Ian Stevenson’s research about reincarnation

Ian Stevenson, 1918- 2007 was a Canadian biochemist and professor of psychiatry. He was head of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia, which investigates the paranormal.

Stevenson considered that the concept of reincarnation might supplement those of heredity and environment in helping modern medicine to understand some aspects of human behavior and development. He traveled extensively over a period of 40 years to investigate 3,000 childhood cases that suggested to him the possibility of past lives. Stevenson saw reincarnation as the survival of the personality after death, although he never suggested a physical process by which a personality might survive death.

Stevenson conducted field research into reincarnation and investigated cases in Africa, Alaska, Europe, India and both North and South America, logging around 55,000 miles a year between 1966 and 1971.He reported that the children he studied usually started to speak of their supposed past lives between the ages of two and four, then ceased to do so by seven or eight, with frequent mentions of having died a violent death, and what seemed to be clear memories of the manner of death. After interviewing the children, their families, and others, Stevenson would attempt to identify if there had been a living person who satisfied the various claims and descriptions collected, and who had died prior to the child’s birth.

Stevenson’s research is associated with a ‘minimalist’ model of reincarnation that makes no religious claims. Stevenson believed the strongest cases he had collected in support of this model involved both testimony and physical evidence. In over 40 of these cases Stevenson gathered physical evidence relating to the often rare and unusual birthmarks and birth defects of children which he claimed matched wounds recorded in the medical or post-mortem records for the individual Stevenson identified as the past-life personality.

The children in Stevenson’s studies often behaved in ways he felt suggestive of a link to the previous life. These children would display emotions toward members of the previous family consistent with their claimed past life, e.g., deferring to a husband or bossing around a former younger brother or sister who by that time was actually much older than the child in question. Many of these children also displayed phillias and phobias associated to the manner of their death, with over half who described a violent death being fearful of associated devices. Many of the children also incorporated elements of their claimed previous occupation into their play, while others would act out their claimed death repeatedly.

Stevenson’s fieldwork technique has been said as being that of a detective or investigative reporter, searching for alternative explanations of the material he was offered. One boy in Beirut described being a 25-year-old mechanic who died after being hit by a speeding car on a beach road. Witnesses said the boy gave the name of the driver, as well as the names of his sisters, parents, and cousins, and the location of the crash. The details matched the life of a man who had died years before the child was born, and who was apparently unconnected to the child’s family. In such cases, Stevenson sought alternative explanations—that the child had discovered the information in a normal way, that the witnesses were lying to him or to themselves, or that the case boiled down to coincidence. Shroder writes that, in scores of cases, no alternative explanation seemed to suffice.

Stevenson argued that the 3,000 or so cases he studied supported the possibility of reincarnation, though he was always careful to refer to them as “cases suggestive of reincarnation,” or “cases of the reincarnation type.”

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