Ian Pretyman Stevenson

Professor Ian Stevenson, an emperor in parapsychology

2 April 2007

Professor Ian Stevenson who was a pioneer in research into children remembering previous lives, passed away peacefully on 8th February 2007 at Charlottesville in Virginia due to bronchopneumonia. Dr Ian Pretyman Stevenson was born on 31st October 1918 in Montreal. His father, Mr John Stevenson was initially a Scottish lawyer but later turned out to be a journalist and worked as the Canadian representative of New York Times. His mother Ruth Stevenson was interested in Theosophy and had a huge collection of books on the subject, which was a source of inspiration for young Ian to get interested in psychical studies in his later life. Dr Stevenson joined the St Andrews university in Scotland to study medicine and had to transfer his studies to Canada due to the breaking of the second world war .He graduated from McGill University in medicine in 1943 and later migrated to USA. After doing internal medicine he changed his career to psychiatry when he trained as a psychoanalyst. Soon he declared his loss of confidence in psychoanalysis and even refereed to Freud as a “proverbial naked emperor”. Inspired by meeting Aldous Huxley, in the 50s Stevenson studied the medical effects of LSD.In 1967, Stevenson was appointed as the Director of the division of personality studies and for a period was the head of the department of psychiatry in the university of Virginia.

Dr Stevenson published a detailed essay on children remembering previous lives in 1960, which caught the attention of Chester Carlson, the inventor of the Photostat machine who financed his researches as Carlson himself believed that he got the inspiration for his invention paranormally. Stevenson travelled an average of 55000 miles every year. It was not an arm chair research but literally a ‘shoe leather research’. Travelling across the east and west, he has been living as a world citizen for the last forty years and collected nearly 3000 reincarnation type cases from different parts of the world. Most of his research was conducted with children who appeared to recall a past life. Typically, the child starts talking about a previous existence as soon as he or she can speak, and memories fade by the age of eight with a few exceptions. Most of these cases have the following pattern.

A child, usually at the age of two or three, begins talking persistently of things, places and people about which the parents are thoroughly ignorant. The child may even behave quite differently from his brothers or sisters. This will appear very strange in terms of the circumstances of his upbringing. Finally, the child himself may relate all this to a previous life he claims to remember having led, sometimes in neighbouring places or in a distant place. This is very trying for the parents who along with friends of the family start make enquires about persons presumed to be dead to whom the child’s statements might apply. Finally, they find the family that appears to be the basis of the statements. Once contact is made with this new family, they get additional information. Some of this information verifies and some contradicts the child’s statements. At the end of the inquiry, the child may be taken to the family he claims was his original family. This family may belong to a superior or inferior social strata. As time goes on, both the families make arrangements for a reunion. The child takes his parents and others through complicated streets and alleys. He may show somnambulistic precision. He leads the group directly to the place where he claims to have lived or worked in his former life. He then greets various persons who have come to witness this reunion. He calls them by their name and behaves appropriately. The child’s likes and dislikes special idiomatic phrases; nicknames and names for objects in his previous life are recollected. All these cases have some common ingredients. There are repeated statements of a young child’s identification with an earlier person. These children who remember lost lives present information about this person in the form of memories or people known to him. They request to return to their previous homes and present familiar behaviour in the apparently strange environment. They address the alleged relatives with appropriate emotional responses. Most of these memories vanish between the ages of seven and nine. All these could suggest some continuity of personality hidden in the subliminal self.

There is always the chance of fraud in such cases. The parents of some of these child have been alleged to make money out of him. They train him to enact the drama of reincarnation. But in the most historical cases, there is sufficient evidence to rule out fraud. There is also the possibility of unconscious fraud. The child may be referring to someone he read or heard about, identifying himself with this person. The parents may have unconsciously added more to the tale as they retold it. Jurgen Keil refer to these types of cases as normal information transfer and unintentional information transfer. Psychologists now understand something which is referred to as racial memory. But this idea can not account for the apparent memories of formal lives. These children are almost never descendants of the individuals they claim to be. They usually belong to another family in another town. The child may have received his information about his life through extrasensory perception. Relatives still mourning the deceased might unconsciously be sending thoughts which are picked telepathically by the youngsters. The observation that these children do not show any unusual paranormal ability in other situations is a counter argument against telepathic hypothesis.

