Scientific studies on reincarnation

Professor Ian Stevenson (photo), who died on February 8, 2007, aged 88, was the world’s well-known scientific authority on the study of reincarnation; the founder and director of the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia, Stevenson spent more than 40 years travelling the world, accumulating more than 3,000 cases of children who appeared to have memories of previous lives. Dr. Stevenson, a native of Montreal, earned his medical degree from McGill University in Montreal in 1943, graduating at the top of his class.

A surprising case involved an Indian boy, Gopal, who at the age of three started talking about his previous life in the city of Mathura, 160 miles from his home in Delhi. He claimed that he had been the owner of a medical company and also specified its name, lived in a large house with many servants, and that his brother had shot him after a quarrel. Stevenson’s investigations revealed that one of the owners of that medical company the boy talked about had shot his brother eight years before Gopal’s birth. The man killed was named Shaktipal Shara. Gopal was subsequently invited to Mathura by Shaktipal’s family, where the young child recognised various people and places known to Shaktipal. The family was left speechless by Gopal’s mention of Shaktipal’s attempts to borrow money, and how this had led to the shooting — information that was known only to the family.

Another typical case involved a boy in Beirut who spoke of being a 25-year-old mechanic, thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. According to multiple witnesses, the boy provided the name of the driver, the exact location of the crash, the names of the mechanic’s sisters and parents and cousins, and the people he hunted with. Everything the boy stated turned out to match the life of a man who had died several years before the boy was born, and who had no connection to the boy’s family.

Stevenson provided a great amount of evidences not only from past-life readings or hypnotic regressions but from using the techniques of a detective or investigation reporter to verify claims that a young child had spoken giving details of a previous life. And so he investigated all the possibilities: that the child came upon the information in some accidentaly, that the witnesses were engaged in fraud or self-delusion, that the correlations were the result of coincidence or misunderstanding. But in the majority of cases, Dr. Stevenson concluded that no normal explanation sufficed.
He travelled vast distances to interview the children and their current and previous families, meticulously noting corroborative and conflicting statements in their accounts, and cross-checking official records, and police and autopsy reports.
All cases had a common pattern: the children started recounting these stories between the ages of two and five, and seemed to have forgotten them by the age of eight or nine; the clear recollections of the way they died often implied a violent death.

In 1960 he published his first paper on the subject, “The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations”, which caught the attention of Chester Carlson, the inventor of the Xerox machine. Carlson funded Stevenson’s first field trip, in 1961, to India and Sri Lanka, where he was able to locate and study some 25 such cases, adding fuel to his theory that reincarnation might offer “a third possibility” in the development of character, along with hereditary and environmental influences.
Stevenson had been appointed chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In 1963 Carlson died, but left Stevenson $1 million to equip the chair at the University of Virginia, and a further $1 million for Stevenson himself to continue his researches into reincarnation.

Dr. Ian Stevenson set up the Division of Personality Studies, the only academic department in the world dedicated to the study of previous life memories, near-death experiences and other paranormal phenomena. He travelled extensively in South-East Asia, South America, the Lebanon and West Africa in search of cases (between 1966 and 1971 he logged an average of 55,000 miles a year). The majority of his cases came from cultures where there is a belief in reincarnation — a fact that sceptics claimed undermined the credibility of the accounts. He catalogued more than 2,500 remarkably similar cases, mostly in Asia and the Middle East but also in Europe, Africa and North and South America. His first book on the topic, “Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation,” was published in 1966; his last, “European Cases of the Reincarnation Type,” in 2003.

Dr. Stevenson retired from active research in 2002, leaving his work to successors led by Dr. Bruce Greyson. Dr. Jim Tucker, a child psychiatrist, has carried on Dr. Stevenson’s work with children, focusing on North American cases.

In 1996, astronomer Carl Sagan, a founding member of a group that set out to debunk unscientific claims, wrote in his book, “The Demon-Haunted World”: “There are three claims in the (parapsychology) field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study,” the third of which was “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.”

But Dr. Stevenson himself recognized one major flaw in his case for reincarnation: the absence of any evidence of a physical process by which a personality could survive death and transfer to another body.
His greatest frustration was no that so few bothered to read the evidence he had assembled with so much effort and dedication.


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