Lecture held on the 47th Study Day of the Society for Psychical Research on November 6th 2004 in London
Past-life Interpretations: We need all of them
Ladies and gentlemen,
As a Dutch member of the SPR I feel very honoured to have been invited as a speaker on this Study Day, because I consider its subject of great importance. In this respect I would particularly like to thank Mary Rose Barrington and our chairman Donald West
For me, reincarnation research became a realistic scholarly concept through the works of Dr. Ian Stevenson. I think his courageous work on young children who claim to remember a previous life will forever remain one of the basic sources for the field.
As my fellow lecturers of this Study Day -Roy Stemman, Guy Lyon Playfair, Archie Roy- have already explained, in a typical Stevensonian case, the child starts to talk about memories of a previous life between the ages of two and four. His or her memories often begin to fade at the age of 6 or 7. The child's statements are frequently accompanied by emotions and behavioral patterns that correspond to the personality the child claims to have been. In many cases there are birthmarks or birth defects in the child's body that seem to be located on approximately the same spot where the claimed previous body was fatally wounded. Also, these cases often involve correct statements about a past life outside the child's environment and unknown to his present family. In several cases, investigators reached the child's family before any attempt at verifying the story was made, and they made written notes of the individual statements. Cases of young children who claim to recall a previous existence, or Cases of the Reincarnation Type as they are commonly known in the scholarly literature, do not only occur among cultures that endorse a belief in rebirth. They are also found in Western countries, including Britain, and I have personally found such cases in the Netherlands through 'my' Athanasia Foundation. It is for these reasons that Cases of the Reincarnation Type are usually seen as one of the most remarkable and promising types of evidence for survival after death.
Normal and abnormal interpretations of Past-Life Cases
I share this view, but I think it remains important to exclude alternative hypotheses for individual cases. In this, I am not alone. Although Dr. Stevenson is sometimes described as being too naïve about the correct interpretation of his findings, nothing could be further from the truth. In all of his books, Stevenson stresses that individual cases differ considerably in evidential strength and that several different types of processes may be responsible for them. In fact, it has been Stevenson's meticulous discussion of possible hypotheses for these cases that convinced me of the reality of reincarnation. The same can be said about other researchers, such as Erlendur Haraldsson, Jamuna Prasad, Satwant Pasricha or Kirti Swaroop Rawat. None of them would want to claim that all cases suggestive of reincarnation are equally strong or that alternative interpretations should be dismissed out of hand. In other words, the serious debate is not about whether differentiation within the evidence for reincarnation is necessary, but whether such a differentiation is carried out in an adequate manner.
For example, Stephen Braude holds that Stevenson is naïve about the extent to which unlearned skills could be based on a child's genetic dispositions. In other words, Braude does not accuse Stevenson of totally ignoring such possibilities and he even holds that the reincarnation hypothesis is indeed the most plausible one for some of Stevenson's cases. So only uninformed or misleading skeptics will continue to spread the myth that Dr. Stevenson has not given any serious attention to alternative interpretations.
The debate about the right interpretation of individual cases is too complex to be adequately summarized here, because several hundreds of cases have already been published thus far. It would also not do any justice tothe detailed accounts of these cases and I would like to advise anyone interested in the field to study the original reports in order to evaluate the merits of each published case.
Instead, I will try to make the point that not all claimed memories of previous lives are to be explained through one single hypothesis by briefly looking at a few representative cases. There is no hypothesis that covers all the phenomena described in the literature of reincarnation investigations. As I said before, this standpoint is entirely traditional, because no serious reincarnation researcher has ever defended the view that one hypothesis could explain everything.
