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Is Reincarnation True? The Research of Ian Stevenson

Posted on 24 April 2012, 19:38

We live in time and are in constant flux.  We grow.  We diminish.  But a question arises.  Has the process been going on for a very long time?  Possibly even before our present life on earth?  I can’t remember a single event before my third year, but my parents tell me I was very much alive and had all kinds of experiences before I turned two.  So my memory isn’t of much help.  Do others have longer memories, and can I learn from them?  Can they even remember being in a different body before their present one?  Does their intuition resonate with John L. Stoddard’s poem “Reincarnation”?

I know not how, I know not where,
But from my own heart’s mystic lore
I feel that I have breathed this air,
And walked this earth before;

And that in this, its latest form
My old-time spirit once more strives,
As it has fought through many a storm
In past, forgotten lives.

Many people dislike the thought of living several or many lives on this or any other material planet.  But science tells us that what we might prefer is not what counts.  What counts is the evidence.  Anyone who is familiar with the work of Ian Stevenson – the world’s most prominent reincarnation researcher – is likely to come away with new respect for this ages-old hypothesis, regardless of how appealing it might be.

Who is Ian Stevenson? Is he an authority we can trust?  Before his death in February 2007, his academic home was the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at the University of Virginia.  He has published hundreds of scholarly articles and 14 books.

He started doing conventional psychiatry, but beginning in 1960 he got into paranormal research when he stumbled across his first reincarnation case in Burma.  It changed his life.  One of his colleagues said that he was either making a colossal mistake or he is “the Galileo of the 20th century.”  For forty years critics have tried to poke holes in his research.  Their criticisms are important, for they keep us from drawing conclusions prematurely.  But the edifice so painstakingly built by Stevenson still stands, even though it’s not quite earthquake-proof.  We’ll see why below.

You might guess that Stevenson works with subjects who get regressed under hypnosis and start talking about past lives, or who go to a psychic and get a past-life reading.  This is not so. 

Stevenson, (below) in fact, dismisses most of this testimony as either fraudulent or self-deceived.  He is well aware that con artists often pose as psychics.  And he knows that hypnotized subjects are eager to please their hypnotist and supply the details of a “past life” asked for.  Though not intentionally trying to deceive the hypnotist, there is the constant danger that their imaginations will run wild and create a scenario on the spot, just as they do in dreams.  Stevenson (below) will have none of this.


Stevenson’s subjects are very young children who remember what feels to them like a past life.  Their memories of this life are as vivid, life-like, and – most startlingly – accurate as any child’s ordinary memories.  In particular they remember their past death.

Stevenson investigated over 3,000 cases of the reincarnation type.  Some are stronger than others.  Let’s consider the typical features of an ideally developed case.

A child of two, three, or four – let’s place her in India and call her Devi—begins talking about a former life in a different village.  Devi gives her former name, Sita, and the name of the village.  She also names and describes her mother, a favorite sister, and an influential teacher from that life.  She tells how she misses life in that village and especially her two children, who were little more than toddlers when she died after being bitten on the toe by a krait. 

She tells her parents she is homesick and wishes to visit her former home, which is never talked about and has never been visited by anyone in her family.

One day she runs up to an apparent stranger outside her home and, speaking with great joy, calls him “Teacher.”  The man is startled, and Devi’s mother runs up to apologize.  But the little girl insists she is Sita and knows him and that he was her teacher back in the other village.  By now Devi’s parents, both Hindu, begin to wonder if Devi might really be a reincarnation of someone named Sita who lived in a distant village.  Her parents begin to talk about their case, and someone brings it to the attention of one of Stevenson’s associates living in India.  The associate does some preliminary work, ascertains the case is genuine, and identifies a family in the alleged former village matching Devi’s description.  He even hears about the young mother who died by snakebite some six years earlier. 

Stevenson, who travels regularly to South Asia to investigate new cases and follow up on old ones, is notified, and he makes plans to visit Devi in a few months.  But he does not inform the families – either Devi’s or Sita’s—of his plans.

When he arrives in the district, his associate takes him to see Devi.  He asks the child to talk about her past life, and he writes down everything she says.  She describes her home, a small temple across the street dedicated to Rama, a vegetable vendor who had a parrot that could recite one line from the Vedas, and many other particulars.  He gets permission from Devi’s parents to take her – she is just shy of her fourth birthday – to the alleged former village.  He stays overnight in Devi’s home, and the next day they set out in an automobile, the first Devi has ever ridden in.  It takes two hours to cover the 34 km distance over rutted lanes, and on the way he jots down more of Devi’s memories.  She shows tremendous excitement.

When they get to the village, the party gets out of the car, and Stevenson asks Devi to lead them to her former home.  The child does not hesitate, and they wind their way through narrow lanes, with a curious crowd beginning to gather.  “Here is my home,” she exclaims, “but it used to be white.”  Stevenson’s associate points out that this is not the house he visited her former family in, but Stevenson notes the temple directly across the street.  The residents of the house are unknown to Devi and tell Stevenson’s associate they’ve been renting the house for five years.  Then they agree to lead the party to their landlord’s home.

When they arrive there, Devi recognizes an uncle and runs up to him, telling him she is Sita.  He is amazed but remembers the earlier visit from Stevenson’s associate.  He tells the party to wait and sets out at a run.  He returns with a dozen people around him, and Sita squeals in delight.  First she runs to her mother, then turns to her two children, now much bigger than she is, and begins to talk to them using terms of endearment that her husband, also present with his new wife, recognizes.  It’s clear she knows most of the people her uncle brought along, and most become convinced that Devi is indeed Sita.  They also verify that her former home was white, that she died of snakebite, and that the vendor with the parrot still makes his rounds.  Someone produces a family photograph, and she points to and names most of the faces.  She asks about her favorite sister, but she has married and moved to a different town.  When it’s time to go, Devi/Sita begs to stay with her old family, but she’s carried away waving and shrieking.

In the following months she asks repeatedly to be taken for another visit.  But once she starts school, the old memories begin to fade, and so does her interest in a visit. Eventually she learns to regard her present mother as her “true mother.”  Stevenson visits Devi seven years later and finds her a normally developing girl with only the vaguest memories of her former life.

What do we do with a case like this?  If it were unique, it would certainly arouse curiosity, but it would not convince.  What’s so convincing about Stevenson’s research is the sheer number of cases.  Described in bland academic prose, published by the University Press of Virginia for consumption by scholars, they are no easy target for debunkers.  Dr. Albert Stunkard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, said of him:  “I know there are a lot of people who disagree with him, but most of their criticism is done without reviewing his work.  He’s an incredible methodologist, hard to fault.  He’s very convincing, but I’m not convinced.  Which is not to say that his research isn’t valid.”

And that may be your response too.  But if it is, I suspect that, like Dr. Stunkard, Stevenson’s findings are just too hard to believe.  But what are the alternatives?  How do you explain what happened to Devi if reincarnation is not true?

There are two more or less plausible alternatives.  These are not original with me.  The first was put forth by John Hick, a prominent Christian theologian.

I call it the “mental corpse” theory, and it goes like this.  We all know that our living body turns into a lifeless corpse at death.  What about our living mind?  What happens to it at death? 

Instead of being wiped out without a trace, the theory goes, maybe it leaves behind a corpse of its own, a mental corpse.  Since the mind is invisible, its corpse would also be invisible, so we cannot see it; we cannot see where it is or where it is not.  We can think of it as floating freely somewhere in the atmosphere.  Now a mental corpse is full of information, of memories belonging to the person whose living mind it used to be.  It’s like an invisible hard drive with an enormous amount of information on it, but the information is useless without a living mind to “read” it.  And that is what the young, unformed, impressionable mind of Devi does when it makes contact with Sita’s mental corpse.  And that’s how Devi knows so much about Sita’s life and even comes to regard Sita’s life as her own.  This theory, if true, would explain all the facts of the case, but without assuming reincarnation.

For me it boils down to what is more bizarre: mental corpses or reincarnation.  Keep in mind that reincarnation has mysteries of its own.  One of them is how a living, conscious being with a rich history could make contact with a fetus and embed all this history into a newly hatched physical organism’s brain. 

The second alternative to reincarnation is possession.  This theory says that Devi can remember much of Sita’s life because Sita is an earthbound spirit who has taken possession of, or is sharing, Devi’s little body and young impressionable mind.  As a result, little Devi not only knows her own parents and siblings and immediate environment, but has memories of Sita’s as well.

Stevenson gives a lot of attention to the possession hypothesis in cases like Devi-Sita; he probably regards it as the greatest challenge to the reincarnation hypothesis.  He admits his arguments are less than compelling, but he does feel that the reincarnation hypothesis is more plausible than possession.  In more obvious cases of possession, labeled “spirit possession syndrome” by professionals who work in this area, the possessing spirit (or what seems to be a possessing spirit) usually interferes with the healthy development of its victim: the result is mental and sometimes physical illness.  But the very young children who, according to this theory, are possessed, seldom show symptoms of mental or physical illness.  They do not need to be released (or exorcised, to use an old-fashion term) from an attached spirit in order to recover their health.  So Stevenson is inclined to see reincarnation as the better hypothesis.

The scope of Stevenson’s work is immense.  I don’t have the space to discuss his magnum opus, Reincarnation and Biology, which describes over 200 cases in which remembered wounds, usually fatal, suffered by the previous person correspond to birthmarks on the child’s body.  All I hope to do here is make the reader aware of Stevenson’s research.  Perhaps the best way to begin is to Google “Ian Stevenson.”

Stafford Betty’s latest novel The Imprisoned Splendor

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