For most people, reincarnation is a matter of faith. Millions of Hindus believe in it, and some polls show that over 20% of Americans who self-identify as Christians do too, despite Christian doctrine's repudiation of the idea.
What fewer people know is that reincarnation is actually being studied scientifically. The research falls into three categories:
1. Children's Claims of Past Life Memories
Some feel that persuasive evidence for reincarnation is found in the work of psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson, who recently retired from his post in the Division of Personality Studies
at the University of Virginia. Stevenson spent four decades traveling the globe, following up on thousands of cases of very young children who reported intricate memories of past lives. According to Stevenson's documentation, these children spontaneously recalled names, locations, and intimate details of people they could not possibly know.
A five-year-old Indian boy, Parmod Sharma, remembered specific details about a man named Parmanand, including street directions in Parmanand's city and the man's "special seat." The boy also visited the factory Parmanand owned and gave directions for repairing complicated machinery in it. Read his story
Stevenson's work follows the scientific method; his controlled studies rule out connections between the child's family and the "past life" family. In 1975, in a review of Stevenson's "Cases of the Reincarnation Type" in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Lester S. King concluded that Stevenson had "painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases in India, cases in which the evidence for reincarnation is difficult to understand on any other grounds....[H]e has placed on record a large amount of data that cannot be ignored."
Most of Stevenson's cases occurred in countries where a belief in reincarnation is a cultural given, such as Thailand or India. In such cultures, children might be predisposed to make up stories about past lives--stories that are then positively reinforced or conditioned by family members. Stevenson himself says his studies are merely "suggestive" of reincarnation and declines to state positively whether reincarnation is real.
An additional source of concern is the fact that few other researchers have studied children's claims. A skeptic deconstructs several of Stevenson's famous cases here.
More about Children's Past Lives:
2. Birthmark Matches
Dr. Stevenson has also pioneered the study of birthmarks as a possible window into a person's past life. His work draws connections between birthmarks and injuries from past lives. For example, one of his cases refers to a pronounced birthmark on the scalp of a Thai child; the child remembers the life of a man who was killed by a knife wound to the head. In some cases, Dr. Stevenson has collected medical records (such as X-rays) from the person believed to have reincarnated.
Sample case: An Indian boy with an unusually patterned birthmark on his chest says he remembers the life of a man, Maha Ram, who was killed with a shotgun fired at close range. An autopsy report of Maha Ram showed the principal shotgun wounds, which appear to be in a similar pattern. See photos.
Skeptics say: The location and pattern of birthmarks is simply a matter of chance.
More about Birthmark Studies
3. Past Life Regression by Adults
Some believe that memories which surface during hypnotherapy sessions offer evidence of a person's past life. While hypnotized, adults have related details about past lives as Middle Eastern warriors, European peasants, and more.
Sample case: In one famous but oft-disputed case, a Colorado woman was hypnotized and subsequently remembered the life of Bridey Murphy, a 19th-century woman from Cork, Ireland. While under hypnosis, she talked in an Irish brogue, sang Irish songs, and remembered being held as she bent to kiss the Blarney Stone. Recordings of the hypnotic sessions were made and translated into more than a dozen languages.
In a more recent case, previously skeptical psychiatrist Dr. Brian Weiss had been treating a young woman with traditional "talk therapy" for over a year. Failing to identify the source of her chronic fears, he decided to use hypnotherapy. While under hypnosis, his patient recalled her life in the year 1863 B.C.E., when she was a 25-year-old named Aronda.
Proponents say: Some psychiatrists have found the level of detail and plausibility in their patients' accounts very persuasive. In Dr. Weiss' case, his patient had visited him for eighteen months before recalling the past life. Weiss argues that if the patient had simply wanted to make the memories up, she would not have waited so long to do so.
Skeptics say: One skeptics' study states that a belief in reincarnation is the greatest predictor of whether a subject has a past-life memory while undergoing hypnotherapy, and that therefore a subject's memories are most likely self-fulfilling prophecies.Dr. Jim Tucker, who has continued Dr. Stevenson's work at the University of Virginia, says: "In general, past-life regression work has lacked the scientific rigor of Dr. Stevenson's work. A subject may describe a life in ancient times with great emotion, but since the statements cannot be verified as accurate for a particular individual who actually lived, the evidenciary value of such a case is very limited at best."
More on Past-Life Regression: