A Lecture about Science and Reincarnation

Dr. Ian Stevenson

(To read from the beginning, go to Part I)

Evidence for Survival After Death

I have had some interest in nearly all the phenomena subsumed under the term "psychical research." However, I have concentrated most of my effort in examining the evidence for the survival of human personality after death. I have studied and written reports on apparitions, the visions of dying persons and of persons recovered from near death, and certain types of mediumistic communications. The evidence that I have found most promising has been that provided by children who claim to remember previous lives. I have studied their cases more than those of any other group in this field.

From my childhood reading I had become familiar with the idea of reincarnation. The concept made sense to me, but I never thought until many years later that there could ever be any evidence to support a belief in it. Certainly the theosophists had offered none. Here again, my habit of wide reading proved useful. In the course of this reading I came across accounts of persons who actually claimed to remember the details of previous lives. These accounts mostly appeared as individual case histories or in small groups of case reports. Moreover, I found most of them in newspapers and magazines or in books for general readers. Still, there seemed to be more than a few of them, and I decided to tabulate and analyze them for recurrent features. They had some. For example, the great majority of the persons who claimed to remember previous lives were very young children when they first spoke about these lives; and in most instances the children stopped speaking about the previous lives when they were still young children of between five and eight years. I could tell also that, although some of the reports I had collected were of low quality and little more than journalistic anecdotes, this was not true of all. In several cases cautious adults had inquired searchingly into the claims of the children, and in three instances someone had made a written record of what the child had been saying before its statements had been verified.

In 1960 I published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research an essay reporting these observations. My report discussed the various interpretations of the cases and recommended accepting reincarnation only after excluding all others. My main conclusion was that if more cases of the same general type could be found and investigated carefully, we might obtain better evidence of survival after death. I added that "in mediumistic communications we have the problem of proving that someone clearly dead still lives. In evaluating apparent memories of former incarnations, the problem consists in judging whether someone clearly living once died. This may prove the easier task."


I do not think that it occurred to me then that I would be the person to undertake the task.2 Although the American Society for Psychical Research awarded a prize to me for the essay, its journal was (and still is) one of the most obscure journals in the whole of science. Nevertheless, the essay attracted some attention, and within a few months I received a telephone call from Eileen Garrett, who had (about ten years before) established the Parapsychology Foundation. She had learned of a case in India that seemed to resemble the ones whose reports I had reviewed, and she asked me whether I would be interested in going to India to investigate it. I was indeed interested, and the following summer (August 1961) I made my first visit to India, where I spent about five weeks before going on to Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) for another week. Before leaving for India I had learned of some other cases of fairly recent origin, and I also had the addresses of some subjects figuring in cases I had reviewed in my essay. I thought they might still be alive, and I wanted to meet them if I could.

On reaching India I underwent considerable culture shock; yet this was less than the shock of learning how little I knew about India and Sri Lanka. I have subsequently thought that if I had known how ignorant I was of Asia I should never have had the nerve to begin these investigations. However, shielded by this ignorance I pushed on with them. I soon found that the cases were much more numerous than I had been led to expect from the scattered reports I had summarized for my essay. (Altogether, during this first trip, I learned about and studied—not all with the same thoroughness—about twenty cases in India and five in Sri .Lanka.)

Also unexpected by me were the informants' often lively reports of the unusual behavior that most of the subjects showed-behavior that harmonized with the child's statements about the previous life it claimed to remember. I had expected that the cases would consist exclusively of statements the subjects would express neutrally about the previous lives. Instead, I found that the children often talked with strong emotions about the previous lives, and they sometimes behaved as if still living in the past life. For them it seemed still present, not past. For example, a child of low-caste parents who said that he remembered the life of a Brahmin would show snobbish behavior toward his own family and might even refuse to eat their food: from his perspective it was polluted. A child remembering a previous life as a person of the opposite sex might dress for that sex and play its games. One who remembered being shot would show a fear of guns and loud noises. As I mentioned, many of the reports I had used for my essay had appeared in newspapers or other popular publications, and one expects that journalistic accounts will exaggerate the basic facts of an event; however, this example shows that such accounts may also miss important details.

Back in Virginia after this first trip to Asia I tried to assimilate a mass of information about the cases that far exceeded my initial expectations. I wrote and had accepted for publication in 1964 a monograph about some of the cases that I had investigated. At this point doubts were publicly expressed about the honesty of the man who had been my interpreter for several of the stronger cases in India. Learning of these suspicions, the publisher halted the publication of my monograph. Although the man in question undoubtedly had been dishonest in some matters—something I did not know during my first journey to Asia—I did not think he had deceived me as an interpreter. However, rather than lose the extensive work involved in the cases in which this man had helped me, I decided to return to India and study again these cases (and some others) with new interpreters.

