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Ian Stevenson (1918-2007)

We all die of some affliction. What determines the nature of that affliction? I believe the search for the answer may lead us to think that the nature of our illnesses may derive at least in part from previous lives. --Ian Stevenson, who died of pneumonia at age 88

Ian Stevenson was a psychiatrist who gave up scientific medicine to collect past-life experience stories (PLEs) that he thought provided evidence for reincarnation. He graduated at the top of his class with a medical degree from McGill University (Montreal) in 1943. He also did advanced work in psychoanalysis, though he came to reject Freudian psychology. He preferred the concepts of the unconscious mind developed by the likes of William James, Carl Jung, and Frederic Myers, which "allowed for unconscious mental processes to be the sources or the conduits of man's higher creative achievements (as well as some of his pathological aberrations); they allowed also for the experiences we call paranormal and even for a soul" (Stevenson 1989). One thing he agreed with the Freudians on was their "awareness of the importance of mental processes in human disease. This element is minimized or openly denied by most investigators in psychology, genetics, and neurobiology. For them mind is a byproduct of cerebral processes and free will an illusion" (Stevenson 1989). Stevenson's recurring self-portrait was that of a maverick bucking the mainstream.

His interest in the paranormal derived from the influence of his mother, a devotee of theosophy. He was quite fond of the Society for Psychical Research, even though one of its early leaders, Richard Hodgson, had thoroughly debunked Madam Blavatsky, the creator of theosophy. (The Hodgson report has been disputed, but the facts of Blavatsky's deceptions remain.)

Stevenson is best known for his studies of children who claim to remember past lives, but he retained a lifelong interest in psychosomatic issues and believed his reincarnation data could prove useful in medicine. He did not think that every disease could be explained by heredity or environment; some diseases require reference to past life experiences. He believed that reincarnation could help him answer the question that had bothered him for decades: Why does a person acquire one particular disease instead of another? This question puzzled him because he rejected explanations for illness that were limited to consideration of genetic predisposition or environmental contagion. Stevenson considered the person and the person's body to exist separately and independently. He believed that not all birthmarks, birth defects, or even some internal diseases could be explained genetically. Some of them, he thought, were produced "via the agency of the previous personality's will" and were the result of traumas carried over from a previous life (Mills and Lynn 2000: 289-290; Stevenson 1997). He even speculated that whether a person reincarnates might depend on the will: "Maybe our beliefs determine our fate: If you believe you will come back, but only as a member of your own faith, that's what happens. If you believe you simply die and don't come back, you don't" (Shroder 1999: 77).

Philosophically, Stevenson was a naive dualist. He believed that bodies and souls have separate evolutions and existences, and he seemed not to be concerned or aware of the philosophical problems that ensue from such claims about mind and body.

His dualism became stronger after he experimented with mescaline and LSD.

This may seem paradoxical, because if a small amount of a drug acting on the brain can markedly alter our mental experiences does this not prove that our thoughts are only our subjective awareness of our brain's activity? For me it does not. I admit certainly that the chemical changes in my brain that the drugs induced released the extraordinary images and feelings that entered my consciousness. However, this does not account for the images themselves, which (apart from those that I could identify as memories) had no correspondence to anything that I had earlier experienced. Here I need to add that my experiences included nothing that I could prove to have originated outside my mind and, if you like, my brain. I had no verifiable extrasensory experience when under the influence of drugs. My interest in extrasensory perception did not derive from my experiences with drugs, although they enhanced it. (Stevenson 1989).

He admitted that he couldn't prove that the images in his drug experiences originated in anything outside of his brain, yet he claims that there was no correspondence between those images and anything he had experienced. Thus, his belief in the extrasensory nature of his drug experiences seems to have been based on faith.

Stevenson was one of the founders of the Society for Scientific Exploration and its Journal of Scientific Exploration. The latter, Stevenson wrote, was to "provide a forum where research on paranormal phenomena can be presented to other scientists without obstruction or derision."* He published several articles in the journal he helped found.

