Back in 1993, Warner Books published my third book, Reincarnation, Channeling and Possession: A Parapsychologist’s Handbook. Long out of print, I recently brought it back as an ebook for Kindle and Nook. As I’m helping a television production company look for possible cases of the reincarnation type, focusing on children who remember previous lives, I thought that putting a chapter of that book up here on my website makes some good sense. [Click HERE for a post on what the show is looking for]
The following is the second piece of the chapter. Part one appears here.
Section Two: Reincarnation. Chapter Three: Field Investigation and Evidence. From REINCARNATION, CHANNELING AND POSSESSION: A PARAPSYCHOLOGIST’S HANDBOOK by Loyd Auerbach, MS. Copyright 2012, 1993 by Loyd Auerbach. May not be copied without permission.
Note: This was originally written in 1992/1993, published in 1993. It has not been updated.
FIELD INVESTIGATION AND EVIDENCE
Let’s look at a related concept. PARAMNESIA is a confusion of memory often having to do with the timing of facts as they occurred versus how they are remembered to have occurred. For example, there is usually a lengthy delay between the time a child starts speaking of a previous life and when an investigator learns of the case and interviews the family. In that time, the family may have taken it upon themselves to check out the “facts” reported by the child, and may even have brought the child to visit the previous family.
The problem of paramnesia occurs if the family failed to write down or record what the child related about his or her previous life before they began checking things out. It is not uncommon for everyone to confuse what was originally reported by the child with what they learn about the identified prior personality. In other words, were the individual details spoken of first by the child, or were they learned by the child as they were learned by the child’s family?
Researchers of these cases are most interested in learning of any source of possible contamination of the information. Both cryptomnesia and paramnesia are potential sources of contamination. Cryptomnesia is unlikely under the conditions mentioned above, and paramnesia is less a possibility if the parents keep records of everything the child says before doing anything about checking the information. However, the problem of contamination becomes an important one if there are no records and the families of the current individual and the previous personality have already met by the time the investigator arrives.
According to Stevenson and Samararatne:
“In a culture having a belief in reincarnation a child who seems to speak about a previous life will be encouraged to say more. What he says then leads his parents somehow to find another family whose members come to believe that the child has been speaking about a deceased member of their family. The two families exchange information about details, and they end by crediting the subject with having had much more knowledge about the identified deceased person than he really had had.”7
Parental expectation is an important thing to consider. While characteristics such as I’ve quoted from Stevenson earlier help parents identify a child as a previous personality, the identification, especially without a specific name, may be quite interpretive on the part of the adults. If the parents are predisposed towards believing in reincarnation, especially in a society where the belief is that all are reincarnated, the parents may be looking for signs of a prior personality and label whatever they can as evidence of such a person. If there is an announcing dream, there may be a tendency to treat the child in such a way as to foster the signs of that previous personality.
People tend to have their expectations fulfilled. Parents who are looking for their children to have had past lives will often find this, even if the child doesn’t originate such a conclusion. In some cases, the child might consciously fulfill the recognized expectations of the parents. Often it is unconscious. Anthropologist Antonia Mills of the University of Virginia has discussed such unconscious constructs on the part of the child.8 A prior personality may be the interpretation given to childhood fantasies. It may be adopted as a response to “complex family dynamics,” or as a method of gaining attention. The child may not be deliberate in constructing this other personality. Rather, this phenomenon may flow from the familial situation, from the parental and cultural expectations, or from parental reinforcement as a method of gaining attention. The investigator needs to consider not only sources of information outside and inside the family, but also just how and why the parents identified their child as having had a prior existence or past life.
I mentioned earlier that childhood fantasy is an explanation that can be considered. However, in most situations where this might be involved, it’s more likely the parents who interpret the child’s play as related to a past life rather than the child who makes a declaration that this is so. Of course, this may happen if the child picks up, consciously or subconsciously, on the reincarnation beliefs of the parents. With the duration of the cases though, fantasy is less than likely. Consider that the child would have to fantasize about having had a previous existence, often as an adult with adult behaviors, rather than simply pretending to be this other person. Consider as well the factual validity of some of the information, and the fact that childhood fantasies fade a lot faster than past‑life memories do. As we’ve seen, even the unsolved cases exhibit features that are difficult to dismiss as fantasy.
