“When I was your age, I changed your diaper,” said the dark-haired boy to his father. Ron* (* names of boys and their family members were changed to protect privacy) looked down at his smiling son, who had not yet turned two. He thought it was a very strange thing to say, but he figured he had misheard him.
But as baby Sam made similar remarks over the next few months, Ron and his wife Cathy gradually pieced together an odd story: Sam believed that he was his deceased grandfather, Ron’s late father, who had returned to his family. More intrigued than alarmed, Ron and Cathy asked Sam, “How did you come back?”
“I just went whoosh and came out the portal,” he responded.
Although Sam was a precocious child – he’d been speaking in full sentences from the age of 18 months – his parents were stunned to hear him use a word like portal, and they encouraged him to say more. They asked Sam if he’d had any siblings, and he replied that he’d had a sister who “turned into a fish”.
“Who turned her into a fish?”
“Some bad guys. She died.”
Eerily enough, Sam’s grandfather had a sister who had been murdered 60 years earlier; her body was found floating in San Francisco Bay. Ron and Cathy then gently asked Sam, “Do you know how you died?”
Sam jerked back and slapped the top of his head as if in pain. One year before Sam was born, his grandfather had died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
Is Reincarnation Real?
Today more than 75 million people in America – across all religions – believe in reincarnation, according to a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll; a separate survey reports that roughly one in ten people can recall his or her own past life. In October last year, the Dr Oz Show in the US covered the “reality of reincarnation”. There are other reality-TV series and documentaries on the topic such as Ghost Inside My Child, about children with past-life memories, and Reincarnated: Past Lives, in which people go under hypnosis to discover their earlier existences.
Why this fascination? Part of reincarnation’s appeal has to do with its hopeful underlying promise: that we can do better in our next lives. “With reincarnation, there is always another opportunity,” explains Stafford Betty, a professor of religious studies at California State University, Bakersfield, and the author of The Afterlife Unveiled. “The universe takes on a merciful hue. It’s a great improvement over the doctrine of eternal hell.”
Yet despite the popular interest, few scientists give reincarnation much credence. They regard it as a field filled with charlatans, scams and tall tales of having once been royalty.
Reincarnation is “an intriguing psychological phenomenon,” says Christopher C. French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, who heads a unit that studies claims of paranormal experiences. “But I think it is far more likely that such apparent memories are, in fact, false memories rather than accurate memories of events that were experienced in a past life.”
For more than 45 years, a team at the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia (UVA) has been collecting stories of people who can recall their past lives. And if the professors determine that there is some merit to these memories, their findings will call into question the idea that our humanity ends with our death.
“Mommy, I’m So Homesick”
Among the UVA case studies is the story of an Oklahoma boy named Ryan. A few years ago, the four-year-old woke up screaming at two in the morning. Over the preceding months, he’d been pleading with his bewildered mother, Cyndi, to take him to the house where he’d “lived before.” In tears, he’d beg her to return him to his glittering life in Hollywood – complete with a big house, a pool, and fast cars – that was so fabulous, he once said, “I can’t live in these conditions. My last home was much better.”
When Cyndi went into her son’s room that night, Ryan kept repeating the same words – “Mommy, I’m so homesick” – as she tried to comfort him and rock him to sleep.
“He was like a little old man who couldn’t remember all the details of his life. He was so frustrated and sad,” Cyndi says.
The next morning, she went to the library, borrowed a pile of books about old Hollywood, and brought them home. With Ryan in her lap, Cyndi went through the volumes; she was hoping the pictures might soothe him. Instead, he became more and more excited as they looked at one particular book. When they came to a still of a scene from a 1932 movie called Night After Night, he stopped her.
“Mama,” he shouted, pointing to one of the actors, who wasn’t identified. “That guy’s me! The old me!”
“I was shocked,” Cyndi admits. “I never thought that we’d find the person he thought he was.” But she was equally relieved. “Ryan had talked about his other life and been so unhappy, and now we had something to go on.”
Although neither Cyndi nor her husband believed in reincarnation, she went back to the library the next day and checked out a book about children who possessed memories of their past lives. At the end of it was a note from the author, Professor Jim Tucker, saying that he wanted to hear from the parents of kids with similar stories. Cyndi sat down to write him a letter.
The Ghost Hunters
Tucker was a child psychiatrist in private practice when he heard about the reincarnation research being conducted by Dr Ian Stevenson, founder and director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at UVA. He was intrigued and began working with the division in 1996; six years later, when Stevenson retired, Tucker took over as the leader of the division’s past-life research. The UVA team has gathered more than 2500 documented cases of children from all over the world who have detailed memories of former lives, including that of a California toddler with a surprisingly good golf swing who said he had once been legendary athlete Bobby Jones; a Midwestern five-year-old who shared some of the same memories and physical traits – blindness in his left eye, a mark on his neck, a limp – as a long-deceased brother; and a girl in India who woke up one day and began speaking fluently in a dialect she’d never heard before. (Tucker describes these cases in his book Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Their Past Lives.)