In 1957, he became head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia (UVa) School of Medicine. In 1961, he began investigating past-life experiences (PLEs) and began collecting the first of some 2,500 stories, mostly coming from children, that he thought indicated memories of past lives. He left mainstream psychiatry in 1967 and established the Division of Personality Studies (now the Division of Perceptual Studies) at UVa. He retired in 2002, but not before logging in over a million miles to conduct his investigations.*

In 1964, Chester F. Carlson (1906-1968), attorney, inventor of xerography, and a man with a strong interest in the paranormal gave UVa a million dollars to support paranormal research.* Carlson even accompanied Stevenson on one of his field trips to Alaska, where he collected stories from the Tlingit peoples. Some of his UVa colleagues found Stevenson to be an embarrassment, but this was the university that Jefferson had founded with the promise that it would be "based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.’’ So, not only was Stevenson allowed to continue his spirit studies, he was able to bring in several prominent parapsychologists to work at UVa, including Gaither Pratt from J. B. Rhine's lab, Rex Stanford, and John Palmer. The funding came from Carlson's widow, Dorris, who supported their work until she cut them off in 1973. For the most part, Stevenson worked alone, though he occasionally collaborated with people from other universities. His UVa colleagues did not knock on his door and ask to join his research program.

Stevenson's spirit work covered a wide range of phenomena, including apparitions, near-death experiences, and mediums claiming to get messages from the dead. Most of his spirit work, however, was in trying to find evidence for the survival of human personality after death. He believed that the most promising evidence for life after death "has been that provided by children who claim to remember previous lives" (Stevenson 1989). Furthermore, he believed that reincarnation provided a valuable explanatory hypothesis for "a wide variety of unsolved problems in psychology and medicine" (Stevenson 1989). However, he resented being described by journalists as trying to prove reincarnation. He believed that he had produced a body of evidence for reincarnation that must be taken seriously. But he admitted that "the evidence is not flawless and it certainly does not compel such a belief. Even the best of it is open to alternative interpretations, and one can only censure those who say there is no evidence whatever."*

The best evidence for reincarnation, he thought, are the number of "cases of subjects who have birthmarks or birth defects that seem to derive from previous lives. These marks and defects correspond closely in size and location to wounds (occasionally other marks) on the deceased person whose life the child later claims to remember."*

In 1961, Stevenson took his first trip to India and Sri Lanka, where he collected his first batch of original past-life stories from children.

I found that the children often talked with strong emotions about the previous lives, and they sometimes behaved as if still living in the past life. For them it seemed still present, not past. For example, a child of low-caste parents who said that he remembered the life of a Brahmin would show snobbish behavior toward his own family and might even refuse to eat their food: from his perspective it was polluted. A child remembering a previous life as a person of the opposite sex might dress for that sex and play its games. One who remembered being shot would show a fear of guns and loud noises. (Stevenson 1989).

These first impressions would have a lasting impact on Stevenson's methodology and beliefs about reincarnation. The data collected on this trip became the basis for Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, whose publication was delayed because his publisher backed out of the project when it was discovered that Stevenson's interpreter was accused of dishonesty. Stevenson admits the man was dishonest in some matters, but he did not think the man had deceived him. So, Stevenson did not reject the data collected with this interpreter's help. The American Society for Psychical Research published the monograph in 1966. A revised edition was published by University Press of Virginia in 1974.

Stevenson collected stories not only from India and Sri Lanka, but from the tribal peoples of northwest North America, Lebanon, Brazil, Turkey, Thailand, Burma, and West Africa. He also investigated cases in Europe and in South America. As noted above, Stevenson focused on children's stories. He believe that the stories of two- or three-year-olds were the best stories because he felt that he could "reach reasonably satisfactory conclusions concerning the information to which the child might have been normally exposed." This would allow him to eliminate alternative explanations such as the subject having heard or read stories about the person he was supposed to have been in a past life.

