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Reincarnation research

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Reincarnation research is a field of inquiry that records and analyzes memories that subjects claim to have of past lives. The field is roughly divided into two components. The first consists of psychiatrists and other physicians who study the putative past life memories of children, and birthmarks, who publish their results in scientific journals. The second consists of therapists who place clients in hypnotic trances, asking them to remember details of past lives.

Research on early childhood memories and birthmarksEdit

Young children sometimes claim to remember a previous life, and will talk about the events and the people they knew in that life. Typically, the child will begin talking about these memories at around three years of age, and will lose these memories at around age seven (Tucker, 2005). In some cases these memories appear to be corroborated, since the child's memories are shown to match closely with actual people and events. If scientists can interview these children before contact is made with persons familiar with the supposed previous family, then an objective comparison can be made between the statements made by the child and the actual features of the previous life (Tucker 2005).

University of VirginiaEdit

Several researchers are examining cases of early childhood past life memories and birthmarks at the University of Virginia Division of Perceptual Studies. Two of the best known researchers at Virginia are the psychiatrists Dr. Jim Tucker and Professor Ian Stevenson (Roach 2005) and between them they have published many books and dozens of research papers in peer-reviewed journals. [1]

The most detailed collections of personal reports in favor of reincarnation have been published by Professor Ian Stevenson, in books such as Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. In 1977, the Journal of Nervous and Mental diseases devoted most of one issue to Stevenson's work and the editor of the journal described Stevenson as "a methodical, careful, even cautious investigator." [2]

Stevenson has spent over 40 years devoted to the study of children who have spoken about past lives. In each case, Stevenson methodically documents the child's statements. Then he identifies the deceased person the child allegedly identifies with, and verifies the facts of the deceased person's life that match the child's memory.

In a fairly typical case, a boy in Beirut spoke of being a 25-year-old mechanic, thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. According to multiple witnesses, the boy provided the name of the driver, the exact location of the crash, the names of the mechanic's sisters and parents and cousins, and the people he went hunting with -- all of which turned out to match the life of a man who had died several years before the boy was born, and who had no apparent connection to the boy's family.[3]

Another case involved an Indian boy, Gopal, who at the age of three started talking about his previous life in the city of Mathura, 160 miles from his home in Delhi. He claimed that he had owned a medical company called Sukh Shancharak, lived in a large house with many servants, and that his brother had shot him after a quarrel. Subsequent investigations revealed that one of the owners of Sukh Shancharak had shot his brother some eight years before Gopal's birth. The deceased man was named Shaktipal Shara. Gopal was subsequently invited to Mathura by Shaktipal's family, where the young child recognised various people and places known to Shaktipal. The family was particularly impressed by Gopal's mention of Shaktipal's attempts to borrow money, and how this had led to the shooting — information that was known only to the family.[4]

In interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents, Professor 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. But in scores of cases, Stevenson concluded that no normal explanation sufficed.

Stevenson believes that his meticulous methods rule out all possible "normal" explanations for the child’s memories. However, it should be noted that a significant proportion of the University of Virginia's reported cases of reincarnation originate in Eastern societies, where dominant religions often permit the concept of reincarnation. In India - where this phenomenon is quite common - if a child from a poor family claims to be the reincarnated person from a rich family, this can lead to the child to be adopted by that family, a motive that has led to children making fraudulent reincarnation claims.[5]

As Stevenson himself said about the 2500 cases of children, who appeared to remember past lives, which he and his associates investigated:

"My conclusion so far is that reincarnation is not the only explanation for these cases, but that it is the best explanation we have for the stronger cases, by which I mean those in which a child makes a considerable number (say 20 or 30) of correct statements about another person who lives in a family that lives quite remote from his own and with which his family has had no prior contacts. When we talk about remoteness, we don't necessarily just mean physical distance. We know that two families can live only 10 kilometers apart and yet they can be very remote because they belong to different economic and social classes." [6]

