Reincarnation Research and Myths of Scientific Practice

Between you and me, I’m so not into the idea that karma will eventually get me and drag my poor soul back into a new body after I die. At the risk of appearing a gloomy Gus, to me one life seems just about enough.

The very idea of reincarnation, of course, has a long tradition not only in Eastern religions but also in Western philosophy. From the days of Socrates and Pythagoras, the idea of repeated lives has survived in writings of Renaissance thinkers like Giordano Bruno and finally became absorbed in New Age ideologies from the nineteenth century, where they have lingered up to the present day. Today, professional philosophers seriously consider the question of reincarnation only occasionally. In a discussion of the problem of personal identity, Derek Parfit suggested the type of empirical evidence that might convince him:

Derek Parfit (Photo credit: Steve Pyke/Getty Images)
Derek Parfit (Photo credit: Steve Pyke/Getty Images)

One such piece of evidence might be this. A Japanese woman might claim to remember living a life as a Celtic hunter and warrior in the Bronze Age. On the basis of her apparent memories she might make many predictions which could be checked by archaeologists. Thus she might claim to remember having a bronze bracelet, shaped like two fighting dragons. And she might claim that she remembers burying this bracelet beside some particular megalith, just before the battle in which she was killed. Archaeologists might now find just such a bracelet buried in this spot, and at least 2,000 years old. This Japanese woman might make many other such predictions, all of which are verified” (Parfit, 1984, p. 277).

Ian Stevenson (1918-2007)

In the 1960s, the respected Canadian-born psychiatrist Ian Stevenson single-handedly created a new field of unorthodox science by trying to find indications of truth in reincarnation anecdotes. Stevenson set himself apart from most previous authors writing on phenomena suggestive of reincarnation through his scientific credentials and his rigorous methodology. A seasoned and widely respected professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, Stevenson rejected hypnotic regression as a method to uncover supposed memories of past lives, and instead investigated hundreds of spontaneous claims of reincarnation memories through interviews and cross-examinations of claimants and witnesses.

Typically, a case investigated by Stevenson would look like this: A child alarms their parents by claiming to be a different person, someone who had died. To the parents’ added horror, the child would also often demand to be reunited with their ‘real’ family. Despite disencouragement (and sometimes threats and caning) from their parents, the child continues to exhibit highly unusual and specific memories and behaviours, which are eventually used to identify an actual person who had lived and died in an often considerable distance, and whom the child and their family in all likelihood has had no conventional knowledge of. Perhaps most incredibly, the strongest cases also involve birthmarks which strikingly correspond to (usually) fatal wounds in the ‘remembered’ person, who had nearly always died of an unnatural cause such as accident, murder and suicide.

Attempting to match the details in question, in dozens of rigorously documented cases Stevenson was able to locate ‘previous personalities’ by following the claims made by these children. Most though by no means all of Stevenson’s investigations took place in India and other countries where the belief in reincarnation is widespread and claimants not as difficult to come by and to openly investigate as in the enlightened West.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

An unlikely advocate of Stevenson’s research was the great sceptic regarding otherworldly things, Carl Sagan. In his popular science classic, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan observed that this new field of study into children who “sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation”, deserved “serious study” (Sagan, 1995, p. 285).

This, however, was the last we heard of Sagan on the matter. But other investigators – such as the Icelandic psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson, the Canadian anthropologist Antonia Mills, and the German-born psychologist Jürgen Keil at the University of Tasmania – began to independently research similar cases. Stevenson died in 2007 but has been succeeded at the University of Virginia by fellow psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker, who specialises in the investigation of Western cases. Another leading and scientifically hard-nosed expert of reincarnation research is the anthropologist James G. Matlock, currently a Research Fellow at the Parapsychology Foundation, whose bibliography of online resources is a useful collection for serious literature on this mind-boggling phenomenon.