Stevenson compared his method of collecting stories to the method required by those who study such things as the weather, volcanoes, fossils, earthquakes, and meteorites. These kinds of phenomena do not lend themselves to controlled experiments in the lab. Science, he said, is "a process for appraising evidence wherever we find it."* He thought of himself as studying spontaneous cases of the paranormal. It is certainly true that much science is observational and involves collecting data that occurs naturally and spontaneously. Scientists then examine the data collected and try to make sense out of it. Historians, journalists, and juries do something similar. They try to come up with best explanation for data collected or presented to them, data which consists of testimonies of witnesses or experts regarding physical facts, alleged observations, statistical probabilities, and so on. Many times the data are contradictory or unbelievable. Often, the data is inconclusive, but suggestive. In my opinion, collecting past-life stories is more like the work done by a historian or jury member than it is like that of a vulcanologist or paleontologist. The vulcanologist doesn't have to deal with the problem of spurious volcanoes. And though Piltdown man might indicate that paleontologists have to worry about spurious fossils, the issue of hoaxes has been such a rarity in that science that it hardly need be considered. The historian, the journalist, and the jury member, on the other hand, must constantly deal with issues like lying, hoaxing, and fraud. Most important, though, is the fact that historians, journalists, and jury members have to evaluate the words and perceptions of people, rather than the structure or properties of things. Stevenson's work would require constant vigilance against being deceived by his subjects. Furthermore, since we know that people can have memories and be completely unaware of the source of those memories, he would have to be vigilant in identifying which memories were likely the result of cryptomnesia. Also, there is the major problem of providing an explanation for how a personality can survive death and transfer to another body, something Stevenson had no answer for. Finally, the most problematic issue Stevenson would have to face using his method of collecting stories would be the fact that nothing could ever count against his hypothesis. Stories that are rejected as hoaxes, frauds, questionable, unreliable, or based on experiences in this lifetime would be discarded, but they wouldn't count against the reincarnation hypothesis. The worst case scenario for Stevenson's method would be that his evidence does not compel belief and that even the best of it is open to alternative interpretations. Unfortunately, that is also his best case scenario. Most people are not likely to be too impressed when they realize that all Stevenson had to show for over forty years of research is that it is now false to claim that there is no evidence for reincarnation. It is still quite reasonable, however, to claim that there is no compelling evidence for reincarnation.

Steven described his method this way:

In the study of spontaneous paranormal phenomena we must usually interview and cross-question informants about events that have happened before we arrive on the scene. In principle, the methods are those that lawyers use in reconstructing a crime and historians use in understanding the past. Once we have the best account possible of the events in question, we consider one by one the alternative explanations and to try to eliminate them until only the single most probable one remains. Then we try with further observations to confirm or reject the initially preferred explanation. In addition, we search through series of apparently similar phenomena for recurrent features that may provide clues to causative conditions and processes of occurrence. (Stevenson 1989).

What Stevenson was looking for were stories that could not easily be explained by hypotheses other than the survival of personality. He knew that stories of previous lives could get contaminated in a variety of ways. They might be due to cryptomnesia. The source might have been a movie, a book, a play, a radio program, an overheard story or conversation. He thought that the best evidence for reincarnation would be those cases where someone wrote down the instances where a child gives evidence of a PLE and then later the written account is verified. For example, a father writes down his three-year-old son's statements that he was Joey the blacksmith in Portsmouth and was stabbed by pirates in the neck on a wharf in Hong Kong. Later, it is discovered that there was a Joey who was a blacksmith in Portsmouth who was killed by pirates in Hong Kong. Adding poignancy to this account would be the discovery of some sort of birthmark on the neck of the child. One problem with such a method is that the verification process may not occur for a decade. But even if it takes place within a few months of the written record being made, we must take it on faith that the father is being honest. We have no way of knowing whether the father (or an uncle) in a semi-drunken state read an account of Joey's death to his son and told him that that mark on your neck is the mark of Joey. We have no way of knowing that the father is being completely honest with us. In other words, we have to assume a story is uncontaminated in order to declare the case "solved" (as Stevenson calls those cases "when evidence of a person that corresponds to the experient's statements concerning a past life is found" [Mills and Lynn: 290]).

In a fairly typical case, a boy in Beirut spoke of being a 25-year-old mechanic, thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. According to multiple witnesses, the boy provided the name of the driver, the exact location of the crash, the names of the mechanic's sisters and parents and cousins, and the people he hunted with -- all of which turned out to match the life of a man who had died several years before the boy was born, and who had no apparent connection to the boy's family.*

As Mills and Lyons note: "Merely because a particular case does not seem to be explicable in terms of social construction, it does not follow that the PLE reported is a genuine residue of a past life" (302).