The happy side of this misfortune was that the cases I investigated again proved to be even stronger than they had earlier seemed to be. Moreover, I learned the value of repeated interviews. From this experience I date my habit of trying to return to cases for second and third interviews whenever possible. Too often after leaving the site of a case I think of questions that I should have asked when I was there; I can ask them on a second or later visit.

After my second visit to India I revised my monograph, and it was published, in 1966, without further difficulty. If I were inclined to equate market success with scientific worth, I should be more than satisfied with this book. It had been translated into seven foreign languages, has sold about 50,000 copies since 1966, and is still in print. However, I am well aware that these sales figures reflect public interest in the subject of reincarnation and little else. In 1977 I achieved what was for me a more gratifying success. In that year I published in a scientific journal an article entitled "The Explanatory Value of the Idea of Reincarnation." For this I had more than 1,000 requests for reprints from scientists all over the world, This was far more than I had ever had for any of my numerous articles derived from what I call orthodox research. In this paper I drew attention to reincarnation as a hypothesis of explanatory value for a wide variety of unsolved problems in psychology and medicine. The interest it evoked among other scientists assured me that I was not alone in my discontent with psychoanalytic and other current theories of human personality.

At about the time of my first visit to India, Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography, (encouraged by his wife, Dorris) began to offer me funds with which to expand my investigations. I remember being at first conscientiously unable to accept as much money as Chester Carlson offered, because I was then heavily involved in administrative and teaching duties as Chairman of the University of Virginia's Department of Psychiatry. However, I was able gradually to change my situation, and Chester Carlson then offered matching funds for an endowed chair that would enable me to devote myself full-time to psychical research. The risks of giving up the secure position I then had were obvious; but the unique opportunity offered warranted the risks, and I have never regretted my decision to engage full-time in this research.

I am sometimes asked what my colleagues at the University of Virginia think about my research. It has had a mixed reception among them. A few have openly disapproved of having such research at the University, but the majority (at least of those whose opinions have reached me) adhere to the maxim of the University's founder, Thomas Jefferson: "Here we are not afraid to follow truth whereever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."

Evidence for Reincarnation

Since 1967 I have widened and deepened the research as much as available time and financial resources have permitted. I have published some sixty-five detailed case reports, mostly in books. And I have published each year three or four articles about various aspects of these cases and about other types of cases that I have studied. In late 1987 I published a book written for general readers in which I described my methods of investigation and summarized the results and my present conclusions about children who say they remember previous lives. Before telling you about these conclusions I should briefly describe for you the scope of the research.

Between my first visit to India and the publication, finally, of my monograph reporting, as its title says, twenty cases suggestive of reincarnation, I had extended my investigations to the tribal peoples of northwest North America, and to Lebanon, Brazil, Turkey, and Thailand, In the 1970’s I began investigating cases in Burma and West Africa. I have also investigated whatever cases came to my attention in Europe and in North and South America.3 The number of cases now available for our analysis has gradually increased to about 2,500; but I wish to stress that the cases are of varying quality and we have not investigated all of them with the same thoroughness.

Adults sometimes claim to remember previous lives, but with rare exceptions their cases have much less value than those of young children and most, in my view, are worthless. This is because in the case of a young child of only two or three years of age one can reach reasonably satisfactory conclusions concerning the information to which the child might have been normally exposed. In contrast, the mind of an adult and even that of an older child has been filled with a large amount of information that becomes available for the ingredients of an imagined previous life. Accordingly, I have concentrated my efforts increasingly on the cases of young children.

I mentioned earlier that in the cases I first reported in 1960 I had discerned some recurrent features. We have since found other recurrent features. One of these is a high incidence of violent death in the persons whose lives the children remember. This feature occurs in the cases of all ten cultures for which we have examined groups of cases; although the incidence of violent death in the cases varies from one culture to another, it is far higher among the cases than in the general populations from which they are drawn. Other recurrent features also vary from culture to culture. These include the occurrence of dreams in which a deceased person seems to announce to the dreamer the intention of being reborn (usually in the family of the dreamer), the incidence of claims to have been a person of the opposite sex in the previous life, and the interval between the concerned deceased person's death and the subject's birth.

These and other variations in the cases tell us that culture—by which I mean here the beliefs of a group of people-powerfully influences the features of the cases. This being so, it may fairly be asked whether beliefs are not the sufficient causes of the cases. We do not know the actual prevalence of cases (except from one survey in India), but we do know that the cases can be found much more readily in cultures having a belief in reincarnation than in ones not having this belief.4 Critics of the cases have therefore suggested that a child's fantasies, perhaps of an imaginary playmate, may become shaped by its parents and peers, through their questions and suggestions, until the child assumes an identification with a deceased person. In this way the child becomes the subject of a factitious case suggestive of reincarnation.

