Believers in reincarnation say that after people die, they are reborn in a new body. This occurs, believers say, whether or not someone remembers having lived a previous life, and indeed, most people do not have such memories. Sometimes, however, a child spontaneously remembers details from a past life, and accounts from these youngsters can be very convincing. For example, in 1926 three-year-old Jagdish Chandra of India recalled having once been a man named Jai Gopal, who had lived and died in a city 3,000 miles (4,827km) away. The little boy provided many details about his former life that were later verified, and when he was taken to meet Gopal’s relatives, he reportedly pointed the way to their house even though he had never been there.
After studying dozens of reincarnation experiences, Ian Stevenson, a parapsychologist with the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia, identified certain common aspects of the phenomenon. The experient typically lives within 100 miles (161km) of the person named as a past life, is of the same culture as that person was (usually a culture in which a belief in reincarnation is prevalent), and is usually between the ages of two and four when the past-life memory occurs. In addition, there is typically a gap of at least a few weeks before the supposed rebirth; in other words, experients rarely claim to have been reborn immediately after death. Moreover, although the amount of detail that experients provide about a past life varies, they almost always know how they died in that past life, and in most cases the death was violent. Memories of past lives typically fade between the ages of five and eight, though an experient might later exhibit a phobia related to how the previous life ended. For example, someone who recalled dying by drowning might later on have no recollection of that, but still exhibit a serious, lasting fear of water.
There have also been cases in which adults remember a past life, but in these cases the memories are usually retrieved through hypnosis, as part of a therapy session known as past-life regression. This type of therapy is undertaken because some people believe that hypnosis unlocks past-life memories stored in the unconscious mind. However, Stevenson usually does not study past-life experiences uncovered in this way because of the possibility that the memories have been tainted by the therapist. Indeed, psychologists know that whenever hypnosis is used, there is the risk that unless the hypnotist is extremely careful, he or she can accidentally implant false memories in the patient.
Whether a patient recalls past lives seems in part to depend on what patients think are the therapist’s expectations. In one study conducted in 1987 through 1988, psychologist Robert Baker divided sixty students into three groups; he told the first group that they were going to undergo a new kind of hypnotherapy that would most likely help them recover a past life, the second group that they might or might not recover a past life through this therapy, and the third that they would probably not recover a past life while hypnotized because only mentally ill people report such things. As a result, whereas only 10 per cent of the third group reported a past-life memory, 60 per cent of the second group and 85 per cent of the first group described a past-life memory.
Sceptics see in this study proof that past-life memories recovered under hypnosis are not genuine—indeed that many are nothing more than fanciful stories. Sceptics note that most memories recovered through hypnosis prove to be made up of details from books that the experient has read. In one case, for example, a person who remembered six former lives was later shown to have been recounting information from a variety of historical novels. As for children who remember past lives spontaneously, sceptics say that the children must have been coached to provide detailed memories of their former lives. Those who hold to this theory speculate that the children’s parents or other relatives create the past-life experience so that they can benefit monetarily or in some way from being associated with a particular deceased person’s family.
The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning