Skepticism in
Documentaries About
Reincarnation

The skeptical arguments presented against the validity of past-life memories as presented in a number of documentaries include the following:
1) The research of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his colleagues can be explained by showing that any given set of "remembered" past-life circumstances can be matched with someone in a large enough sample, so that if a case is published in the newspaper, it is likely that somewhere, some family will fit. And that this match doesn't prove the memories were real.
2) Memories gained under hypnosis could be a result of imagination or suggestion by the hypnotist, and many of the memories reported this way don't seem to fit recorded history.
3) Past-life memories may be a result of "cryptomnesia," or things seen in books, movies, television, newspapers, etc. and that have been forgotten, but that emerge as "memories," due to the mind's ability to create what feel subjectively like memories out of "bits and pieces" of forgotten experience.
4) The emotional intensity of past-life memories doesn't necessarily mean that they are real, any more than the emotions experienced while watching a movie mean that the movie is real.
5) Since memories are created in the physical brain and reside in the brain as electro-chemical impressions, what mechanism could there possibly be for a non-physical soul to enter a new developing body and re-establish those same memories in a new brain?

I'll address each point in turn.

1) First of all, one needs to read Stevenson's findings first-hand. The matches he reports are much more extensive and specific than anything that has been duplicated by skeptical researchers (addressing both Stevenson's research and research by others on similar cases). The skeptical researcher creates a fictional set of "past-life memories" which include, say, three facts, and he finds a random match for these three general things (like, "hit on the head"). However, not just once, but time and again, Stevenson's cases involve 20 or more matches on very, very specific items. The chances of matches like these happening randomly are astronomical. But Stevenson doesn't stop there--he also records instances of "xenoglossy," or the child speaking in his past-life language, birthmarks that correspond to the previous personality's death wounds, and memories that are so specific only the past-life person would have known them. For example, one child pointed to the floor of a hut and said he had buried money there. When that spot was dug up, nothing was there--but then the past-life wife admitting to having dug it up earlier. In the Shanti Devi case, the child was allowed to speak privately with her past-life husband, and by his admission, she was able to tell him very specific information about medical complications affecting their sex-life in the past life. No debunking researcher presented in these documentaries comes close to being able to duplicate these kinds of results. And yet, if they are true scientists, they must know about them. So the question is, why do they deliberately ignore the best cases, and also ignore how many of them exist? This technique, of making a weak case for the opponent and then knocking it down, is called "straw man."

One skeptic describes a case by a researcher other than Stevenson finding the match by publicizing the case in the newspaper. In a perusal of Stevenson's book, "20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation," I was unable to find a single case in which the matching family was found in this way. More typically, the child, being punished by the parents for talking about the past life and begging to "go home," is finally taken to the village which the child names to find the family the child names after efforts to suppress his or her behavior is unsuccessful. When the child reaches the village, the usual pattern of demonstrated past-life recognition emerges. Therefore, this hypothesis of finding a random match out of a large number of people is inadequate to explain the phenomenon in these cases. Had the skeptical researchers studied Stevenson's work in depth, they would have known that this explanation was already unable to account for the best cases, and by inference probably did not explain most of them. See a relevant excerpt from 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. (Even in one of the cases presented in a documentary, which was published in the newspaper to find the matching past-life family, the memories involved such a specific set of circumstances in a very limited geographic area, that a random match within that highly restricted geographic area was very statistically unlikely. It was thus in no way comparable to the skeptic's experiment of matching facts to the newspaper archives of a large city.) (See my comments on a published skeptical treatment of Stevenson's work.)

Finally, Stevenson tried to debunk his own cases in setting up the structure of his research. It's my impression that all these possibilities were taken into account as he designed his investigations, and he himself weeded out cases he could reasonably explain any other way. The skeptics seem, to me, to be ignoring the care that Stevenson took in this regard. It's as though they set up a very flimsy and inaccurate version of Stevenson's research, and then tear down this caricature--again, the "straw man" technique. It strikes me that the documentaries which present this kind of skeptical response to strong cases are, perhaps inadvertently, not so much providing "equal time" to an opposing viewpoint, as they are presenting strong, disturbing cases, and then presenting inaccurate criticism as "damage control" to mitigate their impact. Perhaps this is what enables the producer to get the show aired in the first place, which goes to the issue of society's self-regulating denial mechanisms (a straight, unmitigated presentation can't get aired because reincarnation doesn't exist, and since it never gets aired, as far as society's concerned it doesn't exist).

2) There are a couple aspects to this question of the influence of suggestion, and hypnosis-based memories not fitting with historians' accounts. First, from investigating first-hand the hypnosis-based work of Dr. Marge Rieder, it was my conclusion that people under hypnosis are not necessarily so easily led. In fact they argue with the hypnotist (and each other, if they are hypnotized together), insisting on what they're experiencing. However, in these studies there is no real control for whether people are actually under hypnosis or not. I videotaped four hypnotic regression sessions, and in two or three of them I think the person was not really "under" at all, and (unintentionally) was playing to the camera, because they felt under pressure to "produce." For that reason I didn't use those sessions in my documentary. So one would first have to weed out these situations from consideration.