ReincarnationTogether with Stevenson’s records, well-documented cases published by these and other authors display features that dramatically exceed those suggested by Parfit as acceptable evidence for reincarnation. Phenomenologically, they comprise the following variable but quite robust features:

  • talk about alleged past-life memories begins at the age of 2-5 and ceases at the age of 5-8;
  • alleged memories are narrated repeatedly and with strong emphasis;
  • social roles and professional occupations of the alleged previous personality (PP) are acted out in play;
  • mention of the cause of (usually violent) death
  • emotional conflicts due to ambiguity of family or sex membership;
  • display of unlearned skills (including basic foreign language skills) as well as propositional knowledge (of names, places, persons, etc.) not plausibly acquired in the present life
  • unusual behaviour and traits corresponding to the PP, such as phobias, aversions, obsessions, penchants;
  • occasionally, alcohol or drug addictions that were manifest in the PP;
  • sexual precocity and gender dysphoria (where the PP belonged to a different sex);
  • birthmarks, differing in etiological features such as size, shape and colour from conventional birthmarks and other relevant birth anomalies, significantly corresponding to wounds involved in the death of the PP;

A more recent finding is that children relating a violent death in the PP occasionally display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which do not seem to correlate with any biographical events, but to circumstances of the allegedly remembered mode of death (cf. Haraldsson, 2003).

Neither Stevenson himself nor any of his colleagues have claimed that their material actually provides compelling proof of reincarnation. While Parfit appeared curiously unaware of this literature (as far as I’m aware, he never betrayed the slightest knowledge of it), other respected philosophers like Curt Ducasse, Robert Almeder and Stephen Braude have taken it seriously as an empirical basis for discussions of the age-old question of reincarnation.

But what about the ‘scientific community’? Isn’t the fact that you probably never heard about this kind of research sufficient evidence that there must be something fundamentally wrong with it?

After all, according to a rather widespread assumption about standards of scientific practice, anomalies irresistibly attract scientists like light attracts the proverbial moth. For in order to be a ‘real’ scientist you are expected to constantly challenge your pet theories about how the world works, always look for refuting instances that may indicate you’re wrong, and follow the evidence wherever it leads and whether you personally like it or not. The more outlandish an anomaly reported by more than one qualified and critical observer, so the myth goes, the quicker it attracts other scientists, ultimately producing a true landslide of opinion in the ‘scientific community’, which is then faithfully reflected on the pages of mainstream science journals and in textbooks.

skeptical_inquirer_ndeIf you did hear about the work of Stevenson and colleagues, chances are that your informants weren’t trained scientists who personally scrutinized the data with an open mind, and published their critiques in peer-reviewed science journals or discussed them at academic conferences. Instead, the public discourse – including entries on all sorts of unorthodox matters on Wikipedia – is dominated by self-appointed guardians of ‘Science and Reason’ organised worldwide in so-called Skeptics associations, represented by professional enlightenment crusaders such as James Randi and Michael Shermer in the US and Richard Dawkins and Richard Wiseman in the UK. As previously observed by my colleague Rebekah Higgitt, some of the most active and visible representatives of the Skeptics movement profess to impartially stick to evidence, but ultimately give science a bad name by relying on aggressive polemics and derision of opponents.

Stevenson himself sometimes complained that what frustrated him much more than misrepresentations of his research particularly in the popular media was the almost complete silence by the ‘scientific community’. Rather than offering informed criticisms of Stevenson’s research, most fellow scientists have in fact simply ignored it. That’s why there’s a good chance that we will never know what is behind the strange facts collected and published by Stevenson and colleagues. Stevenson is dead, other senior researchers are retired, and there is no next generation of serious, qualified researchers in sight, let alone career opportunities for young scientists who might want to give this potentially revolutionary kind of research a shot.

But why am I telling you all this? Certainly not because I want to convince you that reincarnation is a fact. Impressive as the best cases and the scientific credentials of their investigators are, personally I’m not convinced that they unambiguously prove reincarnation. But to me it seems that we are dealing with a quite robust body of anomalous data in serious need of explanation.

