Theosophy

Scientific Research on Children’s Reincarnation Memories

 

Antti Savinainen – Finland

Theosophy Ant 2reincarnation blog

Children’s Reincarnation Memories

Reincarnation is among the most central teachings of Theosophy and Anthroposophy, which portray it as an opportunity to evolve as a human being from one life to the next. Our understanding of reincarnation has been shaped by the teachings of Eastern religions and spiritual teachers, which are thought to be based on experiential spiritual knowledge. Understandably, this is not convincing to a person outside spiritual movements.

Even so, there is empirical evidence for reincarnation independent of Eastern religions and spiritual movements. It has been suggested, for example, that past-life memories can be activated by hypnosis. But the results obtained with hypnosis seem very unreliable from the point of view of both scientific and spiritual research, so I will not investigate them further. Here I will focus on scientific research on children’s reincarnation memories and its criticisms. Finally, I will evaluate the results from the perspective of Theosophy.

Ian Stevenson’s Groundbreaking Work

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Ian Pretyman Stevenson was a Canadian-born American psychiatrist, the founder and director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. He was a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine for fifty years 

Ian Stevenson (1918‒2007) pioneered the systematic study of children’s reincarnation memories. Stevenson’s mother was a Theosophist, and her large collection of books introduced him to Theosophy and Eastern religions at a very young age (Stevenson, 2006).

Stevenson’s scientific career began in medicine and psychiatry. After receiving a scientific education, he became interested in paranormal phenomena and wondered whether there was any scientifically sustainable evidence for them. This interest led him to research children’s spontaneous reincarnation memories in the late 1950s. The work took off when Stevenson received an endowed professorship in 1964 from the University of Virginia. With a donation from physicist and inventor Chester Carlson, he established the Division of Perceptual Studies, which aimed to explore “the scientific empirical investigation of phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness, and its relation to matter, may be incomplete.” Carlson’s bequest made it possible to undertake fact-finding missions to India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and many other countries.

BOOK

Stevenson published his research in peer-reviewed scientific journals and wrote several books on his methods and results. Some critics considered his methods unscientific, but most members of the scientific community simply ignored him. He did gain some supporters within the community; although they did not necessarily find reincarnation a plausible explanation, they found Stevenson to be an accurate and honest scientist. One psychiatrist wrote, “Either he is making a colossal mistake, or he will be known . . . as the Galileo of the 20th century.” (Lief, 1977). 

Stevenson’s research institute has proved very active, carrying out scientific research on many children’s reincarnation memories and near-death experiences. Stevenson retired in 2002 and was succeeded by Jim Tucker, so the work continues. By 2005, 2,500 well-documented cases of reincarnation had been recorded. Most come from non-Western countries and communities, where belief in reincarnation is common.

An essential part of the research method is the interview. When a case comes to the attention of the investigators, they travel to the scene and conduct a thorough interview with family members, usually through an interpreter. The researchers use general, open-ended questions. Both correct and incorrect answers (which do occur) are reported. Interviewees are not paid, as this could encourage cheating. Often current and former families have already met, but there are cases where researchers have had the opportunity to interview both families separately. Such cases naturally carry more weight.

I will present two cases of the reincarnation type from the United States so that the reader can see children’s memories of their alleged past lives.

Children’s Stories of Reincarnation 

John McConnell 

John McConnell was a retired New York City police officer (Tucker, 2005). In 1992, when he was returning home from guard duty, he happened to see two men robbing a store and drew his gun. One of the men shot John dead: the bullet destroyed a vital pulmonary artery.

John was close to his family. He had told his daughter Doreen, “Whatever happens, I’m gonna take care of you.” Five years later, Doreen gave birth to a son named William. The boy had fainting spells shortly after birth. William was diagnosed with a congenital blockage of the heart artery, which had affected the formation of the right ventricle of his heart. It turned out that his birth injuries were very similar to the those caused by a bullet to William’s grandfather, John. Surgery and medication helped.

When he learned to speak, William started talking about his grandfather’s life. He also told his mother about his grandfather’s death. When he was three years old, Doreen ordered him around, threatening to whip him if he didn’t calm down. William responded: “Mummy, when you were little, and I was your father, you misbehaved many times, but I never hit you!”

Once William asked what his mother’s cat’s name was. Doreen asked, “Do you mean Maniac the cat?” William replied, “No—the name of the white cat?” Doreen remembered that the white cat’s name had been Boston. William said it was, but he called it Boss. Only John had called the cat Boss. These details convinced Doreen that William had been her father.