Among the various hypotheses formulated to explain cases of young
children who claim to recall a past life, we can broadly distinguish between
interpretations based on normal
psychological mechanisms and specifically parapsychological interpretations that
introduce elements absent in mainstream psychology. Obviously, for
most debunkers this distinction is downright ridiculous, because for them any
serious parapsychological theory is by definition a theory in terms of normal
For instance, the child does not speak about the previous life until after the age of five. The child claims he or she would have been famous or powerful in his previous life and this status is exploited for selfish gain by his present relatives. Also, there is no mention of the child having strong emotions about his previous life. So, as Archie Roy just pointed out, fraud is not a serious candidate for most of the cases studied in reincarnation research.
generations and other childish fantasies
The fantasy of reversed generations described by Ernest Jones may be related to the development of a concept of death in young children. Children of the age group typical for Cases of the Reincarnation Type usually do not realise what it means if a person dies. The idea that old age would be followed by shrinking might be one of the phases towards a concept of death as an irreversible physical state.
However, if reincarnation is real and if children may have real memories of their previous lives, the idea of reversed generations may also be related to a distorted memory of what it means to die and reincarnate. It is sometimes very difficult to draw the line between possible real memories of previous lives and possible false memories. Strange as this may seem, this fact actually adds strength to the hypothesis that in some cases we are dealing with real memories. This is because normal memory of events that occur within one and the same life time can also be distorted. Gaps in one's memory are very common and they are subconsciously filled in with processes akin to fantasy. We should not expect that this would be any different if people are sometimes really capable of remembering their previous lives.
One thing is clear already: we should not look for hard evidence for reincarnation in cases that can also be explained by a fantasy process. A few years ago, Richard Wiseman further developed this idea in an experiment conducted for a television documentary about reincarnation research. Wiseman states that if you ask children to make up a story about a previous life, they will sometimes construe a fantasy reminiscent of children's claimed memories of past lives. However, his unpublished experiments are only superficially related to spontaneous Cases of the Reincarnation Type. In real cases, children are usually not encouraged to fantasize about a previous life. Also, they typically show strong emotions and an identification in relation to their memories, as well as behavioral characteristics and in some cases birthmarks or birth defects. Moreover, the cases studied by Wiseman included much less specific information about names and locations than the stronger Stevensonian cases do. In other words, Wiseman's unpublished results fail to offer a satisfactory explanation for typical Cases of the Reincarnation Type.
On the other hand, we should not be naïve about the incidence of real fantasy cases. I have personally found several cases of fantasy in the Netherlands.
Fantasy and compensation
The most striking one concerns a retired Dutch technical engineer, who contacted me through the Parapsychological Institute in Utrecht. As an adult, he began to have a series of visions in which he saw himself as a young child involved in a tragedy on an ocean liner. By piecing together the details of his visions, he concluded that he had been aboard the Titanic with his family and had died when it sunk. At the time of his death, he was two years old. He remembered his second birthday, which was celebrated at his wealthy aunt's home in Hampstead. At the birthday party there was a teenage girl, his cousin. After the party, his aunt drove him and his mother to an underground station, where they took a connection. The next day they boarded a ship and were shown to their third-class cabin. He was the only child who spent the days with his mother; the other children spent their days in a nursery school. During the voyage, everyone was given a tour of the entire ship. There was an accident, and the ship sunk. He drowned along with his mother. Their bodies were recovered and buried in the United States. His father had gone to Canada or the United States on an earlier ship and escaped death.He never saw the name of the ship in any of his memories, but based on certain details such as the appearance of the ship, he decided that it must certainly have been the Titanic. He vehemently opposed the possibility thathis recollections concerned another maritime disaster. He did recall that at his birthday party, his cousin had asked his name. Although he couldn't see the name clearly, he recalled that it sounded like "A-ed." He interpreted this to mean "Alfred." By looking at the Titanic's passenger list included in a famous book about the disaster, he came across the name of Alfred Peacock, a young boy traveling with his mother and sister in a third-class cabin. Also, he claimed that he had personally verified Alfred Peacock's day of birth in the archives at St. Catherine's House.
Despite these negative results, the respondent insisted that he
was not lying and that he knew for certain that he had been Alfred Peacock in his
past life. He even went as far as believing that the book, which included the
day of birth of the Titanic Alfred Peacock, had been tampered with rather than
accepting the disappointing outcome. He seriously entertained the idea of a
conspiracy related to the prevention of possible insurance claims and even
claimed that I myself might be involved in this supposed conspiracy.
