Reincarnation is the soul’s rebirth in a new body after the death of its previous one. Believers in reincarnation say that it occurs whether or not someone remembers having lived in other bodies, and indeed, most people do not recall a past life. However, throughout history there have been occasions when a child suddenly remembers details from a past life. For example, in 1926 three-year-old Jagdish Chandra of India told his father and several witnesses that he had once been a man named Jai Gopal, who had lived and died in a city 3,000 miles (4,827 km) away. Chandra provided many details about his former life that were later verified, and when he was taken to meet Gopal’s relatives, he pointed the way to their house even though he had never been there. Similarly, in 1958 two-year-old Gnanatilleka of Sri Lanka described her life as a boy in a nearby village, and when she was taken to meet her former relatives, she was immediately able to identify them. By age seven, however, Gnanatilleka had forgotten her previous life.

Common Aspects

The cases of Chandra and Gnanatilleka were investigated by Ian Stevenson, a parapsychologist with the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia, whose research into reincarnation was and still is the most thorough in the field. (His Children’s Past Lives Research Center continues to gather past-life accounts.) After studying dozens of reincarnation experiences that were recalled without the help of hypnosis, he was able to identify certain common aspects of the phenomenon. The two lives involved in the reincarnation experience typically live no farther apart than 100 miles (161km) of one another and are of the same culture. Moreover, this culture is most often one in which a belief in reincarnation is prevalent, and this seems to affect how much information the experient can recall. For example, in approximately three-fourths of the cases reported in India, where a belief in reincarnation is widespread, a person recalling a past life can provide the name used in that life; in the United States, where relatively few people believe in reincarnation, only onethird of the experients can provide the previous name.

Regardless of culture, however, most experients claim to know how they died in their former life, and in most cases the death was violent. There is typically a space of time between this death and the experient’s birthdate, ranging from weeks to years. Most children who claim to remember a former life are between the ages of two and four, and their past-life accounts are so detailed and convincing that Stevenson believes they could not have been coached to lie. Between the ages of five and eight, these children typically stop remembering details of their past life, though they might later exhibit a phobia related to how they claim to have died in their previous life. For example, someone who said she died by drowning might have a serious, lifelong fear of water.

False Memories

Skeptics dismiss reincarnation accounts as being the result of experients’ having gained knowledge of other people’s lives through ordinary means, such as books or conversations, and then either intentionally or unintentionally incorporating this knowledge into a past-life story. For example, the experient might have intentionally created a past-life connection to a particular family because he or she would benefit from being associated with that family, or the experient might have learned details about a particular family, forgotten these details, and months or years later incorporated them into what he or she believes is a genuine reincarnation memory. Indeed, false reincarnation memories can surface during hypnosis, which is why Stevenson’s research only involved reincarnation memories recovered spontaneously. In most cases of false reincarnation memories, the recollections prove to be fantasies based on books the experient has read about life in other times. For example, one person who remembered six former lives was later shown to have been recounting information from a variety of historical novels.

Researchers into reincarnation, however, note that some cases involve information that could not be learned from books or conversations. For example, some experients have been able to recognize individuals that they have never seen before but would have known in a past life, and they might also exhibit skills and behavior that, it appears, could only have been acquired in their past life rather than their present one. Some people have therefore suggested that the experient has received information about his or her past life not from books or conversations but from the minds of the deceased person’s relatives, via telepathy (the ability to read minds). However, the experient’s knowledge seems limited to what a single deceased person would have known, whereas if extrasensory perception were really involved, the experient would probably have information from a variety of sources.

Spirit Possession

Another suggestion, proposed by people who believe in ghosts, is that the experient has actually been “possessed,” or taken over, by the spirit of a deceased person. However, this theory does not explain why the memories of a past life would gradually fade as the experient ages, or why a phobia related to the pastlife death experience would linger. It also does not explain why the experient does not act and talk like the deceased person at all times. In fact, no one has yet come up with a satisfactory way to explain all types of reincarnation experiences. Consequently, even skeptics have suggested that more studies into the phenomenon are needed, if only to determine why so many people claim to have been reincarnated.


  • near-death experiences
  • out-ofbody experiences
  • past-life memories


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning