Thursday, March 08, 2012

The unknown, remembered gate

Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

If Dr. Ian Stevenson had worked in another field, he might well have been awarded a Nobel prize for his accomplishments. Given his field of interest, though, such an honor was unthinkable because of the tunnel vision of orthodox science. Stevenson spent most of his professional life investigating cases of children who said they remembered previous lives as other people.


His methodology was as rational and scientific as you like. Hearsay evidence was ruled out until corroborated by him personally. He interviewed the children who claimed past life recall, as well as their parents for supplementary detail such as how old the child was when he started speaking of a prior existence. Stevenson then looked for evidence about the alleged previous personality (or "PP"); when it could be identified as a specific person who had died, he learned as much as he could about the PP from the PP's relatives, friends, and public records. 

The goal was to find out how well the child's memories matched the facts of the PP's life. He was alert to possible sources of "contamination," or alternative ways the present child might have learned about the PP. Stevenson particularly wanted to know if the families of the child and the PP had ever known one another, or even lived in the same location.

The research was done in situ. The on-site studies began in 1961 when he studied about 20 cases in India and five in Ceylon, what is now Sri Lanka. In the end he had investigated some 3,000 cases, published in a number of books. Here is a brief summary of Stevenson's findings; here the transcript of an interview with him.


Stevenson is by far the most prominent among the few who have investigated apparent cases of past-life recall without recourse to hypnosis. Ever since an amateur hypnotist named Morey Bernstein sent a Colorado housewife back to a life in 19th century Ireland as "Bridey Murphy" and wrote a best-selling book about it -- the Bridey Murphy case is now discounted by most researchers -- hypnosis has been the tool of choice.

Many researchers serious and otherwise have induced subjects in hypnotic trance to "recall" previous incarnations. But the results have tended to be provocative rather than evidential.

How not to conduct reincarnation research is shown in Many Lives, Many Masters, a big hit among New Age naïfs. Dr. Brian Weiss describes the dozens of hypnotic regressions conducted with a single patient, Catherine, whom he says was strikingly attractive. In one early session, he asked Catherine -- regressed to a life as "Aronda the Egyptian" -- what year he was living in. "Aronda" replied, "1863 B.C."

That should have put his guard up at the very least. How could an Egyptian in the time of the pharaohs know she was living 1,863 years before the first year of the Christian calendar, itself not adopted until our medieval era? It does not seem to have bothered Dr. Weiss.


Other researchers, particularly Helen Wambach and Hans TenDam, have worked more scientifically with hypnotic past life regressions among many subjects, unlike Dr. Weiss's one. Their studies can be admitted as evidence. But a basic problem sticks: although hypnosis has been practiced for more than a century and remarkable effects demonstrated, we still don't understand what hypnosis is or all that it is capable of. We do know, however, that hypnotized subjects are extremely suggestible. So it's hard to evaluate evidence based on regression.

Naturally, Stevenson's method is open to objections too. Assuredly they have been proposed. For one: why are most of these cases in parts of the world where reincarnation is a widely accepted belief? Either the acceptability of reincarnation promotes fantasy stories in children, or their reports of past lives are not ignored as they would be in, for instance, American culture -- take your pick. In the big picture, Stevenson seems to have been properly inquisitive about past-life claims and honestly reported facts in the cases that would seem to counter the reincarnation thesis.


Unfortunately for Stevenson, as even his admirers and students of psychical research concede, his books are nearly unreadable -- precisely because each case study goes into overwhelming detail to show how he took into account the possibility of fraud, error, or alternative explanations to reincarnation.

In Old Souls, Tom Shroder, a Washington Post writer, describes accompanying Stevenson on two research trips, in uncomfortable and sometimes downright inhospitable environments -- such as Beirut in the aftermath of its civil war -- and seeing first-hand the doctor's painstaking methodology. (I expected Shroder, as a WaPo reporter, to be an arch-skeptic or Stevenson debunker. Good on him, though: I found his book admirably objective and filled with interesting observations about Stevenson himself and the cases Shroder was eyewitness to.)

Stevenson never claimed that any particular case proved reincarnation, or even that all of them put together were proof, but he believed that the sum of his findings strongly indicated that we live successive lives.

"Perhaps my main contribution will be that of making Western persons familiar, not with the idea of reincarnation -- it must be one of the oldest ideas in the world -- but with evidence tending to support a belief in reincarnation," Stevenson said. Even if that evidence must enter through an unknown, remembered gate.


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