In other words, we have every reason to suppose that part of what is presented as memories of past lives is really based on fantasy.
In fact, I have found other similar cases in the Netherlands of subjects who claimed they had verifiable memories of a past life and whose claims were shown to be false by the documented facts. Typically, it involves a romantically inclined personality with little success in society or less success than he or she desires. The subject claims that he or she can write a whole book on the memories and is absolutely convinced that they are real. After the so-called memories are falsified, there are two possible responses. Either the subject is very disappointed and tries to discredit my research or even the historical records, or the subject simply adjusts his beliefs in that the memories might have become more distorted than he expected. In no case found thus far did the respondent accept the rather unavoidable conclusion that his memories were most probably based on a subconscious fantasy process.
Although distortion certainly plays an important role in normal memory processes and it may be expected to play a role in real past life memories as well, distortion should not be invoked as a hypothesis if the subject confidently claims that his or her memories consist of reliable episodic images.
Nevertheless, I must stress that the kind of fantasy cases we have found do not possess the same basic structure as typical Stevensonian Cases of the Reincarnation Type. They do not concern young children but adults or teenagers and of course they do not involve remarkable accurate statements or behavioral or physical correspondences with a specific deceased personality. We therefore have no good reason to extrapolate from these fantasy cases to typical cases of children who claim to recall a past life.
Let us look next at some Cases of the Reincarnation Type for which normal hypotheses clearly do not seem to be suitable. These are cases with paranormal information, behavior or physical characteristics. Please note that my choice is rather arbitrary, as there are many other similar cases in the literature.
The first case I would like to mention briefly here is that of Yusuf Köse, a Turkish boy who was born around 1897 in Odabashi about 5 km from Antakya in the Turkish province of Hatay. He was found to have a birthmark around the back of his neck and unusual birth defects of two of the fingers of his right hand. When Yusuf was about 3 years old, he began to narrate events of a previous life. He claimed to have been a person called Hallil Ridvan from the village of Deruziye about 15 kilometers from Odabashi.He described his house in that village, and mentioned his wife and a prominent wallnut tree near the house. In a quarrel with other men, who were enemies of his family, one of them had drawn a large knife and had begun to cut his neck. Hallil had raised his right hand to push away the blade of the knife and the knife had then cut the fingers of his right hand. Because of the pain, he gave up all resistance, after which his head was cut off. When Yusuf was about 6 years old, his older brothers took him to Deruziye where he recognized the house and wife of Hallil Ridvan. A few years later, when he was about 8, Yusuf also recognised the murderer and he even tried to kill him.
This case was not investigated until 1966. From that year till 1976 Dr. Stevenson and his Turkish colleague Reshat Bayer tried to reconstruct it. They interviewed Yusuf Köse who was now in his late sixties and his older brother. They also talked to a nephew of the murdered Hallil Ridvan. They established that Hallil Ridvan was killed at Bakras, a place about 22 km north of Odabashi, Yusuf's birthplace. After his murder, Hallil Ridvan';s body had been brought into Odabashi where it was noticed by Yusuf's father and other relatives. They did not know who he was and no one at the village could identify the body. Similarly, Hallil Ridvan's family did not learn about his murder at the time. They simply assumed that he had disappeared without a trace until Yusuf claimed to be Hallil reborn. The investigators also established that Yusuf's brother claimed Yusuf had had a phobia for knives and swords until the age of 16.
From an evidential point of view, this case may be regarded as weak in one respect, namely that it was not investigated until more than 60 years after it developed. Still, if we take Stevenson's and Bayer's reconstruction seriously, it can hardly be denied that the case needs to be explained by a specifically parapsychological hypothesis.
The next case I would like to mention is that of Indika Ishwara. Indika and his brother Kakshappa Ishwara are monozygotic twins and they were born in Weligama, Sri Lanka in 1972. They both started talking about a previous life when they were about 3 years old.