Stevenson would conduct dozens of interviews and spend hours searching through hospital and court records, trying to establish that there was no fraud involved, that the story wasn't contaminated, that there weren't errors in translation, that the events weren't just coincidental, that the child couldn't have gotten the information in any normal way. When he satisfied himself that there was no normal explanation for the concordance of story and facts, he would count the case as "solved" and see it as a piece of positive evidence supporting the reincarnation hypothesis. If he got a PLE story but couldn't corroborate it with facts, he called the case "unsolved." There is nothing that could be discovered by this method that could ever falsify the reincarnation hypothesis. And it remains a mystery as to what further research, that might be falsifiable, could ever evolve from Stevenson's technique.

He was fond of cases that seemed to beg for a paranormal explanation. For example, one case involved an Idaho girl who at age 2 would point to photographs of her sister, dead from a car accident three years before she was born, and say "that was me." The believer thinks the two-year-old meant: "I was my sister in a previous life." The skeptic thinks she meant: "That's a picture of me." The skeptic see the two-year-old as making a mistake. The believer sees her as trying to communicate a message about reincarnation.

Stevenson wrote of another little girl from Indiana who, when she talked about her previous life, made frequent references to the time "when I was a boy" and "when I was called John." He thinks she's talking about a past life. The skeptic thinks she's talking about this life and has some mistaken ideas about gender.

There are several problems with Stevenson's method. He often worked with translators in countries about which he knew very little. Questioning anybody is tricky, but questioning children is especially tricky. "Interviewer bias is the central driving force in the creation of suggestive interviews" (Bruck, Ceci, and Helmsbrooke 1998; quoted in Mills and Lyon: 303). Questioning children and adults via a translator introduces another element of uncertainty regarding the bias of the questioning technique. Most of the interviews took place in countries where reincarnation is an accepted belief. So, the translator would be "typically imbued with the cultural expectations that past-life recall is a valid phenomenon" (Mills and Lynn: 303). Stevenson, being non-fluent in the language and the culture, was in no position to assess the reliability of the questioning by the translator.

There is also the obvious problem of confirmation bias. The ideal, according to Stevenson, was to seek out PLE stories and then try to confirm them. Failure to confirm, however, did not count against the reincarnation hypothesis. In fact, nothing could be discovered using Stevenson's methods that could ever disconfirm the reincarnation hypothesis. Many scientists would consider this a fatal flaw in his methodology.

Another problem is that there seem to be alternative, non-paranormal, explanations for all of his data. Stevenson was aware of the fact that many of the features he was detailing were culturally driven. He wrote:

Critics of the cases have therefore suggested that a child's fantasies, perhaps of an imaginary playmate, may become shaped by its parents and peers, through their questions and suggestions, until the child assumes an identification with a deceased person. In this way the child becomes the subject of a factitious case suggestive of reincarnation.

This argument has considerable force, and its cogency can hardly be denied when we consider the numerous cases in which the subject of a case and the deceased person with whom he or she identifies belong to the same family or same village. However, it will not suffice to explain the smaller, but not negligible number of cases in which the two families live widely separated and, from all the evidence, have had no acquaintance with each other before the case developed. Moreover, in the stronger of such cases the child has furnished specific details (sometimes written down before verification) about the deceased person; there can be no question in such cases of imaginings, confused memories, and pseudo-identification. In examining the cases of this group we are almost forced to believe that the child has somehow acquired knowledge about a deceased person by other than normal means. If this be granted, one has still a choice among several explanations all of which suppose some paranormal process; and reincarnation is only one of these. (Stevenson 1989).