Doreen asked her son if he remembered anything about the time before his birth. William said he had died, gone to heaven, and talked to God. He told God he was ready to return and was born as William. William also said that a person does not go directly to heaven but through various intermediate states. He had seen animals on the other side, and he said that animals also reincarnate.

Although John had been an active member of the Catholic church, he believed in reincarnation. He had said he would take care of animals in his next life. William has said he intends to study to become a veterinarian and will work with large animals in a zoo.

McConnell’s case is typical in that the child with the reincarnation memories has birthmarks and even injuries in the same places that the person in the previous life had received when he died accidentally or violently. One third of the cases found in India have birthmarks, 18 percent of which have been verified by medical sources. These figures are pretty high, partly because birthmark cases are the most interesting for researchers. In his book, Stevenson (1997) presents 225 cases of birthmarks associated with reincarnation memories.

Another typical feature of William’s case was that he started talking about his former life as soon as he learned to speak. Often children talk about their past lives between the ages of two and four; they usually stop at ages six or seven and start living normally. The third common feature in William’s case was the violent way he had died in a previous life. Of the cases studied, 75 percent reported violent or sudden deaths. Many of these children experience a deep fear associated with a previous life death.

James Leininger 

James Leininger was born in 1998 (Tucker, 2016). When he was one year and ten months old, his father took him to the Dallas Air Museum, where there was an exhibit on World War II. James took home toy airplanes and a video of the Blue Angels, a flight demonstration squadron of the U.S. Navy. James watched the video numerous times.

The visit was the beginning of his love affair with flying. James later made another visit to the same museum. A couple of months after the first visit, James repeatedly said, “Airplane crash on fire!” He began having nightmares in which he would scream, “Little man can’t get out.” James said it was his memory of the incident where the Japanese shot down his plane so that it caught fire. He said he had flown a Corsair during the Second World War.

When he learned to draw, James drew hundreds of battle pictures with planes. He signed his drawings “James 3” and said that the number 3 did not refer to his age at the time but to the fact that he was the third James. The same signing continued even after he turned four.

When James was less than two and a half years old, he talked about flying off a ship. His parents asked him the ship’s name, and James replied, “Natoma.” His father used the Internet to find a ship called the USS Natoma Bay, a World War II aircraft carrier based in the Pacific Ocean.

The parents asked the pilot’s name, to which James replied, “I” or “James.” The parents asked him if he remembered anyone else who had been on board with the little man. James replied that Jack Larsen was there. A short time later, James’ father bought his father a book called The Battle for Iwo Jima, 1945 as a gift. James pointed to an aerial view of the island with a dormant volcano and said, “My airplane got shot down there, Daddy.”

James’ father attended the Natoma Bay crew reunion. There he learned that Jack Larsen had survived the war and was still alive. James’ father went to see Larsen. He also learned that only one American pilot had died in the battle of Iwo Jima: twenty-one-year-old James M. Huston Jr. from Pennsylvania. So James Huston Jr. was the second James (presumably the father of James Huston Jr. was James Huston Sr.), and the “little man” James Leininger was the third James, so the signing was correct.

James’ father found information about James Huston’s death. His plane had crashed at the exact spot James had pointed out in the picture. Jack Larsen was flying next to James Huston when Huston’s plane was shot down, according to the report. Since Huston was the only U.S. pilot shot down in the Iwo Jima fight, James’ parents concluded that it was the same person James had memories of.

James’ parents could get in touch by telephone with James Huston’s elderly sister, who confirmed the information about their family life given by James the little man. Researcher Jim Tucker later contacted James Huston’s sister again. She no longer remembered the details of her telephone conversation with James’ parents five years earlier (she was ninety-one years old at the time). However, she remembered that James’s mother had asked if James Huston’s father was an alcoholic, as James Leininger had told. James Huston’s sister remembered confirming that this was true. 

Interestingly, James Leininger’s father was an evangelical Christian, and reincarnation did not fit his worldview. His father tried to find errors in James’ memories that would allow him to reject the idea of reincarnation. Indeed, one mistake was found: veterans of the Natoma Bay said that the ship had had no Corsair aircraft. His father considered this the crucial error that would save his belief in a single life. But this hope was broken when James Huston’s sister sent a photograph of James Huston in front of a Corsair (he had flown a Corsair during the Second World War, although he was flying another aircraft when he died). The sister also sent a drawing of James Huston by his mother. When little James saw the drawing, he asked, “Where is the other drawing?” James Huston’s mother had also made a drawing of the sister; the drawing had been in the attic for sixty years. Apart from his sister, only the deceased James Huston knew about the existence of the drawing. 

