Humans have pondered the idea of reincarnation for ages. This is reflected in widespread cultural and religious beliefs about reincarnation.
Reincarnation was rated the third most compelling evidence of the survival of consciousness, following mental and physical mediumship, in this IONS essay on the survival of consciousness. This blog gives a high-level layperson overview of the topic of reincarnation and research on it. Please read the IONS Science Team essay for detailed information and references.
Thousands of anecdotes about reincarnation have been reported – but how do they suggest that consciousness may survive physical death? In this article, we’ll review some theories on reincarnation and if it could suggest survival.
How does reincarnation suggest survival
Reincarnation can be seen as evidence of the survival of consciousness since there are thousands of reported cases with striking similarities and synchronicities between a deceased person and the purportedly reincarnated person1. Similarities that could be due to chance – but are remarkable and have few credible alternative explanations.
In addition, the magnitude of some of the cases and the patterns between them may imply there’s more than mere chance at play.
How does reincarnation happen? Different theories
Assuming reincarnation is real, how does it happen? This section is speculative by nature but theories about reincarnation may help guide future research. Reincarnation may not necessarily involve the concept of a soul. Buddhists, for example, do not believe in souls and yet hold reincarnation as a central concept.
Whatley Carington was a psychical researcher who came up with another explanation. He hypothesized that the mind was a network of idea/information packets that can travel through the mind known as “psychons”1. His hypothesis proposed reincarnation could be due to psychons surviving physical death and connecting with other psychon systems – almost like software being installed on new hardware.
Jürgen Keil had similar ideas1. He proposed that during the last phase of life, the body could emit “thought bundles” that could exist independently and occasionally attach to a newborn child.
Ian Stevenson, a professor at the University of Virginia and the most prolific researchers on reincarnation, believed that the subtle/astral body plays a critical role as the medium for reincarnation1. He referred to this body as “psychophore”, which translates into soul-bearing. The psychophore is an “identity packet” – almost like a template containing memories, behaviors, and physical traits that would be imprinted in the new person.
An alternative view is proposed by James Matlock. He believes reincarnation could be more akin to possession – the reincarnated mind takes over a baby’s body in the womb. This is not necessarily a total replacement of the baby’s own mind. Matlock believes that memories stored in the subconscious emerge to our conscious awareness after rebirth as past-life memory. Replacement reincarnation is possible before or after birth and suggests that a person’s mind can be swapped for the mind adhering to the deceased person. Temporary possession might also be possible – Lurancy Vennum is one famous purported case.
It should be noted that the theories mentioned above are just hypotheses and that no one has yet proved the mechanism behind reincarnation.
Reported signs of reincarnation
There have been many reported signs of reincarnation. Some commonly described phenomena include:
- Deja vu
- Child prodigies
- Birthmarks consistent with injuries/piercings/other physical markers in a past life (or even the marks from ropes indents or breathing tubes)
- Pregnancy dreams where the mother-to-be gets informed about the child’s past identity
- Spontaneous involuntary memories arising in a waking state or dreams
- Pregnant women craving foods the deceased person liked
- Child behaving like the deceased person
- Past life readings/regressions (scientifically the weakest evidence)
A combination of several of the above signs is often needed to make powerful claims about the survival of consciousness through reincarnation.
Ian Stevenson – the father of reincarnation research
So how do we place all these striking anecdotes into a scientific framework?
Ian Stevenson is considered the pioneer in reincarnation studies. In 1961, he received a grant to study reincarnation cases in India and Sri Lanka.
Being the first in the field, he needed to develop a methodology for reincarnation research. He sought inspiration from researchers studying apparitions on a case study basis.
Stevenson collected witnesses in the family of the surviving person and the previous person (if identified). If the previous person was not found, the first step was to locate them. He also studied death and autopsy reports when available.
During his career, Stevenson published 2 books and investigated over 300 cases. Over the years, colleagues joined in and reported their own cases to a shared database (Division of Perceptual Studies). Some of the most well-known are Satwant Pasricha, Erlendur Haraldsson, Jürgen Keil, Antonia Mills, and Jim B Tucker.
