He had enjoyed his present life but his principal regret to leave it would be that he must pass through that strange barrier which blots out all but the vaguest intuitive memories of earlier experiences before a soul is born again. (Dennis Wheatley, They Found Atlantis)It is hard to know how many people in the Western world believe in reincarnation. One survey said 24% of Americans, but even that statistic is meaningless unless you inquire about the strength of the belief. For every person who is certain of reincarnation, there will be many more who consider it probable or merely possible. Rather like belief in God or flying saucers, in fact. As far as I can ascertain, such beliefs were not common in the west prior to contact with eastern religions. But the believers are not, by and large, Buddhists or Hindus; experience with other cultures has merely raised a possibility not previously considered. If you ask them for a reason, you may not get a very coherent reply. A friend of mine said that reincarnation made the universe "fairer", as if there were some unwritten law that the universe must be fair. So, what exactly is the evidence for reincarnation?
Essentially, there are two lines of evidence, one weak and the other stronger. The weak one is hypnotic regression of "past lives". Here the evidence is unequivocal: they are due to a combination of confabulation and crytomnesia. In other words, when a hypnotist asks subjects to recall their past lives, they invent them from stories they have heard in the past and consciously forgotten, although the memories are still buried somewhere deep in the brain. Although this is well established, past life regressions are still being undertaken, and I even saw a book by a woman who "discovered" under hypnosis that her soul had once belonged to King Arthur's Guinevere! However, if you require confirmation of the phenomenon, I shall refer you to Ian Wilson's 1981 book, Time Out of Mind? (also published the following year as All in the Mind), and quote only two of his many examples.
Under hypnosis, a young woman called Jan gave a highly emotional account of her experience as Joan Waterhouse, under trial for witchcraft at the Chelmsford Assizes. It was a trial which really did take place, and everything she said checked out against the historical record - except for two things. The first was that, although her speech sounded convincingly like genuine sixteenth century English, a specialist was able to establish that her archaisms were beyond doubt merely of the sort used to convey period flavour in books and period dramas. Secondly, she was adamant that "her" trial took place in 1556, and that the ruler was not Mary, but Elizabeth, whose reign did not commence till 1558. The historical record is quite clear that the Chelmsford Assizes took place in 1566. Further research revealed that the details of the real Joan Waterhouse's trial are recorded in only a single document, a chapbook held in Lambeth Palace. But because of the extreme difficulty in accessing this document, most historians rely more on the reprint published by the British Philobiblon [ie "book lover"] Society in the nineteenth century. The trouble was, whereas the front cover of the original document cites the date as 1566, the Philobiblon edition incorrectly transcribed it as 1556, and the mistake has been inadvertently repeated by many serious historians. Jan must have got her information from some secondly source -even, as Wilson suggests, a minor radio play or a girl's comic.
Even more revealing were the researches of the Finnish psychiatrist, Dr Reima Kampman. After he has regressed some of his students, and received some rather colourful accounts of alleged past lives, and growing suspicious, he took an unusual step. He hypnotized them again and instructed them to go back in time to when they first heard of the events in question. Then it all came out: they came from books and other sources which they had once looked at and consciously forgot about. In some cases, he was even able to locate the books and confirm the account.
It appears that even our most trivial and casual experiences are not permanently forgotten. If they are not of immediate significance, they are filed away in some deep recess of the brain for possible further use. It also establishes two other facts: it really is possible to access forgotten memories by means of hypnosis, but not necessarily in a reliable form - something ufologists ought to note.
The second line of evidence for reincarnation is not so easily dismissed. Neither, unfortunately, is it easily amenable to easy explanations. Any attempt to assign either a natural or a supernatural cause inevitably compels us to add: "On the other hand ..."
This line of evidence relates to a small number of individuals who possess fragmentary, out-of-place "memories" which, at first sight, appear to refer to some earlier person. In the western world it is rarely possible to identify the person involved but, considering what a small paper trail most of us leave behind when we die, this does not mean much. On the other hand (we'll be using that expression a lot), the extreme variability of human experience means that, if we try hard enough, we should be able to find someone who matches the "memories" by chance alone. However, even if it could be proved that all these putative memories are bogus, the fact that they exist at all would itself be worthy of investigation.
