One burning question that has long preoccupied humankind and sparked awe, wonder, and fear since the first flickers of consciousness stirred in our ancestors' brains is that of what happens to us after our inevitable death. Although this is a universal concern among our kind, the form in which the answer to this question comes is as varied as the cultures and faiths that ponder it. What lies beyond the veil between life and death, and where does our passing take us, if anywhere? Among the numerous beliefs and ideologies dealing with this question is one that appears again and again across cultures and faiths, and this is the idea that we are reborn into new bodies, our souls recycled into new lives; reincarnation. Although the specifics of reincarnation vary across beliefs, one thing that typically remains the same is that the reborn do not clearly remember what or who they were before, yet this is not always the case. Throughout history some people have demonstrated an uncanny awareness of their past lives, displaying knowledge of details and places they could not possibly know of. What does any of this mean and does it show us that reincarnation could perhaps be real?
Many of the most impressive and spectacular cases of supposed reincarnation come from children. Whether this is because they are closer to their previous life, more attuned or receptive to it, or because their minds have not yet been clouded by a lifetime of new memories or their old ones overwritten by a whole new life of memories, the fact is that children seem to provide a large number of some of the more rather striking cases. Take James Leininger, who at the tender age of just 2 woke his parents one evening screaming in the midst of a terrible nightmare, shouting “Airplane crash! Plane on fire! Little man can’t get out!”
The parents did not know what to make of this odd incident, but things would get stranger still when in the coming days the toddler would begin to not only have the same nightmare over and over, but also display knowledge of World War II era aircraft that there was no way he could have known about. He would also begin to constantly play with toy planes, and although he could not read and did not watch TV programs on such things, nor did his parents have any interest in such things, he seemed to know the names of various wartime aircraft. He also knew other details about such planes. For instance, one day when he was playing with his toys his mother, Andrea, referred to a part of the plane’s bottom as a "bomb," yet James told her that it was not a bomb, but rather a “drop tank.” When Andrea looked it up she found that her son had been right, and thought it to be bizarre that her 2-year-old toddler son should know such an obscure thing. He also knew extensively about aircraft weapon systems, and would even do imaginary pre-flight checks that seemed shockingly natural. Weirdly, James also began referring to himself as “Huston,” something which he had never done before.
Curious, his parents brought home a book on World War II and looked through it with their son to see what he would do, and when they reached a picture of Iwo Jima little James froze, pointed at it, and declared that he had been shot down there. He was then shown a documentary program on Iwo Jima and when the program referred to one Japanese plane as a “Zero,” James got agitated and said that it was actually called a “Tony.” Again, when the parents looked it up they found he was right. He also began telling them other details, such as that he had been stationed on a ship called the Natoma, that his plane had been a Corsair, and that he had been with someone named “Jack.”
Puzzled by all of this, James’ parents began investigating Iwo Jima and any reference to a ship called the Natoma, and they eventually found that there was indeed a WWII aircraft carrier called the USS Natoma Bay there during the war. Eerily, it was not long after that that they discovered an obscure case in which one of the squadron pilots was shot down at Iwo Jima on March 3, 1945 while flying a Corsair model aircraft, and that pilot was 21-year-old James McCready Huston. Along with him had been co-pilot Jack Larson, who had survived the crash. This thoroughly spooked his parents, as did the boy's recurring nightmares that were becoming more intense, as well as his newly formed obsession with incessantly talking about World War II and his crash, and they allegedly reached out to Huston’s sister, who came over to speak with James. According to accounts, the boy was able to answer a wide array of intimate questions that only the long dead pilot could have known with weird accuracy. The story became the topic of a 2009 book on the matter titled Soul Survivor. James’ father, Bruce Leininger, would later say of his son’s experience:
I was the original skeptic. But the information James gave us was so striking and unusual. If someone wants to look at the facts and challenge them, they’re welcome to examine everything we have.
In another intriguing case that appeared in the book Children Who Have Lived Before: Reincarnation Today, a 3-year-old boy living in the Golan Heights area of the Middle East, near the borders of Syria and Israel, began claiming to anyone who would listen that he had been killed in a previous life by a blow from an axe to the head. Oddly, the boy had been born with an elongated, red birthmark on his head, and since the Druze ethnic group to which he belonged have a long tradition of seeing birthmarks as marks of death from past lives he was taken fairly seriously. The boy was taken through the village to see what he remembered and he pointed out the house where he claimed to have lived in his previous life. The boy knew the exact layout of the home, and began remembering his old name as he walked about the premises.
