Book Review: Children who remember previous lives, A question of reincarnation, Ian Stevenson

Book Review: Children who remember previous lives, A question of reincarnation, Ian Stevenson

by Richard Rockley

Ian Stevenson has spent 40 years studying the evidence for reincarnation, mainly through investigating the claims of children who appear to remember aspects of their previous lives. His research consists of a huge body of work, and is considered by many to be scientific evidence of reincarnation. Stevenson wrote this book, detailing 14 cases, with the aim of presenting an account of his research, and so it seems reasonable to assume that the evidence presented is at least representative of the whole. If anything, one would expect the book to consist of the more convincing cases. Consequently I believe it is valid to examine this quality if the evidence presented in this book, and draw conclusions from it about the rest of Stevenson’s research.

So how does the book stack up?

First, I’m impressed by Stevenson’s integrity and honesty, but less so with his intellectual rigor. The 14 cases he cites rely on nothing more than anecdotes: all the “past life behavior” had been witnessed before the author met any of the players and so the veracity of the stories is hard to determine. In addition, in the later chapters Stevenson makes several statements and draws conclusions that in my view cast doubt on his credibility and neutrality.

I am aware that Stevenson has published much more work than this, but I believe the cases and comments in this book are representative of his work.

The 14 cases

Before I got the book, I wondered how Stevenson would ensure the stories were genuine. I had the idea that he would have surveyed a number of children at random, seen if any remembered a previous life, and followed up on them. It seemed like quite a thing to attempt, but I thought it must be something like that. So as I started to read the cases I made notes on when the author had first become involved in the case. I soon gave up on that idea because, as I discovered, the author had got involved in none of these cases until some considerable time after the children were reported as remembering their prior lives. Thus they were all just anecdotes, although well documented and cross referenced. It was less than I had expected.

Anyway, of the 14 cases:

  • Three were unsolved (ie, the identity of the “previous life” was unknown)
  • Nine were solved, but the prior life person had (or could have had), some contact with the family of the child
  • Two were solved, and the families apparently had no contact.

For me, the “unsolved” cases are worthless. The child could be fantasizing, repeating what he has heard on the TV or radio, or there could be other explanations that don’t involve reincarnation.

The nine solved but with-contact cases are interesting. The identity of the prior life had been confirmed, and often the child has been reported to know information about the deceased person, their family, method of death etc. However, there are clearly other means that the child could have received this information. These cases are more interesting, in my view, in demonstrating the strong desire the author has in proving a reincarnation connection. I will talk about four of those nine cases, and also about the two solved but no-contact cases (which should be the strongest in support of the reincarnation hypothesis).

Firstly, here are four of the cases with a family connection. I have provided very brief descriptions – the book naturally has much more.

Corliss Chotkin Jr

In a community that believes in reincarnation, an elderly man tells his niece that he will be reborn as her son. Hey presto, she has a son who she claims is her uncle reborn, complete with birthmarks in the same places as her uncle’s scars. However, by the time Stevenson “first examined these birthmarks… they had both shifted.”

This is wishful thinking on the part of the mother. Also, an apparent indication of credulousness in the author, accepting that the birthmarks had “moved”.

Gillian and Jennifer Pollock

Two twin girls (aged six and eleven) are tragically killed. The father was a strong believer in reincarnation, and was sure they would be reborn to his wife as twins. Twins are born, and between the ages of 2 and 4 they start making statements about their dead siblings.

As the father believed the twins were reincarnations of their dead sisters, it is likely that he talked about it in front of the baby girls. It’s also likely that friends and family talked about the tragic death of the previous two girls. It’s hardly surprising that the girls are reported to have talked about their “previous lives”. The parents could also be reading too much into the twins’ statements, or could be lying. We’ll never know.

Michael Wright

A young girl has a childhood sweetheart who dies in a car crash. She would have married him but for this, but now marries someone else. She then has a child who she thinks is the reincarnation of her sweetheart. (She had a dream about him a year after his death that Stevenson takes as an “announcing dream”.) The child’s mother and grandmother strongly believe in reincarnation, and they are the only ones who have witnessed the child “remembering” his previous life.