And given my historical research on the links between science and the ‘occult’, I cannot but note a striking consistency in the academic reception of elite unorthodox science over time. Presently, I’m working on an article reconstructing the work of William James, the ‘father’ of modern American psychology, with the spiritualist medium Leonora Piper. In one of his articles on psychical research, James problematized certain “social prejudices which scientific men themselves obey”, and briefly described his futile attempts to motivate scientific colleagues to independently test Mrs. Piper as an example:

William James (1842-1910)
William James (1842-1910)

I invite eight of my scientific colleagues severally to come to my house at their own time, and sit with a medium for whom the evidence already published in our Proceedings [of the Society for Psychical Research] had been most noteworthy. Although it means at worst the waste of the hour for each, five of them decline the adventure. I then beg the ‘Commission’ connected with the chair of a certain learned psychologist in a neighbouring university to examine the same medium, whom Mr. Hodgson [the main investigator of the medium] and I offer at our own expense to send and leave with them. They also have to be excused from any such entanglement. I advise another psychological friend to look into this medium’s case, but he replies that it is useless, for if he should get such results as I report, he would (being suggestible) simply believe himself hallucinated. When I propose as a remedy that he should remain in the background and take notes, whilst his wife has the sitting, he explains that he can never consent to his wife’s presence at such performances. This friend of mine writes ex cathedra on the subject of psychical research, declaring (I need hardly add) that there is nothing in it; the chair of the psychologist with the Commission was founded by a spiritist, partly with a view to investigate mediums; and one of the five colleagues who declined my invitation is widely quoted as an effective critic of our evidence” (James, 1901, p. 15).

Bear with me for further details on this intriguing episode, which I hope to unpack in my article in the context of the professionalization of psychology occurring at the time of James’s mediumship research.

Now to me it seems obvious that radically empirical research into mediumship and children claiming past lives can provoke profound fears and irrational knee-jerk responses, touching as they do on deep and potentially scary existential issues – the question of life after death, the privacy of the self, the very nature and limits of knowledge, etc. As a historian, that’s why I find the study of the complex links between science and the ‘occult’ so rewarding: it cuts right through a massive thicket of basic assumptions about the supposed intrinsic rationality of scientific practice. Not least, a critical comparison of actual events and debates with their representations in retroactively whitewashed popular histories of science highlights the important function of history as a powerful means to determine and maintain the very scope and limits of permissible scientific questions.

At the same time it would be wrong to claim that unorthodox sciences investigating reported phenomena traditionally associated with metaphysical problems stand isolated in their academic neglect. You really don’t have to be a historian or sociologist of science, or familiar with the writings of Thomas Kuhn or Harry Collins, to realise that scientists as a rule have never been particularly fond of anomalies or serious challenges of scientific and medical paradigms even in less fundamental and comparatively trivial matters. Especially not, perhaps, since the sciences were transformed into professional careers during the nineteenth century.

If you’re a scientist or academic yourself, or have friends who are, you’re probably already well aware that intellectual freedom only goes as far as resources, time, career opportunities, peer and institutional support, and not least cultural biases regulated to an alarming degree by self-appointed reality sheriffs and their journalistic henchmen permit it to go.

Bibliography

Almeder, R. (1992). Death and Personal Survival. The Evidence for Life After Death. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Haraldsson, E. (2000). Birthmarks and claims of previous-life memories: I. The case of Purnima Ekanayake. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 16-25 [PDF link].

Haraldsson, E. (2000). Birthmarks and claims of previous-life memories: II. The case of Chatura Karunaratne. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 82-92 [PDF link]

Haraldsson, E. (2003). Children who speak of past-life experiences: Is there a psychological explanation? Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 76, 55-67 [PDF link].

Haraldsson, E., & Abu-Izzeddin, M. (2004). Three randomly selected Lebanese cases of children who claim memories of a previous life. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 68, 65-85 [PDF link].

James, W. (1901). Frederic Myers’s service to psychology. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 17, 13-23.

Keil, J., & Stevenson, I. (1999). Do cases of the reincarnation type show similar features over many years? A study of Turkish cases a generation apart. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 13, 189-198 [PDF link].

Keil, J., & Tucker, J. B. (2005). Children who claim to remember previous lives: cases with written records made before the previous personality was identified. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 19, 91-101 [PDF link].

Kelly, E. W. (Ed., 2013). Science, the Self, and Survival after Death. Selected Writings of Ian Stevenson. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Matlock, J. G. (1990). Past life memory case studies. In S. Krippner (Ed.), Advances in Parapsychological Research, Vol. 6 (pp. 187-267). Jefferson, NC: McFarland [PDF link].

Matlock, J. (1997). Review of Reincarnation: A Critical Examination by P. Edwards. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 11, 570-573 [PDF link].

