591021081. 
  23. ^ Sumner, D (2003). Just Smoke and Mirrors: Religion, Fear and Superstition in Our Modern World. San Jose, [Calif.]: Writers Club Press. pp. 50. ISBN 0-595-26523-5. 
  24. ^ Beyerstein, B (1999). A Cogent Consideration of the Case for Karma (and Reincarnation). 23. Retrieved 2010-03-01. 
  25. ^ Gadit AA (February 2009). "Myth of reincarnation: a challenge for mental health profession". J Med Ethics 35 (2): 91. doi:10.1136/jme.2007.024000. PMID 19181879. 
  26. ^ Walter, T.; Waterhouse, H. (1999), "A very private belief: Reincarnation in contemporary England", Sociology of Religion 60 (2): 187–197,, retrieved 2009-06-25 
  27. ^ Waterhouse, H. (1999), "Reincarnation belief in Britain: New age orientation or mainstream option?", Journal of Contemporary Religion 14 (1): 97–109,, retrieved 2009-06-26 
  28. ^ a b Davidson JR, Connor KM, Lee LC (February 2005). "Beliefs in karma and reincarnation among survivors of violent trauma--a community survey". Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 40 (2): 120–5. doi:10.1007/s00127-005-0857-6. PMID 15685403. 
  29. ^ Lee, L.C.; Connor, K.M.; Davidson, J.R.T. (2008), "Eastern and Western Spiritual Beliefs and Violent Trauma: A US National Community Survey", Traumatology 14 (3): 68, 
  30. ^ Connor KM, Davidson JR, Lee LC (October 2003). "Spirituality, resilience, and anger in survivors of violent trauma: a community survey". J Trauma Stress 16 (5): 487–94. doi:10.1023/A:1025762512279. PMID 14584633. 
  31. ^ Schaefer, F.C.; Blazer, D.G.; Koenig, H.G. (2008), "Religious and Spiritual Factors and the Consequences of Trauma: A Review and Model of the Interrelationship", The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine 38 (4): 507–524,, retrieved 2009-06-25 
  32. ^ Onwubalili JK (August 1983). "Sickle-cell anaemia: an explanation for the ancient myth of reincarnation in Nigeria". Lancet 2 (8348): 503–5. PMID 6136656. 
  33. ^ Nzewi E (May 2001). "Malevolent ogbanje: recurrent reincarnation or sickle cell disease?". Soc Sci Med 52 (9): 1403–16. PMID 11286364. 

Simple English

Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, from the University of Virginia, interviewed young children who claimed to remember a past life. He did more than 2,500 interviews over a period of 40 years and wrote twelve books, including Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.

Stevenson found that childhood memories possibly related to reincarnation normally occurred between the ages of three and seven years. He compared the memories with reports of people known to the deceased, attempting to do so before any contact between the child and the deceased's family had occurred.[1]

Some 35 per cent of the children examined by Stevenson had birthmarks or birth defects. Stevenson believed that the existence of birth marks and deformities on children, when they occurred at the location of fatal wounds in the deceased, provided the best evidence for reincarnation.[2] However, Stevenson has never claimed that he had proved the existence of reincarnation, and cautiously referred to his cases as being "of the reincarnation type" or "suggestive of reincarnation".[3]

Stevenson retired in 2002, and psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker took over his work, and wrote Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives.

Other pages


  1. Tucker, Jim (2005). Life before life: a scientific investigation of children's memories of previous lives. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-32137-6. 
  2. Cadoret, R (2005). "Book Forum: Ethics, Values, and Religion - European Cases of the Reincarnation Type". The American Journal of Psychiatry 162 (4): 823–4. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.4.823. 
  3. Harvey J. Irwin (2004). An introduction to parapsychology McFarland, p. 218.


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