This argument has considerable force, and its cogency can hardly be denied when we consider the numerous cases in which the subject of a case and the deceased person with whom he or she identifies belong to the same family or same village. However, it will not suffice to explain the smaller, but not negligible number of cases in which the two families live widely separated and, from all the evidence, have had no acquaintance with each other before the case developed. Moreover, in the stronger of such cases the child has furnished specific details (sometimes written down before verification) about the deceased person; there can be no question in such cases of imaginings, confused memories, and pseudo-identification. In examining the cases of this group we are almost forced to believe that the child has somehow acquired knowledge about a deceased person by other than normal means. If this be granted, one has still a choice among several explanations all of which suppose some paranormal process; and reincarnation is only one of these.

Journalists have sometimes incorrectly (and unjustly) described me as trying to prove that reincarnation occurs. This allegation is wrong as a description both of my motive and of science. Outside of mathematics there is no proof in science; scientists make judgments about probabilities, and they rarely express themselves in statements of certainty. It is true that I search for stronger evidence than we now have for paranormal processes in the cases I study, and if that evidence points toward reincarnation I am not displeased. I have never hidden my interest in the results of my research. William James pointed out that "if you want an absolute duffer in an investigation, you must, after all, take the man who has no interest in its results…the most useful investigator…is always he whose eager interest in one side of a question is balanced by an equally keen nervousness lest he become deceived."

The search for stronger evidence is therefore not with an aim at developing some coercive proof. Instead, it recognizes that different persons require different amounts and qualities of evidence before they alter their opinions. Although most educated Westerners have some acquaintance with the idea of reincarnation from at least a slight knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism, few are familiar with concrete instances of children's claims to remember a previous life. It is not surprising that the truth of the claims seems to them antecedently improbable. As Charles Richet, a great French physiologist (and psychical researcher) observed: "Pour croire complètement à un phénomène il faut y etre habitué." Perhaps my main contribution will be that of making Western persons familiar, not with the idea of reincarnation—it must be one of the oldest ideas in the world—but with evidence tending to support a belief in reincarnation.

I am frequently asked whether I myself believe in reincarnation. I decline to answer this question because my beliefs should make no difference to anyone asking such a question. As Leonardo da Vinci said, "Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but rather memory." Everyone should examine the evidence and judge it for himself. As I have just said, the evidence that my colleagues and I have obtained gives some support to a belief in reincarnation. Before the modern investigations a belief in reincarnation had to rest on the basis of faith, usually inculcated by the scriptures or oral teachings of a traditional religion. Now, one may, if one wishes, believe in reincarnation on the basis of evidence. However, the evidence is not flawless and it certainly does not compel such a belief. Even the best of it is open to alternative interpretations, and one can only censure those who say there is no evidence whatever.

Birthmarks and Birth Defects

Has then an impasse been reached without a way forward? I do not think so, because I believe we will advance further with the publication of cases of subjects who have birth marks or birth defects that seem to derive from previous lives. These marks and defects correspond closely in size and location to wounds (occasionally other marks) on the deceased person whose life the child later claims to remember.

Apart from their relevance to medicine, the cases with birthmarks and birth defects raise the standard of evidence for the cases in which most of them occur: the birthmarks (or defects) can be photographed, and for many of the corresponding wound, we have obtained medical records, such as autopsy reports. These are important steps toward greater objectivity in the research. You can readily understand how these cases have brought me back to my principal interest in medicine: psychosomatic relationships. However, now we are tailing about a mind's influence on a body across the gap of death.

Most of the marks and defects of these cases are on the skin or extremities. However, in a small number of cases the subject has had some internal disease similar or identical to one which the person whose life the child remembers had had. For such a case to be significant the disease must be one from which the subject alone of all members of his family has suffered. We have a few such cases, and they have returned me to that topic in which I have never lost interest: Why does a person acquire one particular disease instead of another?

I think that for most scientists today this last question is absurd. They believe that there is no person apart from a body. For them, any disease a person acquires derives from the combination of the genes he draws in the lottery of parenthood modified by the environment into which he is born and in which he later lives. No one is more aware than I of how subversive it is to talk in the West today5 of a soul that may survive the death of one physical body and later become associated with a second body which it influences, at least to some extent, in form and function. Nevertheless, the accumulated evidence, which I shall be publishing in detail next year, warrants conjectures of this kind.