Prof . Chari advocated the spiritistic interpretation to explain previous life memories which postulate that these children are influenced by discarnate spirits from a non physical realm whose past lives events are transmitted to them if that was the case, then the children would have be influenced by several deceased personalities and the subjects would not have been able to stick to one previous life narration alone. It can also be argued that if previous life memories are spritistic in origin, more than one child would be claiming the identity of a single discarnate personality and this has not happened.

The apparent memories for the most of the subjects became conscious during a normal state of consciousness. Some mediums who have had experiences with communication from ostensibly discarnate personalities and also apparent memories of former incarnations claim to distinguish between these kinds of experiences. In mediumistic experiences, the communicators do not confine their information to one person. With these arguments, Dr. Stevenson rules out the possibility of communication from surviving personality . He also argues against the hypothesis of possession because no transformation of personality occurs in these cases.

The average interval between death and rebirth in the published cases of Stevenson is two years even though there are reports of trans-century cases of reincarnation. Most of the reincarnations take place in the same geographical area but there are also international cases. The social circumstances are variable and do not follow a set pattern “Dejavu,” hypnotic past life regression, flashbacks occurring in drug induced mental states and recurrent dreams starting form childhood, offer other probable but weaker evidences for reincarnation. Dr Stevenson is sceptical about the research usefulness of hypnotic past life regression, but gives some credit to past life regression with responsive Zenoglossy where the subject is capable of to and for communication in a foreign language . One of the remarkable observations he made was that in a high proportion of the cases, the child would have a birthmark or birth defect, which appeared to correlate a significant event in the previous life that they were apparently recalling. The cognitive and behavioural memories associated with the birthmarks and birth defects corresponding to the wounds of the deceased person whose life the subjects of such cases claim to remember are probably strong evidences to suspend the disbelief in the idea of reincarnation which may have explanatory value in medicine and psychiatry.

The present tendency among medical scientists to use genetics and environmental influences to explain human behaviour and several of the medical conditions is under attack from parapsychology. Psychiatric disorder need particular mention in this respect. In general psychiatric disorders have no objective indicators and their investigations contain potential errors when adhered closely to genetic theories. The present tendency among medical scientists to use genetics and environmental influences to explain human behaviour and several of the medical conditions is under attack from parapsychology. Psychiatric disorder need particular mention in this respect. In general psychiatric disorders have no objective indicators and their investigations contain potential errors when adhered closely to genetic theories. The idea of reincarnation offer supplementary knowledge without replacing the knowledge gained through studies of genetics and environmental influences. Parapsychology is not an adversary of medical sciences but offer a third or extra explanation to solve some of the puzzles in psychology, and medicine.

In a Burmese case I found a person who suffered nocturnal enuresis carried on to adulthood, had behavioural memories corresponding to a person who died of prostatic problems with incontinence. The idea of reincarnation may have value in explaining hypochondriasis of childhood. Certain delusional ideas may have its psychodynamics in the experiences of previous life. A patient who believes he is a particular King may simply have had a previous life at the reign of that King and had a strong veneration for him. The medical and psychiatric implications of reincarnation make the concept ‘clinical reincarnation’ justifiable.

Some subjects of reincarnation type cases have surprised their elders by demanding an intoxicant such as alcohol, tobacco or cannabis. They remembered previous lives in which they abused these substances when the current family members disapproved the use of such intoxicants.

To use a musical metaphor, temperament is the ground base above which various melodies are played. It has three aspects. One is the general level of physical activity. Second is the persistence with which one pursues some undertaking despite interruptions. Another dimension refers to the irritability; the threshold to bear frustrations. Even infants differ in their temperament. Similarities in temperament have been observed in a subject and in the person whose life the subject claimed to remember.

Some subjects of reincarnation show a phobia before they have learned to speak and can explain it. Phobias may occur in subjects who have no imaged memories. Most of the phobias of these cases are associated with the instrument of the previous personality’s death. Suleyman Zeytuan, a Turkish case was afraid of water in general, as he remembered the previous life of a man who had drowned.

Parental influence is recognised as a modulating factor in the personality development of a child and impairment in child parent relationship is thought to be contributing to the development of psychiatric illness. Certain children behave differently right from birth towards their parents and respond inappropriately to parental gestures of affection. Environmentalists and geneticians put the blame to events in gestation and faulty genes. Reincarnationists go further back to the origin of impaired child parent relationship that might lead to psychiatric conditions in adult life.