Let’s move on to the issue of fraud. Fraud is an ugly issue that is raised by critics of any experience that is even remotely related to paranormal beliefs. However, one must look at the motivations that might spur the child, parents, or both to claim the child has had a past life. While a child might enjoy the additional parental attention that results from his or her claims of having lived before, keep in mind that these cases typically go on for years. It is unlikely that the child would need to (or even could) sustain a fraud for several years. In addition, it’s doubtful that a two or three‑year‑old could come up with this on his or her own. There would have to be parental interpretation.
There are very few payoffs for families claiming spontaneous past‑life recall by their children. As with situations where individuals or families report poltergeist or apparitional experiences, there is little to be gained (unless you sell your story to the tabloids, of course). Since most of these cases occur in less developed areas where there is little chance of press coverage for such cases (though there is quite a bit of it in Sri Lanka), the publicity or fame angle yields almost nothing. It may be that the family gains some local notoriety, but nothing that would be considered sufficient cause to make the whole thing up.
Financial gain is also unlikely. Unless an impoverished family (of the current persona) were to connect with a wealthier one (previous personality) and have the situation fully accepted, it is hard to imagine any way for them to get financial remuneration from reporting the case. In addition, it would take an enormous amount of research (like that conducted by the investigators) to put together a good enough fraud (and brief the child well enough) to convince not only the family and friends of the previous personality but the investigators as well. Of course, if you really want to find fraud, you can always plead “conspiracy.” I think not.
Another explanation suggested for these cases is genetic memory. If we assume that memory might be transferable through genetics, there still has to be some genetic connection between the past and present individuals. It is unlikely, for example, for Uncle Harry’s memories to be reborn in little Bobby, unless of course it was Uncle Harry who was the biological father of Bobby. In other words, in order for this to happen, there has to be some sort of direct lineal descent to make the transfer of the genetic material possible. Similarly, a child claiming to be her grandmother reborn ought not to remember any experiences of that grandmother after the date of birth of her mother. If there’s genetic memory transfer, how can that include memories from a time after the genetic material was transferred to the next generation? Although some rare cases across centuries could include a familial connection in which the previous personality was an ancestor of the current person, most of the reported cases don’t include a genetic link.
One of the main alternative explanations that has gained favor over the years is the possibility that these recollections are rooted in psi‑derived information. An ESP retrieval of the factual information might explain much in these cases -‑ then again, it may not. Let me discuss this just a bit, although I’ll be covering a super‑psi explanation for all three forms of experience addressed in this book in Section Five.
In parapsychological research and in spontaneous psi experiences, there often seems to be an indication that psi works without regard to limits of space/distance of time. In other words, reported experiences often bring information from across vast distances, as well as through time itself. Clairvoyance or remote-viewing experiences and experiments yield information flow from distances anywhere from the next room to the next city to continents away. Telepathy and general ESP experiments were conducted by astronaut Edgar Mitchell from aboard Apollo 14 with the “receiver” here on Earth (although the experiment yielded psi‑missing). Precognition seems to indicate that information transfer occurs from some undetermined future to our present. People capable of “reading” the history of an object — psychometry ‑‑ often come up with verifiable information. Retrocognition, like precognition, brings information through time, but from the past.
If a child or adult is capable of retrocognition, the past‑life information that comes into consciousness may actually be additional information brought into the memory from external rather than internal sources. It may be that such retrocognitively retrieved information is the root source of many reincarnation experiences. The mind of the receiver may simply misinterpret this extra information as actual memory. Since the information doesn’t fit with current life experience, it is identified as memory from a past life.
The information may be verifiable, given that if it were retrieved through retrocognition, it came from a very real past. On the other hand, with no apparent limits on clairvoyant, real-time ability, the information may have come from current sources. In other words, the individual “remembering” a past life may be retrieving descriptive information from a distant location, perhaps even including information drawn from the very records that will be used by the investigators to verify it. If the individual is also using telepathic ability, some of that information may be drawn from relatives and friends of the person to be identified as the prior personality.
All of this is an alternate hypothesis not only to reincarnation but also to a number of other survival‑related experiences. Because of the apparent lack of limits in this hypothesis, it’s often known as a SUPER‑ESP or SUPER‑PSI HYPOTHESIS.
Stevenson and others have pointed out a number of difficulties in applying such a super‑psi explanation to reincarnation experiences, especially those involving children. Probably most important is the fact that psi is not shown to be in evidence in the individual’s experience in any other way. In other words, the child recalling that past life shows no sips of other psi experiences or abilities. Only the past‑life memories could fall under that heading. Given what we know about psi, it is highly unlikely that it would behave for that individual in such a single-minded way. In addition, the duration of the past‑life memories (how long they stick with the child) is so much longer and in such greater detail than other reported psi experiences that it is a stretch to apply the psi label to reincarnation.