Kakshappa claimed he had been an insurgent shot by the police. He mentioned one or more places related to his memories, but his parents laughed at his story and that is probably the reason why he stopped talking about them.
His brother Indika Ishwara also talked about a previous life and he gave details of names and places. He claimed he had lived in Balapitiya and that his nickname had been Baby Mahattaya.He said he had attended school in Ambalangoda, about 60 kilometers by road or rail from Weligama. Balapitiya is located about 6 km north of Ambalangoda. It seemed he described a life as a young schoolboy. Indika's father happened to have a friend who was working in Ambalangoda and with the information furnished by the boy, this friend easily found a family at Balapitiya whose eldest son Dharshana died from a disease at the age of 11 in 1968. His life turned out to correspond to Indika's story in most respects.
The case was investigated by Godwin Samararatne and later also by Dr. Stevenson.
Stevenson recorded 41 statements and recognitions made by Indika most of which turned out to be correct when compared with the life of Dharshana. Of these statements, Stevenson concludes that 28 were made before any attempt at verification. Ian Stevenson could not discover any normal connections between the two families.
Furthermore, there were marked differences between the monozygotic twins, such as that Indika was religious and Kakshappa was indifferent towards religion, or that Indika liked to be spoken to respectfully, whereas Kakshappa was indifferent as to how he was addressed.
Yet another remarkable case concerns the Indian boy Jagdish Chandra, born in the 1920s in Bareilly. Jagdish was the son of a lawyer, K.K.N. Sahay and we owe it to him that his memories were recorded before any type of verification was undertaken. In 1926 while his mother was very ill, Jagdish Chandra asked his father to get his motorcar. K.K.N. Sahay asked his son where his car was. He replied that it was at the house of Babuaji at Benares and gave more details about a previous life as the son of a so called Panda, i.e. a person charged with giving assistance to pilgrims who come to bathe in the holy water of the Ganges.
Sahay tried to ascertain whether his son's statements could be verified and for this purpose he wrote letters to a regional newspaper in English called the Leader. Sahay stresses that he has no friends or relatives in Benares and adds that several important local personalities asked Jagdish Chandra questions about his previous life. K.K.N. Sahay received several inquiries regarding Jagdish Chandra's story that confirmed most of his statements as applicable to a person known as Babu Pandey living in Benares (Varanasi). His son Jai Gopal had died several years before.
After the Leader had published Sahay's letters, he received many visitors interested in the case who wanted to hear Jagdish talk about his previous life. After a while, Sahay decided to take his son to Benares. When he arrived there, the boy pointed out the way through the labyrinth of lanes up to the house of Babua. He recognised persons and places.
K.K.N. Sahay recorded the statements made by Jagdish Chandra before they had left for Benares. All in all, Jagdish Chandra made 51 statements concerning his previous life. Of these, 12 were recorded in writing before any verification was attempted. Then, 24 were recorded in writing and verified before the two families met. Ian Stevenson also made a list of 14 behavioral traits of Jagdish Chandra related to the previous life, such as an insistence on eating before other members of the family or a refusal to eat with non-Hindus. About these traits, Stevenson comments that even if we could explain the informational aspects of the case by normal means, we would still need another hypothesis to explain its behavioural features.
I think cases such as those of Yusuf Köse, Indika
Ishwara and Jagdish Chandra clearly show that normal psychological
hypotheses are insufficient to account for all varieties of cases of
children who remember past lives. It seems undeniable that some kind of
paranormal process must be involved. Some may welcome exact statistical
data on the probability that these findings are not based on chance
alone, but if in practice it were impossible to obtain such data, most
scholars would probably agree that it seems very unrealistic to simply assume that they are.
The first parapsychological hypothesis we should consider is that a child uses paranormal faculties to obtain information about an unknown deceased personality and subsequently identifies with this paranormal information. This hypothesis is often called the Super-ESP or Super-PSI hypothesis, because the amount of Extrasensory Perception surpasses the telepathy normally encountered in spontaneous cases. The Super-ESP hypothesis is often considered more parsimonious than survival or reincarnation because it uses a general concept already known from other parapsychological fields of enquiry.
