“We were out on a shopping trip when my daughter, Lilly, turned to me,” says Julie, a 32-year-old mother in St. Louis. “She pointed at one of the cars in the parking lot. She said, ‘That car hit me.’” For Julie, it was an unusual situation; she knew for certain that 4-year-old Lilly hadn’t been hit by any vehicles (that’s the sort of thing a mother would remember). “I asked her what she meant. She said, ‘Before I lived with you and Daddy, I lived with another Mommy and Daddy.’ My blood ran cold.” Over the next hour or two, Lilly spouted off other details about her “death.” She’d seen a red car; she remembered ambulances. Her feet hurt. With every new recollection, Julie became more uncomfortable. “It was freaky, in the way that kid stuff can be really freaky,” she says. “There’s a reason that horror movies use creepy little kids. I was weirded out.” That’s a fairly natural reaction when your child tells you they’re living their second life. However, Julie’s situation isn’t actually that unusual—and some researchers believe this sort of “reincarnation” has a scientific explanation. What if we’re all reincarnated? What if we remember bits of our past lives in our current lives, but as we get older, we start to forget about the people we used to be? We decided to look into the science of reincarnation memories. Strap in, because this gets pretty weird.
One thing’s for sure: Many children seem to recount past lives.
We couldn’t find exact statistics—it’s not the type of thing you’d find in a Pew Research poll—but we easily found a few parents whose kids told stories like Lilly’s. Their stories are remarkably similar; they’re going about their normal business when suddenly, their kid remarks on a memory. “When my daughter was around four years old, she told me that she had died and gone up to the stars and the moon,” Jill Howell, a licensed professional counselor, tells HealthyWay. “I am very open to [the concept of reincarnation], so I calmly asked her questions (though I was so excited to hear this).” Howell began to believe her daughter was recounting real memories when the girl brought up specific details about her “death.” “She told me that she was in a store and reaching for something on a shelf and she fell,” Howell says. “She stated that her kids were there telling her that she needed to come back, so she did. A few years later, she denied it and said that she made it up, but you can’t make up something that you have never been exposed to.” To Howell, that was evidence that reincarnation could be real. How could her daughter invent specific details about a death when she wasn’t mature enough to understand the concept? “We had never discussed the possibility of afterlife, [and] she knew nothing about death at all,” she tells us. “Children don’t have filters. Society teaches people to filter and to deny. Developmentally, kids want approval and won’t say things that sound out of the ordinary.” To Howell, that’s a crucial point; kids don’t have a clear incentive to make up these types of stories. In many cases, the act of recounting the memories is traumatic or uncomfortable. Of course, kids also have incredible imaginations, so some of these stories are easily explained. Howell’s child may have seen a report on the news about someone falling, then developed her “memory” after the fact. She might have imagined that she had kids because she’d been playing with dolls recently. We can’t know what was going through her head at the time. That’s the standard, logical explanation for this type of memory. Some kids might want to recall specific details in order to seek approval from adults, and that need for approval can be a powerful thing. Research shows that children’s memories are suggestible; their brains encode memories differently than adult brains, and kids are more likely to create false memories after a single suggestive interview. In other words, if an adult asks a child, “What do you remember from your past life?”, the child will likely come up with something—even if they don’t actually remember anything. That effect could account for many purported reincarnation memories; kids remark on an event they imagined, and an adult asks them to give more details, at which point the child invents those details while wholeheartedly believing they’re recounting real events. That’s the most reasonable explanation for the phenomena. There is, however, another possibility.
Some psychologists wonder whether reincarnation actually exists—and how it’d fit in with current science.
Jim Tucker, MD, is the director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. He’s studied childhood reincarnation memories for decades, and he’s a respected member of the psychiatric community—in other words, he’s not a New Age guy sitting in a room full of crystals. He’s a member of the scientific establishment, albeit a controversial figure in that community. That’s important to keep in mind when you consider his thoughts on reincarnation. “I think when I started looking at things, I became open to the possibility that we’re more than just our physical bodies, that there is more to the world than just the physical universe,” Tucker told The San Francisco Gate in 2006. Tucker believes that reincarnation could exist, and he uses case studies of kids’ past-life memories as his evidence. As he told the newspaper, he looks at a variety of indicators to determine whether reincarnation memories are potentially legitimate. “Many [kids with reincarnation memories], three-quarters of them, will talk about the way that they died,” Tucker said. “And usually what they say will focus on things that happened near the end of the previous life—not exclusively, but they will usually talk about people they knew at the end. So if they are describing a life as an adult, they will be much more likely to talk about a spouse or children than about parents and that sort of thing.” When an experience seems legitimate, Tucker’s team looks for evidence that lines up with the details in the child’s memories. He believes physical details could eventually make a realistic case for reincarnation (and he’s written a well-received book on that subject, by the way). For decades, his team has been assembling evidence to show that some kids are recounting true memories—not fantasies. “We look at whether there are any behaviors or birthmarks that link to the ‘deceased’ person, and if we identify a previous person whose life seems to match that description, we get the details of that life as carefully as possible to see just how well things match up,” he said.
Some real-life cases add credence to Tucker’s claims.