When the name was checked out, it turned out to be that of a man who had mysteriously vanished from that very same home 4 years prior. This was spooky enough as it is, because it seemed that there was no way this 3-year-old kid could have possibly known that, but things would get more bizarre still. As they were there, the neighbor came out and the boy perked up in recognition, as well as a hint of fear. The boy approached the neighbor and knew his name as well, after which he stated that this was the man who had killed him and covertly buried his body. The neighbor visibly reacted to this and allegedly seemed to be in genuine shock and panic. The boy then amazingly said that he could remember where the body had been secretly buried, and led village elders to a place where indeed a corpse was buried under some rubble with an apparent axe wound to the head. Even more impressive, the boy also led them to the place where the murder weapon was buried as well, and amazingly this led to the neighbor confessing to the murder of the dead man who had been found.
These two cases so far suggest that death seems to remain a vivid memory for many of these children’s reincarnation cases. Consider the case of Edward Austrian, a 4-year-old boy who had always had a phobia of grey, rainy days and who on one such day began complaining of a sore throat which would not go away. Oddly, he did not say his “throat” hurt, but rather told everyone his “shot” hurt. At first doctors could find no physical reason for his severe throat pain, but it was later found that he had developed an unusual cyst that they did not know how to treat. Shortly after this, he began telling his family that he had once been a soldier in World War I, and that he remembered being shot in the throat, which had spelled his doom. Strangely, the more he talked about this alleged past life the smaller the cyst became, until it vanished, leaving doctors perplexed.
Similarly was the case of a young boy named Gus Taylor, who when he was a mere 18 months of age claimed that he had been his own deceased grandfather in a previous life. When asked how he had come back, he explained “I just went whoosh and came out the portal,” which was an incredibly odd thing for such a young kid to say. In addition to knowing accurate details of his grandfather's life that he could not have known, he also made the rather ominous claim that his sister had been “turned into a fish” by “bad guys.” Eerily, the boy’s grandfather had indeed had a sister who had been murdered 60 years before, and whose corpse had been found floating in San Francisco Bay. The young boy had not ever been told this, and indeed it had been kept mostly one of the family's dark secrets. Just as strange was when he was asked if he knew how he had died, and responded by slapping his head and making a face as if he were in pain, odd considering that his grandfather had died of a cerebral hemorrhage, another detail he could not have possibly known.
One intriguing hallmark of these cases is the incredible detail these young kids know about their apparent past lives. There is also the famous case of what has come to be known as “The Barra Boy,” who was a 2-year-old Cameron Macauley, of Glasgow, Scotland. The boy one day suddenly began telling his mother that he was not actually from Scotland, but from an island called Barra, which lies off the west coast of Scotland in the Outer Hebrides. Cameron began chatting away in detail about his life there, explaining that he had lived in a white house, had owned a black and white dog, and had often gone to a beach near his home where planes would land. He described the family’s car, said that he had had 7 siblings, and even recalled that his father’s name had been Shane Robertson. On a darker note, he claimed that he had died in a car crash. He even went so far as to draw pictures of the house he claimed to have once lived in, and said that he sometimes felt homesick and missed his former mother.
This was understandably unsettling for the Mcauley family, but their son talked about it so often and in such detail that they began to think that maybe he really had lived a past life. The family decided to journey out to Barra in a search for possible answers and what they found surprised them. After landing on a beach, just as had been specified, there on the island they discovered that there was indeed a family by the name of the Robertsons living there, who had lost their son in a car accident, and they did indeed live in a white house that looked uncannily like the one Cameron had drawn over and over again. The family even had a photo of a black and white dog, and their car was exactly the make and model Cameron had described. While there, Cameron was able to easily navigate the home and knew of all sorts of details only the family could have possibly known. Indeed the only thing that didn’t match with his tales was that the father’s name was not Shane.
Then there is the case of Shanti Devi, who was born in Delhi, India in 1926, and at the age of 4 began telling her parents and teachers that she had lived in another house in the town of Mathura, which was strange considering she had never had another home before and had never been to Mathura. Nevertheless, she was able to describe this home she spoke of in incredible detail, explaining the floor layout, where everything was kept, even the decorations that had been up in it. She even knew the address of the house, which she wrote down on a piece of paper. More bizarrely, she began to also claim that she had a husband and a son living there, and that she very much wished to see them again.
This was unsettling enough that out of curiosity one of Shanti’s teachers decided to try and write a letter to the address she had given, just to see what would happen, and in the letter explained what little Shanti had been saying. A response came in the form of a letter from a man calling himself Kedarnath, who said that indeed he had had a young wife named Lugdi Devi, who had passed away several years before. He also seemed very surprised and puzzled that everything Shanti had said of his house was completely true. Every single detail she had given about this past life was exactly as she had said, and no one could quite understand how this could possibly be.
By this time Shanti’s story was picking up national recognition in the media, and it even came to the attention of none other than Mahatma Gandhi himself, who went about organizing a commission to investigate her claims. Shanti was taken to her alleged previous house, where she explained that the neighborhood looked a bit different from before, listing some of the things that had changed and of course these all turned out to be completely accurate. She recognized her previous husband and gave details of their life together that only the wife could have possibly known. She also recognized other members of her family, such as her sister, and again gave intimate details of her family and previous life with them, which all were true. The conclusion of this investigative commission was that Shanti Devi was indeed the reincarnation of Lugdi Devi.
Also from India is the strange case of Parmod Shava, who was born in 1944 in Bisauli, India, and began having memories of a previous life when he was just 2 years old. It started when he began telling his mother one day that his wife could cook for him, and that she lived in the town of Moradabad, which lied far away and was a place to which he had never been. He said that he had had a wife and five children consisting of a daughter and four sons, and he occasionally expressed how much he missed them. This gradually evolved into him speaking of a business he had used to own with his family making cookies and selling soda water, which he claimed was called “Mohan Borthers.” According to the boy, he had been quite successful in this venture and others, such as hotels he had owned, one of which he claimed to have owned in the town of Saharanpur, and he said he had been very wealthy. Parmod apparently knew a great many minute details of his shop in Moradabad, down to the floor layout and size, what was sold there, how everything was arranged, and how they had gone about their business.
Oddly, Parmod also began warning his family that they should not eat curd, and that he had gotten very sick from eating it in his previous life. He also rather spookily proclaimed that he had died in a bath tub, and that this was why he had never liked taking baths. Parmod was eventually taken to Moradabad when he was 5, where it turned out that not only was there a cookie and soda water business called “Mohan Brothers,” but that the store looked exactly as he had described it, except for his complaint that his “special seat” had changed. Parmod also knew exactly how to operate the complicated machinery that made the soda water, and when it was intentionally disabled in order to test him he knew precisely how to fix it.
It was also learned that the previous manager had become violently ill from a gastrointestinal illness after eating too much curd at a wedding feast, and that he had eventually died from it in 1943, 18 months before Parmod had been born. Curiously, right before his death he had been trying a medicinal, naturopathic bath treatment. The man, named Parmanand, had left behind a widow and five children, a daughter and four sons, just as Parmod had said. As to the house where Parmanand had lived, Parmod knew it in extreme detail. He said that there was a screen there which had not been there before, which was correct, and he knew what the contents were of a cupboard and where certain furniture should be located. He also accurately pointed out who had been which family member, including his cousins, brother, nephew, children, and wife, who he reprimanded for wearing the white sari of a widow rather than a regular one, and he even knew all of the nicknames they called each other.
When Parmod was shown a hotel that he claimed to have also owned in his previous life, he commented on things that had changed, such as two new sheds built on the property, and he was also intimately familiar with the interior of the place. For instance, he correctly knew which cupboards he had made himself by hand and which had been moved. Parmod showed the same sort of uncanny knowledge when shown the hotel he allegedly owned in Saharanpur, located about 100 miles away to the north. During this whole tour he regularly recognized people he encountered around town, calling them by name and accurately describing who they were, much to everyone’s astonishment. He even knew which people he owed or who owed him money and precisely how much. Just how this little boy knew this shocking amount of detail of the places and people he had never before seen remains a mystery.