Mills, A., & Tucker, J. B. (2014), Past life experiences. In E. Cardeña, S. J. Lynn, & S. Krippner (Eds.) Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence (second edition, pp. 303-332). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Mills, A., Haraldsson, E., & Keil, J. (1994). Replication studies of cases suggestive of reincarnation by three different investigators. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 88, 207-219 [PDF link].

Sagan, C. (1995). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House.

Stevenson, I. (1974). Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (Preface by Curt Ducasse). Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

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

Stevenson, I. (2003). European Cases of the Reincarnation Type. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

Tucker, J. B. (2009). Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives. London: Piatkus.

© Andreas Sommer

19 thoughts on “Reincarnation Research and Myths of Scientific Practice

  1. Hi Andreas … really enjoy your site.
    Here’s Prof. Jesse Bering’s open minded article at Scientific American on Prof. Stevenson’s work.

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/ian-stevensone28099s-case-for-the-afterlife-are-we-e28098skepticse28099-really-just-cynics/

    If you look there are no comments! – but there was an extensive list which have been removed. Just for the record and FYI there was this response by Bering to one commenter who dismissed Stevenson’s work. It comes under “2:00 pm 11/3/2013” (by Bering) if you scroll down a bit in this Webcache document where someone else quoted Bering. Hopefully this won’t disappear also. I just thought it was a great response by him.

    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:3jqlZFZEG9cJ:www.skepticforum.com/viewtopic.php%3Ft%3D21849%26start%3D40+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk

    Thought you would be interested. Best wishes!

    • Thanks, Alan! Bering’s comment is worthwhile reproducing, so here we go:

      30. jessebering
      2:00 pm 11/3/2013

      Science has an obvious history of putting the cart of empirical observation before the horse of theory, as the field of epidemiology can clearly attest with regard to the precise mechanisms of viral bacteriology, or Darwinian evolutionary biologists can surely sympathize with respect to formal genetics. The documentation of anomalous data, including a feverish attention to ruling out mechanisms currently known to science, is no more and no less than evidence of the inexplicable. Such inexplicable data, in my opinion, Stevenson established surely enough. In fact, it’s not just my opinion. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan, no less, identified Stevenson’s research program on children’s memories of previous lives as deserving of serious scientific scrutiny. (Sam Harris also alluded to these data as being so worthy in his book, The End of Faith.) Now, perhaps you’re a better scientist than Carl Sagan, David Cummings, but the fact that the man who penned the well-trod atheistic credo of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” which you clearly subscribe to as an atheist, saw Stevenson’s work as fit to analyze in close detail suggests, to me, that it’s not a collection of “mere anecdotal data” and a far cry from Creationism. As for the cognitive construct of apophenia, I’m more than familiar with the concept and wrote about it at some length in The Belief Instinct, especially its symptomology in schizophrenia and the tendency to promiscuously attribute causal links where none exist. But having read many (in fact, most) of Stevenson’s case reports closely, I see no evidence whatever of this being a satisfactory explanation for his observations. And as a general note, it’s rather easy to dismiss an entirety of a work on the basis of a broad theory (of “apophenia,” “anecdotes,” “fear of death,” “confirmation bias,” and so on), but should you ever wish to actually engage in the work itself, rather than simply comment on second-hand accounts such as this one, I assure you that you would find it considerably more difficult to wave off individual case reports as breezily as you’ve attempted to do here. Almost none can be easily brushed aside with stock from the skeptic’s go-to barrel: fraud, cryptoamnesia, apophenia, chance, distorted memories, parents’ reincarnation beliefs, culture, leading questions, conflating conversations, and so on. He was aware of them all. (Earlier in his career, he’d written *the* textbook on psychiatric interviewing techniques, don’t forget, so he was impressively well-versed on these issues). And that’s the rub for you … when the occasional rebellious, stubborn data refuse to fit your preferred theoretical model, it’s rather annoying, isn’t it? None of this is to say, alas, that I personally believe in reincarnation. I don’t, at this stage in my thinking. But neither am I afraid to engage meaningfully in the possibility, however remote, that I’m dead wrong. What is the mechanism? I’ve no idea. Stevenson had no idea, either, and he admitted as much. Would you rather he invented or concocted some explanation simply to satisfy your demand for answers? He could only surmise that his data suggested the brain and mind were orthogonal. “Certainly the mind expresses itself through the brain,” Stevenson once wrote. “Anyone can prove this to himself with an ounce or two of whiskey. [This] does not, however, prove the identity of mind and brain. When we squeeze a sponge, water runs out, but this does not make water a product of the sponge.” In the tradition of Victorian parapsychology, Stevenson saw the brain as, essentially, a kind of lens or prism through which the mind, as “energy” (and he hated that word just as much as I do, but he knew there was just no way to properly describe such a hypothetical entity) is filtered. An individual’s consciousness is canalized by his or her brain, in this sense, rather than created by it. Or to use yet another metaphor, the brain is like a radio receiver, with the airwaves existing whether or not there’s a device around to receive and transmit these signals. Reincarnation, he stressed, only complements rather than contradicts what we already know about evolution and genetics, helping to fill in some of the (big) gaps about embryology and an individual’s personality that modern science presently allocates to “chance” alone. In short, I’ve as healthy a disrespect for shoddy work as the next scientist and have earned my atheistic credentials, but I’m also willing to educate myself on opposing claims by reading firsthand accounts rather than another skeptic’s dubious take.