Explanations and Criticisms 

Ordinary explanations 

Fraud would be one possible explanation (Tucker, 2005). Perhaps all 2,500 cases investigated are fraud or, in some cases, the result of a large-scale conspiracy. But Jim Tucker states that there is no apparent reason for the families to come forward with fabricated stories, since they do not benefit financially from meeting the investigators. The reason could hardly be to spread a belief in reincarnation, since, especially in Western cases, the family often does not believe in reincarnation. One could think that the researchers have perpetrated a hoax that has been going on for fifty years. This is not plausible because nonscientists have also been in contact with some families when the cases have become public. Moreover, Stevenson, for example, was accompanied in several interviews by a respected Washington Post reporter who was initially skeptical about the reincarnation hypothesis (Shroder, 1999). He was particularly interested in seeing whether Stevenson was in any way leading the people he was interviewing. He found no signs of such a pattern.

In many cases, children have been able to provide information about the life of an earlier person, which could later be confirmed. Perhaps it is just children’s imagination combined with coincidence? It could be that there are a lot of people with a certain name in a given area, which increases the probability of guessing something correctly. Even this explanation does not seem plausible, since in the cases described above, the descriptions given by the children are very specific and not common knowledge.

However, we have Google and other search engines. You can find out a lot of things with a bit of Googling. Perhaps children have got their information from the Internet or, before that, from reading magazines? Even this explanation is not convincing because, in the cases mentioned above, the information was not on the Internet. Moreover, many children cannot even read when they start to tell about their memories of their past lives, sometimes when they are less than two years old.

The researchers’ informants are parents and people from the “old” family: could it be that families are misremembering? Perhaps the narrative is generated by the child recalling a past life in another village, after which the parents excitedly look for another family and find one that seems suitable.

As the families meet, the story is enriched with details that have emerged from their discussions and their desire to prove the case of reincarnation. This could be possible, but there are also many cases where investigators have found the other family before the families have had a chance to meet. In many cases, there have also been many witnesses to the children’s communications other than immediate family members. Moreover, identifying the second family requires detailed information. There are also cases where parents have written down the child’s accounts before attempting to verify them.

Christopher French argues that children’s memories are false memories created through interaction with their parents (Nathanson, 2021). Parents may have shown their children photographs and puzzled them about who they might have been in their past lives. He says the false memories may have inadvertently been created from the parents’ information. The reader can decide how well French’s explanation fits the above-mentioned cases.

Supernatural explanations 

Perhaps the child has unknowingly acquired knowledge through a supersensory route such as ESP. She may have received the information telepathically. It has also been suggested that these children (but only these children!) have a superpsychic ability at their disposal that enables them to find out anything. The explanation is suspiciously tailored to deal with reincarnation memories alone, because these children know no more about other things than other children. Moreover, this hypothetical ability is not present in any other group. Some children also have birthmarks or birth defects that appear to be related to the way the person died in the previous life. These are not explained by ESP alone.

The supporters of conservative Christianity have one supernatural explanation: perhaps spirits possess these children. Tucker does not find this plausible, because the children have not undergone a personality change or lost the memories of their present lives. It’s the same child who lives in the present but remembers living in the past. Of course this explanation will not persuade a certain type of Christian, who will remain convinced that the unbiblical concept of reincarnation is the work of the enemy of the soul in one way or another.

Philosophical criticism 

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Steven Hales

The philosopher Steven Hales (2001) offers an interesting critique of the reincarnation hypothesis. Hales presents a fictional case of reincarnation. In it, a Japanese woman says she lived in the Bronze Age as a Celtic hunter and warrior. Based on her memories, she makes several predictions that archaeologists can verify. She says she wore a bronze necklace in her Celtic dress shaped like two fighting dragons. She remembers hiding the bracelet beside some particular megalith just before the battle in which she was killed. The archaeologists find a piece of jewelry that matches the place described. Their research also shows no soil was excavated from this site for two thousand years. Hales assumes that the hoax and all other possible naturalistic sources of knowledge have been eliminated as best they can. He also assumes that there are many similar cases. Hales notes that one can never completely rule out fraud as a logical possibility but assumes it is not the explanation in these admittedly imaginary cases.

