Reincarnation is Real or Not – Does it really matter?

REINCARNATION is Real or Not – Does it really matter?



Reincarnation research is a branch of parapsychology. Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, from the University of Virginia, investigated many reports of young children who claimed to remember a past life. He conducted more than 2,500 case studies over a period of 40 years and published twelve books, including Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation and Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. Stevenson retired in 2002, and psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker took over his work and wrote Life Before Life.

The scientific community considers reincarnation research to be pseudoscientific, while a few have stated that Stevenson’s work was conducted with appropriate scientific rigor.

Several researchers are examining cases of early childhood past life memories and birthmarks at the University of Virginia Division of Perceptual Studies in the School of Medicine. Two of the best known researchers at Virginia are the psychiatrists Jim B. Tucker and Ian Stevenson and between them they have published many books and dozens of research papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Ian Stevenson, a Canadian biochemist and professor of psychiatry, investigated many reports of young children who claimed to remember a past life with events that occurred during a previous life, ultimately conducting more than 2,500 case studies over the course of his lifetime and publishing twelve books.

Stevenson undertook reincarnation research throughout the world, including North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. According to Stevenson, childhood memories ostensibly related to reincarnation normally occur between the ages of three and seven years then fade shortly afterwards. 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.

Many of Stevenson’s subjects displayed skills and interests which seem to represent a continuation of skills and interests developed in the claimed previous life. Stevenson found that the vast majority of cases investigated involved people who had met some sort of violent or untimely death.

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.

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.

In interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents, Ian 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.

Some 35 percent of the subjects examined by Stevenson had birthmarks or birth defects.

Stevenson reported that in the majority of these cases “the subject’s marks or defects correspond to injuries or illness experienced by the deceased person who the subject remembers; and medical documents have confirmed this correspondence in more than forty cases“. Many of the birthmarks are not just small discolorations.

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.”

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. Stevenson’s major work in the area of birthmarks is Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (Praeger, 1997), at 2,268 pages.

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Stevenson 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“.

He concluded that “reincarnation is the best — even though not the only — explanation for the stronger cases we have investigated“.

Stevenson’s work has received a mixed response. In 1977, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease devoted most of one issue to Stevenson’s work and the journal’s editor described Stevenson as “a methodical, careful, even cautious investigator.” His methodology was criticized for providing no conclusive evidence for the existence of past lives. In a book review criticizing one of Stevensons’ books, the reviewer raised the concern that many of Stevenson’s examples were gathered in cultures with pre-existing belief in reincarnation. In order to address this type of concern, Stevenson wrote European Cases of the Reincarnation Type (2003) which presented 40 cases he examined in Europe.


Stevenson’s obituary in the New York Times stated:

“Spurned by most academic scientists, Dr. Stevenson was to his supporters a misunderstood genius, bravely pushing the boundaries of science. To his detractors, he was earnest, dogged but ultimately misguided, led astray by gullibility, wishful thinking and a tendency to see science where others saw superstition.”

Deducing from this research the conclusion that reincarnation is a proven fact has been listed as an example of pseudoscience by skeptics. Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke felt that Stevenson’s work fell short of providing proof of reincarnation (which they both viewed as unlikely).

Nevertheless, they felt that further research was warranted.

In The Demon-Haunted World (1996) in the context of discussing the limits of scepticism, Sagan wrote that claims about reincarnation may have some experimental support, however dubious and inconclusive.

Arguing that 1% of “Pseudoscience” claims may prove of merit by saying “at the time of writing, there are three claims in the ESP field that deserve serious study”, the third being “young children sometimes report details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”

Sagan further stated he picked the three examples not because he thought them valid, but as examples of contentions that might be true. Clarke observed that Stevenson had produced a number of studies that were “hard to explain” conventionally, then noted that accepting reincarnation raised the question of the means for personality transfer. Skeptic Sam Harris said of Stevenson “either he is a victim of truly elaborate fraud, or something interesting is going on.”

To date no physical process by which a personality could survive death and travel to another body has been identified, which researchers such as Stevenson and Tucker recognize as a limitation.

Stevenson’s research was the subject of Tom Shroder’s Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives (1999) and Jim B. Tucker’s Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives (2005). Psychiatrist Jim Tucker took over Stevenson’s work on his retirement in 2002.



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15.^ Tucker, 2005, p.10
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17.^ Harvey J. Irwin (2004). An introduction to parapsychology McFarland, p. 218.
18.^ Jim B. Tucker (2005). Life Before Life: A scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives, St. Martin’s Press, New York, p. 211.
19.^ Edelmann, J.; Bernet, W. (2007). “Setting Criteria for Ideal Reincarnation Research”. Journal of Consciousness Studies 14 (12): 92.
20.^ Rockley, R (2002-11-01). “Book Review: Children who remember previous lives, A question of reincarnation, Ian Stevenson”. Skeptic Report. Retrieved 2010-03-01.
21.^ K. Farcnik. European Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 57, Issue 5, November 2004, 505-506.
22.^ Kurtz P. (2006). “Two Sources of Unreason in Democratic Society: The paranormal and religion”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 775 (1 Phagocytes): 493–504. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1996.tb23166.x.
23.^ Quoting directly from The Demon-Haunted World, Random House, 1997, p. 302 | | “Perhaps one per cent of the time, someone who has an idea that smells, feels and looks indistinguishable from the usual run of pseudoscience will turn out to be right.”

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