There is plenty of beef. Science has a beef with pseudoscience (and rightly so) but unfortunately disciplined scientists struggling to understand what reincarnation might be or how it works are being pooled into unflattering categories and all too quickly dismissed as quacks. The problem, as usual, is the presence of far too many false claimants to scientific results in highly charged and controversial fields, leaving important questions with potentially far reaching implications unanswered, underfunded, abandoned or dismissed out of hand.
“…there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the 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” -Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World, 1995.
Sagan was a healthy skeptic and added in the same book: “I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true.” They “have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong.” This is the approach that is needed, without the scoffing and the quick, judgmental pronouncements.
Belief in reincarnation has spread to western cultures with ranges of 12% (East Germany) to 44% (Lithuania). In the US the figure is about 20-25%. Reincarnation studies began decades ago with some individual works spanning decades as well. Of interest to me is how observations from reincarnation research point to properties similar to those found in other areas of study such as biological fields and consciousness models. Of note are Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic fields and the collective memories of organisms that he proposes, and the Penrose/Hameroff ideas on consciousness that could be inherent in quanta and potentially preserved there. Along similar lines, Bruce Lipton’s work on cell membrane evolution proposes a concept of how reincarnation might work in this brief video.
Front and center is the decades long work of Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker, a couple of western MD’s whose considerable body of work started in the Far East and continues to this day in Western countries. Stevenson began investigating children who spontaneously describe previous lives to their family, typically as soon as they can talk. Characteristics of these cases include:
- children memories of past lives with accurate details of events and names that can be traced to deceased individuals, in many cases unknown to the family.
- children behavior, cravings and phobias that are inconsistent with family environment/culture but aligned with the deceased persons history.
- children’s unusual birthmarks that are consistent with the method of death in the remembered previous life. Particularly compelling were cases where, for example, two birthmarks corresponded to bullet entrance/exit wounds consistent with autopsies of the deceased… or highly unusual shapes to birthmarks such as that of a young girl with a prominent scar circumnavigating her head that remembers the life of a man who died during a skull surgery procedure.
Stevenson’s paper describing some of this work can be found here. Stevenson died of pneumonia in 2007, here is an interesting essay that he wrote in 2006 that recapitulates his experiences with paranormal studies. Jim Tucker continues this work at the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia and developed a set of criteria (Strength of Case Scale) based on Stevenson’s observations:
(1) whether it involves birthmarks/defects that correspond to the supposed previous life.
(2) the strength of the statements about the previous life.
(3) the relevant behaviours as they relate to the previous life.
(4) an evaluation of the possibility of a connection between the child reporting a previous life and the supposed previous life.
Jim Tucker continues to look at a database of 2500+ growing number of cases and sort parameters to see what emerges. Some of the stronger cases for example exhibit a higher degree of emotion from the children’s reports, occurring at a younger age, and showing a higher correlation of facial features to the individual of the previous life. Future interest is to collect more cases, particularly in America where cultural influences from reincarnation belief is less prevalent. He also is interested in testing psychologically more children and parents of reported cases to see if patterns emerge from that angle. An article by Jim and a video rounds out his work pretty well.
Tucker remains skeptical and open minded about conclusions, stating essentially that chance or coincidence is not an adequate explanation for some hundreds of cases of compelling past life recollections. He also states that there is no current science that adequately explains evidence pointing to consciousness persisting beyond the death of an individual and emerging in another individual. Despite the criticisms, the persistence of scientists like Stevenson, Tucker and others trying to understand consciousness via reincarnation will be a great contribution to answering questions like whether consciousness emerges from brain complexity or if it is external to it.
If you are intrigued by reincarnation cases, check out the case of Barbro Karlen. Born to a Christian Swedish family in 1954, she began having memories and talking of being Anne Frank. What is fascinating here is that Barbro’s parents were not aware of the existence of Anne Frank… the diary had not yet been translated and published in Sweden. The child leads her family on an amazing trail that defies explanation as to where she could have gained highly specific information from another country, culture, language and religion about Anne Frank’s life. Barbro’s resemblance to Anne and her phobias associated with the Holocaust are additional thought-provoking aspects of this case. Enjoy!