Children’s Past Life Stories: Reincarnation or Fraud?

Manoj Pandey*

Reports about a child suddenly narrating stories of persons and places she has not visited keep appearing in the media. Factual or not, these are lapped up by the tabloid press, television channels and social media, and presented with more juice with each successive iteration. 

Rationalists and sceptics not only brush aside such reports and claims, but also ridicule them as superstition, even calling them fraud. Those who believe in paranormal occurrences take them as yet another example to support their belief. For most believers, such occurrences are a proof of reincarnation or a soul passing from one human being to the other.

Children’s past life memories are not just folklore; they are studied seriously as part of parapsychology. The subject assumes significance as the occurrences are physically verifiable and thus can be put into rigorous scrutiny. It also shakes the mainstream notions about reality and provide a strong base to other related concepts, beliefs and practices that deal with existence beyond the physical life. These include consciousness and super-consciousness, near-death experiences, distant healing, soul, chakras and kundalini (चक्र, कुंडलिनी), Reiki, and past life regression. 

Mainstream academics and practitioners of psychology and neurology treat even serious research into parapsychology with contempt. How much contempt does ‘children’s past life memories’ deserve – that’s the specific point we shall discuss in this article. 

Research into children’s past life memories

Religious or cultural beliefs produce a vast collection of instances of reincarnation, but these are not analysed in a modern scientific manner. These are given little value when a serious scientific discussion – as against a philosophical or religious one – takes place on existence beyond life, and rightly so. 

Children’s past life memories do not necessarily support reincarnation or rebirth, and we shall discuss that later. So, let us treat the two as separate. Irrespective of whether reincarnation is a fact or not, it is a fact that some people are endowed with a psychic capability that allows them to relate to things they have not physically known. When they claim to have been another person who died before their birth, this is called ‘past life memory’.

When children claim a past life memory, it assumes special significance.  As compared to similar utterances by adults, children’s accounts are more trustworthy because children at a very young age do not have the intelligence, worldly knowledge, intent or wherewithal to deliberately create something out of nothing or manipulate things with a vested interest.   

In modern times, the University of Virginia has held the flag of research on children’s past life memories high. The painstaking compilation and documentation of over 2000 cases by Ian Stevenson over many decades laid a solid foundation on which others have been doing further research in that university and beyond. He founded the Division of Perpetual Studies in the Psychiatry and Neurobehavioural Sciences Department of the School of Medicine, giving this branch of studies a scientific recognition. 

Stevenson concentrated on Indian children, mostly because rebirth was an accepted notion in the Indian society, unlike in the west where parents would shrug off their children’s recounting of unusual stories. He also explored cases in other Asian countries where Buddhism was practised, and also in the Middle East. He would follow up a child’s story by visiting the places and persons the child had talked about, recording statements, cross-checking claims, even collecting biopsy reports of those killed in accidents and who the children claimed to be in their past lives. He also examined special physical characteristics because in many cases, birthmarks on children had an uncanny association with wounds in the body of the deceased person.

These are the prominent patterns noticed in children’s past life memories:

  1. Only a few children can recount what is commonly understood as past life memories
  2. Most children that narrate past life stories are between the ages of two and six years. Their memories fade fast after seven years or so, but some carry the memories to their adulthood.
  3. Much of the gibberish that children utter beyond what is expected of them at their very young age is out of their imagination or interpretation of what they see around them or on television (now perhaps on mobile phones), parental influence, etc. In these, children usually do not make strong associations with past events, nor do they assert their identity as someone grown up. 
  4. Children claiming past life memories often talk of people in their surroundings, but sometimes they can talk of places far away.
  5. About 70% of children that narrate past life stories claim they died a violent or unnatural death.
  6. In rare cases, the child’s physical anomalies (especially birthmarks) and pains relate to wounds and sufferings of the deceased person.
  7. In some cases, children’s phobias (e.g. extreme scare on seeing a moving vehicle) relate to what they describe as a violent event in their past life. 
  8. When children recount their painful memories, they show strong emotions and are stressed. The stress sometimes reaches the level of post-traumatic stress seen among trauma survivors.
  9. There is a time gap between the death of the person in the previous life and birth of the child, of usually over a year and sometimes going to many decades. 
  10. The children with the ability to tell about their past life generally utter such expressions, which are not expected of a normal kid of that age: “When I was big…”, “When I died…”, “My children…”, “My other mom…”
  11. There is no heightened sense of spiritualism among the children with past life memories. They usually grow up as normal adults.

Out of thousands of cases so far recorded , two examples popular in the media come from books by Jim Tucker. Let me very briefly narrate them here:

  1. When he was nearly two years old, James Leininger from Louisiana, USA, started suffering from nightmares about a plane crash. He narrated how as a fighter pilot in Second World War pilot, he was killed over the Pacific. He gave the name of his plane, and details about the place of the crash and many other objects and events related to the pilot’s life – facts that were not known even to war historians and record-keepers; these were discovered only after painstaking chase of the clues provided by the child. Overall, the child’s statements and the facts on the ground matched extremely well.
  2. Ryan from Oklahoma, USA, when he was about two years, started telling his mother about an unknown Hollywood actor and the people with whom he had worked. Research into the history revealed that a person of that name did work, and his life’s recorded events and co-workers matched with what the boy narrated.   

This instance, quoted by HS Sinha [ref 10], an Indian psychologist, is particularly interesting: Yashpal, a five-year-old child from Mansa village in India, talked about his business and family in Delhi, nearly 300 km away. A group of researchers tested him again and again, removing all possible influences that could have been caused by his parents or others. The child not only tracked his house in a busy lane in a crowded Delhi marketplace, but also recognized his earlier family-members and the priest who happened to be there when he reached the house.

The cases of Swarnlata and Shanti Devi became household stories in India some decades back. Researchers kept tracking Swarnlata, who had past life memories even in her sixties. Stevenson could verify 24 of Shanti Devi’s claims as true. It is reported that Mahatma Gandhi sent a team of 15 prominent people to investigate her case, and they found it true.

By now many thousand instances of children’s past life memories have been recorded and analysed in many regions of the world including Europe and India. 

A Critique

Mainline academics and practitioners not only discard the concept of past life but also criticize research into children’s past life memories on many counts. They also feel that money and energy is being wasted into a pseudoscience.

On technical grounds, the first criticism of research into children’s past life memories relates to data collection. Critics say that data collection relating to these instances is more anecdotal than based on sound scientific principles. 

A bigger criticism relates to making associations between what the child says and the ground realities.

They say, most of the recorded instances of children’s past life memories can be explained away with known psychological knowledge as pieces of imagination on the part of children or arising due to faulty documentation. Much of what children say can also be attributed to fantasies of fertile minds, which are not yet mature enough to know the context of inputs received from stories told to them, goading by parents and so on. They are also prone to getting phobias from a disturbed family life and even a minor exposure to violence. Even a short exposure to television and films can lead to their identifying with imaginary characters and visiting imaginary places.

Culture is supposed to be a major cause, because what children in a very big majority of cases say is based on what is seen in their immediate surroundings. Critics say that even if, hypothetically, people do have an earlier life, it should be random and not in the same culture.

The biggest set of criticism is in the form of deep contempt for whatever is not according to facts verified and theories evolved by mainstream material sciences. Eyebrows of rationalists are raised when instances of children’s past life memories are used for proving, and propagating, superstitions. Sometimes mysticism is introduced, and sometimes unsolved puzzles of science itself are used to prove a point. Critics tend to put all paranormal or parapsychological events and arguments in the same basket, and that happens to be the trash can. 

There also are scholars who have a measured, though sceptical, view on the matter. They are honest in accepting what is found based on empirical evidence, but are unable to explain these occurrences based on their scientific knowledge, so they are open to further research into the subject. Let me quote two here: 

In this article [ref 4], Jesse Bering says about Stevenson’s work: I’d be happy to say it’s all complete and utter nonsense—a mouldering cesspool of irredeemable, anti-scientific drivel. The trouble is, it’s not entirely apparent to me that it is. So why aren’t scientists taking Stevenson’s data more seriously? The data don’t “fit” our working model of materialistic brain science, surely. But does our refusal to even look at his findings, let alone to debate them, come down to our fear of being wrong? “The wish not to believe,” Stevenson once said, “can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.” 

This article [ref 8] quotes Christopher French, an authority on false memories thus: [Children’s past life memories, I think,] are false memories that have arisen as a result of a kind of interesting social psychological interaction between the child and those around them… There could only be two possibilities. One is that there is something genuinely paranormal happening, and if that is true, that would be amazing. Or, alternatively—which is more the line that I do favour—it tells us something very interesting about human psychology. So either way, it’s worth taking seriously.

Let us also see, how those engaged in research into children’s past life memories respond to the criticism. 

One, data collection. Many academics, including staunch sceptics, have appreciated the way the instances of supposedpast life memories of children have been collected and documented by Stevenson and his successors, leaving little doubt about errors in data collection.

Researchers also reckon, data collection in such areas cannot always be done by the prescribed research methodologies because the instances are not repeatable, the memories are feeble and ephemeral, children cannot be subjected to rigour, ‘control’ samples cannot be created, and other limitations. It is argued by many scientists that even individual instances, when the data has been collected and documented with precision, should be taken as valid. Moreover, improved research protocols have been used in recent studies. Data collection and verification has also been made more error-free by video-graphing statements and places, formulation of specific questions rather than allowing the child to rattle out his story, removing bias in recording of evidences, and more intensive cross-checking of data and claims.

