Past life recall is one of the most fascinating areas of unexplained human phenomena. As yet, science has been unable to prove or disprove its genuineness. Even many who have investigated claims of past life recall are unsure whether it is an historical recollection due to reincarnation or is a construction of information somehow received by the subconscious. Either possibility is remarkable. And like many areas of the paranormal, there is a propensity for fraud that the serious investigator must watch out for. It's important to be skeptical about such extraordinary claims, but the stories are nonetheless intriguing.
Past life recall generally comes about spontaneously, more often with children than adults. Those who support the idea of reincarnation believe this is because children are closer to their past lives and that their minds have not been clouded or "written over" by their present lives. Adults who experience past life recall often do so as the result of some extraordinary experience, such as hypnosis, lucid dreaming or even a blow to the head.
PAST LIFE REGRESSION HYPNOSIS
The practice of reaching past lives through hypnosis is controversial, primarily because hypnosis is not a reliable tool. Hypnosis can certainly help reach the unconscious mind, but the information found there is not reliable as truth. It has been shown that the practice can create false memories. That doesn't mean, however, that regression hypnosis should be dismissed out of hand. If the past life information can be verified through research, the case for reincarnation can be considered more seriously.
Hypnotic regression as proof for reincarnation
Hypnosis can be defined as a method of inducing an altered state of consciousness, which causes a person to become very receptive to the hypnotist’s suggestions. The method has been used in psychoanalysis for treating psychic diseases by evoking the painful events which caused them in the past (especially during childhood) and then transmitting suggestions meant to heal these wounds which still affect one’s present. Although there are some encouraging results in using it as a psychiatric healing therapy, it is a fact that hypnosis can mix fantasy with real memories or even create entirely fictitious episodes. In deep states of hypnosis, some subjects have had out-of-body experiences and claimed to have traveled in mysterious spiritual realms. Others have had a mystical experience of oneness with the universe.
Hypnotic regression started to be used as a "past lives recall" method in 1952, when Ruth Simmons from Colorado, USA, was regressed "back in time" beyond the date of her birth. Suddenly she started to talk using a specific Irish accent, claiming that her name was Bridey Murphy and she lived in Ireland in the year 1890. Her brief descriptions seemed to describe properly the Irish society of the late 19th century. It was therefore believed that a scientific proof for reincarnation had been found. As a result, the method was used by a growing number of hypnotists in order to get information about alleged previous lives of their patients. Recently the method has gained a scientific aura, being used as therapy for releasing current fears and explaining certain personality tendencies as results of past lives experiences. By simply being asked to go back in time beyond the date of their birth and describe their impressions, some patients tell impressive stories in which some characteristics match with past and distant cultures of human history. They usually adopt a totally different personality, with a changed voice, behavior and facial expression. All the information they produce is the result of a dialog between the hypnotist and his patient, in which the questions have to be easy and clear in order to get a proper answer. As long as the information they produce couldn’t have been normally learned during their life span, it is supposed that they really recall past lives. However, this conclusion raises some difficulties, as there are other possibilities to explain how the "novelties" are produced, without accepting the past-life recall hypothesis.
One possible explanation, valid in a few cases, is cryptoamnesia. As hypnosis can be used in refreshing forgotten memories of one’s past, facts that are not available anymore in the conscious memory, in the same way can it be used for evoking information heard from other people, read in books, or seen in movies, in which the subject of hypnosis is involving himself as participant. His subconscious memory has kept this information stored and hypnosis determines its use in a completely fictitious scenario. Ian Stevenson, one of the important researchers of this phenomenon, mentions a confirming case:
An intriguing aspect of the testimonies recorded under hypnosis is the fact that they heavily depend on the already existing data in current historic knowledge. In many cases, although the information corresponds to generally acknowledged historical data, further archaeological discoveries contradict them, casting serious doubts on the veracity of "past lives".This and other cases prove that the "past life recall" experiences depend heavily on the historical knowledge mankind had at the time when the hypnotic regression was performed, but which are often contradicted by later discoveries.
ow could it be possible that the present personality could influence the knowledge of its "previous lives", some predating it with hundreds or thousands of years? How could people who lived four thousand years ago use the BC (before Christ) year numeration system? How can it be that some hypnotists can even "recall" future lives of their patients (which are obviously influenced by current science fiction literature)? These facts indicate that the alleged previous lives are culturally and religiously conditioned, casting serious doubts on their veracity. This is why the writers who are favorable to rebirth stories usually avoid mentioning specific data which might challenge their beliefs.