Secondly, as regards historical match-ups, many times the facts do match up (see article). So if you are being objective about it, you don't need 100% matchups to conclude that the memories are genuine. What you need is matchups a statistically significant percentage of the time. If you get that, the rest of the memories can be wildly off the mark, and you still have to admit you have a genuine phenomenon. But, that phenomenon is being clouded by some other factor, to account for the misses.

One thing that accounts for the misses is that recorded history may not be nearly as accurate as historians think it is. Of course historians may argue that their colleagues' findings aren't accurate, but they defend their own findings as being accurate! Like any field of science or investigation, what is accepted changes over time with advances and new discoveries. When past-life memories are explored for historical accuracy, as in the Bridey Murphy case, there are many instances where the historian or historical records are proven wrong. In that case, for example, "Bridey" remembered being a child, peeling paint off her metal bed frame. A historian insisted that all beds of that period in Ireland were made of wood, and that there were no metal frame beds. At that point we naturally would tend to dismiss the past-life memory as inaccurate, or as imagination, if a credentialed historian disqualifies it. However, the investigator dug further, and found a reference to a convent in which the nuns had metal frame beds. So that the historian was proven wrong. From my reading of these cases, this happens a lot more than we'd imagine, leading me to believe that even if past-life memories aren't 100% accurate, neither is our understanding of history.

As Roger Woolger points out, past-life memory is similar to present-life memory. We don't remember everything--we tend to remember what had the strongest emotion associated with it. Then we naturally tend to fill in the gaps to make a complete story. So that what are most likely to be accurate in a hypnosis-based past-life memory, or any past-life memory, are those memories which have the strongest emotional charge. Normally, this would not include things like names, dates, places, and so-on--the very things most desired by the researcher. So if the researcher presses the person for this kind of information, the person may comply, but the answer may be tinged with imagination as the person tries to please the researcher. It depends on how strictly honest the person is. An honest person under hypnosis still retains the same character trait of honesty--it is a social myth that once under hypnosis, a person becomes amoral putty in the hands of the hypnotist. And from my own personal experience under hypnosis, and from testimony from people like Capt. Robert Snow, it is quite possible for an honest subject to distinguish between different types of experiences and report them accurately, leaving the final interpretation to others. Capt. Snow's past-life memory experience was relatively rare, a full-sensory reliving of being another person in another time (actually three different people in succession), while simultaneously knowing he was in the hypnotist's office. But the first 45 minutes of his hypnotic session yielded absolutely nothing at all except that his rear-end hurt in the chair, and he reported this honestly, also, until he began having his memories. Capt. Snow, as the head of homicide investigations of a major US city, has very high credibility as a witness, and thus this case should be given more weight (Capt. Snow verified 26 of 28 historically provable points from the audiotape of his session, relating to memories of a past life as painter James Carroll Beckwith). Most subjects don't experience such vivid, continuous detail of past-life memories, but the same principles of honest reporting by the subject apply. Thus, I would contend that the more honest the subject, and the more determined they are to rigorously report only what they are actually experiencing and not embellish for any reason, the more reliable the information gained under hypnosis.

There's another fascinating aspect of some of the skeptics' research. Some of them appear to be accessing real past-life memories in their attempt to prove that it's imagination--but they persist in interpreting it as imagination. They don't fairly consider that their results may be proving the opposite viewpoint. This is simply poor science, because in good science, you try first to disprove your own hypnothesis, and remain open to that possibility (as Dr. Stevenson does). Such was Capt. Snow, who, using his professional detective methods, tried to disprove the 28 points in the regression he undertook on a dare--and was forced to admit that he had proven 26 of the 28 points as true once he had found the past-life person's diary and scrapbook.

3) cryptomnesia comes into play in past-life memory in two ways, mentioned above. The first is when someone inadvertently draws on things he or she has been exposed to, but has forgotten, earlier in this life, to "fill in the gaps" of their past-life memories. As Roger Woolger points out, it doesn't mean that the core memories aren't genuine, just because you find some of the related information was due to cryptomnesia. If a statistically significant portion of the memories are verified, and hence are not due to cryptomnesia, then it's a genuine phenomenon. A mix of cryptomnesia and real (verified) past-life memories does not negate the whole.

The second is when, as mentioned, the subject is not really under hypnosis at all, but is trying to please the hypnotist because to admit they aren't hypnotized would embarrass him or her. I experienced this myself, but because I have a habit of being rigorously honest, I simply had to admit I wasn't "going under" after 15-20 minutes of the hypnotist trying. But I felt quite a bit of pressure to "produce" and go along with it. Had I not had such a long-standing habit of being honest, I might have buckled to that pressure. In such a case, cryptomnesia--or even intentional imagining--could easily come into play. Such a case does not disprove all cases.