  2. Science is confined only to study the secrets of material universe. Even till date science is unable to know what is consciousness. Science is not a competent tool to know the life after death. one should have to evolve a new way to know the ultimate

    • “Between you and me, I’m so not into the idea that karma will eventually get me and drag my poor soul back into a new body after I die.”

      It is not “karma” that will bring you back. More probably your own choice, though it does seem to be na unavoidable process. Personally I have no doubt that the spiritual phenomenon is a dimensional one. We do have a spiritual or dimensional body and “consciousness” retains its existence and individuality even after death of the physical/material body.

      For what little it might be worth, on the only occasion I underwent a hypnotic regression, what I “saw” at one ponit, as well as some other things, was myself as a Knight by the name Ezequiel, being slain by Turks in a battle. When the regressionist asked what year this was, I spurted out 1480, but after having done so my thoughts were that the crusades had been in the 12th & 13th centuries, not in the 15th. Upon arriving home, however, I google-searched, and found that Indeed there was a battle against the Ottomans in 1480, at the Seige of Rhodes.

      Not proof to anyone else, but to me, together with other factors, it was quite strong.evidence, as I had never even heard of the Seige of Rhodes.

  3. I’m wondering if you are familiar with Rudolph Steiner’s work? The anthroposophical view embraces both science and spirituality, neither one invalidating the other. Obviously, reincarnation is a difficult field of study as direct observation is impossible, but as you mentioned, data can be gathered to support one’s claim of reincarnation. Different methods of investigation are needed. At the end of the day, the subject requires open-mindedness, a trait often lacking in the scientific community.

    • Yes, and I can see why Anthroposophy is so attractive to many. But personally, I’m deeply suspicious of any doctrine, ‘ism’ or school of thought, particularly if it’s based on the teachings of one single person (or book).

  4. I believe the equation is one of Consciousness. This is the key. Consciousness has no matter, yet it is a perceivable reality of the universe. It also seems to be intangible and indestructible. But how would it be possible to prove that consciousness is not just a side-effect of the brain, but rather that the brain is an instrument by which consciousness can manifest in the physical? What about the existence of forms of consciousness in creatures that have no brain? Consciousness is information, and information is at the basis of all things. It is my belief that all things contain a form of consciousness as they all derive from the Greater Consciousness that gave origin to all things. But how could this be proven?

  5. Thank you! As a scientist (or a scientifically trained professional, at least) with esoteric sensibilities, I appreciate the fact that there is a growing mass of talented writers on these topics that can incorporate sound logic, some at least basic familiarity with the scientific method, and a great deal of factual research into their writings. I hope to join the movement as well some day. Thank you once again, and best of luck!

  6. Why is it on this website you mostly seem to cite pro-paranormal references but ignore most of the skeptical literature? For example your bibliography on this very article apart from Sagan only cites very credulous paranormal books written by believers in the paranormal.

    Ian Stevenson’s work has been shot down in the skeptical literature (See Robert Baker, Paul Edwards, Terence Hines, Ian Wilson etc). The problem is that believers ignore such literature due to cognitive biases. They do not want their magical beliefs to be refuted so will ignore any of the negative evidence that goes against them.