Another possible explanation that could overrule the veracity of past life recall is the influence of the hypnotist, whose suggestion ability is a sine qua non condition for the efficiency of hypnosis. The other necessary factor is the receptivity of the patient to the hypnotist’s suggestions. Although the two conditions determine the efficiency of hypnosis when used as psychiatric treatment, when expecting to get information from alleged past lives, the suggestion ability of the hypnotist becomes an important hindrance in obtaining true information, because it can contaminate the patient’s story. Ian Stevenson states:
In my experience, nearly all so-called previous personalities evoked through hypnotism are entirely imaginary and a result of the patient's eagerness to obey the hypnotist's suggestion. It is no secret that we are all highly suggestible under hypnosis.
Under hypnosis, the subject is ready to accept all kinds of distortions, having his reality shaped according to what the hypnotist dictates. As in most cases the hypnotist expects a confirmation of the reincarnation theory, or at least expects it subconsciously, together with the verbal suggestions concerning relaxation and different phases of regression, he can transmit his own convictions concerning past lives and custom scenarios of this kind. In many cases it is easy to discern the religious convictions of the hypnotist in the stories told by his patients, his understanding of life as eternal return into a different body.
The risk of inventing completely fictitious scenarios through hypnosis cannot be ignored. It actually has happened many times. Remember the many cases of women who came for hypnotic treatment for their common problems, and over the course of therapy discovered incidents of sexual abuse by parents during childhood, which proved to be false. Even Freud abandoned hypnosis as a treatment method when he discovered so many cases of fake memories. More than that, it was observed that the memories "discovered" under hypnosis can replace the true memories after the hypnotic session is over and distort completely one’s personal life. This is called false memory syndrome. Courts of law know these dangers and most do not accept testimonies produced under hypnosis or from witnesses that have been previously hypnotized. The same way as alleged sexual abuses in childhood discovered through hypnosis have been proved to be false, past lives can be also fake scenarios (as well as the "extraterrestrial abduction" stories).
Another compromising factor in getting true "past life stories" is the preparation the patient undergoes before hypnosis. He is informed about its purpose, which induces in him a high expectancy state. The conscious desire to know "his previous lives" undoubtedly influences his response under hypnosis.
A third possibility to explain testimonies from alleged previous lives belongs to psychiatry. Multiple personality is known to it as dissociative personality disorder. It causes somebody to exchange in a short period of time up to 20 distinct personalities, as if playing successive roles. These contradicting personalities have different mentalities, behaviors, voices and even sexes than the real person. Usually it happens that one of them knows and observes the acts and thoughts of the others, and is even able to speak in the name of all.
From a psychiatrist's point of view, past lives testimonies may be the result of inducing the dissociative personality disorder through hypnosis. This has actually happened in several cases of schizophrenia. Used to uncover covert personalities and reintegrate them with the main personality, most cases of hypnosis have produced new personalities that didn't manifest previously in one's normal state. They first appeared during hypnotic treatment, and then remained active after the session was over. So there really is possible to create new personalities or "past life recalls" through hypnosis.
