Ian Stevenson's scientific search for evidence of reincarnation
By Tom Shroder
Washington Post Magazine, August 8, 1999. Adapted from Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Reincarnation, a book by Tom Shroder, (Simon & Schuster).This article is a good summary of some of the important ideas in Tom Shroder's book, and a preview of the excellent story telling that "takes you there" on Stevenson's sometimes hair-raising journeys to research cases of children's past life memories.
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It is late, nearly lightless. Smoke from a million dung fires hangs in the headlamps as the Maruti microbus bangs along the narrow, cratered hard pack that passes for a paved road in the Indian outback. We are still hours away from the hotel, and the possibility that we will never get there looms as large as the absurdly overloaded truck hurtling toward us dead in the middle of the road.
Using every inch of the rutted dirt shoulder, we barely escape. I can feel the truck vibrate through the thin tin of the Maruti, smell death in the exhaust pumping from the truck's tailpipe, passing at eye level. And even in escape, there is no relief: We bounce back onto the road's pitted surface and immediately overtake a wooden cart moving at the lumbering gait of yoked oxen. Our driver, leaning on his horn, swerves around the cart and into a blind curve that I can only pray is not already occupied by a bus loaded to the dented metal ceiling with humans and farm animals.
I try not to think about the lack of seat belts, or the mere half-inch of glass and metal that separates the front seat from whatever we might plow into. Or the article I read that said fatal accidents were 40 times more likely on Indian roads than on American highways. I try not to think about dying 10,000 miles from home, about never seeing my wife and children again. I try not to think about absolute darkness.
But even within my bubble of fear, I am aware of the irony. Sitting in the back seat, apparently unconcerned about the mud-splattered torpedoes racing toward us, is a tall, stoop-shouldered, white-haired man, nearly 80, who insists he has compiled enough solid, empirical evidence to prove that physical death is not necessarily the end of me, or anyone else. His name is Ian Stevenson, and he is a physician and psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. He has been braving roads like this for almost 37 years to bring back reports of young children who speak of remembering previous lives, providing detailed and accurate information about people who died before they were born -- people they say they once were. While I struggle with my fear of dying, he is wrestling with his own fear of annihilation: that his life's work will end all but ignored by his peers.
"Why," he asks for the third time since night has fallen, "do mainstream scientists refuse to accept the evidence we have for reincarnation?"
On this day, and for the past six months, Stevenson has shown me what he means by "evidence." He has allowed me to accompany him on two extensive field trips, first to Beirut and now to India. He has responded to my endless questions, and even allowed me to participate in the interviews that are the heart of his research.
The evidence he is referring to does not come from fashionable New Age sources, past-life readings or hypnotic regressions. It is homely and specific: A boy remembers being a 25-year-old mechanic, thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. He recalls 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.
A girl remembers being a teenager named Sheila who was killed while crossing the road. She names the town Sheila lived in, plus Sheila's parents and siblings. When Sheila's family hears of the little girl's stories, they visit with her -- in front of witnesses who say the girl recognized them by name and relationship without prompting.
From the time he learns to talk, a boy in Virginia named Joseph calls his mother by her name and calls his grandmother Mom. As he grows, Joseph begins recalling obscure events from the life of his Uncle David, who died in an accident 20 years before Joseph was born -- and who has been rarely mentioned because of the family's abiding grief.
It goes on and on. In scores of cases around the world, multiple witnesses confirm that children have spontaneously supplied names of towns and relatives, occupations and relationships, attitudes and emotions that pinpointed a single, dead individual -- often apparently unknown to their present families. Trying to make sense of these cases is what has involved Stevenson for almost 40 years. It is what we have been doing in Lebanon and India: examining records, interviewing witnesses and measuring the results against possible alternative explanations. And it is only now dawning on me, as we careen down a deathtrap of a rutted Indian highway, that I have no easy explanations for what I've seen, and no sure answer for the question the man in the back seat is asking.
If Stevenson is largely ignored by his mainstream peers, in some circles he is a scientific legend. His dogged collection of cases -- closing in on 3,000 now -- his meticulous documentation and cross-checking, his prodigious and scholarly publication have made him a hero to many people who would like respectable reasons to distrust the radical materialism of Western science. For his own part, Stevenson has reached this conclusion:
"I think a rational person, if he wants, can believe in reincarnation on the basis of evidence."