Here I need to add and to emphasize that the evidence suggestive of reincarnation imperils no present knowledge. I do not question the findings of genetics or even that environments have some effect on us (although I do deny any primacy for the events of infancy among all environmental influences). I am suggesting that instead of a single line of evolution—the one of our physical bodies—we also participate in a second line of evolution—that of our minds or, if you prefer, our souls.

The claim to have evidence of a second line of evolution is, I need hardly say, a large one, and if it does not challenge any substantial knowledge it certainly does throw into question many common assumptions about the nature of man, especially those concerning the relationship between mind and brain. To this I add the heterodox idea that certain birth defects and even some internal diseases may have mental causes anteceding the conception of a person's body. In presuming to doubt the ideas about the nature of man that most Western scientists hold, I can take comfort in an aphorism of the great French neurologist Charcot: "La théorie, c'est bon, mais ¸ a n'empeche pas d'exister." Those who would judge my conclusions should first examine the evidence that has led me to them.

It is tempting to conclude this lecture by invoking the names of the many great philosophers and poets who have believed in reincarnation and thereby obliquely exhort you to believe in it yourself. I have already said that such a path is closed to me; authority has no place in science. Yet science acknowledges leaders, and it particularly pleases me to remember that some of the greatest encouragement for the scientific methods of psychical research has come from humanists like William James and Henri Bergson. Each of these great men accepted the Presidency of the Society for Psychical Research, and James was for many years at least a part-time investigator of psychical phenomena. I venerate them less for the particular views they held than for their endorsement of the scientific method applied to paranormal experiences as a means of attaining important new knowledge of man's nature.

Such are some of my journeys in medicine with occasional wanderings in the humanities. I do not agree with a great writer who said that "to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." Certainly those who do not travel hopefully may never arrive, but hope alone cannot long sustain a journey in science. Accordingly, I have tried to describe for you some of the choices that I made of roads to take during my journeys.

Copyright ©1990, The Levy Humanities Series

* * * * * * * *


I am grateful to Margaret Petzoff Stevenson and Emily Williams Cook for improving this Lecture with their helpful comments.

1. This is a subject in which I have never lost interest, and I later published two papers about it.

2. In 1925 an Indian (R. B. Sunderhl), who had studied four of the cases that I later included in my 1960 Essay, offered reports of them for publication by the American Society for Psychical Research. The Research Officer (W. F. Prince) sent a polite note of rejection in which he said "it is difficult to see how, unless such cases could be multiplied, and attested by various evidences, such a claim .., could be proved true." Another member of the Society's staff commented in a memorandum that the cases were "worthy of following up by some Western scientific methods and investigators." Sunderlal published his report in India and also, in 1924, in the French journal of psychical research Revue Metapsychique.

3. I have published detailed reports or analyses of cases from all these regions, except Western Europe.

4. I am not halting here to discuss why the cases are found more readily in some parts of the world than in others. The question is certainly an extremely important one, and I have made a beginning attempt to consider the factors involved in my book for general readers.

5. If heretics were burned alive today, the successors in science of the theologians who, in the sixteenth century, burned anyone who denied the existence of souls would today burn those who affirm their existence.

Works by Stevenson Referred to in the Lecture "The Influence of Oxygen Tension upon the Respiration of Rat Kidney Slices." Archives of Biochemistry. 17 (1948): 61-75 (with Lucile Smith).

"Life Situations, Emotions, and Extrasystoles." Psychosomatic Medicine. 11 (1949): 257-72 (with C. H. Duncan, S. Wolf, H. S, Ripley, and H. G. Wolff).

"Circulatory Dynamics before and after Exercise in Subjects with and without Structural Heart Disease during Anxiety and Relaxation," Journal of Clinical Investigation. 28 ( 1949): 1534- 1543 (with C, H, Duncan and H. G. Wolff).

"Physical Symptoms During Pleasurable Emotional States." Psychosomatic Medicine, 12 (1950): 98-102.

"Physical Symptoms Occurring with Pleasurable Emotional States." American Journal of Psychiatry. 127(1970): 175~79.

"Scientists with Half-Closed Minds." Harper's Magazine. 217 (1958): 64-71.

"On the Irrational among the Rational: Incredulity in Scientists." Virginia Quarterly Review, 41 (1965): 40-57.

"Is the Human Personality More Plastic in Infancy and Childhood?" American Journal of Psychiatry. 114(1957): 152-161.

"The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations." Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. 54 (1960): 51-71 and 95-117.

Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Second edition, revised. Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1974. First published as Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 26 (1966): 1-362.

"The Explanatory value of the Idea of Reincarnation." Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 164 (1977): 305-26,

"American Children Who Claim to Remember Previous Lives." Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 171 (1983): 742-48.

Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987.

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