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NDE type experience while entering the afterlife scene in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain

Proof of Past Lives? Dr Jim Tucker discusses his research into reincarnation memories

When Dr Ian Stevenson passed away in 2007, one could be forgiven for thinking any chance of further serious scientific research into ‘reincarnation memories’ had died with him. Stevenson had spent four decades rigorously cataloguing instances from all around the world of children reporting memories of past lives, which appeared to show that, at the very least, there was something going on that couldn’t be explained by fraud or delusion.

Enter Dr Jim Tucker, a colleague of Stevenson’s at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies, who took over his work and continued to build on it – with his team now having some 2500 cases on their books.

In a fascinating recent interview with Dhru Purohit (embedded below), Dr Tucker explains that Stevenson “became intrigued by these reports from different parts of the world of young children who said they remembered a past life. And he decided to go and investigate. And what he found was this phenomenon, first of all, was a lot more common than people in the West had any idea, and secondly that it produced some very intriguing cases.”

The first 45 minutes of the interview sees Dr Tucker explaining how he ended up taking over from Dr Stevenson’s work, and detailing some of the perplexing cases they have investigated. “It tends to be very young children,” he notes. “The average age when they start talking about a past life is only 35 months…[and] by the time they’re school age, 6 or 7, the statements can really tail off or even disappear.”  Two of the more recent convincing Western cases discussed by Tucker are the story of James Leininger, who remembered being a World War II fighter pilot from a previous life, and Ryan Hammons, who remembered being a Hollywood extra from a previous life.

Dr Tucker also points out that these ‘past-life memories’ often come to the surface when the child is in a certain state of mind: “Many of them do have to be in this relaxed state – after a warm bath, during a long car ride – I mean they’re not fully hypnotized, but they’re in this kind of ‘zone’.” And these memories very often involve a traumatic death, with 70% of cases involving a previous life that ended in some unnatural means:

Having a traumatic end to a life makes it more likely that those memories would then carry over to the next life. It’s quite similar to PTSD type thing, were people have memories that they wish they could get rid of, but they keep having them when they’ve been through trauma.

For a lot of them there is this real emotional tug to the material…some of them it will come out in their behaviour. So where the previous person died in some sort of violent, traumatic way, over 35% of the children will have a phobia, an intense fear toward the mode of death. So for instance if the previous person drowned, the children will be petrified about being put in water. 

Dr Tucker also details the odd phenomenon of the traumatic injuries suffered during the death of the previous person apparently showing up as defects or birthmarks on the child. “Ian Stevenson spent years exploring these cases and then eventually publishing a 2000 page book on them,” he explains. “It’s where kids are born with birthmarks or full birth defects that match wounds, usually the fatal wounds, on the body of the previous person. He listed 18 cases where the previous person was shot and killed, and the child had double birthmarks matching the entrance wound and the exit wound on the body of the previous person.

On the methodology used to study these cases, Dr Tucker notes that there are some difficulties: “when you’re looking at spontaneous events it’s not going to be as tightly controlled as other work might be, but we certainly take a scientific approach and try and control it as much as we can…you recognise with studying a spontaneous event there will be potential imperfections, but then you look at it and say ‘what is the most plausible explanation for this?’” 

So when we get a report the one key is to document as much as possible the child’s statements about a past life preferably before anyone has identified a past life that people think the child might be remembering… So that means usually contacting the previous family, and I’m going over the details one by one to see how much of a fit there is, and again we also look [at whether] the child could have learned these things through ordinary means – if it’s in the same family you can never be certain that they haven’t overheard things, or even in the same town. When you’ve got ones that are hundreds of miles away and decades apart you know you can be a lot more confident about that.

And then in some of the cases we’ve also been able to do recognition tests where we show them pictures of a person or a place from the past life along with a control picture that’s not from the past life, and sometimes we’ll do a lineup with several asking the child to point out, to see if they remember any of them, and in a couple of recent cases we’ve gotten quite impressive results with that.

You can read more about the topic in Jim Tucker’s recently released book Before: Children’s memories of previous lives (nicely titled to bookend the recent book from his colleague at the Division of Perceptual Studies, Dr Bruce Greyson, After: A doctor explores what NDEs reveal about life and beyond see our review here).

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