A Lecture about Science and Reincarnation

By Dr. Ian Stevenson

The Flora Levy Lecture in the Humanities
The University of Southwestern Louisiana
Lafayette, Louisiana

(Stevenson's notes are at the bottom of Part II)

This lecture delivers the most complete look into the amazing mind of Dr. Stevenson I've ever found. He puts his work into the context of the history of science, and explains his unique quest to answer one of the central scientific and philosophical question: can the mind exist independently of the body. It's long, but it's an intellectual feast.

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I noticed with some misgivings the announcement that this is the Levy Lecture in the Humanities. It may seem tactless therefore for me to state at the beginning of the lecture that after intending to study history and indeed doing so for several years, I abandoned history for medicine. History became for me Robert Frost's "the road not taken." Frost's metaphor, however, does not fully suit my care because I have continued to have a strong interest in history and other humanities. If I shall later seem to have accomplished something original in science, I may owe this to my study of history. Let me explain.

I do not believe that what history teaches is that history teaches nothing. What it has taught me is the transience, not of our aspirations, but of our material accomplishments and, even more, of our ideas about the nature of man. In particular, the history of medicine shows a humbling succession of ideas about disease, each appearing inviolable for a short period only to prove degradable by the next idea that—at first also hailed an ultimate—is overthrown in its turn. Knowledge in science, as Whitehead said, keeps like fish. An awareness from my reading of history of the ephemeral nature of most concepts about the nature of things freed me to challenge received opinions in medicine. For me everything now believed by scientists is open to question, and I am always dismayed to find that many scientists accept current knowledge as forever fixed. They confuse the product with the process.

Reductionist Opinions

Early in my medical career I undertook some research in biochemistry. To this I brought some ideas, but the success of our experiments on aspects of the oxidation of the kidney tissue was largely due to the technical expertise of my collaborator, who later went on to become a distinguished biochemist. An unexpected result of our experiments was the destruction by our data of a dogma concerning oxidation that the great German chemist Otto Warburg had pronounced. I thought little of that and was astonished one day when a German biochemist who learned of our results told me that it would have been impossible to publish them in Germany. He meant that the awe in which Warburg was held would have led to editorial rejection of our report. From this episode I may date my strong interest in all the obstacles that confront the conduct of original research and the communication of its results.

Sir Peter Medawar described reductionism as "the most successful research stratagem ever devised: it has been the making of science and technology." Quite so, but science can study more than parts considered separately. While killing harmless rats (in order to use their kidneys in the experiments on oxidation mentioned earlier) I experienced a revulsion for this kind of scientific activity and decided that I wanted to devote myself to something more than the study of parts and to something closer to whole human beings.

Psychosomatic Pioneers

My mother had believed strongly in the influence of thoughts on physical well-being, and I may owe to her my initial interest in psychosomatic medicine. Even as a medical student I was keenly interested in the physical accompaniments of emotion. One of the first patients assigned to me had angina pectoris, the dreadful pain which comes when the heart, through blockage or spasm of the coronary arteries, receives insufficient oxygen. One day I was on this patient's ward when he became angry at a nurse and instantly gripped his chest in the agony of this disease. I can still recall vividly the suffering in his face.

The impression from this and similar observations led me, when I abandoned reductionism, to take up research on the physical accompaniments of stress and the emotions it induces. The group with which I was associated in this at the New York Hospital in the late 1940s showed, for almost every organ of the body, that strong emotions inducted by life stresses, and even by talking about such stresses, included markedly altered physical functions, often to the point of experienced symptoms.

In these researches we thought of ourselves as pioneers, but we could not long sustain this view unless we stopped reading and also forgot what we had already read. Solomon had said in Proverbs: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones." References to what we call psychosomatic medicine occur frequently in Shakespeare and in many other writers outside the medical profession. One can find reports of psychosomatic symptoms in Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, and Wesley's Journal. This is to mention three authors only. However, what needs emphasis is not the frequency of references to the effect of the mind on the body, but the acceptance without question through centuries of this relationship. Doubts and neglect of this knowledge came later, at least within the medical profession, with the discovery of the role of microorganisms in disease. Louis Pasteur said as he was dying, "[Claude] Bernard was right. The terrain is everything." He was wiser than many who built on his discoveries, and it was the middle of this century before physicians discovered again the power of the mind on the body.