If we wish to discount the Super-ESP theory for paranormal Cases of the Reincarnation Type we have to concentrate on the strongest version of this theory. Now, it is sometimes claimed by survivalists that a strong Super-ESP hypothesis based on in principle limitless and unmediated retrocognition of information about the past is an unacceptable hypothesis because it could never be falsified. Any type of information could be explained by retrocognition and no case could ever show that the Super-ESP theory is wrong.
However, in my view this is misguided. The Super-ESP theory may be unfalsifiable if one exclusively looks at paranormal information without taking into account the context in which the information shows up. The falsification of Super-ESP is not primarily linked to its explanatory power of informational aspects of cases, but to its capability to explain cases as a whole.
As I have already stressed in this lecture, paranormal
Cases of the Reincarnation Type do not only contain paranormal information, but
also paranormal behavior and physical aspects. More than anything else, a good
theory for paranormal cases should be able to explain why children identify with
the particular information. The mere fact that they would have collected this
information by ESP is simply not enough. So, I am afraid that I do not agree
with Professor Roy on this particular point.
This is acknowledged by philosopher Stephen Braude who accepts that Super-ESP may only explain a case if it is accompanied by an account of the motivation that leads to the use of the paranormal information for a process of intense identification. He also acknowledges that such motives are extremely implausible for young a child, i.e. for the average subject of Cases of the Reincarnation Type.
Let us assume that ESP is used by the child subconsciously to be able to choose a dead stranger as an identification object. This must mean hat there is some kind of process through which the child tries to find a deceased person that would correspond as much as possible to his ideal self-concept. We should only expect cases with deceased objects of identification that would be attractive to young children, primarily because of their external characteristics. The deceased personality should not suffer either from unattractive inner conflicts that are linked to his or her life, because that would be very unappealing to any young child. Now, neither of these two predicted properties are typical for paranormal cases of the reincarnation type.
Therefore, the ESP-hypothesis clearly seems insufficient for the majority of such cases from a motivational perspective. In other words, Super-ESP of any type can indeed be falsified namely by cases in which a motivated identification via ESP cannot be taken seriously. In that sense, Super-ESP is an acceptable scientific theory and it is indeed falsified by the empirical facts.
In paranormal Cases of the Reincarnation Type that involve identification with a complete stranger, it is reasonable to suppose that the information about the previous life is not collected through ESP but is actually part of the child's memory and thereby also of the child's personality itself. In my view, this is only possible if the memories in question have survived death as part of a non-physical mind or personality. They cannot be external as that would not explain the child's motivation to identify with them, but they have to be internal to the child';s mind. In general, this means that paranormal cases of the reincarnation type should be explained by a survivalist hypothesis.
Overshadowing versus reincarnation
Now, some cases may be best explained by possession or overshadowing, as discussed today by Guy Lyon Playfair and Archie Roy, rather than reincarnation, namely cases in which there are two distinct personalities involved and neither of them claims to be both the child and the previous personality. However, most cases are not like this, so that reincarnation really seems to be a better explanation for them.
The cases presented by Guy
Lyon Playfair and Archie Roy are relevant, but not representative. Possession is
an interpretation for some cases, but not for most of them. I found a case of
possession in The Netherlands of a young Hindustani girl -Maya P.- who claimed
she was possessed by the ghost of a young girl she might have known from a
previous life. The ghost claimed she could furnish information about her
previous life, but it turned out that Maya had probably collected this
information herself. I concluded that the case was probably based on multiple
personality. Interestingly enough, she was freed from the spirit by a pundit
(Hindu priest), who acted as an exorcist.
Another question is whether our reincarnation hypothesis should be personalist or impersonalist. In my view this question is not empirical but ontological. It depends on your ideas of personal identity whether you adopt a personalist or impersonalist reincarnation hypothesis. I for one believe that it is obvious that the mind is always personal in that there can be no consciousness without a conscious subject. In other words, within my personalist perspective it is simply inconceivable that there could be a conscious mind, which would not be a subject's conscious mind. This implies that in my philosophical framework impersonalism does not make sense and therefore neither does any impersonalist survival or reincarnation hypothesis.