    Your comment “chances are that your informants weren’t trained scientists who personally scrutinized the data with an open mind, and published their critiques in peer-reviewed science journals” is not true.

    Here is two reviews published in a mainstream peer-reviewed linguistic journal by two professors of language that found faults with Stevenson’s work on xenoglossy. They basically concluded his claims were without scientific evidence and he has made unprofessional comments about languages. Regards.

    Samarin, William J (1976). “Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of a Case by Ian Stevenson”. Language 52 (1): 270–274.

    Frawley, William (1985). “Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy by Ian Stevenson”. Language 61 (3): 739.

    • Thanks for your comment. However, since you appear rather worried about people who might believe in the ‘paranormal’, please read the Welcome page to understand this blog is not making claims for or against its existence. As explained there, it is concerned with the public and academic reception of research into ostensible occult phenomena over time. Please remember I’m a historian of science (as are most guest bloggers here), and our questions are very different from those of parapsychologists.

      Second, the main reason why I “ignore most of the skeptical literature” is because it has very little to say on relevant history of science scholarship (which it routinely ignores). Not least, most active representatives of the ‘skeptics movement’ typically favour aggressive polemics over constructive, rational debate, usually by upholding naive images of scientific practice, the kind of ‘myth’ I was primarily concerned with in my article. This is evident to anyone informed about some of the parapsychological work that is being assaulted by programmatic ‘skeptics’, and has been documented by sociologists of science, who have identified the skeptics movement as an essentially ideological one. In case you’re interested, here are a few studies:

      Collins, H. M., & Pinch, T. J. (1979). The construction of the paranormal: nothing unscientific is happening. In R. Wallis (Ed.), On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge (Sociological Review Monograph, vol. 27) (pp. 237-270). Keele: University of Keele.

      Collins, H. M., & Pinch, T. J. (1982). Frames of Meaning: The Social Construction of Extraordinary Science. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

      Hess, D. J. (1992). Disciplining heterodoxy, circumventing discipline: parapsychology, anthropologically. In D. J. Hess & L. Layne (Eds.), Knowledge and Society Vol. 9: The Anthropology of Science and Technology (pp. 191-222). Greenwich: JAI Press.

      Hess, D. J. (1993). Science in the New Age. The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

      McClenon, J. (1984). Deviant Science: The Case of Parapsychology. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

      Pinch, T. J., & Collins, H. M. (1984). Private science and public knowledge: the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and its use of the literature. Social Studies of Science, 14, 521-546.

      Regarding Stevenson, one doesn’t have to agree with his conclusions, let alone be guilty of ‘magical thinking’ to strongly disagree with your assessment that his work “has been shot down in the skeptical literature (See Robert Baker, Paul Edwards, Terence Hines, Ian Wilson etc).” Baker, Edwards, Hines and Wilson’s attacks are essentially polemical and ad hominem rather than informed, systematic, let alone constructive critiques. (See, for example, James Mattlock’s review of Edwards, which you can download and read via the PDF link above).

      It is fair to refer as you do to “cognitive biases”, but it’s also good to remember there is more than one type of bias.

      Regarding the two book reviews you list, I wonder why you cite them since they are not directly concerned with the kind of research I sketch above (Stevenson’s study of xenoglossy doesn’t even appear in my bibliography.) Also, nowhere in Samarin’s review is there an argument that Stevenson’s xenoglossy research was useless or ‘unscientific’. On the contrary, Samarin not only welcomed such studies (he merely pointed out a few weaknesses), he actually praised that Stevenson “dispassionately considers one possible explanation after another. If he has ignored any, I cannot suggest what it might be” (p. 271), and he concluded: “I really do believe that this is an interesting case. There are very few so well documented” (p. 273). Could you explain why you cite this review is a devastating critique?

      I was unable to access the review by Frawley – maybe you could summarize his concrete arguments? It can’t be too much hassle since the review seems to be only page.