If our group at the New York Hospital has a rightful claim to originality, it may lie in our having asked (and provisionally tried to answer) the question: "Why during stress does one person develop asthma, another high blood pressure, and a third a peptic ulcer?" W.B.Cannon had already shown that many of the physiological accompaniments of fear and rage correspond to those that occur during strenuous physical exertion; the body reacts as if the person is going to respond to the provocation by fighting or running away. This rarely happens in civilized society, but the atavistic physical changes occur anyway. Some of my colleagues extended Cannon's hypothesis with conjectures about the symbolic meaning of various localized psychosomatic symptoms. For example, a woman who reacted to her stresses with a running nose was said to be trying to wash away her troubles; the man whose bronchi closed in the spasms of asthma was trying to shut out the truth of some unpleasant aspect of his situation. This kind of thinking led to even wilder surmises, from the more ridiculous examples of which I shall spare you.

None of these interpretations seemed satisfying to me. The organ whose psychosomatic relationship I investigated was the heart, and I published numerous papers about our observations. However, I could never believe that arrhythmias have any purposeful function for those afflicted by them.

My discontent with the interpretations by some of my colleagues of psychosomatic phenomena increased when I became aware that not infrequently the same physical symptoms occurred in a person not only when he was angry or frightened, but also when he was unusually happy or joyful. I began to collect instances of physical symptoms that had occurred during pleasurable emotional states. Here my habit of reading outside medicine brought me some useful examples. I learned that both Beethoven and Goya could be fairly described as having died of joy. They had been ill, to be sure, but their final relapses occurred just after they had received news that made them excitedly happy. Other examples occurred among the appallingly emaciated prisoners held in German concentration camps at the end of World War II. Some of them literally died of joy when they saw the Red Cross buses approach the camps to bring them food and liberty.

In trying to publish these and similar reports I encountered another instance of the resistance to deviant ideas on the part of otherwise first rate scientists.1 I owe more to H. G. Wolff than I can take time here adequately to acknowledge. He has had few equals in the standards of rigorous investigation and clarity in the presentation of results that he demonstrated himself and demanded of his associates. However, he was much attached to the teleological interpretation of psychosomatic symptoms. He believed they must have some meaning, some protective purpose in the economy of persons manifesting them. Not surprisingly he reacted with noticeable coolness to my data on the occurrence of physical symptoms during pleasurable emotional states. A crisis was avoided, because it was time for me to move to another position, and I published my results in two papers after I left the New York Hospital.

Although our studies at the New York Hospital failed to answer the question of why a person develops one particular disease instead of another, I have never lost interest in this problem. If my professional work has a recurring theme, this is it, and I shall have more to say about the subject later.

Unscientific Freudian Psychoanalyst

In the 1950s there seemed some prospect that a medical specialty or subspecialty of psychosomatic medicine would develop. This did not happen, and eventually all physicians who had been active in this field had to move decisively toward either internal medicine or psychiatry. Psychiatry then seemed to offer a better opportunity than internal medicine for the further study of the effects of mental states on bodily ones. So I chose psychiatry and accepted an appointment in a Department of Psychiatry. However, I had had comparatively little training in psychiatry; and it was partly to remedy this deficiency that I enrolled in a psychoanalytic institute and in due course graduated from it. Some of this training was beneficial, but the atmosphere of a psychoanalytic institute was foreign to my eclecticism.

The Arabs have a proverb: "Beware of the man with a single book." I enlarge the proverb to say "Beware of those who read only the works of a single man." In the psychoanalytic institutes the works of Freud and a few of his disciples were treated as having the authority of an oracle. The works of other authors were not read, let alone discussed. "Where all men think alike, few men think at all."

Having left the reductionism of the biochemistry laboratory, I found psychoanalysis to be equally uncongenial. Given the concepts of Freud, it might follow that art and religion could be reduced to expressions of infantile cravings and frustrations. But what was the factual basis for his concepts? A reading of Malinowski's Sex and Repression in Savage Society in which Malinowski reported his failure to find the allegedly universal Oedipus complex among the matrilineal Trobrianders stimulated me to look more closely at psychoanalytic evidence. The psychoanalysts’ inability to accept Malinowski's evidence, if only as an exception to a generalization, made me realize that psychoanalysis had lost its right to reduce religion because it had itself taken on the negative attributes of a religion: the uncritical acceptance of what its founder says.

There are other means of attaining knowledge besides the scientific method. Art, music, poetry, and other types of literature give us knowledge. I can also believe that in mystical experiences we may have direct access to important truths or, more specifically, to the most important truth of all, which is that we ourselves are part of a Great All. I do not know whether you would call William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience a work of the humanities or one of science. It partakes of the best of both, and for me is one of the greatest books ever written; I know no better defense of the value of mystical experiences. But inspirational and mystical experiences are, as experiences, incommunicable, whereas scientific observations are and must be communicable: there is no science without public demonstrability. This means independent verification of a patient's (or informant's) statements. But in psychoanalysis, independent verification has been almost entirely lacking. Thus for me, Freud's greatest mistake was in not attempting to inquire into the truth of his patients' claims about sexual seduction in childhood. To say that there is no difference between being sexually abused and imagining that you have been sexually abused is to take oneself out of science.