This tells us more about this woman’s longing for the dead guy, and her relationship with her actual husband than it does about reincarnation. More importantly, it also tells us a lot about Stevenson’s credulity. A colleague of his, Dr Emily Kelly, apparently agrees with me here. To Stevenson’s credit he quotes her opinion:

“She thinks it quite plausible than some more benign motive, such as nostalgia or a longing for a past loved one, could have led (the mother) to encourage her son’s identification with (the sweetheart) and to have read more into his statements than was warranted”

No shit! The phrase “could have”, indicates this is not proof of reincarnation.

Hanumant Saxena

An Indian woman dreamed that a recently deceased man of their village appeared to her and said, “I am coming to you”. The woman gave birth to a child who had a birthmark consistent with where this man had been shot dead. Many of the villagers began saying that the kid was the shot man re-born “before (the child) had even begun to speak about the life of (the dead man)”. Presumably the child’s parents spoke of it too, although that is not recorded in the book.

Wishful thinking again: The child probably heard people talking about his “previous life”, (again). Stevenson concludes by saying:

“A skeptic would say that his parents…. imposed this identification on him. I find this summed combination of interpretations topheavy and unsatisfactory, but I cannot deny that they have a certain plausibility.”

Again, if that explanation is “plausible”, this is not proof of reincarnation.

Solved cases with no contact

So we come to the two solved cases where the two families had no contact. The first, in India, two year old Gopal Gupta starts to remember details of his previous life in a nearby village. Details include the child behaving as though he is of a higher caste than his current family. He also (later on), knows details of how a business partner had been shot dead, and other family and business details later confirmed by the other family.

In the second case, a Lebanese boy Suleyman Andary started having dreams about a previous life. Some apparently striking examples of behavior started when the child was 11, where he acted like an adult, and remembered certain aspects of his previous life. He was able to give names of most of his children and other aspects if his life. However, when he went to the actual village he seemed “shy and inhibited” and did not recognize his “children” or photographs of people in “his family”.

Problems with these two cases

Taken at face value, these cases initially appear compelling. I have a few problems with them though, namely:

  • They are anecdotes. In the first, Stevenson does not get involved until the kid is 13 and in the second the kid is 14 (11 and years after the first “remembering” in the first case, unknown in the second but probably seven or eight years after). Virtually everything has already been observed (by others), by the time Stevenson arrives on the scene and so there is much scope for invention, misinterpretation, exaggeration and enhancement of stories. We just don’t know what really happened and never will.
  • Both occur in communities that believe in reincarnation, and where critical thinking is (shall we say), not thought of as a primary skill. The scope for self-delusion is high.
  • Suleyman Andary only started with his strong prior life memories when he was 11 years old. In all the other cases (and I believe the majority of the cases Stevenson has studied) the child remembers things from around two years old but forgets them by about 11. This does not disprove reincarnation, but it is strange that one of the only two strong cases in the book should contradict the trend. It makes it likely that there is another solution, in my view.
  • The Lebanese Druse community of Suleyman Andary believes that when you die you are instantly reborn – your spirit doesn’t hover in limbo for even a day. However, his prior person died 12 years before he was “reborn”. How did they account for this? The kid said he had been reincarnated in an intermediate life for the 14 missing years, although he can conveniently tell us nothing about this life.

    So we are expected to believe that he cannot remember a prior life, but he can remember the one prior to the prior life. Not very convincing. A more prosaic solution is that he somehow has learned about the life of the guy who died 12 years before he was born, and had to invent the intermediate reincarnation to make it fit.

  • Gopal Gupta had an intermediate life too – in London England. Even Stevenson concludes that this is “at least party a fantasy” , but still accepts the details of the much better remembered life prior to this “fantasy” one. Why?
  • In 13 of the 14 cases the previous lives were in the same community as the current one. An Indian remembers an Indian prior life, etc. While this does not disprove reincarnation, I find it strange that the spirit world only allows souls to return to the roughly same geographic area (albeit sometimes in a lower caste). In my view this makes it more likely that some other force is at work. I would be more impressed if a child in (say) a remote Indian village remembers details his former life as (say) a surfer dude in California, with all that would entail. And why so many in the same family? It seems a little too convenient.

    The one exception was a Burmese girl remembering the life as a Japanese soldier. This was an unsolved case though, and not very convincing anyway in my view.

Conclusion

Clearly these cases cannot be disproved. But applying Occam’s Razor I believe there are more prosaic solutions than reincarnation, especially when you consider Stevenson’s apparent belief system.