Although we have been looking mostly at cases of children here, adults have had profound experiences concerning apparent past lives as well, although these are much rarer due to the fact that accumulated experiences and memories within the new life seem to usurp those of the old one. One such case is that of a man from Birmingham, England named Peter Hume, who began having vivid dreams of being on guard duty in 17th century Scotland. In these dreams he was a soldier in the army of Oliver Cromwell, and his name was John Raphael. These dreams began to creep into his waking hours as well, and he finally out of curiosity went on a trip to some of these places he was seeing in these visions, which he was able accurately describe in detail despite having never actually been there, at least not in his current life. Most impressively, he was able to correctly describe a church in Culmstock, South England, which had constantly popped up in his dreams. He even knew that there had used to be a tower with a yew tree growing out of it on the premises, which according to a local historian was not only true, but had been an unpublished detail that Hume could not have known. Eerily, a look through local records showed that a soldier named John Raphael had been married there in the 1670s.
A well documented case of an adult experiencing memories of a past life is that of a housewife from Pueblo, Colorado named Virginia Tighe. In 1952, Virginia’s life began to be intruded upon by vivid memories that flashed into her head of events she had not ever actually experienced and people she had never met. She underwent a series of hypnotism sessions conducted by a hypnotist named Morey Bernstein, in order to try and get to the bottom of these visions, which she had begun to suspect were indicative of a past life and which would prove to be rather bizarre indeed.
During the sessions, Virginia was told to go far back in time to before she was born, to “some other scene, in some other place, in some other time.” As she did this, her voice began to change, taking on a rather thick Irish brogue, and she began claiming that she had been born in 1798 outside of Cork, in Ireland. In this Irish accent she said her name had been Bridey Murphy, and she gave various details of this past life, saying that she had had a barrister father named Duncan Murphy and a mother named Kathleen. She also said that she had been married to a man named Brian MacCarthy, also a barrister and that they had moved to Belfast, where she would live until she died at the age of 66 after falling down a flight of stairs.
Other details she gave were that she had often frequented a grocer named “Carrigan,” which turned out to in fact exist, as well as a myriad of other correct details about the neighborhood she had lived in and a great knowledge of various Irish lore. Due to the mostly accurate Irish brogue she spoke during these sessions, as well as the details she had provided, many of which were verified as being true, Bernstein became convinced that this was a genuine case of reincarnation. Although the book in which this case was published, Bernstein’s 1956 The Search for Bridey Murphy, has often been criticized as being perhaps not completely factual and skeptics had pointed out that hypnotic regression is not a reliable method for recalling past events, this somewhat controversial case nevertheless has never been completely satisfactorily solved.
So what do we make of all of this? Are any of the cases we have looked at here truly evidence of reincarnation? The notion of people being reborn into new bodies and lives has long been regulated to the realm of mere myth and folklore, and has not traditionally been taken particularly seriously by mainstream science, yet in recent years there has been some serious study into the phenomenon. One scientist who devoted much of his career to studying the phenomenon was Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and former chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology Dr. Ian Stevenson, who also founded the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia in 1967. His aim was to investigate claims of reincarnation through the collection of thorough evaluation of scientific data and evidence on the phenomenon using strict protocols and methods, and his division’s mission statement was “the scientific empirical investigation of phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness, and its relation to matter, may be incomplete.”
Stevenson eschewed using hypnotic regression, which is seen as potentially scientifically unreliable, in favor of collecting thousands of accounts from children who claimed to have memories of past lives, after which he would meticulously track down the details these children would provide in the real world, as well as interviewing the family of the deceased, working to match up the accuracy with what was claimed with the life of the real person they claimed to have been. Stevenson over the course of his career collected and analyzed over 3,000 such cases from children from all over the world and from all walks of life over several decades, and found upon investigation that when a deceased person was found that was a match, 92% of statements made by the children were accurate, far beyond the realm of mere chance. He would later say of these cases:
It was possible in each case to find a family that had lost a member whose life corresponded to the subject’s statements. The statements of the subject, taken as a group, were sufficiently specific so that they could not have corresponded to the life of any other person. We believe we have excluded normal transmission of the correct information to the subjects and that they obtained the correct information they showed about the concerned deceased person by some paranormal process.
One method Stevenson was also rather well-known for his study of matching birthmarks, odd skin pigmentation, or birth defects to any wounds or scars the deceased past life may have had in order to find any potential correlation between the two, which he would compile into a paper entitled Birthmarks and Birth Defects Corresponding to Wounds on Deceased Persons. Interestingly, Stevenson reported the surprising finding that there was often indeed was a correlation between the two, saying:
About 35 per cent of children who claim to remember previous lives have birthmarks and/or birth defects that they (or adult informants) attribute to wounds on a person whose life the child remembers. The cases of 210 such children have been investigated. The birthmarks were usually areas of hairless, puckered skin; some were areas of little or no pigmentation (hypopigmented macules); others were areas of increased pigmentation (hyperpigmented nevi). The birth defects were nearly always of rare types. In cases in which a deceased person was identified the details of whose life unmistakably matched the child’s statements, a close correspondence was nearly always found between the birthmarks and/or birth defects on the child and the wounds on the deceased person. In 43 of 49 cases in which a medical document (usually a postmortem report) was obtained, it confirmed the correspondence between wounds and birthmarks (or birth defects).
Although Dr. Stevenson passed away in 2007, his work has been published in numerous peer reviewed scholarly texts and has been seen by many as some of the best evidence for reincarnation on record, inspiring others to follow his lead. Another scientist who has followed in his footsteps is a child psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and a Bonner-Lowry Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences named Dr. Jim Tucker, who began working on past life research in 1996 after being intrigued by Stevenson’s research on the matter. Dr. Tucker would say that the available evidence is compelling to say the least, and would say of his main goal “The main effort is to document as carefully as possible what the child says and determine how well that matches with a deceased person. And in the strongest cases, those similarities can be quite compelling.”
Dr. Tucker and his team have also compiled a rather impressive list of cases of children with vivid past life memories, with great efforts made to weed out any possible fraud or cases where outside sources could have influenced or implanted the memories in them, such as TV shows, conversations, radio, or other normal means, that seem to eerily match up with the lives of dead people they claim to have been, and have found that these memories begin to typically fade as soon as children reach 7 years of age. Interestingly, Tucker has also found that in around 20% of cases there are birthmarks or pigmentation that match up surprisingly well with scars or injuries in the deceased. Dr. Tucker has also become rather respected for his scientific approach to the phenomenon, and has explained his approach thus:
I didn’t come to [the field] with any sort of dogma. For me, I was interested in this effort for an analytic approach to studying survival of personality after death. The goal for me, personally, is to determine what evidence there is for the idea that some individuals can survive death. I believe in the possibility of reincarnation, which is different from saying that I believe in reincarnation. I do think these cases require an explanation that is out of the ordinary, although that certainly doesn’t mean we all reincarnate.
Dr. Tucker has suggested that these past life experiences could even potentially be responsible for numerous personality traits, affinities, and phobias that cannot be readily attributed to upbringing, environment, or heredity. Nevertheless, there seems to have been a hesitation within mainstream science at large to look into such data and research, despite the fact that there seems to be much worth considering here. These scientists are certainly not alone in entertaining the thought of reincarnation as a real phenomenon, and astrophysicist and all around rational skeptic Carl Sagan in his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World said of reincarnation:
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 is an area of parapsychological research deserving of serious study. The wish not to believe can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.
There has been a lot of criticism leveled at cases of potential past life experiences. Some say that it can be attributed to outside information picked up and unconsciously assimilated into a false memory. Others believe it to be complete fabrication or fantasy, but what of these studies where this information seems to be largely accurate, with any differences perhaps being due to corruption by new memories and a tenuous grasp on the full experience of the past life? Why are they able to be so completely accurate on so many things? Whatever one may think on the matter, 1 in 10 people believe that they have experienced memories from some past life, which often come crashing unbidden into their current lives. Is this all delusion or fantasy or is there perhaps something more to all of this?
It seems that there is enough evidence and that there are enough curious accounts of purported reincarnation and serious research into the matter to make it at least an avenue worth looking further into. Here we have one potential answer among may of what might happen to us after death and a possible answer to one of the biggest mysteries to have ever faced humankind. Whether it turns out to have any real truth to it or not, one cannot help but be allured by the notion. After all, the idea that we may be reborn into a new form, to have the opportunity to do better and to right our wrongs, that this one existence is not the end of our journey is a compelling one and one that may perhaps give hope to many. We may never concretely find out what happens to us after making that final trek into death, and there may indeed no possible way through which we may ever know for sure, but the cases and research presented here may give food for thought. Maybe there is something to all of this.