As if the foregoing were not enough to turn me away from psychoanalysis, I found unconvincing its assertion that a person's later character depends almost exclusively on the events of infancy. This seems to me like smuggling in predestination; for what infant can avail against the follies of his parents? But then these wicked parents must have been mistreated during their infancies by their parents, and so on back to Adam. One of my earliest papers in psychiatry questioned whether human personality is more plastic in infancy and childhood than it is in the later years of life. This provoked much annoyance among psychoanalysts; and because they were then the dominant force in American psychiatry, Sir Aubrey Lewis, who was professor of psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, asked me (soon after the paper's publication) whether I could go about on the streets unarmed.

In sum, Freud now appears to me to have been an emperor without clothes, and I am less surprised that he developed the concepts he espoused than that he succeeded in persuading so many persons to accept them.

We must leave to the historians of science the task of explaining why, of the several concepts of unconscious mental processes current in the early twentieth century (including those of Pierre Janet, Morton Prince, William James, C. G. Jung, and F. W. H. Myers), Freud's attained such popular acceptance and almost crushed the others into oblivion. The concepts of the unconscious mind developed by the other thinkers I have named, especially James, Jung, and Myers, allowed for unconscious mental processes to be the sources or the conduits of man's higher creative achievements (as well as some of his pathological aberrations); they allowed also for the experiences we call paranormal and even for a soul. How the facts on which they based their larger concepts of the unconscious mind became overlooked during the Freudian period remains a mystery. Perhaps the very extravagance of Freud's claims to be able to explain psychopathology, art, war, and religion made his ideas attractive to uncritical thinkers craving for certitude. Be that as it may, the widespread acceptance of psychoanalytic ideas among psychiatrists and anthropologists shows that the social sciences cannot yet claim to be obtaining cumulative knowledge as physics, chemistry, and biology are doing. I do not mean to be querimonious about Freud, but it is necessary to learn from mistakes in scientific method if we are to progress.

Freud’s psychoanalysis has recently been in decline, and not only because its inherent weaknesses were exposed to damaging criticism. It received challenges as well from new observations about the nature and treatment of mental disease in psychology, genetics, and neurobiology. I regard these replacements as mixed blessings. Psychoanalysis, despite its taint of determinism from infantile experiences, had preserved an awareness of the importance of mental processes in human disease. This element is minimized or openly denied by most investigators in psychology, genetics, and neurobiology. For them mind is a by product of cerebral processes and free will an illusion.

A Role for Psychedelics

While I was still involved with psychoanalysis, I began experimenting with hallucinogenic (perhaps better called psychedelic) drugs. I have taken or had administered to me a number of drugs and anesthetics as part of a search for drugs that would assist psychiatrists in interviewing or in psychotherapy. However, here I shall speak only of the effects on me of mescaline and LSD.

The sensory apparatus of my body is defective: I have had poor eye-sight since youth, my hearing is imperfect, and my sense of smell extremely dull. My first wife was a gifted amateur artist and also a lover of natural beauty, especially that of forests and jungles. Her senses were extraordinarily acute, and I was often aware that she could perceive aspects of the world that I did not. Mescaline could not improve my vision, but it vastly bettered my appreciation of what I saw. The beauty of the colors that I inwardly saw under the influence of mescaline made me ever afterward far more sensitive to color both in nature and in art than I had been before. From my experience with mescaline I also became more aware than I had been of the subjective element in our sense of the passage of time.

With LSD I had less experience of beautiful colors and much more of memories of my early life. With one of my experiences with LSD I also had a mystical experience by which I mean a sense of unity with all beings, all things. After the second of my LSD experiences I passed three days in perfect serenity. I believe that many persons could benefit as much as I did through taking psychedelic drugs under proper medical supervision, which is the only sensible way to take them.

I have mentioned these experiences here to say that they increased my conviction of the dual nature of mind and body. This may seem paradoxical, because if a small amount of a drug acting on the brain can markedly alter our mental experiences does this not prove that our thoughts are only our subjective awareness of our brain's activity? For me it does not. I admit certainly that the chemical changes in my brain that the drugs induced released the extraordinary images and feelings that entered my consciousness. However, this does not account for the images themselves, which (apart from those that I could identify as memories) had no correspondence to anything that I had earlier experienced. Here I need to add that my experiences included nothing that I could prove to have originated outside my mind and, if you like, my brain. I had no verifiable extrasensory experience when under the influence of drugs. My interest in extrasensory perception did not derive from my experiences with drugs, although they enhanced it.

