Past Life Sleuth

How Dr. Ian Stevenson Investigates Cases

This excerpt from the pages of Children's Past Lives demonstrates how incredibly thorough and methodical Dr. Ian Stevenson is when he collects and screens data for his cases.

His methods go to great lengths to refute critics who, beginning with the premise that past lives are impossible, say, "There must be some normal explanation." Dr. Stevenson systematically eliminates all normal explanations until the only explanation left standing is reincarnation. It is as rigorous as the methods in any scientific field.

This method that Dr. Stevenson developed over four decades, is now imitated by researchers all over the world and yields the same results: cases strongly "suggestive" of reincarntion.

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Once I learned how to decipher Dr. Stevenson's abstruse writing style, I discovered the drama in his books. The cases are detective stories. He himself, of course, is the chief sleuth, aided by his sidekick research associates. He follows leads anywhere they take him, often down miles of muddy jeep roads to remote rural villages in Third World countries, never knowing what he will find. He runs into all sorts of colorful characters, many dead ends, and some danger. He's interested in just the facts but has developed a keen eye for the subtle details, the contextual clues that mark the difference between a mere investigator and a master detective.

Like a detective, his immediate goal is a solved case, which to Dr. Stevenson is a well-defined objective. A case is "solved" when he finds a child with spontaneous and detailed memories of a past life, and is able to match the child's memories to the life of one (and only one) deceased person. (He uses the term previous personality for this deceased person.) Finally, to be deemed "verified," he has to be satisfied, after rigorous investigation, that the child had no possible opportunity by normal means--no matter how improbable or absurd--to learn about the previous personality. (Normal is anything other than a past life connection; Dr. Stevenson even screens cases that could be explained by telepathy or spirit possession.)

In other words, a verified case is one where both sides of the equation match convincingly, and where the only explanation--beyond even an unreasonable doubt--is past life memory. Dr. Stevenson has more than eight hundred verified cases in his files.

Where do these cases come from? Because he is studying the natural phenomenon of spontaneous memories, they can't be created in a clinic or laboratory. Dr. Stevenson has to wait for the cases to come to him. He relies on a worldwide network of scouts and colleagues to collect reports and rumors of young children claiming to remember a past life. One of the reasons he has so many cases in India is because his network is more fully developed there than in any other country.

Each of these cases begins when a young child, usually two to four years old, without prompting from anyone, begins talking about a past life. The child will name people and places that nobody in the family has ever heard of before, or he will exhibit odd behavior. In most cases he will describe intimate details of the death--often a violent one. In extreme cases the child will tell his surprised parents that he is really someone else and that he has different parents or even a spouse and children who live in another village or city, and then insist that he be taken there.

The child usually persists in talking about his memories for months or years, despite the sometimes harsh attempts of the family to suppress the memory. (Dr. Stevenson reports that in over half of the cases the family tries to suppress the memory.) Stories about the child's past life memory leak out to the village and spread across districts, finally reaching the ears of a family who have a deceased relative that matches the description the child is giving. This family, upon hearing the news, seeks out the child, curious to see if this is really their deceased relative reborn; or the child's family finally gives in to his pleading and takes him to find his former home.

Typically on these first visits the child will lead the way unaided through the streets of the village to the homestead of the deceased, spontaneously recognize family and friends of the previous personality and call them by their pet names, comment on changes to the house, inquire about people and possessions that he finds missing, and reminisce about obscure events from the past--all from the unique perspective of the deceased. In some cases he will reveal knowledge of hiding places for the family gold, or of secret debts, or of family scandals that no one else knows about. Most amazingly, the child will know nothing about what happened after the previous personality died. The memory is frozen in time. Changes in buildings, in the rooms of the house, or in the appearance of family and friends since the death will strike the child as new, strange, and disorienting.

At some point one of Dr. Stevenson's scouts hears of the case, and the researchers rush to the scene while the memories of the child and of witnesses are still fresh. When Dr. Stevenson arrives, he does everything he can to disprove the child's past life memories. Using interview technique adopted from the field of law, he interviews the child, the family, relatives, and villagers, probing to test the validity of their statements, matching one against the other, and looking for patterns of inconsistency. He refuses to accept secondhand accounts and insists on interviewing only people who witnessed the child speak. Without the knowledge of the family, he discreetly finds and interviews villagers not directly involved with the case to get unbiased character references on the family. He makes surprise visits to the family months and years later to repeat the interviews.

Dr. Stevenson takes every precaution not to make mistakes himself. If he doesn't speak the native language (he knows five languages), he will use two interpreters, and sometimes three, for the interviews. In addition to the notes taken by the team of interviewers, the sessions are taped. He collects and photographs hard evidence, like written records and birthmarks. He transcribes and organizes his notes within days of the visit and carefully builds a chronology of the unfolding of the memories, looking for flaws and gaps.

With the same meticulous care he reconstructs from witnesses exactly what happened when the child met the previous personality's family for the first time and made the first recognitions. He probes especially to discover if any cues were inadvertently supplied to the child. He verifies every fact about the previous personality that the child remembered. On average, in all of his solved cases, 90 percent of these statements check out. Then he investigates any contact the two families might have had between them, no matter how indirect or remote. He presses to find any other opportunity the child might have had to learn the facts he alleges to remember.

When Dr. Stevenson publishes a case, he includes every scrap of raw data that may have a bearing on its validity. Within the text he explores the pros and cons of every possible flaw in the case, every opportunity for normal communication, every way the case might be discredited. These issues are described and dissected in enormous detail. He wants to assure the reader that he has followed through on every possible way the child might have acquired the knowledge, no matter how farfetched. Some of these individual discussions continue for several pages, which make for slow reading.

Dr. Stevenson carries his strict, empirical attitude through to the end. I was amazed by the many direct hits the children make with their memories--these cases are full of them--but in his writing he never gets excited, never calls special attention to the extraordinary things these children say and do. These gleaming nuggets of past life evidence, along with some of the most profound and bizarre human stories I've ever read, are buried among the tailings of technical data and commentary.

Copyright 1997 by Carol Bowman and Steve Bowman