This week I listened to Elizabeth Loftus in a new talk (to a university audience). She is always a fascinating speaker. For me, the most important piece of data she and her colleagues have uncovered over the decades is that memories can be constructed. Not everyone is susceptible, but at least 30% of a group will accept these as real, when delivered in the right way, even if the new memory involves a serious crime they have never committed. So, with such uncertainty about memory, today, it might be enlightening to explore the topic of past-life recall.
Most accounts of such memories, at least in adults, come about through altered states of mind, with hypnosis a favourite method. However, it is relatively easy to produce fake memories of a past life identity under this relaxed mind state, by leading the subject. But if we accept this as the only explanation then there is a puzzle, because hypnosis sessions with 27-year-old ‘Catherine’ produced verifiable details.
The detail of places, described as past life memories, were documented under hypnosis, even though Catherine had not accessed nor could access such information in her everyday life (Weiss, B. L. 1988. Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives).
Here, it needs to be added that such detail is not proof of a life actually lived in the past. What it does show though, is that unusual information is accessible by the mind, and verifiable. But there is more.
‘Recalled’ details, said to be past-lives, are also remembered by children. Ian Stevenson (a psychiatrist) explored such stories, which he considered to be less likely to be fabricated, in Europe (Stevenson, I. 2003. European Cases of the Reincarnation Type), and for northern India, where he found an incidence of 1 in 500 for the population (Stevenson I. 1997. Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect).
Some of the stories are intriguing. Take for example the case of Gedeon Haich, a boy born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1921. Although surrounded by Hungarian family and friends (white to olive-skinned in appearance) the young child drew pictures of dark-skinned people, tropical African plants, hunting, and bare-skinned family groups. At this age he 'recalled' a 'wife’ with dark skin and "pendulous bare breasts'', and told stories of a life in a round house. As for his 'recent' death, he reported being killed by a ‘tiger’ when hunting with a spear. This is the only questionable detail, since tigers are not found in the wild in Africa; however, lions are and we do not know what animals the young Gedeon was exposed to in order to develop language that described them.
There are other details provided about this 'life previously lived', and the natural skills possessed by the child and adolescent. For example, he is said to have skilfully handled a boat and oars without being taught, and at age 15 to have convinced his mother to buy him a drum and played out complex rhythms that he claimed were used for sending messages over long distances. It is challenging to explain his stories as information simply patched together from a local Hungarian environment, before the days of television, encyclopedias, easy travel and computers.
Stevenson collected over 2,000 detailed cases, mostly from India but also from southeast Asia, and this is where his work turned to a different kind of evidence. His new approach involved matching birth marks on such children to life-ending wounds and searching for adults who had died this way.
To protect the studies from corruption he chose cases where the child and their family were not known to the family of the deceased individual. Then, he brought the families together, compared birthmark appearance and position with the death wound, and went on to compare the child's story with the life of the deceased individual. Perhaps surprisingly, he found case, after case, after case that matched up.
In one example, a young boy from Thailand, born with two hairless scar-like birthmarks on his scalp (reminiscent of an entry and exit wound), was reported as 'pretending' to be a teacher in the games he played. And around the age of 4 he recited memories of this man, using his name and the name of a distant village, unknown to his family. With investigation, details of the individual were found. He had been a teacher, shot through the head while bicycling home.
Although it has to be said, not all birthmarks are claimed to represent some past misfortune.
Ian Stevenson struggled with the interpretation of his data set, considering the possibility of chance, some extrasensory perception and even ghost-like possession, and settled on reincarnation: the case for a person having lived before in another body and retaining some memories from that previous life.
Personally, I quibble with this conclusion, not to dismiss the theory of past-lives lived, but because it was reached despite listing three cases where children had memories of another life while that person was still alive.
Where does this leave us? Perhaps our fascination with individual, body-based identity and linear time get in the way of a better understanding of what is going on. I have been exploring controlled remote viewing (CRV), which is a technique developed and used by the US military as a way to gain non-local information about sites and people. The process can be experienced as if the target is lived, and all of us have this skill. Importantly too, the past can be interrogated as accurately as the present. Mind is indeed an amazing commodity.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb