Reincarnation: the Evidence

John Algeo – USA

[Originally printed in the Quest 89.2 (March-April 2001): 44-50; here revised.]

Reincarnation has become as American as apple pie, the Super Bowl, and the American conviction that anybody can grow up to be president. In the 1980s, several Gallup Polls established that about a quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation. In early 2001, one of the main e-commerce booksellers listed 649 books for the keyword “reincarnation,” and another listed 836. The widespread interest in reincarnation is a result — to a large extent indirectly to be sure — of its promulgation by the Theosophical Society.

A book on “alternative” or “new” religious movements in this country (Philip Jenkins, Mystics and Messiahs, Oxford University Press, 2000) pointed out the disproportionate effect our small organization has had on general thought: “Though the U.S. Census in 1926 found fewer than seven thousand declared Theosophists in the entire nation, that movement had already succeeded in making its views a familiar component of religious thought” (p. 10). “We might for instance observe the spread of ideas of reincarnation and karma, together with associated traditions like meditation and yoga. In the early twentieth century, all of these were associated with Theosophy . . . [but now] the theories have entered the religious mainstream (p. 230).


Wheel of Reincarnation

Reincarnation is not an article of faith, but a theory. It is (as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “theory”) a “principle . . . offered to explain phenomena.” For most people who believe in reincarnation, the phenomena it explains are chiefly subjective — their own experiences or observations. It is an idea that “makes sense.” However, although objective facts as evidence for reincarnation are not abundant, they do exist. A number of books provide just such evidence. Among them two by Ian Stevenson are notable: Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersectand Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects, 2 volumes (both Westport CT: Praeger, 1997).

These books are among the most important works ever published on the subject of reincarnation, and their author, Ian Stevenson (1918-2007), was the world’s leading authority on the subject. Carlton Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, he was the author of more than a dozen scholarly books and 250 articles. His special area of research was purported cases of memories by children of prior incarnations. His earlier works on the subject included The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations (1961), Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (1974), Cases of the Reincarnation Type, 4 volumes(1975–83), and Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation (1987).

Stevenson meticulously investigated at first hand the accounts of children who apparently remember an earlier incarnation. His investigations included not only the child who reported the memories, but also the actual family, locale, circumstances, and events of the remembered life. The cumulative evidence of Stevenson’s cases is so impressively massive and detailed that alternative explanations of chance or fraud (deliberate or unconscious) are improbable in the extreme. As Stevenson pointed out, unless one begins with the assumption that reincarnation is impossible, the simplest and most convincing explanation for a large number of cases is the factuality of reincarnation.

What makes the evidence reported in Stevenson’s later books so impressive is that they add something new to his earlier studies, which dealt with reported memories and his investigative confirmation of the accuracy of those memories. This something new is physical bodily evidence in the form of birthmarks or birth defects on the body of the person who remembers a previous life. Those marks or defects match attested wounds or other physical anomalies on the body of the prior personality. For example, a child might remember having lived another life including enough details about it (names, places, events) to permit investigators to identify the earlier personality. That personality died from a gunshot wound, and medical or coroner’s records establish the location of the entering and exiting wound marks made by the fatal bullet. The child who remembers the earlier life has birthmarks on places that correspond to the wounds of the prior personality. Moreover, the birthmark corresponding to the exit wound is larger than the birthmark corresponding to the entry wound, just as the wounds themselves were, that being the normal pattern for bullet wounds. That is one type of case out of many involving birthmarks and defects.

The two hefty volumes of Reincarnation and Biology present extensive reports on cases of several types: volume 1 is devoted to birthmarks and volume 2 to birth defects and other anomalies. Many of the detailed accounts include photographs. The much more concise book Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect corresponds chapter by chapter with the two-volume one but abridges and summarizes the material and is addressed to a general reader. The fuller two volumes, on the other hand, contain a good deal of technical detail and far more specific accounts of the evidence. For most readers, the shorter book will suffice, but anyone seriously interested in a scientific investigation of evidence for reincarnation should consult the longer version. And even a casual reader will find some of the detail in the two-volume set of absorbing interest.

A question that naturally arises is how the phenomenon works. Assuming that the memories of a former life are true, what causes unusual marks on a new infant body to correspond to physical abnormalities on the body of a former personality? Stevenson considers that question in chapters 2 and 3, where he points to several circumstances under which modifications in a person’s body can be made by mental rather than physical intervention. Christian stigmatics are a well-known example; persons meditating on the crucified Jesus may undergo bodily changes in which marks or open wounds appear on their foreheads, palms, feet, sides, or other places corresponding to scriptural or iconographic details of the Passion.

Although the idea runs counter to the materialist assumptions that still dominate received opinion in our culture, it is clear that our mind affects our body, just as our body affects our mind. Because that is true, if reincarnation is also true, it is easy to understand that the mind of a person who reincarnates quickly, with something of the prior mind intact, would affect the new body, especially when traumatic memories are involved. Thus birthmarks and birth defects would be the physical impressions of memories carried over from a past life.

Most of the twenty-six chapters in these later books by Stevenson are case histories of various sorts illustrating the effects on a new body of memories from old lives. But two chapters (15 and 26) are especially interesting as considering the interpretation and implications of the phenomena. A reader pressed for time can gain much by skimming the case histories (which are the evidence) and reading carefully these chapters (which are the conclusions).

Ian Stevenson’s work is impressive partly because it is not credulous. He considers the evidence critically. First, he is concerned with the authenticity of the reports. That is, do they “describe events with satisfactory closeness to the events as they really happened”? Second, are there “normal” explanations for the correspondences between birthmarks and the wounds of a deceased person? Could they be the result of fraud or of chance, perhaps augmented by fantasy or suggestion? Are there “paranormal” explanations, such as extrasensory perception, possession of a child by a discarnate personality, or maternal impressions on a fetus? Stevenson concludes: “I accept reincarnation as the best explanation for a case only after I have excluded all others — normal and paranormal. I conclude, however, that all the other interpretations may apply to a few cases, but to no more than a few. I believe, therefore, that reincarnation is the best explanation for the stronger cases, by which I mean those in which the two families were unacquainted before the case developed. It may well be the best explanation for many other cases also. . . . Each reader should study the evidence carefully — preferably in the monograph [the two-volume work] — and then reach his or her own conclusion (Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect, pp. 112-3).

In arriving at his conclusion, Stevenson does not reject the influence of genetics and environmental factors on our lives. He recognizes nature and nurture as powerful forces in molding our minds and bodies. What he proposes is that there is also a third factor, an additional powerful force, namely the effect of past lives on our present existence. The reality of that third factor has some significant implications for one’s worldview.

1. To begin with, “the most important consequence would be acknowledgment of the duality of mind and body” (p. 181). By “duality” Stevenson does not mean moral or metaphysical dualism, but rather that the mind is a reality independent of, though interactive with, the brain: “Proponents of dualism do not deny the usefulness of brains for our everyday living; but they do deny that minds are nothing but the subjective experiences of brain activity” (p. 181). His position in this matter is much like that of William James, Henri Bergson, or Theosophy. It is that mind-consciousness exists apart from its interaction with brain-consciousness, however important that interaction is during life.

2. The next implication is that there must be a “place” where the consciousness exists when it is not embodied and linked with a brain: “we are obliged to imagine a mental space that, necessarily, differs from the physical space with which we are ordinarily familiar. . . . Existence there might have features that would seem familiar to persons who have given more than average attention to their dreams . . . and to some persons who have come close to death and survived” (p. 181). The “mental space” Stevenson alludes to here will be recognized by those familiar with Theosophical teachings about the “inner” or “higher” planes of reality, which we inhabit during sleep and between lives.

3. Another implication is that some features are transmitted from one life to another: “I have found it helpful to use the word diathanatic (which means “carried through death”) as a term for subsuming the parts of a deceased person that may reach expression in a new incarnation. So what parts would be diathanatic? The cases I have described tell us that these would include: some cognitive information about events of the previous life; a variety of likes, dislikes, and other attitudes; and, in some cases, residues of physical injuries or other markings of the previous body” (pp. 181-2). Stevenson prefers not to use the traditional terminology of philosophical and religious systems in order to avoid any extraneous associations they may have. But his “diathanatic” is very close to the Buddhist concept of “skandhas,” the material, psychic, and mental residues that are carried over from one life to the next.