Would it follow, then, that reincarnation is a plausible hypothesis to explain this and other similar cases? Of course not, in Hales’ view: there is an infinite number of other logical possible explanations. He suggests one example: it could be a hoax by advanced aliens secretly observing the Earth. They would be able to produce realistic memories using advanced psychosurgery without the person or anyone else noticing anything. In principle, this hypothesis could be scientifically tested: the aliens could one day land on Earth and reveal themselves and the technology they use. Hales points out that the alien hypothesis would not in any way challenge the materialist theory of consciousness (since the aliens were physical rather than supernatural beings).

In Hales’ view, it would be epistemologically more valid to consider the alien hypothesis as an explanation than reincarnation, since this would not require any changes to current scientific theories of the world and the human mind. He does not believe in the alien hypothesis but wants to argue that even an explanation as far-fetched as alien psychosurgery is superior to reincarnation. Hales also draws on the criticism by philosopher Anthony Flew that the evidence for reincarnation is not reproducible under laboratory conditions. Thus all evidence is anecdotal and can never reach a scientifically acceptable level.

For the reincarnation hypothesis to be plausible, Hales says, a scientifically valid theoretical explanation would have to be found to explain everything we know about the mind and brain. In addition, this theory must explain how the human personality could survive death and move on to a new life. Since no one has been able to put forward such a theory, it is more rational to believe in the current materialistic explanation and agree that there is something wrong with the evidence for reincarnation or that the new life is not a new life. Thus it seems that no evidence is sufficient to change the beliefs of the skeptical philosopher. 

Theosophical Perspectives 

The extensive data collected by Stevenson and others on the reincarnation of children is interesting from the point of view of spiritual teachings. Stevenson’s studies suggest that rebirth occurs quickly, usually within a few years. Theosophical and Anthroposophical sources uniformly describe a long process of reincarnation, in which a person is first freed from the limitations of their former personality in the various levels of the astral world, the soul world, and then lives most of their life after death in the heavenly world, the higher spirit world. This process can take up to a thousand years in earthly time. On the other hand, Theosophy suggests that humanity’s helpers can be reborn more quickly directly from the astral plane. In this way, the personality of the previous life is reincarnated instead of the higher self, creating a new personality based on the old karma. This requires a renunciation of heavenly happiness; only highly evolved people can do this. In addition, reincarnation could occur quite rapidly from the astral plane in case of infant deaths.

But the cases studied by Stevenson do not appear to fit these Theosophical specifications. Most of the cases involve violent or sudden death. In these cases, reincarnation memories could be explained by the fact that the person’s etheric body, which preserves the previous life memories, would not have had time to “disintegrate” into the general etheric world and could therefore remain in some respects unchanged. 

Discussion 

The research produced by Stevenson and others is impressive in its scope and very respectable in its attempt to approach reincarnation scientifically. As Stevenson points out, no “perfect” case has been found; even strong cases have weaknesses. This leaves room for legitimate doubt. However, as critiques by skeptical philosophers have shown, this is of little consequence, because even a perfect case (or however many perfect cases!) would not be enough to convince those for whom a materialistic philosophy of mind is an unshakable dogma.

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Carl Sagan

Not all skeptics are so adamant. The astronomer, author, and skeptic Carl Sagan (1997) argued that, although he does not believe in reincarnation (or what he describes as pseudoscience), the data collected by Stevenson provides at least some empirical support for the reincarnation hypothesis, suggesting that further research is warranted.

I appreciate Stevenson’s courage in dedicating much of his life to studying children’s reincarnation memories. The scientific community has not yet accepted his enterprise or his conclusions. But those who are willing to consider the reincarnation hypothesis can see him as the Galileo of the modern age. In such a case, his work was to help humanity, and I believe it will bear fruit in the future. 

Sources

Hales, Steven (2001). Evidence and the Afterlife. Philosophia 28, nos. 1‒4: 335–46.

Lief, H. (1977). Commentary on Dr. Ian Stevenson’s The Evidence of Man’s Survival After Death. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 165 (3): 171–173.

Nathanson, R. (2021). The Hard Science of Reincarnation. Vice, March 31.

Sagan, Carl (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine.

Shroder, Tom (1999). Old Souls: Compelling Evidence from Children Who Remember Past Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Stevenson, Ian (1997). Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Stevenson, Ian (2006). Half a Career with the Paranormal. Journal of Scientific Exploration 20, no. 1:13–21.

Tucker, Jim (2005). Life before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Tucker, Jim (2016). The Case of James Leininger: An American Case of the Reincarnation Type. Explore 12: 200–207.

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