Professor Stevenson has also matched birthmarks and birth defects to wounds and scars on the deceased, verified by medical records such as autopsy photographs (Stevenson, 1997). Stevenson's research into birthmarks and congenital defects has particular importance for the demonstration of reincarnation, since it furnishes objective and graphic proof of reincarnation, superior to the (often fragmentary) memories and reports of the children and adults questioned, which even if verified afterwards probably cannot be assigned the same value in scientific terms. [7] Many of the birthmarks are not just small discolourations. They are "often unusual in shape or size and are often puckered or raised rather than simply being flat. Some can be quite dramatic and unusual in appearance." (Tucker, 2005, p.10)

Dense with statistical data, Professor Stevenson's research avoided any theoretical speculation on Eastern philosophical theories about the transmigration of the soul. In fact, "soul" was a word Stevenson was always keen to avoid. He preferred the term "personality", and was always careful to state that the mountain of evidence accumulated in his research "permitted", rather than compelled, a belief in reincarnation.[8]

Research based on hypnotic regressionEdit

See Main Article: Past life regression

The second major field of research requires the direct intervention of the researcher, who places subjects in a hypnotic trance in order to elicit memories of past lives. The advantage of this procedure is that almost anyone can provide testimony about reincarnation, not just the rare children who speak of past lives. The disadvantages of the procedure are that, first, the testimony of subjects is immediately suspect, because hypnosis is known to produce false memories, and second, that the events described are invariably so long ago, so patchily described, and so poorly documented in the historical record that no objective comparision can be made between the events described and actual events. Nevertheless, because so many hypnotic subjects spontaneously remember past lives, some psychologists have become convinced of the legitmacy of the phenomenon.

Peter RamsterEdit

Peter Ramster, a psychotherapist, has used trance and hypnosis that induced a number of patients to make claims about past lives. Four of these patients, housewives who had never left Australia and who, under trance, had come up with all sorts of details, and names of people and places, were taken to Western European countries where they said they had been living in the 18th and 19th century. Prior to their arrival, in 1983, Ramster and local historians searched archives, looking for and finding the names given in Australia. Similarly, villages and hamlets mentioned under hypnosis were found on old maps. Some of these settlements no longer existed, yet some names given turned out to be correct.

The most suggestive case of all, according to Ramster, is Gwen McDonald who said she was Rose Duncan in Somerset, England, at the end of the 18th century. She described various details in England that appeared correct when they were then researched, such as the location of stepping stones. Ramster writes: "Short of some other explanation to the contrary, I have personally come to believe in the truth of both life after death and reincarnation." (Ramster, 1990). The investigation of the McDonald case was witnessed throughout by Dr. Basil Cottle of Bristol University.

Ramster's research has almost completely been ignored by the scientific community, and scientists such as Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker have some concerns about past life regression. [9]

Skeptical reactionsEdit

The most obvious 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, and researchers such as Professor Stevenson recognize this limitation. [10] Another fundamental objection is that most people simply do not remember previous lives, although it could be argued that only some, but not all, people reincarnate. Certainly the vast majority of cases investigated at the University of Virginia involved people who had met some sort of violent or untimely death (Tucker, 2005, p.214).

Skeptics suggest that claims of reincarnation originate from selective thinking, confabulation, and the psychological phenomena of false memories. Some skeptics, such as Paul Edwards, have analyzed many of these anecdotal accounts. In every case they found that further research into the individuals involved provides sufficient background to weaken the conclusion that these cases are credible examples of reincarnation. Nevertheless, philosophers like Robert Almeder, having analyzed the criticisms of Edwards and others, say that the gist of these arguments can be summarized as "we all know it can't possibly be real, so therefore it isn't real" - an argument from lack of imagination. [11]

The fallibility of memoryEdit

See also: False memory

It is common experience that human memory may be unreliable to some degree, whether by failing to remember at all or by remembering incorrectly.

In police questioning and courtroom interviews, for example, there are special rules for interviewing children because they are known to be more prone to confabulation. Experiences learned through the allegations made in such cases as Kern County child abuse scare and McMartin preschool trial could cast doubt on any claims children might make with regards to reincarnation.

However, it needs to be pointed out that researchers such as Professor Stevenson and Dr. Tucker are trained and experienced child psychiatrists. If anyone could ascertain whether a child was saying something that was fabricated or incorrect, it would surely be one of them.

Also, false memories are not an issue in reincarnation research where birthmarks and birth defects are matched to wounds and scars on the deceased, verified by medical records such as autopsy photographs. [12]


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