Regarding culture, while Stevenson’s work related to cultures that believed in reincarnation, Tucker’s majority of cases come from the USA and from Christian families that do not believe in reincarnation. Research in Europe has also documented cases, mostly from non-believers in reincarnation. In addition, many cases even from Asia are such that the child was in no position to know about the distant culture or language spoken where she claimed to have lived in her past life. 

The criticism that it is possible for children under stress or who have witnessed a violent event in their family, or those with neurological disorders, to imbibe images and language like that seen in children with past life memories does not hold good in the majority of instances. Follow-up research into recorded cases has shown that such children usually had an above-average IQ, and they had not experienced or shown exceptional emotional trauma or stress. 

The likelihood of frauds being committed to prove paranormal occurrences and powers, including reincarnation, remains. There sure are some who use people’s interest in reincarnation for their vested interests ranging from blackmailing rich people to selling treatment for ailments that they first prove to be the result of past karmas or for gaining recognition and fame, or just for gaining attention and better treatment from the family. A fraud on the part of parents for making fast bucks by telling an unusual story could have been one big reason for claims of children’s past life memories.

However, contrary to the above, most parents in the west do not want any publicity, to avoid the child being mocked at or harassed. In fact, in many cases, studied by Tucker in the US, children’s recounting their past life embarrassed parents and they tried to suppress the fact. In some cases, a child’s claim to be someone else came in conflict with parents’ strong belief against any form of carry over after a person’s death. In India, many of the documented cases belong to poor villagers too unlikely to aim for making quick money by way of a fraud.  

Let’s briefly examine the associations made by researchers and others, between what the child utters and the reality. It is true that paranormal occurrences or objects are often wrongly associated deliberately or due to bias introduced curing transmission of information. Sometimes, untenable associations are made out, and even lies are spread to show associations. Don’t numerologists even try to prove that certain numbers were associated with US President JF Kennedy’s assassination, by applying any which formula to arrive at those numbers? 

Instances of wrong associations in cases of children’s past life memories have indeed been found, and in plenty. Many cases have been discarded by researchers as fake. In some cases, though the instance itself was not fake, a number of associations were false or exaggerated. In addition, some researchers seem to have erred in making associations or made wrong associations just to prove their point. However, if we examine the cases validated by reputed researchers, some of whom are mentioned above, they have stated facts and made no further assumptions.

Associations such as those gathered by Semkiw, author of Born Again and many other books on reincarnation, take research into the grey area, however painstakingly the research might have been conducted. His associating similarities among celebrities and their supposed past life persons based on some selected features – facial features, names, likings, choice of vehicle or clothes – may not stand rigorous scrutiny (or it might?). I feel, touting such cases to discard all serious research in this area is unfair on the part of the critics. 

Do past life memories prove reincarnation?

Let us give credit where it is due: most of the serious researchers into children’s past life memories do not propose a theory about how, how much, when and why such associations occur between what a child experiences and someone who lived before. At most, they suggest probable reasons. Most of them do not hazard connecting consciousness or spirituality with the phenomenon of past life memories.Reincarnation,

Reincarnation or rebirth is just one of the many possible reasons for children’s past life memories. In fact, the memories may not at all be from their past lives. As HS Sinha says, after documenting instances of past life memory, they would call them extra-cerebral memories (=memories that arise beyond the brain) to avoid assigning a definite cause to such occurrences.

Those who closely link past life memories with incarnation pose this: If not by reincarnation, then how can a child remember something about which she has a sense of ‘I was…’? Scientists can think of a range of possibilities such as extra-sensory perception that allows the child to perceive things taking place at a distance, some form of mediation in which something (not necessarily the spirit of her past life) guides or forces the child to feel in a certain way, a handiwork of mind waves, something relating to consciousness, and so on. Whatever the cause, it is not yet known to the mainstream science.

The final word

These were some facts about children’s past life memories. In short, there is unimpeachable evidence that some very young children can visualize something that cannot yet be explained based on sciences relating to the brain and the mind. Those who are uncomfortable with the yet-unproven expression ‘past life memories’ can choose a more neutral expression such as ‘unexplained memory claims’, but accept them as recorded facts. The scientific community should, with an open mind, examine the why and how behind these instances rather than trashing them as hoax or fraud.

Further reading/ watching

1. An Experimental Investigation of Past-Life Experiences

2. Children Who Report Memories of Previous Lives

3. Children’s Past Life Memories and Healing

4. Ian Stevenson’s Case for the Afterlife: Are We ‘Skeptics’ Really Just Cynics?

5. Past Lives and Post-Mortem Survival

6. Reincarnation Research

7. Searching For The Science Behind Reincarnation

8. The Hard Science of Reincarnation

9. The Science of Reincarnation

10. अतीन्द्रिय अनुभव और पुनर्जन्म के शोध

*Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist, but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.

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