Psychical Research

For many years I had had a keen interest in extrasensory experiences and kindred phenomena. My dissatisfaction with prevailing theories of human personality led me to extend this interest, and in the 1950s I began to read systematically in the literatures of theosophy and psychical research. These had both arisen in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but their methods were altogether different. Theosophists presented a potted version of Buddhism to the Western world, but they combined this with the teachings of alleged Masters channeled through the imperfect minds of frail humans. Like psychoanalysts, theosophists eschewed verifications of their claims, and however valuable the moral teachings of theosophy are, it forms no part of science.

Psychical research, on the other hand, does. The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 in London, and within a few years a sister society, the American Society for Psychical Research, was established in New York. They exist "to examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognized hypothesis." In simpler words, the Societies study evidence of communication without the known sensory organs and of movements occurring without the usual motor forces. Implicit in their programs is the possibility of obtaining evidence that human personality survives bodily death. However, the societies hold no views as a group, and a belief in mind/body dualism or even a belief in extrasensory perception is not a requirement for membership in them. A member need only believe that the question of paranormal phenomena is worthy of inquiry and amenable to scientific investigation.

Investigators of these phenomena use two different methods. One group of researchers seeks to produce or observe the phenomena in laboratories, which provide conditions for excluding normal means of communication and which also, at times, permit varying the conditions in order to learn more about the requirements for the occurrence of the phenomena and their processes. There have been important successes with the experimental method, and I could list for anyone interested a dozen experiments for which I am satisfied that normal explanations fail to explain the observations. However, it must be admitted that experimental results in psychical research are unpredictable. Although experiments have been successfully repeated, they are not voluntarily repeatable as are most experiments in the more developed branches of science. A further weakness of laboratory experiments is that (with rare exceptions) the positive effects are meager and only detectable by statistical methods. A large number of trials is required in order to show an effect, but then one cannot say which successes are due to chance and which to paranormal processes. This necessarily limits what one can learn about processes from experiments. Hopes once held that laboratory experiments in extrasensory perception would convince the majority of scientists to take the phenomena seriously have not been fulfilled.

Nevertheless, an appreciable number of scientists (thirty percent in one recent survey) do believe that something like extrasensory perception is either an undoubted fact or a likely possibility. However, it seems that most of them have reached this judgment through personal experiences instead of from reading reports of laboratory experiment. The study of such experiences—those that occur spontaneously in everyday life—forms the second division of psychical research, and it is the one to which I have given nearly all my attention for the past twenty years.

The study of spontaneous cases of extrasensory perception sometimes needs defending against the disapproval of those who have come to equate science with the controlled conditions that laboratories can offer and naturalistic situations cannot. Here the first point to make is that some important phenomena, such as the weather, volcanoes, fossils, earthquakes, and meteorites, do not occur in laboratories under controlled conditions, and yet wt study them with scientific methods. We do this because science is not a physical location where we obtain evidence, but instead a process for appraising evidence where ever we find it.

In the study of spontaneous paranormal phenomena we must usually interview and cross-question informants about events that have happened before we arrive on the scene. In principle, the methods are those that lawyers use in reconstructing a crime and historians use in understanding the past. Once we have the best account possible of the events in question, we consider one by one the alternative explanations and to try to eliminate them until only the single most probable one remains. Then we try with further observations to confirm or reject the initially preferred explanation. In addition, we search through series of apparently similar phenomena for recurrent features that may provide clues to causative conditions and processes of occurrence.

The investigators of paranormal phenomena have tried to find a middle way between the gullible and the skeptical, the former saying (usually from the perspective of a religion) that everything relevant is already known, the latter that there are no genuine phenomena to be investigated. Nevertheless, although psychical researchers have never been more than a handful in number and never possessed of adequate resources, they have managed somehow to survive. They have now passed on a tradition of systematic inquiry through four generations. With quiet persistence they adhere to Bacon's assertion that "rarities and reports that seem incredible are not to be suppressed or denied to the memory of men." In my library the publications of the British and American Societies for Psychical Research almost fill one large bookcase. What distinguishes the work of these societies is an almost ruthless insistence on corroboration of an experiment's statements and equal insistence on independent verification of the correspondence between these statements and the apparently related event of which the percipient claimed paranormal knowledge. "Were I asked" William James wrote "to point to a scientific journal where hard-headedness and never-sleeping suspicion of sources of error might be seen in their full bloom, I think I should have to fall back on the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. The common run of papers, say on physiological subjects, are apt to show a far lower level of critical consciousness."

Continued in Part II