That many of the subjects display unusual skills brings up another point refuting the use of super‑psi in these cases. Again, in looking at the vast number of spontaneous psi experiences, skills (and even deep-seated phobias and strung attractions) don’t show up as psi‑derived information; the content of such an information transfer would likely be too complex. The super‑psi hypothesis would almost have to be some other form of ESP for it to completely cover the cases such as those studied by Stevenson and other researchers.
Another problem in accepting this hypothesis comes from the recognition that those of us who have even very complex, informative psi experiences do not experience these as memories. Instead, we usually have a hard time identifying the source. In reincarnation cases, the individuals clearly see the information as related to a past life. Of course, the child could be led to believe the information is from his or her memory, but there are many cases where the parental expectation and influence is nil because of a lack of reincarnation belief in that culture or religion.
How we the targets selected if this is psi? In other words, how does the mind of a child decide who to center in on as the super-psi target? How is it that the targets are deceased persons? If super‑psi were operating in these cases, at least some of them should mistakenly bring in memories of someone currently living. Could the subjects be telepathically drawing information from an apparition of that personality? This still leaves the skill and xenoglossy questions unanswered. Also, the fact that the memories seem limited to a single person additionally weakens the super‑psi explanation.
Can super‑psi explain the transfer of birthmarks? A much more plausible explanation is that if there is some transfer of ‘”soul” to a new fetus from the prior personality, the prior personality may exert some psychokinetic influence on the developing fetus to manifest a mark. In other words, this soul or spirit is helping to create some semblance or relationship to the previous physical body. Since this personality now inhabits the new form, the continuity of memory from infancy through childhood is easier to accept as a possible explanation than super‑psi.
Again, the experiential difference is very important. There is a continuity of existence experienced by the individual who recalls a past life. With psi experience, no such continuity exists. There are clear demarcations. Of course, Stevenson and others have suggested that perhaps the “memories” are those of a psychic dream. An individual may experience the psi‑derived information in a dream, the point of view being that the dreamer is that person who is the target of the information. The memory may be that of a dream in which the individual was the prior personality. But, the factors of duration of the memories, the lack of other psi experiences (the lack of other psychic dreams), the focus of the memories on one person, and the birthmarks erode the value of dream memory as an explanation.
It has also been suggested that perhaps this is a particularly specific form of psi experience, which may be combined with other explanations. Combining ESP with cryptomnesia ‑‑ especially if one also brings in paramnesia and parental expectation and even fantasy as parts of the equation -‑ may create an acceptable psi explanation. However, there are still problems with the physical attributes and skill (and language) transfer, since such an explanation doesn’t fully cover them.
Reincarnation seems to be the simplest explanation. That is, unless, as Stephen Braude has recently pointed out, one considers the fact that we have little knowledge of the limits of psi. Psi abilities may, in reality, be capable of complex tasks that might simulate reincarnation and past‑life memories. And since we have more direct evidence of psi, it may be that the super‑psi hypothesis is actually simpler to accept than reincarnation. This debate has really only just begun.
Stevenson has also discussed another paranormal explanation: outside influence by a spirit or entity. In other words, could the “memories” be a transfer of information from an apparition to the child (cases of channeling or mediumship), or might these cases even be examples of possession? (Are you beginning to see connections between the three paranormal categories we’re exploring in this book?)
Throughout history, mediums and channelers have typically been adults, but there have been many cases of children as vehicles for information from discarnate entities. In some respects, using mediumship or channeling as an explanation for reincarnation is superior to using the super‑psi hypothesis, given that if a spirit were to enter the body of a living person, the personality of the spirit would show through, possibly even reflecting physical and language skills.
By defining possession as a spirit entering the body of a living person without that person’s permission, taking over all functions of the body and supplanting the living personality, one might stretch the experience to fit reincarnation. One way of looking at reincarnation is as a possession of a fetus by a discarnate entity. This personality that has survived death takes over the new human form, which, for all we know, might not have a soul to supplant. If one believes reincarnation is a recycling of existing souls, then this form of possession is reincarnation, and vice versa. Of course, most definitions of possession include a takeover of the body and a pushing aside of the soul already living in that body. Therefore, could it be that the possessing spirit enters the body well after birth and that the “memory” of a past life is just this possessing personality talking?