We need not grant that these cases can only be solved by appealing to a paranormal explanation, however. Coincidence, faulty investigation, deception, and other normal explanations are available. "Wilson (1982) proposed that people reporting PLEs are motivated by a desire to identify with a higher social class" (Mills and Lynn: 294). This concern seems especially relevant when dealing with cases in India and Sri Lanka. Sometimes cases Stevenson considered "solved", when examined by others, turn out to be less than pristine. For example, Stevenson found many claims by Sunil Dutt Saxena of Bareilly that matched events in the life of Seth Sri Krishna of Budaun. Both cities are in northern India. Ian Wilson notes, however, that a local doctor had explained to Stevenson that Sunil had been coached by Sheveti Prasad about the details regarding Krishna, whose family rejected Sunil as the reincarnation of their relative (Kelly: 91; Wilson 1989). Stevenson rejected the evidence against his case and considered it "solved."

It would be pointless to go through each of the 2,500 anecdotes collected and try to debunk, say, the top 100. Little would be gained by such an exercise. (For an example of a debunking of the case Stevenson thought was the best in his Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, see Leonard Angel's deconstruction of the case of Imad Elawar.) We can admit before the investigation begins that reincarnation is possible, even if we have no idea how it might occur. But even the best story could be contaminated and Stevenson's methods of collecting and validating data leave much to be desired. For example, Imad Elawar claimed that he was Mahmoud Bouhamzy, a truck driver who died of tuberculosis 25 years earlier and who had a wife called Jamilah.

The best past-life candidate Stevenson found [for Imad Elawar] was not named Mahmoud Bouhamzy, did not have a wife named Jamilah, and did not die as a result of an accident at all, let alone one that followed a quarrel with the driver. Yet Stevenson does not give sufficient information for the reader to know what exactly the parents or the boy himself said that entitled Stevenson to discount the original claims as interpreted by the parents and instead present the very different claims given in the tabulation [he produced]. (Angel 1994)

Stevenson came up with a list of 57 items that he said were produced by the parents or the child prior to his attempted verification.

But the form in which they were originally recorded is not given. Inspection of the items of the tabulation makes clear the need for a record of just what the parents said, how Stevenson recorded their data prior to verification, and how it was or was not subsequently reorganized for presentation in tabular form. (Angel 1994)

Stevenson's method is reminiscent of the kind of subjective validation process that goes on during cold readings. For example,

Under Stevenson's "Comments" we find "Mahmoud Bouhamzy was an uncle of Ibrahim Bouhamzy." (Ibrahim Bouhamzy is the apparent past-life of the boy, according to Stevenson.) Thus it is taken as verified that a name the boy mentioned corresponded to a real person in the past-life's family, as though it is clear that the boy had been mentioning a name by way of referring to that uncle.

....the boy referred to a full well and an empty well at the home of the past-life. This is taken as confirmed by the fact that there were two vats used for storing grape juice. "During the rainy season one of these vats became filled with water, but the other, shallower vat did not, because the water evaporated from it. Thus one would be empty while the other was full". Does a five-year-old Druse village boy not know the difference between a vat and a well? (Angel 1994)

Stevenson himself admitted that he hadn't provided compelling evidence for reincarnation. What might be of some value, however, is to examine his data for recurrent features.

One of the things he found was

a high incidence of violent death in the persons whose lives the children remember. This feature occurs in the cases of all ten cultures for which we have examined groups of cases; although the incidence of violent death in the cases varies from one culture to another, it is far higher among the cases than in the general populations from which they are drawn. (Stevenson 1989).

One explanation for this might be that a violent death is easier to remember than a quiet one. On the other hand, if you're going to remember having died and the whole thing is a story, it makes sense that the death be violent to add drama to the story. A better explanation, however, would seem to be that violent deaths are more likely to be reported in the media, the pubs, the shops, and the like, and are thus more likely to travel around from village to village where they could be overheard by children. But whatever the explanation, the curious fact remains of excessive violent deaths in reported PLEs.

Some recurrent features were found by Stevenson to vary considerably from culture to culture, including the occurrence of dreams in which a deceased person seems to announce to the dreamer the intention of being reborn (usually in the family of the dreamer).* Stories of prophetic dreams in which an announcement is made by a spirit, an angel, an ancestor, are found in many cultures. Instead of seeing this as magical thinking and indicative of a pre-scientific worldview, Stevenson takes these dreams seriously and literally.

He also found that males report many more PLEs than females: 63% to 37% (Mills and Lynn: 292). He found that older children and adults generally forget the PLEs they reported as children (Mills and Lynn: 293).