However, there still remains an enigma to which the above naturalist-scientific interpretation doesn’t have a satisfactory answer: How are the "past live" personalities distributed in their roles, or who decides which one will be next in the show? It cannot be a random process. The naturalistic explanation says that it must be in the person’s mind, where consciousness is divided into separate entities, one of them taking the role of the director. The data supporting it is that sometimes, under hypnosis, a certain part of the mind stays conscious, continuing to receive data from the real surrounding area. The unsolved problem with this explanation is the motivation of such an entity (remained conscious in the person’s mind) to act like that. Why should it fool the people around about past lives?
Thus we come to another possible explanation of past life recall. In parapsychology it is called channeling, representing the phenomena of transmitting information generated by spiritual entities which are external to our world. They act through certain persons called mediums while being in altered states of consciousness. In channeling there are always external personal beings (spirits) involved in providing information through mediums. The annihilation of normal consciousness through hypnosis creates optimal conditions for contacting such external teachers, who can present themselves as personalities of one’s past lives. The only reason for rejecting this hypothesis is the presumption that the entity which is communicating through the medium has no reason to lie when it claims to be a reincarnated personality and not an external spirit. Although there have been many cases when such entities were caught lying, we will analyze in a later section their possible identity from a Christian point of view, and also their motivation for doing so.
In conclusion, the only criteria in establishing the veracity of "past life recall" is our trust in the hypnotist and his "past life recall" interpretation. There is no other way of relating the scenario of an alleged past life to one’s actual person. This is why we will now examine the other "strong evidence" for reincarnation through past life recall.
Spontaneous past life recall by children as proof for reincarnation
Another category of experiences credited as proofs for reincarnation are the cases when certain people, almost all children under the age of 10, spontaneously recall events of alleged past lives, insisting to be someone else who lived in the past. The details they mention concerning places, persons and happenings of the past, about which they could not normally know anything, prove to be true when investigations are performed in the indicated area. The extensive research of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his books on this topic are well known. Although the cases of spontaneous past life recall by children are much fewer than testimonies produced under hypnosis, they seem to be more convincing.
However, there are other possibilities to interpret them, overruling the reincarnation explanation. One alternative explanation is the possibility of these children's contacting external spirits, through channeling. In this case the medium would be the child, without necessarily being conscious of it. However, this explanation is not too convincing, especially because the children do not seem to be skilled in communicating with spirits.
A better explanation would be the possession of these children by external spiritual entities. This phenomenon is related to channeling, but this time the human person is forced to transmit the messages of a spirit without having any conscious contribution to the whole process. In other words, possession implies that the invading spirit enters the body and takes over entirely the control of human consciousness, acting as if a past life personality would be manifesting itself. This explanation is more likely to be valid for the following reason: Almost all cases of spontaneous past life recall experiences are produced by children who manifest them between the age of two and five, when their spiritual discernment is almost nonexistent, especially concerning spirits. This situation makes them easier to be manipulated by external spirits. As the child grows up, the entities lose their power of influence upon him, which could explain why the past life memories are lost after the age of 10. Again, one argument against this explanation is the presupposition that such external spirits have no reason to lie about their true identity. Another argument is the fact that the child does not manifest the classic symptoms of violent possession. However, acting violent is not the only possible form of manifesting spiritual possession.
A confirmation of the possession hypothesis is the cases when the possessing spirit enters the child’s body a long time after he was born, and then produces the past life recall experience interfering with the actual personality of the child. There are enough such cases described in literature. Here is a brief description of two mentioned by Ian Stevenson, a famous researcher of this phenomenon, in his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation:
Spirit possession could also explain another “proof” for reincarnation that is becoming increasingly popular: the correspondence between wounds that caused a person to die and birthmarks on children that claim to be the rebirth of that particular person. Not that a spirit influence could induce such physical abnormalities, but it could “suggest” a special origin to those who are born naturally with birthmarks and birth defects, especially in cultures where most physical and behavioural peculiarities are attributed to happenings in past lives (Southern Asia, the Druze in Lebanon, or Indians in North America). Not many cases need such an elaborate explanation as spirit possession. Most can be discarded as having no scientific proof (a precise medical report on the wounds of the deceased) or as being induced by the adults, who taught the children to have had a previous life as a certain family member. An important factor that could confirm spirit possession is cases of reincarnation prediction by people who strongly believe in it. Here is a case discovered by Stevenson among the Tlingit tribe in Alaska:
A further indication for understanding spontaneous past life recall experiences by children is the fact that they are culturally dependent. Most cases are reported in India and other South Asian countries, where reincarnation is fully accepted. The Asian cases are always richer in details than the Western ones. Western children who have such experiences give only poor details that could permit verification. When checking some verifiable details is possible, they usually turn out to be past experiences of other members of the family. Cultural conditioning certainly plays an important role in these phenomena.