It is when we move to non-European cultures that the story becomes very interesting. Prof Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, along with some colleagues, has investigation more than 2,500 cases of children, the vast majority younger than eight, who allegedly possessed detailed memories of past lives. These cases come predominantly from the Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia, and a few other places, in all of which belief in reincarnation is fundamental to the native religion. Ideally, one would prefer to hear about such a claim at its inception, before it could be subject to outside contamination, but this is rarely possible. Nevertheless, even if we reject the vast majority, there still remain a residuum which are difficult to explain.
Why should such experiences be more common in societies which believe in reincarnation? Perhaps they are just as common over here, but parents take no notice of them. That this may be the case is suggested by the large number of reports sent in by parents to Dr Wayne Dyer and Dee Garnes, although not investigated or authenticated by them. On the other hand, perhaps they are just childish fantasies, akin the imaginary playmates, but when grown-ups take them seriously, it causes the children to believe them.
Suggestions have been made that the "past life memories" of Indian children may represent the family's attempt to have the child taken in by a richer family. On the other hand, it appears most families try to discourage their children's alleged recollections, for fear that they might lose them. Situations also occur which one would definitely not have been invented. For example, in Kashmir relations between Hindus and Moslems are tense. Nevertheless, there have been several cases discovered in which Hindu children claim to have "really" been Moslems, even insisting on practicing the namez, or prayers while facing Mecca. One did it even before he could speak. Even more startling, several Moslem children claimed to be really Hindus, insisting on a vegetarian diet, and so forth. (Moslems do not believe in reincarnation.) On the other hand, although the "Moslem" Hindus prayed in a strange language, it could not be determined to be Arabic. (Moslems are taught to pray, and memorise the Koran, in Arabic, even if they cannot speak it.)
Nevertheless, before we jump to conclusions, there are a few hurdles to clear. The first is that the souls of various ethnic groups appear to be recycled in different manners. Americans are likely to be reborn in the same family, a generation or so later. However, this is rarely claimed for Indian cases, where the earlier life is normally an unrelated person in a nearby village. More remarkable is the situation in two British Columbian Amerindian tribes. Among the Beaver Indians it is not uncommon for a child to claim to remember an earlier life as a member of the opposite sex. This never happens among the Gitksans, but, contrary to most other ethnic groups, they experience multiple reincarnation, or soul-splitting, where a soul is recycled into several different people simultaneously.
Secondly, there is the whole physical nature of memory to consider. Electrical probing of the brain can elicit the recall of individual memories. Injury to the brain can result in partial or total amnesia. Other types of brain injury can prevent memory formation; the victim lives in an eternal present, having clear memories of events prior to the injury, but being unable to record any later memories. Memory, in other words, is a product of the mind. How, then, can memories leak out from a brain which is dead and decayed into a newborn brain, even if the second body is inhabited by the same soul? How does the soul transfer memory to the body? (Of course, a similar problem exists with near death experiences, whether they are consider natural or supernatural in origin. How does the brain remember what happened when it was flat-lining? And why haven't people been asking that question?)
Indeed, some of Dyer and Garnes' case histories raise the same issue. When she was five, a little girl called Nicole Amsberry told her mother, Jody that: "Before I was in your tummy, I was in Granny's tummy." In fact, Jody's own mother had miscarried a baby girl which she called Nicole two years before Jody herself became pregnant. Likewise, one woman had an earlier baby aborted because she was being treated for back problems (!), only to have a later child, only two years old, announce: "Mummy, you sent me back the first time because you had a bad back, but I came back when your back was better."
Now, much as it may be salutary to learn that it is not so easy disposing of a baby who is determined to be born, we must acknowledge a few pertinent facts. Very few of us can remember much of what happened before our third birthday, and none of us can remember being in the womb. It is one thing to accept that isolated memories can leak over from a previous incarnation, but it is pushing the envelope to imagine the recall of events which the earlier personality could not possibly have remembered while alive.