In addition to his claim that he thought some current fears, likes, and dislikes could be explained by the personalities or experiences of past lives, Stevenson believed that birthmarks and birth defects occur with undue frequency in children who remember past lives. In 43 of his 2,500 collected cases, Stevenson found "a medical document, such as a postmortem report, indicated the location of the wound on the deceased, which sometimes appeared to be strikingly close to the location of the birthmark or birth defect in the child" (Mills and Lynn: 294). He also claimed that there are birthmarks or birth defects in about one-third of the cases of children who report a PLE and that some of these are not genetically explicable (Mills and Lynn: 298). Stevenson constructed a grid for the average adult body that divides the skin into 160 squares of 10 centimeters each. He then calculated the odds of finding a birthmark that would correspond to a wound in a previous body as 1/160. Two corresponding wounds would have odds of 1/25,600. He had 18 cases of the latter. Even so, I think that he would have to admit that this kind of measuring is not rocket science but guesswork. These data are interesting, but we have nothing to compare them to. So, we don't know what these odd facts mean. Also, Stevenson had no explanation for why bodily wounds would carry over to the body of a personality that was reincarnated or why an experience in one life would carry over to a phobia or philia in another. To the disinterested observer, such ideas are clearly in the realm of magical thinking.

Finally, there is the claim that Stevenson made that xenoglossy provides evidence of reincarnation. We have already noted that he was no expert on the problems of experimenter bias and expectancy bias in interrogation. Nor was he an expert in the languages and cultures where his stories originated, necessitating his use of translators whose flaws he was not qualified to observe or identify. He was not an expert on languages. Hiring a linguist to listen to a tape, as Stevenson did with the best of his xenoglossic reincarnates, was a good idea. But he might have considered that Uttara Huddara, a Marathi woman in Mumbai (Bombay) who could speak Bengali, could have acquired her ability by natural means. In any case, it is not unusual for someone to speak several languages in a country that is populated by people from many language groups. Linguist Sarah Thomason noted that Bengali and Marathi are closely related languages, the woman had a life-long interest in Bengali language and culture, and had many Bengali acquaintances, and people in Bombay often see films that were made in Bengali. The rest of Stevenson's cases, according to Thomason, involved people whose linguistic display was minimal and could be explained by casual exposure (Thomason 1987; Kelly 2004). A person may be able to utter 100 or so words in a non-native language, but that hardly counts as speaking or understanding that language. Stevenson listened to a tape where a woman uttered some German words while hypnotized but couldn't answer questions in German and didn't indicate any knowledge of grammar, and he declared this is evidence for reincarnation. He blamed her poor language skills on her poverty and illiteracy in a previous lifetime. A linguist listened to the same tape and noted that even the poor and the illiterate use some grammar. She declared that the woman's understanding of German was minimal and consistent with a casual acquaintance with the language (Kelly 2004: 95).

What possesses a man of Stevenson's intelligence to chase after chimeras and produce thousands of pages of detailed reports that amount to a heap of rationalizations? As Michael Shermer succinctly put it: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."* Stevenson spent about half his life trying to find support for his beliefs in reincarnation and their relationship to medicine. The beliefs came first. The intelligence was applied to confirming the beliefs. I don't think he is unique in this regard. Those of us who are skeptical of Stevenson's work might like to think that we are exercising more critical judgment on these investigations than he did because we have chosen to be disinterested and objective in our research and he chose to be biased. Any of us could have ended up as Stevenson did, however, had we his intelligence and had we not been led down a different path by many accidents over which we had no control. I can only speculate what other path Stevenson might have traveled had the American Society for Psychical Research rejected his essay in 1958 when he entered a competition for work on survival of personality after death (Wilson 1982: 2). If, instead of awarding him first prize for his entry based on the work others had done collecting stories of past life experiences, the Society had told him that this line of inquiry was a colossal waste of time and that he was foolish for even considering these stories credible evidence for life after death, would he have been inspired to spend the rest of his life tracking down such stories?