For this reason Ian Stevenson, the well known researcher of this phenomena, was forced to admit in his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation that the cases he studied, as the very title of his book indicates, are only suggesting reincarnation and cannot be considered proofs for it. Stevenson admitted: “All the cases I've investigated so far have shortcomings. Even taken together, they do not offer anything like proof”
Metaphysical reasons for rejecting past life recall experiences as proofs for reincarnation
Even if hypnotic regression and spontaneous recall of past life by children were free of any contradiction, there still would be another major argument against their veracity: According to the classic doctrine of reincarnation, the entity which reincarnates is the impersonal self (atman or purusha), accompanied by karmic debt. Any psycho-mental element that defines personhood does not belong to the self or to the subtle body, and therefore ceases to exist at physical death. Memory is such an element. It acts only inside the limits of a physical life and vanishes at death. If things were different, if memory could pass to further lives through reincarnation, it would have the same ontological nature as the self, which is absurd, because memory belongs to the psycho-mental realm of personhood.
Usually it is said that the vehicle that carries the psychic impressions from one life to another is the subtle body (sukshma sharira in Vedanta) or the karmic deposit (karmashaya in Samkhya-Yoga). Although some say that these two elements act as a kind of unconscious memory of previous lives, they cannot represent a third ontological nature (different to both the self and the psycho-mental realm), which could play the role of a transmissible personal memory from one life to another. Karmashaya and sukshma sharira are a mere expression of the way karma records the debts of the past. As karma represents an impersonal and mechanical law which functions with mathematical precision, karma itself cannot justify one’s state at a certain moment. In other words, man cannot communicate with his karma. Karma is simply pushing the self into a foreordained scenario, without communicating which debts are to be paid from previous lives.
Even though some special meditative techniques are mentioned, which could render some limited information about past lives (for instance Yoga-Sutra 3.18 mentions the possibility to know the previous birth through practicing samyama), they are available only for the advanced Yogi. Even so, the veracity of the information gotten in altered states of consciousness is doubtful. (Click here for more information.)
One’s karmic debts could at best be imagined intuitively. For instance, it is supposed that a man who was murdered took his just reward for a murder he did himself in a previous life. Not even the past life recall experiences give any information about the "sins" one did in his previous life, but only figure out cases when he was a victim or a simple observer of life around him. These kinds of experiences do not attempt to prove the justice of karma, but only that past lives are real. In other words, the "recalled" scenarios do not indicate which facts of the previous life produced the present incarnation, but only try to prove that we lived previous lives, that reincarnation is true and has to be accepted in our belief.
Because of the metaphysical considerations mentioned above, most Eastern gurus do not consider experiences of past life recall as valid proofs for reincarnation. At the time Stevenson was carrying out his studies among Indian children that remembered previous lives, he met an Indian swami of the Ramakrishna order. He commented on these cases: “Yes it is true [meaning reincarnation], but it does not make any difference, because we in India have all believed in reincarnation and have accepted it as a fact, and yet it has made no difference. We have as many rogues and villains in India as you have in the West" (Venture Inward Magazine, September/October, 1995). These stories are appreciated mostly by Westerners, probably as a result of misunderstanding the original doctrine of reincarnation and also because of their pseudo-scientific outlook. The main argument for reincarnation in the East has another nature and will be analyzed next.