The children in the UVA collection typically began talking about their previous lives when they were two or three years old and stopped by the age of six or seven. “That is around the same time that we all lose our memories of early childhood,” Tucker says. When he first learns about a subject, he checks for fraud, deliberate or unconscious, by asking two questions: “Do the parents seem credible?” and “Could the child have picked up the memories through TV, overheard conversations, or other ordinary means?” If he can rule out fraud, he and his team interview the child and his or her family to get a detailed account about the previous life. Then the researchers try to find a deceased person whose life matches the memories. This last part is essential because otherwise the child’s story would be just a fantasy.
Close to three-quarters of the cases investigated by the team are “solved”, meaning that a person from the past matching the child’s memories is identified. In addition, nearly 20% of the kids in the UVA cases have naturally occurring marks or impairments that match scars and injuries on the past person. One boy who recalled being shot possessed two birthmarks – a large, ragged one over his left eye and a small, round one on the back of his head – which lined up like a bullet’s entrance and exit wounds.
In the case of Ryan, the boy longing for a Hollywood past, an archivist pored over books in a film library until she found a person who appeared to be the man he’d singled out: Hollywood agent Marty Martyn, who made an unbilled cameo in Night After Night. After Cyndi spoke with Tucker, he interviewed Ryan, and then the family contacted Martyn’s daughter. She met with Tucker, Ryan and Cyndi, and along with public records, she confirmed more than 50 details that Ryan had reported about her father’s life, from his work history to the location and contents of his home. Cyndi felt tremendous relief when she was told that her son’s story matched Martyn’s. She says, “He wasn’t crazy! There really was another family.”
Plane on Fire!
Tucker learned about the best-known recent reincarnation case study from TV producers. In 2002, he was contacted to work for and appear on a show about reincarnation (the programme never aired) and was told about James Leininger, a four-year-old Louisiana boy who believed that he was once a World War II pilot who had been shot down over Iwo Jima.
Bruce and Andrea Leininger first realised that James had these memories when he was two and woke up from a nightmare, yelling, “Airplane crash! Plane on fire! Little man can’t get out!” He also knew details about WWII aircraft that would seem impossible for a toddler to know. For instance, when Andrea referred to an object on the bottom of a toy plane as a bomb, James corrected her by saying it was a drop tank. Another time, he and his parents were watching a History Channel documentary, and the narrator called a Japanese plane a Zero. James insisted that it was a Tony. In both cases, he was right.
The boy said that he had also been named James in his previous life and that he’d flown off a ship named the Natoma. The Leiningers discovered a WWII aircraft carrier called the USS Natoma Bay. In its squadron was a pilot named James Huston, who had been killed in action over the Pacific.
James talked incessantly about his plane crashing, and he was disturbed by nightmares a few times a week. His desperate mother contacted past-life therapist Carol Bowman for help. Bowman told Andrea not to dismiss what James was saying and to assure him that whatever happened had occurred in another life and body and he was safe now. Andrea followed her advice, and James’s dreams diminished. (His parents coauthored Soul Survivor, a 2009 book about their family’s story.)
Professor French, who is familiar with Tucker’s work, says “the main problem with [his] investigating is that the research typically begins long after the child has been accepted as a genuine reincarnation by his or her family and friends.” About James Leininger, French says, “Although his parents insisted they never watched World War II documentaries or talked about military history, we do know that at 18 months of age, James was taken to a flight museum, where he was fascinated by the World War II planes. In all probability, the additional details were unintentionally implanted by his parents and by a counsellor who was a firm believer in reincarnation.”
Tucker says that he has additional documentation for many of James Leininger’s statements, and they were made before anyone in the family had heard of James Huston or the USS Natoma Bay. French responds that “children’s utterances are often ambiguous and open to interpretation. For example, perhaps James said something that just sounded a bit like Natoma?”
Bruce Leininger, James’s father, understands French’s disbelief. “I was the original sceptic,” he says. “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.” Bruce laughs at the idea that he and his wife planted the memories, saying, “You try telling a two-year-old what to believe; you’re not going to be able to give them a script.”
Long Live Hope
Tucker, too, knows that for most scientists, reincarnation will always seem like a fantastical notion regardless of how much evidence is presented. For him, success doesn’t mean persuading the naysayers to accept the existence of reincarnation but rather encouraging people to consider the meaning of consciousness and how it might survive our deaths.
“I believe in the possibility of reincarnation, which is different from saying that I believe in reincarnation,” he explains. “I do think these cases require an explanation that is out of the ordinary, although that certainly doesn’t mean we all reincarnate.”
Does Tucker believe that in the future, there will be a child who is able to recall his own memories? “Memories of past lives are not very common, so I don’t expect that,” he says. “But I do hope there’s some continuation after death for me and for all of us.”