Few critics will be willing to spend much time poring over his detailed anecdotes and tedious reports. (One journalist, Tom Shroder of the Washington Post, spent a year following Stevenson around, assisting him in his investigations, and came back to write a book about it and how it made him a believer. Old Souls is an interesting read but the author is not very critical in his observations. He takes a lot at face value and seems not to understand the dangers of confirmation bias. Mary Roach went on location with one of Stevenson's fellow PLE story collectors and came back asking: "is he investigating reincarnation, or merely hunting for evidence in its favor? How can he remain unbiased?" (2005: p. 48).)

Those who want to believe in survival of a personality after death will likely ignore the weaknesses in Stevenson's methods and praise him for his meticulousness, his devotion to detail, his zeal to get every claim verified or disproved. For my part, I have to agree with Stevenson's own assessment of his work: he's provided evidence, but no compelling evidence for reincarnation. I see no way to move forward using his methods or his data, so I see his work as a colossal waste of time. On the positive side, however, I agree with him that past life regressive therapy, which uses hypnosis, is rife with methodological problems, not the least of which is the problem with suggestion contaminating any evidence that might be uncovered for a past life. Hence, past life regression cannot provide good evidence for reincarnation. Neither can collecting more stories from children who claim to have lived previous lives unless better methods of documentation, questioning witnesses and alleged experients, and verifying claims are developed.

See also the Bloxham tapes, Bridey Murphy, Mary Toft, and memory.

further reading

books and articles

Angel, Leonard. (1994). Empirical evidence for reincarnation? examining Stevenson's 'most impressive' case. Skeptical Inquirer. September.

Beyerstein, Barry L. (1999). A Cogent Consideration of the Case for Karma (and Reincarnation). Skeptical Inquirer January/February.

Bruck, Ceci, and Helmsbrooke. (1998). Reliability and credibility of young children's reports. American Psychologist. 53, 71-81.

Edwards, Paul. Reincarnation: A Critical Examination (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Harris, Melvin. Investigating the Unexplained (Prometheus Books 2003).

Kelly, Lynne. (2004). The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal. Thunder's Mouth Press.

Mills, Antonia and Steven Jay Lynn. "Past-Life Experiences." in Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence. (2000).  Etzel Cardena, Steven Jay Lynn, and Stanley C. Krippner, editors.  American Psychological Association, pp. 283-313.

Roach, Mary. (2005). Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. W.W. Norton.

Shroder, Tom. (1999). Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives. Simon and Schuster.

Spanos, Nicholas P. "Past-Life Hypnotic Regression: A Critical View," The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1987-1988.

Stevenson, Ian. (1974). Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (2nd rev. ed.). Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Stevenson, Ian. (1989).  "Some of My Journeys in Medicine - A Lecture about Science and Reincarnation."

Stevenson, Ian. (1997). Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (2 vols.). Westport, CT: Praeger Scientific.

Stevenson, Ian. (2006). "Half a Career with the Paranormal." Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 13–21.

Thomason, Sarah G. (1987). "Past tongues remembered?"  Skeptical Inquirer, 11:367–75, Summer.

Thomason Dr. Sarah Gray. (1996). "xenoglossy," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein Prometheus Books.

Wilson, Ian. (1982). All in the Mind - Reincarnation, Hypnotic Regression, Stigmata, Multiple Personality, and Other Little-Understood Powers of the Mind. Doubleday.

Wilson, Ian. (1987). The After Death Experience: the Physics of the Non-Physical. William Morrow and Company, Inc.


Book review by Richard Rockley of Stevenson's Children Who Remember Previous Lives

The Apparent Belief System of Ian Stevenson by Richard Rockley

Reincarnation all over again - Skeptico

The Case Against Immortality by Keith Augustine

Birthmarks and Birth Defects Corresponding to Wounds on Deceased Persons By Dr. Ian Stevenson

Experiential quests into past lives

Sweet Swarnlata - A Case from Dr. Ian Stevenson

The Case of Shanti Devi by Dr. K.S. Rawat

A Matter of Death & Life: Ian Stevenson's scientific search for evidence of reincarnation By Tom Shroder

Ian Stevenson bibliography

Obituary of Ian Stevenson by Tom Shroder Washington Post; February 11, 2007.

Last updated December 23, 2013

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