In 2013, the database had over 2500 cases! Of them, 1700 cases, or 68% had identified previous persons (those were labeled “solved cases”).
Reincarnation: Anecdotal evidence
This database holds tremendous potential for studying patterns in reincarnation. Evident patterns can be one of the strongest forms of support for survival.
While there are differences, the observed patterns often go like this:
Children could be more likely to talk about their past lives between ages 2-5. The memories then seem to fade away. It should be said that this is not a consistent pattern – about one-third of the studied cases retained memories until adult age (an example: Marta Lorenz).
A majority of the studied participants were male. Whether this is representative of the actual distribution or if it depends on social factors is not clear.
About 20% talk about intermission memories (example: Purnima Ekanayake). Sometimes, children come up with verifiable claims about perceptions from the material world that happened between lives. If this could be reported in a scientific setting, it would provide a strong case for reincarnation.
An interesting observation is that in most cases, the locations for death and rebirth are geographically close. International solved cases are rare.
Many of the children studied could recall past-life memories from a waking, ordinary state of consciousness. As they grow up, the memories flash by in dreams, nightmares, and altered states of consciousness rather than in baseline consciousness. This may be due to cultural conditioning and societal beliefs blocking the memories in a waking state.
The cause of death is often remembered by the person and tended to be violent in 51% of the cases. For natural deaths, it seems like the younger the person was when passing, the more likely they were to reincarnate.
In many cases, there could be a sense of “unfinished business”, potentially caused by premature death.
While anecdotal evidence will always be subject to potential untruths or memory distortions, it’s harder to find an alternative explanation for physical patterns.
One such is when the reincarnated person expresses behaviors of the previous person and/or possesses skills they reportedly had. Xenoglossy, or knowing a foreign language without having studied it, was reported in several cases. Child prodigies were only reported in two cases.
Physical signs are quite remarkable and come in many forms. It can be birthmarks corresponding to deadly injuries or healed wounds, rope indentations, tattoos, styes, ulcers, or piercings. The placement of the birthmark can sometimes correspond to the spot of something that characterized the past person.
In Japan and East Asia, where reincarnation beliefs are prevalent, dead bodies are marked at specific spots to produce a birthmark on the person’s new body!
Similarly, congenital disabilities corresponding to injuries have been reported in several cases. An example is an American boy, William. He was born with heart defects similar to the wounds of a policeman who was killed five years prior – by being shot in the chest. William correctly recalled episodes of this man’s life. The most astounding part? The man was William’s own grandfather!
Intermission is the period between incarnations. Around 20% of children spoke about this.
Intermission consists of five stages, where the first three are similar to the stages of a near-death experience (NDE). These are the stages:
- Transitional stage following death – often until the body is buried/cremated or disposed
- More stable period, often in a fixed location (culturally dependent)
- Choice of parents
- Gestation in the womb
- Birth and its immediate aftermath
Intermission cannot be confirmed – but veridical perceptions of the material world have been made at every stage.
Where is the location where intermission takes place? Different cultures have different answers – while Westerners believe it’s in heaven, Asian cultures think it’s an earthly environment. Many tribal cultures speak about a place on Earth across some kind of barrier or underground.
Traits in purportedly reincarnated children
Children with past life memories are cognitively ahead of their peers and tend to do better in school. They can have slightly more dissociative tendencies, rapid personality changes, and be more prone to daydreaming.
Some were reported to be more nervous or have behavioral problems. This could be from experiencing PTSD from the death. The fact that nervousness is more often reported in violent death cases may strengthen this hypothesis. Behavioral problems are also higher in countries with a higher number of brutal deaths (for example, 80% of survival cases in Lebanon are related to violence) and lower in the US, where natural deaths are more prevalent.
Phobias associated with violent deaths are reported in all cultures.
Past-life memories may be triggered by things the person sees or hears – especially at older ages when memories are less likely to come spontaneously and more often in dreams or altered states of consciousness.
Past-life memories can be more likely to occur when there’s unfinished business, such as:
- Leaving children behind
- Business or personal debt
- Valuables hidden
The latter is referred to as “buried treasure”. In some cases, the reincarnated child could correctly locate it!