So in my case I endorse a personalist reincarnation hypothesis because the alternative really seems incoherent to me. Then, there are some critics that claim that neuropsychological data would indicate that personal survival is inconceivable. However, all the data that I know of only suggest that the mind may to a large extent be influenced by neurological processes. Now, the brain must necessarily also be influenced by consciousness and if being influenced really amounted to being dependent, the brain would have to be just as dependent on the mind as vice versa. Therefore, I see no reason to believe in the mind's supposed ultimate dependence on the brain.
Not even data concerning split-brain experiments are threatening to substantialist personalism, because this position is compatible with functional dissociation as long as it is assumed that the processing connected to one hemisphere remains temporarily inaccessible to consciousness. Due to its inherent private character, an actual co-consciousness is impossible to prove conclusively, and one self with only temporary functional dissociation is even the best explanation as split-brain patients normally show a remarkable psychological and motoric unity that can hardly be reconciled with the somatogenic creation of a new nonphysical subject by commisurectomy.
I generally hold that substantialist Neocartesian dualism is superior to physicalism for philosophical, analytical reasons, that it is well compatible with neurological data and that it offers a rational explanation for paranormal phenomena physicalism can only ignore or deny. Apart from the strong evidence for reincarnation, remarkable results have recently been achieved by Pim van Lommel, Michael B. Sabom and others, concerning mind-brain relations during Near-Death Experiences in patients with cardiac arrest and a flattened EEG, and these results are equally incompatible with a physicalist doctrine.
So it is becoming increasingly clear which theoretical side is going to win the debate. We should confidently make our dualist or spiritualist theories about survival, reincarnation or PSI more sophisticated rather than being overwhelmed by baseless physicalist claims.
I hope that this short talk has given you a general impression of my thoughts on these important subjects.
Thank you for your attention!
I would like to thank my brother Dr. Esteban Rivas for reading and improving the first draft of this lecture.
Some other papers by Titus Rivas
- Three Cases of the Reincarnation Type in the Netherlands
- Tre case di reincarnazione EU, Italian translation
- Três Casos do Tipo Reencarnação na Holanda, Portuguese translation
- Six Cases of the Reincarnation Type in the Netherlands
- The Survivalist Interpretation of Recent Studies into the Near-Death Experience
- Consciousness during Clinical Death and after Brain Death
- Exit Epiphenomenalism (with Hein van Dongen)
- Neuropsychology and personalist dualism
- Reincarnation Research
- A Hipótese Mais Parcimoniosa, Portuguese translation of Reincarnation Research, by Vitor Moura
- Reincarnation fantasies about the Titanic
- The Life Beyond: Through the eyes of Children who Claim to Remember Previous Lives, with Dr. Kirti Swaroop Rawat
Other relevant links
- Athanasia Foundation
- The Society for Psychical Research
- The International Survivalist Society
- The Society for Scientific Exploration
- Children's Past Lives
- Division of Personality Studies, University of Virginia
- Shanti Devi's Past by Dr. Kirti Swaroop Rawat
- The Case of Swarnlata Mishra
- Dulce Swarnlata(Spanish translation of article about Swarnlata Mishra)
- Ian Stevenson's Scientific Search for Reincarnation
- The Indian Case of Titu
- Cases studied by Dr. Kirti Swaroop Rawat
- Lecture by Ian Stevenson
- Birthmarks and Birth Defects Corresponding to Wounds on Deceased Persons
- The Similarity of Reincarnation Type Cases over many years
- The Case of Nazih Al-Danaf
- Near-Death Experiences and the Afterlife
- International Association for Near-Death Studies
- Visions and memories occur while brain death
- NDE evidence for survival
- Pim van Lommel in The Lancet
- Do Any NDEs Provide Evidence for the Survival of Human Personality after Death?
- New Dualism Archive
- Victor Zammit