When I first came across mention of his work, in 1989, in a footnote to an article on hypnotic regression, I wondered if he might be the kind of wacko who also had a drawerful of fragments of the True Cross or a radio that communicated with a race of blood-red dwarves on the fifth moon of Jupiter. But reading further, I found that this was clearly not the case. A 1975 article in no less than the Journal of the American Medical Association said Stevenson "had collected cases in which the evidence is difficult to explain on any other grounds" besides reincarnation.
The article cited a book in which Stevenson had compiled his field studies, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. I visited a couple of book-stores and found nothing by Stevenson. The public library listed several volumes by him but could locate only Twenty Cases. The prose reminded me of some of the eye-crossing anthropology texts I'd read in college, but it was worth the read -- the cases were compelling, even astonishing. Each had distinct particulars, each hinted at narrative enough for a novel, but all of them shared some essential aspects: A young child was said to have spontaneously asserted another identity, recounting details of memory and knowledge that appeared to conform to someone else's life.
Twenty Cases and a bookshelf of similar volumes Stevenson has produced are stuffed with elaborate examinations in which he sought to determine if the things these children said and the ways they behaved could be explained in any "normal" way. His methods are those of the social scientist, the detective, the investigative reporter. He methodically tracked down and interviewed firsthand witnesses to statements a child made, especially those uttered before any contact had been made with the friends or family of the deceased (in Stevenson's terminology, the "previous personality"). He cross-examined the witnesses, noted possible motivations for bias toward or against, and meticulously charted confirmations and conflicts in testimony.
Stevenson has cases on five continents. Most he has found in cultures in which the idea of reincarnation is widely accepted -- places like India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Lebanon, and among tribal groups in northern Canada. Many of those cases involve families who did not believe in reincarnation, or had other powerful motivations to disbelieve the claims of their children, or the children claiming to be their dead relatives.
American skeptics often find the apparent lack of cases in their own environment a powerful argument against crediting evidence from Uttar Pradesh or the Shouf Mountains. "Everyone wants a case in Iowa," Stevenson remarked at a dinner party in Beirut early in our travels. "Well, I'll give them a case in Iowa. They aren't as strong as the Lebanese cases, but they exist."
In fact, Stevenson has collected more than 100 accounts concerning non-tribal North American children who claim previous-life memories. As a group, the North Americans have fewer specific memories than the children in places like Lebanon and India. They tend not to talk about place or personal names as much, or at all, making identification of a specific previous personality unlikely. The only American cases Stevenson has found where children have said enough to clearly identify a previous personality and included verifiable statements about their lives are "same-family cases" -- cases like Joseph's, in which a child remembers the life of a relative.
Such cases have at least two built-in weaknesses: There's a clear motivation -- grief and the desire for the return of a beloved family member -- for the child's family to unconsciously manufacture a fiction. And no matter how extensive a child's statements about a dead relative, there is no way of ruling out the possibility that he came by the knowledge from other family members.
So the cases Stevenson has investigated most intensely are those in which it can be reliably established that the life a child claimed to recall belonged to a stranger, unknown to the child's family, or anyone the family had contact with. Cases like that of the girl who kept telephoning "Leila."
This was Suzanne, a middle-class Druze girl living in Beirut who believed that she remembered the life of a woman who had died undergoing heart surgery in Richmond, Va. Her parents told Stevenson her story: When she was 16 months old, she pulled the phone off the hook and said, "Hello, Leila?" into it over and over. Soon Suzanne claimed that she was Leila's mother. By the time she was 2, Suzanne had mentioned the names of this woman's other children, her husband, and her parents and her brothers -- 13 people in all. At 3, she had recited portions of a funeral oration for the woman's brother. Ultimately, Suzanne begged her parents to take her to her "real" home, and they made inquiries in the Lebanese town the girl insisted she was from. There they found a family who fit the particulars Suzanne had mentioned.
And there they learned that minutes before undergoing her heart surgery, the woman in question had tried desperately to call her daughter Leila.
This family, including a sister of Leila's, confirmed much of what Suzanne had been saying: names, places, the funeral oration. Suzanne identified members of the dead woman's family from photographs. Though she was a child, she treated the dead woman's grown children as a mother would. She asked if their uncles, when they returned to Lebanon, had distributed "her" jewels to Leila and her sisters -- which had been a deathbed request known only to the family.
Stevenson arrived on the scene after the two families met; any new statements the girl made about the woman's life would be tainted, because Stevenson would have no way of proving that the information didn't come from the woman's family. His recourse in such cases is to concentrate on obtaining firsthand testimony about what the child said before the first meeting, and how he or she behaved during it. The dead woman's relatives gave it, but grudgingly -- they had been rocked by Suzanne's claims. That reluctance made their testimony all the more valuable, in Stevenson's view.
Suzanne's case is appealing in part because of its American connections: The woman died in Virginia, some of her children live in this country, almost everyone involved speaks English. But the fact remains that Suzanne was born in the hills descending into south Beirut, not in Rockville or Woodbridge. Until someone else with memories of such detail and apparent veracity is documented in the United States, the relative weakness of American cases will inevitably suggest that the more persuasive foreign ones are somehow artifacts of a cultural belief in reincarnation.
Still, this view leaves several questions unanswered. Why, for example, do the American cases exist at all? Why are they identical, in form at least -- the age of a child when the first statements are made, the type of statements and accompanying behavior -- to the foreign ones?
And if a society's belief in reincarnation could be powerful enough to create hundreds of elaborate falsehoods, then why couldn't a society's disbelief be capable of suppressing or blunting genuine cases, if they existed?
As my interest in Stevenson grew, I read further. Beyond general, mostly uncritical mentions of Stevenson's work in literature dealing with New Age topics (one paranormal researcher compared him to Galileo), there was very little serious discussion of the meaning of his cases. But I did learn the basics of his biography:
Stevenson earned his MD from McGill University in Montreal in 1943, graduating at the top of his class. In 1957, at the age of 39, he became head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
From there he began his research into reports of children who remembered past lives, and eventually gave up his administrative duties to become a full-time researcher of paranormal phenomena, his professorial chair endowed by Chester Carlson, the man who invented the Xerox process.
Apart from that early, positive review of Stevenson's research in the Journal of the American Medical Association, mainstream science had almost completely ignored him. I began to look through the indexes of more obscure journals on the scientific fringe, notably the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research and, more recently, the Journal for Scientific Exploration. There, I finally found serious scholarly articles that critically assessed Stevenson's work, including some by researchers who had investigated similar cases themselves.
These researchers, psychologists and anthropologists, produced case reports almost identical to Stevenson's, although the conclusions tended to be somewhat more cautious. After investigating 10 cases in India in 1987, for example, anthropologist Antonia Mills wrote: "Like Stevenson, I conclude that while none of the cases I studied offer incontrovertible proof of reincarnation or some related paranormal process, they are part of a growing body of cases for which normal explanations do not seem to do justice to the data."
In 1996, Paul Edwards, a philosophy professor at the New School for Social Research in New York, published Reincarnation: A Critical Examination, an energetic attack. In his introduction, Edwards wrote:
"The writer most frequently criticized in this book is Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia. I should like to make it clear that there is nothing the least bit personal in these comments. I have never met Professor Stevenson . . . He has written more fully and more intelligently in defense of reincarnation than anybody else, and this is the only reason he features so prominently in my discussions."
In general, Edwards wrote, Stevenson's cases may look good in aggregate, but on close inspection are "fatally flawed." He quoted a former associate of Stevenson's as criticizing him for asking leading questions, conducting superficial investigations, taking insufficient account of the "human fallibility" of the witnesses he interviews, and reporting the cases in a way that makes them sound more impressive than they are.
"Which is more likely," Edwards wrote, "that there are astral bodies, that they invade the womb of prospective mothers, and that the children can remember events from a previous life although the brains of the previous persons have long been dead? Or that Stevenson's children, their parents, or some other witnesses and informants are, intentionally or unintentionally, not telling the truth: That they are lying, or that their very fallible memories and powers of observation have led them to make false statements and bogus identifications?"
Here Edwards was hammering at a central vulnerability of Stevenson's research: No matter how much evidence suggestive of reincarnation Stevenson accumulates, he cannot begin to say what a soul is, much less show how it might travel from one body to another.
On the other hand, in trying to make Stevenson's suppositions seem absurd, even Edwards was admitting that if these cases are not the product of lies, bogus identifications and fallible observations -- if somehow they could be demonstrated to be honest and accurate accounts -- then they would constitute legitimate evidence for reincarnation, even if we can't explain how reincarnation works.
Before I actually met Stevenson, the only insight I had into him personally came from a reprint of a lecture he had given at Southeastern Louisiana University in 1989, in which he explained how he progressed from analyzing rat livers in a medical lab to interviewing children who claimed to remember previous lives. His remarks read like something from the 19th century, a time when scientists could also be writers, historians and philosophers, when they weren't afraid to think aloud and puzzle over imponderable things in public.
But I was also intrigued by a subtle underlying tone of bitterness, or at least hurt and puzzlement, apparent in the text. Stevenson clearly felt that his life's work had been scorned, or merely ignored, by those mainstream scientists he considered his peers.
He didn't even wait for the second paragraph to say, "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."
In his darker moments, Stevenson felt like an outcast, a heretic damned for his affronts to scientific orthodoxy. Once, in a particularly bleak frame of mind, he told me, "There's a saying, 'Science only changes one funeral at a time.' "
I first met Stevenson in January 1997, at his office on the University of Virginia campus. It was in an ancient two-story frame house sandwiched between an apartment building and a high-rise parking garage. A plaque on the exterior read "Division of Personality Studies."
When I was shown into Stevenson's office, we sat in facing armchairs. He spoke formally and thoughtfully. There was a sense of the past in the house, in his dress and manner and the way we were sitting there like gentlemen taking after-dinner brandy. In that conversation, and in subsequent ones, his seriousness of purpose was constant. He was reserved, but as I got to know him in the months that followed, I found him quite willing to consider any questions, even pointed ones about his motives and background.
Over dinner in a Beirut hotel, he explained what had diverted him from a successful career in conventional medical research: "What happened was that as I was a very extensive reader, I began to find in books here and there, and in newspapers and magazines, reports of what were usually individual cases of reincarnation memories. In the end I found 44 cases here and there.
"The thing that came out when you got them all together was that they predominantly featured young children, ages 2 to 5, who spoke of previous life memories for a brief time, until they were about 8. But you had to get them all together first before that was obvious. Many were little more than journalistic anecdotes, but some were considerably more serious . . .
"Numbers count in science, and these 44 cases, when you put them together, it just seemed inescapable to me that there must be something there. I couldn't see how they could all be faked, or they could all be a deception. My conclusion was that this might be a promising line of investigation if more cases could be found and studied earlier and more carefully. I don't think it occurred to me that I might be the one to carry out the investigations."
After Stevenson published a paper on his survey of the literature in 1960, he began to hear reports of similar claims in India, and received invitations to investigate.
"By the time I arrived, I had leads on five cases. To my surprise, in four weeks I had found 25 cases, and the same happened in Sri Lanka -- I had a lead to one or two there and I ended up with seven. I didn't pay much attention to the behavioral aspects of these cases. There was one where the child claimed that he was a Brahman and he was born in a low-caste family and he wouldn't eat his family's food. He said, 'You're all just a bunch of Jats, I'm a Brahman, I'm not going to eat your food.' " The boy persisted in his belief into an unhappy adulthood.
"I thought: Well this is interesting, but what really concerns me is how many of his statements can be verified, and what were the chances he could have learned this normally."
Over time, Stevenson concluded that in the strongest cases, no normal explanation comfortably fit the facts. And in aggregate, they all but demanded an explanation beyond the range of our current understanding.
He published his first collection of the cases in 1964.
When I asked what kind of response the book received, Stevenson said nothing for long enough that, though I had spoken plainly, I began to wonder if he hadn't heard the question.
Just when I was about to ask it again, he said, "The short answer is: none. It was just ignored. It was reviewed in the journals of psychical research, and that was about it. I was disappointed, but I couldn't say I was surprised. I was well aware of the isolation of my work."
Did he get any negative response from the university?
"Not precisely at this point, that I knew of. I think it was growing, though, because I learned later that the president of the university had received mail and telephone calls from alumni protesting what I was doing. And my wife was very distressed. She said, 'You're just ruining a promising career. Everything is going great for you. Why do you want to do this?'