4. Yet another implication is that we must distinguish two “levels” of selfhood, one associated only with a single lifetime and another that stretches across lives: “We may understand better the loss through death of some or much of the previous personality by using the distinction between personality and individuality. By individuality I mean all the characteristics, whether concealed or expressed, that a person might have from a previous life, or previous lives, as well as from this one. By personality I mean the aspects of individuality that are currently expressed or capable of expression” (p. 182). In this case, the terms and the distinction are traditional in Theosophical use, going back to Henry Steel Olcott’s use of them in the early1880s for his Buddhist Catechism (as reported in his autobiographical Old Diary Leaves 1:285).

5. Next is a consideration of ways in which the reincarnating individual influences the physical body of its new incarnation. Stevenson identifies three possibilities. “First, the individual may in some sense ‘select’ its parents, motivated by strong ties of affection [or, Theosophists might add, by karmic links of whatever kind]. Second, the reincarnating individual may be able to screen and select fertilized ova or embryos. Third, and most relevant to the subject of birthmarks and defects, the individual may be able to exercise some direct control over the development of the fetus to reproduce physical attributes of the body of the previous personality. Any such direct influence implies some kind of template that imprints the embryo or fetus with ‘memories’ of the wounds, marks, or other features of the previous physical body. The template must have a vehicle that carries the memories of the physical body and also the cognitive and behavioral ones. I have suggested the word pyschophore (which means ‘mind-carrying’) for this intermediate vehicle.

. . . The existence between terrestrial lives is therefore, according to this view, a corporeal one, but the psychophore would not be made of the material substances with which we are familiar. . . . These and other cases suggest to me that the psychophore has the properties of a field or, more probably, a collection of fields that carry the physical and other memories of the previous life and more or less reproduce them by acting on the embryo or fetus of the new body. . . . Morphogenetic fields have been imagined as governing the development of the forms that organs and the whole body of which they are the parts will have. . . . 
Readers may reasonably ask whether there exists any evidence for a vehicle such as the psychophore apart from the cases of children who remember previous lives and who have birthmarks or birth defects. The answer is not much. Nevertheless certain cases of apparitions furnish some relevant evidence. . . . Some additional evidence for a vehicle that I have called a psychophore comes from the occurrence of phantom limbs in congenital amputees — persons born with parts of limbs missing” (pp. 183-4).

The tenor of the long, though abridged, quotation above will seem very familiar to anyone versed in the Theosophical tradition. For that tradition holds that in addition to our dense physical body, we have several other bodies or vehicles composed of matter of various kinds different from ordinary physical stuff: etheric or vital, astral or emotional, and manasic or mental matter. These bodies exist on the “inner” or “higher” planes or in other “fields” than the dense physical. They carry the “diathanatic” or “skandhic” qualities from one incarnation to the next, and the etheric or vital body serves in particular as a template for the growth and development of the dense physical body.

Although the cases reported in Stevenson’s volumes show a great deal of variation, some features are characteristic, and those features are of interest in suggesting why some children remember their prior incarnation and even have signs of it in their new body. In a large number of these cases, the earlier life ended prematurely by violence. The reincarnation then happened quickly and in the same culture as the preceding life. And the violent ending of the earlier life so impressed the psychophore that it in turn passed on the impression to the new body in the form of a birthmark or defect.

It is as though a life was ended before its purpose had been achieved, so the individual was drawn back into the same milieu to finish the uncompleted experience. The Theosophical tradition is that normally a long period of time (centuries or even millennia) elapse between incarnations, during which time the psychophore (or collection of bodies on the inner planes) undergoes a process by which its experience in the past life is absorbed into the permanent individuality.

