A few days ago I learned of the death on February 8 of Ian Stevenson, M.D., the world’s leading researcher of cases in which children appear to remember a previous life.
Dr. Stevenson, for many years Carlson Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, was the founder and director of the university’s Division of Personality Studies (now known as the Division of Perceptual Studies).
His more than forty years of research, analysis, and publication raised increasingly difficult problems for those who assume that consciousness cannot possibly survive bodily death.
Modern science typically holds that consciousness is a product of biology. Life comes from matter, in the form of the body, and when the body ceases to function, life ceases to exist.
Dr. Stevenson turned up considerable evidence that this view may be wrong.
Whether or not there’s a living “something” that persists after the death of the body is what is known as “the survival question.” Dr. Stevenson brought to that question an impressive body of empirical research.
He focused on what he called “cases of the reincarnation type.” In the usual form of such a case, a child, when old enough to talk, begins to speak about a “former life.” He or she may tell of people, places, and events from that life and may express a desire to go back to a former home.
Sometimes what the child says is detailed enough to enable friends, relatives, or researchers to identify what seems to be the place and finally the “previous person.” And when brought to the place, the child may dramatically “recognize” the previous person’s home, friends, relatives, and possessions.
These cases have holes in them. Some cases may be deliberate frauds. Or else the child may have gotten information normally and dramatized it into a fictional “past life,” unwittingly prompted by relatives or researchers who want to believe the fiction true.
Paranormal explanations have also been offered. Perhaps the child telepathically picked up from the minds of living persons details of the life of a person dead.
Dr. Stevenson did much to guard against frauds and fictions. His case studies are full of cross-verifications, tabular records of matching and discrepant testimonies, and in-depth discussions of explanations not involving “survival” that might possibly better explain his data.
But his research strategies took things further. Recognizing the weaknesses of cases built on claimed memories alone, he reported numerous cases in which a child not not only “remembered” what a “previous person” knew but also seemed to mirror that person’s habits, tastes, mannerisms, and skills.
For example, the previous person may have been fond of liquor and may have drunk with a characteristic set of gestures, and the child, oddly enough, may have shown a matching set of mannerisms while playing at drinking. Or the previous person may have been expert at sewing, and the child may precociously have shown a similar expertise.
Dr. Stevenson argued that although one may easily pick up facts, great effort and practice would be needed to learn skills and complex mannerisms. How is it, then, that these seem to appear spontaneously in a child, along with a corresponding set of imaged memories?
Dr. Stevenson’s collection of cases grew to more than 3,000, and certain statistically significant regularities appeared. For example, in fifty-one percent of the cases where a “previous person” was identified, that person had undergone a violent death. The regularities in the collection strengthened the credibility of the individual cases.
In 1997 Dr. Stevenson published a two-volume book that made cases of the reincarnation type still more difficult to explain away: Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. In this book (2,080 pages) Dr. Stevenson offered detailed studies of more than 230 cases from around the world in which a person’s birthmarks or birth defects seemed to reflect physical features from the body of a “previous person” or be related to experiences from a previous life, particularly a violent death.
In some cases, a child apparently remembering the life of an identified previous person bore birthmarks matching wounds that person had suffered at death, such as entrance and exit bullet wounds. In other cases, birth defects in the form of constricting bands around the legs corresponded to the injuries of a “previous person” bound by the legs and killed.
Why, Dr. Stevenson asked, would a young child seem to recall a previous life, identify with the person whose life he or she seemed to remember, and be born with birth marks or birth defects (sometimes exceedingly rare) matching wounds related to that person’s violent death? And what indeed should we think, Dr. Stevenson asked, when we find that the “previous person” actually existed?
I once met Dr. Stevenson some years ago at a conference in Texas. We chatted a bit, and he said to me, “I think the question of survival matters, don’t you?” I had to agree.
Dr. Stevenson served as a pioneer in science by allowing that the question of survival does indeed matter and by vigorously and carefully investigating phenomena that bear upon that most deeply significant question.