      Finally, if you could let me know where in the peer-reviewed scientific literature there are informed and constructive critiques of some of the studies by Mills, Haraldsson, Keil, Tucker and Mattlock I listed in the bibliography I’d be much indebted. As I said, as a historian I’m not interested in making a case for or against reincarnation (and personally I am rather biased against it), but the public reception of the more recent research by Stevenson and colleagues is as relevant for my work as, e.g., that of William James’s involvement in psychical research, and if I missed important literature I’d be grateful for any sources I might have overlooked.

  7. I accept my bias. I don’t believe in the paranormal. All these parapsychologists you mention are anti-science to me and doing superstition. I will not read their books, it seemed to be mostly old men writing this nonsense who had gotten older and scared of death and wanted something to be more than nature, there is a long history of this guys like Oliver Lodge or William Crookes who left science for magical thinking.

    The Samarin and Frawley is on Wikipedia article for Stevenson:

    “William J. Samarin, a linguist from the University of Toronto has written that Stevenson had chosen to correspond with linguists in a selective and unprofessional manner. He noted that Stevenson corresponded with one linguist in a period of six years “without raising any discussion about the kinds of thing that linguists would need to know.” He also wrote that most of Stevenson’s collaborators were “fellow believers” in the paranormal, starting with a preconceived notion.”

    “Prof. William Frawley in a review for Stevenson’s Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy (1984) wrote that was he too uncritically accepting of a paranormal interpretation of the cases. In one case a female subject could only answer yes or no questions in German which Frawley found unimpressive. In another, the female subject could speak Bengali with a poor pronunciation. Frawley noted that she was raised on the language of Marathi (related to Bengali), had studied Sanskrit from which both Marathi and Bengali derive and was living in a town with thousands of Bengalis. He concluded “Stevenson does not consider enough linguistic evidence in these cases to warrant his metaphysics.”

    So not totally favourable for Stevenson’s research but you are right this was just two book reviews like a page long, maybe it was cherry-picked.

    Obviously you have all day to research this stuff you are a historian with decent papers out and much more read than me but you are also a council member of the SPR and your stuff only seem to be ever cited by believers in the paranormal and those who want to attack skeptics. But you say that is not your intention sorry I apologise if I misunderstood. Good luck with your research. I don’t know which skeptical books you have read but Hidden Memories by Robert Baker was the best I read on the topic.

    • Thanks for your candour, Andrew; and absolutely no need to apologise to me. If you refuse to inform yourself by reading the relevant primary sources, however, you really shouldn’t make any accusations of ‘anti-science’, etc. Best wishes!

  8. At the risk of getting mushy … just looking at Jesse Bering’s article in SciAm above, he says Ian Stevenson found “zero evidence of karma”. Is this actually a scientific *data point* considering the number of cases the great man studied? Really, a kind of non-judgemental Reality no matter how you spend your life?
    I just wonder if one can tentatively link this to the idea of *beauty* in an apparently impersonal universe (according to current science). Hey, we see beauty all around … in the forms of physical laws, a flower, a mathematical theorem, a song, an ethical concept, a person. Maybe all forms of life have their unique sense here. It’s kind of everywhere and rings that little bell when we see it.
    Supposing reincarnation true and with no karma (which I guess would mean some nasty backlash on a life lived), a new chance is given, new possibilities. It also doesn’t make sense to me that things get forgotten, at some level, over these lifetimes. So I kind of think there’s beauty in here. And is this whole business one of learning? Why? Who’s in charge? How did this all get set up? And once you posit souls it seems to me there’s a great deal up for grabs here. For instance, greater souls …

    There’s beauty again in these lines from Cloud Atlas, the book/film about reincarnation.

    “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”

    (lo and behold the comments have now appeared in the SciAm article Andreas – nothing to do with me)

  9. Maybe the real question should be what is memory? How is it formed? Where does it go when we die or simply forget? Could memory and the near death experience be contained in the equivalent of an I-cloud? Lived personally but released into an impersonal memory bank, to be reloaded after death into another body as in some kind of glorified video game (matrix theory of reality)

    • The concept of memory storage (akin to digital information) is actually quite problematic, even though it is used as a standard concept in the neurosciences. For a sophisticated critique see, e.g., Gauld, A. (2007). Memory. In E. F. Kelly, E. W. Kelly, A. Crabtree, A. Gauld, M. Grosso & B. Greyson (Eds.), Irreducible Mind. Toward a Psychology For the 21st Century (pp. 241-300). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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