Another point has to do with numbers. 200 proven cases of cryptomnesia, against 3 cases of verified past-life memories, proves past-life memories can be real. Not the other way around--200 proven cases of cryptomnesia cannot prove that past-life memories are all false, if 3 cases are verified as being historically accurate beyond statistical chance. As Dr. Robert Almeder, professor of philosophy at GSU put it, if 100 people jump off the Empire State Building, and 95 of them land just as you'd expect, painfully and disastrously, but five of them have a soft landing and walk away, which is more significant--the 95 who died instantly, or the five who walked away? If even one case is verified so strongly that it cannot possibly be due to chance, then that proves that past-life memories can sometimes be real. And that one case would then open up a whole "can of worms" for the materialistic explanation of life and the universe. But we don't have just one case--we have literally hundreds of them.

4) I watched, conducted, and experienced, very emotional sessions at a workshop given by Dr. Roger Woolger. It was expected that one would emote a great deal in those sessions. I would not go so far as to say that this social expectation didn't produce a few bogus sessions. However, I saw these stories fitting in with people's overall psychological patterns. They weren't just random. And I experienced this in my own case--the memories explained the background for a number of psychological and physical health issues I have had of long standing, and this was true for many of the other participants. I don't think I would ever have come up with these stories on my own. The question is, were the stories symbolic imaginings which "gave voice" to present-life conflicts; or were the past-life events the real engines behind the present-life conflicts themselves?* I put this question to Dr. Woolger, and he said that it's probably a mix, but that the greatest portion is real past-life memories. And from what I saw, and with my master's-level training in counseling, I agree with him. No imaginary, symbolic story could unlock a whole string of personality traits and problems the way these stories did. Suddenly the entire range of the person's seemingly irrational feelings made crystal clear sense. The symbolic story explanation simply wasn't the best one, it didn't explain what I was seeing. Therefore the strength of the emotions doesn't by itself prove that the memories are real, but session after session, seeing people suddenly gain insight into a whole array of personality conflicts, does make the case for their validity much stronger. And, as is presented by Dr. Woolger in In Another Life, occasionally the memories are historically verified, beyond the level of chance. If that's been done convincingly once, it opens up the strong possibility that many more of these memories are also genuine.

5) This question is asked by what seems to me to be one of the more sincere (as opposed to defensive) skeptics in any of the documentaries I've watched on reincarnation. In fact it's an excellent question, and the answer takes us beyond reincarnation into broader areas of mystical studies. In In Another Life, Don Stevens gives a brief synopsis of Meher Baba's teachings on reincarnation, including the concept that man actually has not only a physical body, but also a subtle (energy) body and a mental body. The answer to this skeptic's question lies in the interaction between these bodies, and in the fact that memories are stored in the mental body, which does not die at physical death and which then becomes associated with (or takes on) a new physical body in the next incarnation. By inference, it is my supposition that our popularly-accepted concept of what the brain does is significantly off-base. The brain may be more of a passthrough mechanism than a creator of and repository for memories. (See this reproduced newsgroup discussion). The brain's impairment would thus impair access to memories, but not destroy them. (Likewise, under certain circumstances its impairment might partially remove blocks and actually facilitate memory recall.) Or, there may be physical copies of memories in the brain, but the "originals" may yet reside in the mental body, as per the mystical principle, "As above, so below." Either way, this skeptic was up against the necessity for a profound shift in thinking about the function of the brain, and because his set of assumptions was so radically different, he was conceptually blocked from being able to take the idea of reincarnation seriously. However, this particular skeptic was trying to be objective rather than resorting to unfair tactics, and we may find in ten or twenty years that he's changed his mind about reincarnation. As soon as he does, however, he will be cast out of the society of credible scientists by his colleagues (if he has the courage to speak out), and thus the number of credible scientists believing in reincarnation, by that definition, will remain safely at zero.

*In Sept. of 2013, I verified a piece of historical evidence in my own past-life case, which argues against such memories being merely a symbolic reflection of current-day personal issues. The personal example I was referring to in this article, a memory which came up while volunteering as a subject for Dr. Woolger in a seminar, was that of a mountainside hermit who died of uremic poisoning when his urinary tract was blocked. This dovetailed with symptoms I have had all my life in this lifetime, of frequent urge to urinate, small bladder capacity, feeling toxic if I go very long without urinating, and so-on (by the online diagnostic tools, it appears to be undiagnosed interstitial cystitis, which does not involve having an infection but may be a result of past infections). The evidence I discovered in Sept. 2013, was that the past-life personality I've identified as being myself in the 19th century, died of "Chronic Cystitis." Prior to that find, all mentions of his death had said it was from rheumatoid arthritis. The reason this is significant, is that the regression session with Dr. Woolger occurred in 1999, some six years before I learned of this proposed past-life match. Thus neither the session with Dr. Woolger, nor my own health problems, could possibly have influenced the cause of death of the 19th century personality. Meanwhile, I had earlier identified the probable cause of that chronic illness, when I first saw a cutaway image of the government building where he worked for 20 years, showing the basement where he was stationed for much of the time (and where all the restrooms were located). The instant I saw that image, I had a sudden, strong impression of the smell of urine. We thus have three lifetimes reflecting the same issue, without the possibility of it having been unintentionally "reverse-engineered."

 

Back to "In Another Life"