Take the case of the teenage boy who seemingly remembered a past life when visiting his parents’ hometown in India (first reported in National Post in 2009; this link to an archive of the original report). The boy—unnamed in the case due to his age—suddenly had strong memories of his past life and said that he saw his parents as “aliens.” His memories matched up with descriptions of a man who lived in the Indian town of Jaipur; a psychiatrist who interviewed the boy found no signs of mental illness and noted that the child recalled events “with a strong, emotionally charged tone.” Tucker has also investigated dozens of cases in which children who recalled traumatic deaths had birthmarks that corresponded with wounds incurred in these stories. Of course, there’s a logical explanation for that phenomenon: Kids might see their birthmarks, then imagine events that led to those birthmarks. Still, Tucker’s convinced that some of the cases are legitimate; when kids mention extremely specific details that line up with real-world events, he believes the logical explanation is that their memories are authentic. “If it’s a case where the statements aren’t verified, then it may well be just fantasy—like the boy who said, ‘I used to drive a big truck,’ he told The San Francisco Gate. “If you have got one where the children have made numerous statements about another life that is quite some distance away, including proper names and everything else, and it all checks out, then unless you are going to say, ‘It’s all one heck of a coincidence,’ you can’t really just blame all of that on fantasy.”
Cases of possible reincarnation tend to have common characteristics.
According to Tucker, reincarnation memories tend to start when a child is about 3 years old. The memories usually leave around age 6 or 7, but occasionally, adults report remembering past lives. In many cases, children remember violent or unusual deaths, but Tucker says that’s not true for all of the cases he’s studied. Despite his research, Tucker says that reincarnation isn’t part of his personal belief system. He’s open to the possibility, but he’s trying to maintain a scientific perspective. To that end, he believes that quantum physics could explain reincarnation—again, if the phenomenon actually exists. “Quantum physicists talk about electrons, or events being potential, rather than actual physical entities,” he said. “So that there are various potentials, basically until somebody looks, and then it sort of forces the universe to make a determination about which potential is going to be actualized.” In an interview with Skeptiko, Tucker expanded on that concept:
“Well, if that is the case, then we would not expect an individual consciousness to end when a physical brain dies. And our cases, of course, provide evidence that in fact consciousness does not end and that it continues on. And [in my book], I explore and speculate that if you use that metaphor, what might we say about existence after we die? …So it is an idea that I think is worth exploring.”
Tucker’s approach is ultimately very simple: Keep an open mind to the possibility of reincarnation, and science might be able to eventually prove it exists. Then again, all of the reincarnated memories might simply be coincidence—until someone actually studies the phenomenon with that perspective, we can’t really know. That’s what his team is trying to accomplish. “You can’t just map these cases, obviously, on a materialist understanding of the world,” he told Skeptiko. “But I think if you stop and consider it is not just that the world is primary, and sort of consciousness is bouncing from one life to the next or whatever.” “I don’t think that is how it works. But if you consider that consciousness is the primary thing and then this world that we see is just a creation of that consciousness, then it does give a different perspective of trying to understand what this is all about.”
Obviously, Tucker’s theories are extremely controversial.
Skeptics note that some famous cases of “reincarnated children” can be easily explained. Take, for example, the case of James Leininger, who garnered headlines at an early age when he vividly remembered a plane crash that took place during World War II. James suffered from vivid nightmares, and when recounting them to his parents, he’d say things like, “Airplane crash on fire, little man can’t get out.” That prompted his parents to reach out to counselor Carol Bowman, who took the boy seriously. Eventually, Bowman and James’ parents publicized the story, making the case that James was the reincarnation of a World War II pilot named James Huston, Jr. After all, the boy remembered incredible details; he remembered the word “Natoma,” and Huston was stationed on the U.S.S. Natoma Bay aircraft carrier. The child pointed out Iwo Jima on a map and told his father that “that is where my plane was shot down.” He remembered the names of specific aircraft. But as skeptic Brian Dunning noted for Skeptoid, James had been fascinated with aircraft and military history before recounting his past life. “All of the evidence is purely anecdotal, and is practically the gold standard of confirmation bias and observational selection,” Dunning wrote. “The story as the public knows it was written by the parents themselves after nearly a decade of personally trying to confirm and prove their belief. Reading their book, I marveled that the only proof they gave over and over again is that there is no way a three-year-old could have had knowledge of aircraft carriers or known the names of specific fighter planes. That’s an insult to every three-year-old who ever lived.” Dunning claimed that James’ parents unintentionally helped the boy add details to his “memories” in order to justify their hypothesis. He also blamed Bowman for emphasizing the possibility of reincarnation—perhaps to the detriment of her young patient. “The notion that James had been reincarnated was never his own,” Dunning wrote. “It was his parents’, primarily Andrea’s, own idea. The parents, under the guidance of a strongly motivated self-described ‘therapist’, put the idea into his head themselves.”
So, it seems like your kid is reincarnated. What do you do now?
Let’s say that your kid seems to remember a past life. How can you address their feelings about those memories—false or not—in a healthy manner? To some extent, that depends on your personal beliefs. Howell recommends a measured approach. “I would say to be nonreactive and to just listen and to never, ever question the validity of what they are saying to you, because that will erode any trust that they have for you,” she says. By the same token, parents shouldn’t tell their kids that their memories are legitimate. They should simply listen—and if the memories are loaded with overwhelming specific details, or if they’re clearly traumatizing the child, parents should contact a psychologist. If you’re the type of person who believes in reincarnation, Jim Tucker’s contact information is here. If you’re skeptical of the idea of past lives, any other licensed child psychologist should be able to point you in the right direction. We asked Julie how she’ll respond to Lilly’s memories of a past life. “I don’t actually believe that my child is possessed, or reincarnated, or whatever,” she says. “I just listen, say, ‘That’s nice,’ and we go about our day. She also has imaginary friends, and I don’t think they’re real, either.” But what if reincarnation is real? What if it’s an actual scientific phenomenon—something real and tangible, explained by some obscure law of quantum physics? “I don’t care,” Julie says with a laugh. “She’s still Lilly, and her past lives won’t affect how I’m raising her. If there’s a few other people in there, I guess I love them all.”