When the normal process is violently interrupted, however, it would seem natural that the individual might be quickly attracted back into the same circumstances as the last life. In that case, there would not be time between lives for the psychophore to be “cleansed” of its past memories, which would therefore be incorporated into the new personality. As the individual settles into the new body and new impressions come from the senses into the new brain, however, the old memories from the past life are overwritten and die out. According to Stevenson, a child begins to talk about a past life very early, almost as soon as it learns to talk; but between the ages of 5 and 8, active memories of the past life are generally gone.

At the end of the volume, Stevenson repeats his caveat: “I do not propose reincarnation as a substitute for present or future knowledge of genetics and environmental influences. I think of it as a third factor contributing to the formation of human personality and of some physical features and abnormalities. I am, however, convinced that it deserves attention for the additional explanatory value that it has for numerous unsolved problems of psychology and medicine. . . . We may, after all, be engaged in a dual evolution — of our bodies and of our minds or souls” (pp. 186-7). The last sentence above, with which Stevenson ends the book directed to a general reader, states a purpose for reincarnation with which the Theosophical tradition is wholly in accord. The purpose of our many lives is to further the evolutionary development of our minds and souls. It is remarkable, though not unique, to see such agreement between the careful investigation of a scientist and the hundred and twenty-five year old tradition of modern Theosophy.

A popular, well-written, and perceptive account of Ian Stevenson’s work is Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives, by Tom Shroder (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999). Shroder is a Pulitzer-Prize winning editor of the Miami Herald and later of the Washington Post. While with the Miami Herald, he wrote an article on the Miami psychiatrist Brian Weiss, whose use of hypnotic retrogression to elicit putative memories of past incarnations resulted in a popular 1988 book Many Lives, Many Masters. Shroder found Weiss’s work unconvincing as evidence for reincarnation, but through it he came into contact with Ian Stevenson, and thereby wrote this book.

Shroder accompanied Stevenson on two trips, in 1997 to Lebanon and later to India, to observe Stevenson’s methods of fieldwork as he investigated cases of reported child memories of former lives. After returning to America, Shroder investigated some cases of the same sort in the South. Shroder’s account of those experiences is set forth with the skill of a master reporter. The reader of this book learns both the facts of the cases and their value as evidence as analyzed by a neutral observer. Shroder’s account also gives the reader a feeling for the frustration, the danger, and the culture shock of doing such research in third-world countries.

In addition, the reader gets an intimate view of Stevenson, the man and scientist, who has devoted his life to an investigation that his peers would prefer not to be bothered by. Their preference is due partly to his methods, which necessarily violate some widely accepted criteria of what can count as scientific research, and partly to the fact that they have already ruled out the possibility of his conclusions being acceptable. As one critic quoted by Shroder (p. 146) put it: “The problem lies less in the quality of data Stevenson adduces to prove his point, than in the body of knowledge and theory which must be abandoned or radically modified in order to accept it.” Stevenson’s response (p. 210) is a commonplace in the history of science: “There’s an old aphorism . . . ‘Science changes one funeral at a time.’ There is a powerful conservatism among the scientific establishment. You don’t persuade people with your evidence. They have to pretty much die off for new ideas to come to the fore.”

Much of the power of this highly readable book comes from the fact that the author himself, while not doubting the facts of Stevenson’s cases, since he participated in the investigation of some of them, is still undecided about their interpretation at the end of the book. What he witnessed cannot be explained away as fraud, coincidence, delusion, or any of the ordinary options. The apparent memories challenge “the body of knowledge and theory which must be abandoned or radically modified” in response to them. At the end of the book, Shroder recounts an investigation he did himself into the case of a boy in Virginia who remembered events unconnected with his present life, whose accuracy Shroder’s research confirmed. The last chapter ends with an unanswered question the boy asked about his memories: “Why is that, Mom?” It is Shroder’s question as well.

Ian Stevenson’s point is simply that if we want an explanation for certain mysteries he has studied, the simplest, most adequate, and therefore best explanation is reincarnation. Reincarnation is often understood very simplistically. And simplistic views are almost always wrong. But a wrong simplistic view does not invalidate a more sophisticated one that accounts for the facts.

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