While this brings an interesting twist to the reincarnation question, as does using channeling or mediumship as an explanation for reincarnation, all three fail on several counts. First of all, with most mediumistic and channeling experiences, altered states of consciousness (ASC) accompany the visiting personality. These states of consciousness do not seem to accompany spontaneous past‑life recall. With channeling, there is also an awareness that the visiting spirit is there by permission. In the reincarnation experience, the individual has memories of being that prior personality and being reborn; there is no sense that someone has merely dropped in for a time. The duration of the past‑life memories also seems to argue against accepting this as an explanation.
With possession as a displacement of a living personality, there is no continuity from a past life. The possessing entity is from the outside, and according to such reports, behaves as a different personality rather than as the current personality’s memories of a past life. The fact that the memories of the past life fade out again throws a monkey wrench into this explanation. Here, as well, the duration issue is an important one. Given that these cases exhibit certain universal characteristics with regard to the ages at which the memories begin to manifest as well as when the memories fade, to consider (them as cases of) possession would be to believe that a possessing entity has a limited time period in which to possess the child before the child’s real personality comes through. Unlikely.
Most important in distinguishing reincarnation from any sort of spirit medium/possession hypothesis is the experience of the subjects themselves in describing what’s going on. They are remembering past lives. They are not speaking as outsiders who have taken over (with or without permission). They were the prior personality and they are now the current one ‑- this suggests a continuity of lives simply not present in channeling, mediumship, or possession cases.
Although clearly Stevenson has thoroughly investigated his cases and, as reviewed here, thought out a wide range of possible explanations, some have been critical of his field investigations. A primary concern is that not all of the cases (far from it) have been investigated by Stevenson directly, or by his immediate group of researchers at the University of Virginia. However, based on Stevenson’s and Alvarado’s descriptions of their work with their field investigators around the world, the investigators would appear to be fairly well trained in searching out all sources of potential contamination and fraud.
Stevenson’s critics have raised two other important questions.
The first is whether Stevenson and company “beautify” their work. In other words, comments have been made to suggest that not all details are available in the case reports, and that some details that might refute the cases were left out. Of course, this is a criticism that could be leveled at any field investigator, whether in parapsychology, anthropology, or sociology. To suggest that Stevenson or any field investigator leaves out details for the purpose of making the case stronger requires proof of such activities and such proof is not evident.
The second question relates to the method by which Stevenson records the information gathered. Apparently, even in these high-tech days, Stevenson still prefers taking notes by hand rather than using a tape recorder. As a field investigator myself, I am aware that unless you write very fast (perhaps shorthand), it’s tremendously difficult to get all the information down at the same time you’re trying to make and record personal observations. Given the number of times I’ve been misquoted by reporters, whose job is to take notes of what is happening and to report it accurately, I have a hard time accepting that all the details can be recorded by hand‑writing notes. But does this mean we have to dismiss his case studies? No, I wouldn’t say that. For example, if there is more than one investigator present, each taking notes, these notes can be compared, thereby picking up additional details a single note‑taker might have missed.
Based on the number of cases out there recorded by Stevenson (and undoubtedly an even greater number that are unreported or uninvestigated), and given the consistent features of the cases (both the universal attributes and the culturally bound and culturally consistent ones), there really does seem to be something going on that at the very least suggests reincarnation. The weight of the evidence, given the lengths to which investigators have gone in order to eliminate other explanations and possible contaminations, cannot be ignored.
But even Stevenson considers these cases (at least in the way he reports them) only “suggestive” of reincarnation, rather than as proof of it. Proof is a very difficult thing with reincarnation, as it is, we’ve learned, with human consciousness in general. However, given the number of cases out there, these are mighty “suggestive.”
In any event, these cases are more than a bit interesting. What’s a real shame is that unless those interested seek out the journals or hard‑to‑find volumes that report these cases (and I heartily encourage you to do so), the information most readily available to the curious is related to the past‑life experiences that are brought on through hypnotic regression. Let’s take a brief look at regression to past lives and why parapsychologists have a hard time accepting them as any sort of evidence of past lives. We’ll also look at where regression can be more appropriately applied and useful. [NOTE: to read more, pick up my ebook for Nook or for Kindle (see below)]
7. Stevenson and Samararatrie, “Three New Cases,” Journal of Scientific Exploration, vol. 2, no. 2, 1988, p. 237.
8. Mills, Antonia. “A Replication Study: Three Cases of Children in Northern India Who Are Said to Remember a Previous Life,” Journal Of Scientific Exploration, vol. 3, no. 2, 1989.