The most parsimonious explanation is that the children are, perhaps unconsciously, repeating information from overheard adult conversations. Little ears have a remarkable ability to pick up information not intended for them. One humourist in fact quipped that the best way to make your children listen to you is to pretend you're talking to somebody else. Even if this can be ruled out, there is still the possibility of extra-sensory perception (ESP), for which there is considerable evidence. If we are forced to invoke a natural process outside of the current scientific paradigm, Occam's razor would demand that we consider one for which we already have evidence, rather than something completely new, like reincarnation.
This is the third hurdle, and a catch-22: if someone has apparent memories of an earlier individual, and that individual can be identified, then it means that the information is already "out there", and can be assessed, if not through normal channels, then by paranormal means, such as ESP.
But the really big hurdle is this: in some well-attested cases, the two alleged lives overlap. This first became evident in 1987 with the case of Toran Singh, alias "Titu", who was born in a village near Agra in India. Yet he identified himself as Suresh Verme, who owned a radio shop in Agra, and operated a sideline of smuggling. He was shot through the head while sitting in his car, the bullet entering his right temple, and exiting behind the right ear. Titu had a red circular birthmark at the same spot where the bullet entered Suresh's head, and a large bony protuberance where it exited. I have no explanation for how this could occur, reincarnation or no reincarnation. He also remembered the name of the shop, and recognized many members of Suresh' family, even being aware of their nicknames. You can hardly get better than that.
The trouble is, the official records are clear that Titu was born on 11 December 1982, and Suresh was murdered on 28 August 1983. That means that Titu was alive for eight months and 17 days while "his" soul was still in Suresh's body. The case had been investigated by Dr Antonia Mills using Prof Stevenson's methods. Prof Stevenson himself knew of several cases where the second person had been conceived, but not yet born, while the first person was still alive. Some time later, when interviewed by the sympathetic Hugh Montefiore, Prof Stevenson claimed that he was about to publish three other cases of overlap: of two days, three years, and seventeen years respectively. (You read correctly: one person "remembered" being someone who was still alive when he was seventeen years old.)
Stevenson attributes these anomalous cases to possession, but that seems dubious to me. After all, although Suresh may have been still alive when Titu was born, at least he was dead by the time he "possessed" Titu, but a seventeen year gap would imply that a living person was doing the possessing. In any case, whether the true explanation is possession or some sort of floating ESP factor, if either must be invoked to explain some cases, why not all? Again, by Occam's razor two explanations should not be invoked if only one is sufficient.
The situation is thus very complex, involving cultural conditioning, unusual psychology, and, yes, probably some paranormal factors. But the evidence is against reincarnation being the explanation.
Finally, you may ask why do I repeatedly refer to recycled souls rather than some more conventional expression? Basically, because I don't think most people appreciate the full implications of reincarnation, should it occur. They have some pleasant idea of "coming back" and having a fresh start. Philosophy 101: if you die, then come back, and cannot remember your past life, how is this different from you dying and somebody else being born?
Your identity, your personality - everything which makes you "you" - is a function of your natural, inborn propensities, your experiences in life, and the decisions you make at every moment along the way. As the saying goes: sow a thought and reap a deed, sow a deed and reap a habit, sow a habit and reap a character, sow a character and reap a destiny. And tying this all together is memory, which provides you with both continuity and the ability to learn from experience. However, the theory of reincarnation is that the soul is reborn into a new body, with a new brain, and new inborn propensities, then provided with a completely new set of experiences to mould your character, and with no memory to make a connection to your previous identity. Even when memories do exist, as recorded here, they are fragmentary, and not sufficient to form the basis of an identity.
Essentially, a new person has been born, and has acquired your recycled soul. If that person suffers or prospers because of how you had lived your life, that just demonstrates the basic unfairness of life, for you would be just as dead as the atheists always said you would be.
Please note that this is not a reason for rejecting the belief, any more than it should be accepted just because you might like it to be true.