Not surprisingly, reincarnation is subject to skepticism. Critics mention the “subjective illusion of significance”, that is, looking for patterns where there are none. The possibility of random coincidences should be considered – verbal memory claims should be reviewed only if they defy chance. This is also the standard approach in reincarnation research.
Other potential pitfalls are memory distortions and researchers spending only limited time with supposedly reincarnated children.
In general, skeptics fail to see the level of sophistication in reincarnation research when delivering their criticism. Ian Stevenson has developed a robust protocol that considers most of their points.
The role of cultural conditioning is also mentioned, with the argument that most reported cases come from countries where beliefs in reincarnation are strong. However, there are still lots of cases in the West!
The Druze example contradicts cultural conditioning: according to the beliefs of the Druze, a person’s soul enters a new body being born the moment they pass away.
Numerous cases have been studied among the Druze. And despite this cultural belief, there are no solved cases of immediate rebirth. Intermission time is on average shorter than in other cultures, but it’s not zero. The Druze believe in the reported cases even though they go against their culture. They explain them by the existence of shorter intermediate lives that are not reported.
Stevenson had an idea of why case features sometimes reflect cultural beliefs: if the mind survives death, it would be natural for the beliefs and ideals held in life to be passed on. Ultimately, the power of our minds could be so strong that what we believe to be true is what manifests. So a person who died believing they could not reincarnate as a different sex might not do so.
Social construction is another criticism. It implies that reports from witnesses are colored by their beliefs. This is something to take into account when studying reincarnation.
Maybe the most probable criticism is paramnesia or memory distortions. Since it exists with current life memories, it is sensible to believe that it also exists with past life memories.
One philosophical objection is that of population growth. If there was a set number of souls or quanta in rotation, how come there are more and more people on Earth?
This has a simple answer: the reported cases have shown that intermission time is not fixed. Shorter intermission times would give the illusion of population growth. Interestingly, intermission times are shorter in Asian societies than in the West – and the studied areas in Asia are generally more densely populated.
Some critics talk about the complexity of souls and karma being part of the “reincarnation package”. Understanding reincarnation would include finding out how souls work and how karma is passed on. As previously stated, reincarnation does not necessarily rely on souls and karma.
Another critique is that parents convince the child that it’s reincarnated for various reasons. Studies suggest the opposite: in many cultures, parents try to suppress rather than encourage past-life memories out of fear they will lose their child to past families. The only exception is when the previous person is famous (e.g.: John F Kennedy).
Finally, as with many noetic phenomena, reincarnation is hard to “prove” scientifically with our current level of knowledge. This doesn’t mean it never will, though – perhaps it’s time to think outside the box!
Could this reincarnation experiment suggest survival?
In the IONS essay mentioned above, we shared that reincarnation was rated the third most compelling evidence of the survival of consciousness.
Later on in the essay, 422 people were asked what types of future experiments would make them believe more strongly in the survival of consciousness. One of the top three was the following proposed reincarnation experiment:
A dying person would be asked to put some objects in a sealed box, which would then be given to researchers. No one would know about the box’s content (meaning, no possibility of clairvoyance).
A child claiming to be the reincarnated person would be located and asked to describe the objects in the sealed box. Only then would the sealed box be opened. Positive results for this experiment would include an accurate description of the deceased person’s objects.
Is it possible to “command” someone to be reborn like this? Since many cultures have drawn marks on dead bodies and then found reincarnated babies with birthmarks at those exact spots, “active” rebirths could be plausible.
The strength in reincarnation as suggesting survival may lie in the quantity and quality. Quantitatively, thousands of cases have been studied, with the previous person identified in the majority of those. Each case often contains multiple facts suggesting survival – the combined probability of it being mere chance is very low.
Qualitatively, some phenomena seem too surreal to be explained by anything but survival. While it’s important to stay objective, some evidence is strong enough to make even the most conservative skeptic raise an eyebrow. More targeted experiments like the one described above would help rule out – or make room for – alternative explanations.