"She was herself very materialistic and very oriented toward biochemistry as the answer to disease. So she didn't have sympathy for what I was doing [though they remained married for 25 years, until she died, in 1983]. But that wasn't the worst of her troubles. What was more distressing was that other people, instead of coming to me and saying, 'I'd like to see your data,' would make cracks to her at cocktail parties in my absence, tease her, and I thought that was shameful . . .
"But by that time, I was convinced that there was really something substantial in what I was seeing, something that should be pursued no matter what the cost. So I devoted more and more time to the cases."
Stevenson faced another crisis when his benefactor, Chester Carlson, dropped dead in a New York movie theater. Stevenson's grief combined with a sense of personal doom: "I thought, 'The bottom has dropped out of this. I'll have to go back to ordinary research.' And then his will was read, and it was found that he'd left the university a million dollars and a little more for my research."
Stevenson now had the backing to investigate full time, whether he got any mainstream respect or not. But he wasn't satisfied with operating in the comfortable margin.
"I thought that most parapsychologists were too isolated," he told me once. "They were just talking to themselves and not talking enough to other scientists, and far too inattentive to the fact that the rest of the world wasn't listening to them. They were too locked into a rather narrow laboratory program and they tended to be neglectful, if not contemptuous, of what happened in the field, of spontaneous experiences.
"Those interested me more. Modern psychologists imitated physicists by only being interested in what happened in a lab, not in things like love and death, and parapsychologists imitated psychologists. That is, you have tight control of conditions. But it seems to me that it's far better to be 90 percent certain of something important than 100 percent certain of something that is trivial."
Despite his craving for professional acceptance, Stevenson has shied away from publicity. He didn't trust journalists not to sensationalize his work, and many of his field trips were logistically complicated, arduous and even dangerous, not to mention expensive. He wasn't eager to have to look after a noncontributing member on these expeditions.
But after several years of correspondence, and no doubt because of his impending retirement, I persuaded Stevenson to take me along.
Even though he was on the eve of turning 80, his stamina was astounding. Ranging far outside the cities in both Lebanon and India, relentlessly logging 12-hour days seven days a week in often inhospitable environments, he rarely betrayed the slightest fatigue. It was all I could do to keep from begging him to take a break.
But I could understand his compulsion. The cases we encountered were every bit as difficult to explain away as he had advertised. As he readily acknowledges, no one of them could, on its own, rule out any normal alternative. But in many of them, the only way to account normally for what people were telling us was to hypothesize some massive, multi-sided conspiracy, either conscious fraud or some unconscious communal coordination among people from different families and communities with no obvious motive or clear means to cooperate in a deception.
It was also obvious that Stevenson wasn't ignoring contrary evidence or manufacturing support for his thesis. He was possibly even more energetic in pursuing a line of questioning that could puncture a claim than the contrary.
Ultimately, it was the accumulation of cases, across culture and circumstance, all with multiple, independent witnesses matter-of-factly testifying to things that were inconceivable, that began to take a toll on my skeptical bias.
But what about Stevenson's bias?
On one of those interminable return trips on rutted roads unlit even by starlight, the evening fires encasing the world in an acrid smog, I asked him directly: Doesn't his own passion threaten the objectivity of his findings?
"Show me a researcher who doesn't care one way or another about the results, and I'll show you bad research," he said.
The car lurched off the road to avoid a truck burdened like an ox with sacks of grain overhanging its frame, but Stevenson didn't seem to notice.
"It's like line calls in tennis," he went on. "I care very much about winning my weekly games in Charlottesville, so I pay very close attention to whether a ball is in or out. It is a matter of honor to be scrupulously honest, so I'm not going to lie. But I'm not going to miss a call, either."
Besides, he said, his fondest hope is that other line judges will be called down from the stands to inspect the smudges in the clay and either endorse or dispute his conclusions. What was unbearable was the possibility that nobody would even look.
As he spoke of it, his steady imperturbability finally deserted him, the dangers awaiting outside the tinny van on the mayhem of India's roads vanishing in the overwhelming glare of the world's indifference.
Because one thing was certain. In this life, Ian Stevenson was running out of time.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
Tom Shroder is the editor of The Post's Sunday Style section. This article was adapted from "Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Reincarnation" published by Simon & Schuster.