(Investigator 62, 1998 September)
Reincarnation is a belief that we, or at least our souls, return after death to inhabit the same or another form. This belief is held by millions of people around the world and is the doctrine of many religions, in particular, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Early Egyptians were of the opinion that when the body dies, the soul passes through diverse forms of animal, bird and fish life before re-entering a human frame. Plato envisaged the soul traversing the heavens as an angel going through various states of probation before they choose a second life, and Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, says that it will assume at the resurrection the life of a brute if it lived as a brute in this world, or will be borne away to the heavenly life to which it adhered while living in the world.
Believers in the metaphysical concept of life after death claim that just because the soul cannot be seen it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, pointing to electricity, magnetism and the many radiations that cannot be seen but nevertheless are known to exist.
There have been many documented cases of people claiming to have lived previous lives, and those recorded under hypnosis are most convincing, as in the case of Bridey Murphy. In 1952, an American hypnotist, Morey Bernstein (1956), regressed one Mrs Viginia Tighe to a previous life as an Irish girl named Bridey Murphy, during which Mrs Tighe recalled with remarkable clarity her life in County Cork, Ireland, in the early part of the 19th century. The account was published in a best seller, The Search for Bridey Murphy, and was considered to be conclusive evidence in support of reincarnation.
The publication sparked off a resurgence of interest in the subject and further startling evidence for past lives received publicity in 1974, when BBC-TV producer Jeffrey Iverson based a programme on the Bloxham Tapes, recordings made by Arnold Bloxham, an English hypnotist, of past-life regressions. Outstanding of these was the case of Jane Evans, who under hypnosis recalled in extraordinary detail many past lives including that of a maid in the household of a wealthy 15th century French merchant.
Dr Ian Stevenson, a professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, and a parapsychologist, has also contributed much in the way of research material in support of reincarnation, and his book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, is quoted as affording the full dignity of acceptance of reincarnation by a distinguished professor. The American Society for Psychical Research has devoted Volume 26 of its Proceedings to Stevenson’s work. Many of the cases follow a similar pattern, and involve infants recalling events experienced in a previous existence of which they could not possibly have had knowledge.
The idea of life after death or the return to life in another form, is an appealing concept to most of us. Unfortunately, the argument that reincarnation is a real phenomenon, is based on anecdotal evidence which either lacks sufficient detail to enable investigation, or where investigation is possible, it does not stand up to scrutiny. Cases allegedly proving reincarnation usually depend on memory recall while under hypnosis. Where a detailed investigation is possible, it is inevitably shown that the information supposedly recalled from a past life has in fact been culled from everyday experiences during one's present life, Bridey Murphy and Jane Evans are classic examples.
The former was thoroughly investigated, and exposed as untrue by the Chicago American. Under hypnosis, Ms Virginia Tighe clearly recalled her previous life as a young Irish girl, could recite monologues in a heavy Irish brogue, and provide a wealth of detail, some of which could be checked for verification. Investigation however, revealed that as a child, Ms Tighe had had a neighbour who had grown up in Ireland and used to tell her stories about life there – the neighbour's name was Bridey Murphy! Ms Tighe had also been involved in the theatre and, according to her former teacher, had learned several Irish monologues.
Jane Evans, the Welsh housewife, too claimed under hypnosis to have lived six previous lives and again gave a great deal of historically accurate detail in support. In her life as a medieval maid to Jacques Coeur, a wealthy merchant in 15th century France, she was able to fully describe the exteriors and interiors of Coeur’s magnificent house and even the details of the carvings over a fireplace. This on the face of it would seem like proof, however, it should be borne in mind that Coeur’s famous house is one of the most photographed in all of France. Evan’s account of her life in the merchant’s house provides the most significant lie to her story. She said that Coeur was not married when in fact he was married and had five children, something a maid in that household would be unlikely to overlook!
How could Jane Evans be so familiar with so much detail had she not lived the life herself? The answer is suggested in a novel based on Coeur's life titled, The Moneyman, by Thomas B. Costain (1948). While the book goes into great detail about Coeur’s life it is significant in so far as it omits any mention of his wife.
Ian Stevenson’s case studies are often referred to as thoroughly investigated and authentic, but the methods used to investigate the phenomenon have been criticised as being too inadequate to rule out simple story telling.
A problem rarely addressed by reincarnationists is the exponential increase in the world's population. In 1650 the world's population was estimated at 500,000,000. Today, it stands at 5 billion. Obviously there were simply not enough people for everyone to have been someone else. Further, unless many famous historical personages had identical twins or triplets secreted away from public view, when there is more than one person claiming to be say a reincarnated Napoleon or Henry VIII, their claims are to say the least, dubious. Few people would, in their sober moments claim to be reincarnated, under hypnosis however, the inhibitions fall by the wayside, and the information gleaned from the sub-conscious together with imagination and suggestion is accorded respectability out of all proportion to its value in establishing the validity of a claim. This has now become known as the "False Memory Syndrome."
While people quite sincerely believe that they are recalling experiences from past lives while under hypnosis, they are in truth only recalling what they have seen, read or heard in their present existence embellished with fantasy.
[From: Skeptoon 1994, Harry Edwards. Harry Edwards Publications]