Researchers have studied young children’s reports of past-life memories for the last 45 years. The children usually describe a recent, ordinary life, and many of them have given enough details so that one particular deceased individual has been identified to match the children’s statements.
These cases occur worldwide, and although they are easiest to find in cultures with a belief in reincarnation, many cases have been found in the West as well. This review explores the facets of this phenomenon and presents several recent American cases.
In 1960, Ian Stevenson, then chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, wrote a review of 44 previously published cases of individuals who had reported memories of previous lives. He then began to hear of new cases and the following year took a trip to India after learning of five cases. He was there for four weeks and found 25. He achieved similar results in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and realized that the phenomenon was much more common than anyone had known.
He took an analytical approach to the cases.
Psychiatrist Harold Lief later described him as "a methodical, careful, even cautious, investigator, whose personality is on the obsessive side. He never assumed he knew the cause of the cases but instead simply worked to determine precisely what the facts of each case were. He made no grand claims about the work, as indicated by the title of his first book on the phenomenon, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.
Though Stevenson’s efforts did not produce mainstream acceptance of his work, it did garner some respect in main- stream circles. The Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed one of his books in 1975 and stated that "in regard to reincarnation he has painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases . . . in which the evidence is difficult to explain on any other grounds.”
In addition, Carl Sagan, the late astronomer, was very skeptical of nonmain- stream work but wrote, "There are three claims in the [para- psychology] field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study,” with the third being "that young children sometimes report 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.”
Stevenson retired in 2002 but continued to write, including a final paper summarizing his career. He died in 2007, but several researchers are continuing the study that he began more than 45 years ago of this phenomenon.
The subjects in these cases tend to be young children. They typically begin describing a previous life when they are two or three years old, and they usually stop by the age of six to seven. They make the statements spontaneously without the use of hypnotic regression. They describe recent lives, with the median interval between the death of the previous individual and the birth of the child being only 16 months.
They also describe ordinary lives, usually in the same country. The one part of the life that is often out of the ordinary is the mode of death, as 70% of the deaths are by unnatural means.
Some subjects report having been deceased family members, whereas others say they were strangers in another location. If they give enough details, such as the name of that location, then people have often gone there and identified a deceased individ- ual, the previous personality, whose life appears to match the state- ments the child made.
Over 2,500 cases have been investigated worldwide. They are easiest to find in cultures with a belief in reincarnation, and the places that have produced the most cases include India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Lebanon, Thailand, and Burma (Myanmar). Cases have been found wherever anyone has looked for them, including all continents except Antarctica.
Stevenson published a book of European cases,10 and numerous cases have been found in the United States as well.
Several of these will be reviewed in a later section. Cases in the West seem to be less common, but this may be because they are harder to find, as some parents are reluctant to disclose, even to close friends and family at times, what their children have said.
When cases are investigated, history is obtained from as many people as possible. This includes the subjects, if the children are willing and able to tell investigators about the purported memories, as well as their parents and others who have heard the children describing past-life memories.
The other side of the case is then investigated; the previous family is interviewed to determine how accurate the child’s statements are for the life of the previous personality. Attempts are made to obtain autopsies or medical records of the previous personality if they are relevant. If the two families have not yet met, tests can also be conducted to see if the subject can recognize people from the previous life.
Birthmarks and birth defects
In addition to the purported memories, a number of the children have had birthmarks or birth defects that appeared to match wounds, usually fatal ones, suffered by the previous personalities. Stevenson published a 2,200-page work that documented over 200 such cases,as well as a shorter syn-opsis.
Examples include a girl, born with markedly malformed fingers, who seemed to remember being a man whose fingers were cut off, and a boy, born with stubs for fingers on his right hand, who seemed to remember the life of a boy in another village who lost the fingers of his right hand in a fodder-chopping machine.
Another example is Chanai Choomalaiwong, a boy from Thailand. When he was three years old, he began saying that he had been a teacher named Bua Kai who had been shot and killed one day as he rode his bicycle to school.
He begged to be taken to his parents, that is, Bua Kai’s parents, and he named the village where he said they lived. Eventually, he and his grand- mother took a bus that stopped in a town near that village. His grandmother reported that after they got off the bus, Chanai led her to a house where an older couple lived. Chanai appeared to recognize the couple, who were the parents of Bua Kai Lawnak, a teacher who had been shot and killed on the way to school five years before Chanai was born.
No autopsy report was available for Bua Kai Lawnak, so Stevenson interviewed witnesses who saw the body. His widow reported that the doctor involved in the case said that her hus- band had been shot from behind, because the small, round wound on the back of his head was a typical entry wound, whereas the larger, more irregularly shaped wound on his fore- head was typical of an exit wound.
Chanai was born with two birthmarks, a small, round birthmark on the back of his head, and a larger, more irregularly shaped one toward the front.