Some subjects of reincarnation type cases have expressed sexual interest in the wife, mistress or girlfriend of the previous personality even as young children. A few others have made precocious sexual advances to the members of the opposite sex who resembled the partners of previous lives. Freud described a latent period of sexual development. Interestingly, the age of its beginning coincides with the usual age of forgetting previous lives. Freud was probably having a glimpse of some larger truth.

In cases of ‘sex change type of reincarnation’ child remembers previous life as a person of the opposite sex of the claimed previous lives. They cross-dress, play the games of the opposite sex. They may also demonstrate attitudes, characteristic of that sex. But the child outgrows the attachment to the sex and habits of the previous life. Yet, a few of these children remain fixed to the sex of previous life. One of the cases of Dr. Stevenson has become a practising homosexual. The good news is that majority of the cases of cross sex reincarnation do not become homosexual and so one could argue that homosexuality is also a chosen behaviour, even though the predisposition may be psychological or biological and paranormal.

The assumption that a personality who is going to reincarnate may impose on a pregnant women some of his appetites and attitudes may explain the picca of pregnancy and psychological changes women may experience in pregnancy. Carrying over internal diseases from previous lives to the present one is also observed in the case studies of Ian Stevenson. Twins are of particular interest to the reincarnationists. Genetics explain the similarities between monozygotic twins, but reincarnation could explain the dissimilarities between them. Reincarnation may also be considered as one of the factors causing genetic mutation and so molecular biologist can not ignore the subject.

It is interesting to note that reincarnation research has a royal origin. The Mughal emperor Akbar was the first person to investigate a case of child remembering previous life. The emperor had many successors to follow his studies. Dr Ian Stevenson’s investigatory studies have become a benchmark in this challenging research field. His credentials were impeccable.

Dr Stevenson is the author of 200 papers and nine books. Stevenson’s interests spread to apparitions, telepathic impressions, poltergeists, and mediumship, near death experiences and nearing death observations. His earlier publications included two books in psychiatric interviewing and diagnosis, which gave me great appreciation for Stevenson in my medical school days. Even his staunch critics have respect for his scientific methodology and scientific honesty. Stevenson had a towering personality. He gave due respect to the sensitive concepts of reincarnation cherished by the faith traditions. His book, “Reincarnation and Biology” is a classic book in parapsychology. Obviously he has challenged the reductionist medical model of mind. For the last thirty years Stevenson was ruling the empire of parapsychology.

Dr Satwant Pasricha , professor in the psychology department of NIMHANS, who was a protégé of I.S. has independently studied several reincarnation cases and occludes that we have sufficient evidences to believe in reincarnation, but science insists on full evidences. Science is not all about consensus of opinion, but measurability and repeatability are the criteria of science.Science is all about reliable knowledge.

Stevenson has given more insight into the age-old concept of retributive karma and modified it as developmental karma or even as collective karma. He highlighted the sufferings involved in returning to the terrestrial life. Probably the concept of “ clinical reincarnation” is his great contribution to medical sciences. He was inclined tobelieve in accidental reincarnation. This goes well with the concept of reincarnation in ancient vedas which state that ‘Those who leave the world in darkness return, and those who leave in light never return’ (Bhagavad Gita). To think karma is fatal is negative philosophy. Dr Venkoba Rao has attempted to explain karma differently using the analogy of the archer with the bows and arrows. The archer has no control on the arrows that have been already discharged, but has control on the arrows set on the bow ready to be discharged and the ones in the quiver: human beings have control over most of their actions and only a few are predetermined in a previous life. He did not find any evidence for transmigration to and from the animal kingdom and has left enough room to accommodate other forms and belief systems of post mortem existence.

Stevenson was considered as the Copernicus of this century by hisadmirers. Telepathy from the living agents and spiritistic interpretation are the two salient alternative paranormal interpretations that are yet to be answered before reincarnation is accepted as a scientific reality, but Stevenson has made the idea of reincarnation a respectable research topic and a scientific idea. Unquestionably, I.S. was one of the top ranking intellectual giants of this century.

It was always hurtful for Dr Stevenson to note that his critics did not bother even to look into the evidence he gathered so painstakingly over the years, like Galileo’s critics who refused to look through his telescope, or Edison’s when he demonstrated the phonograph and the scientific community commented that he had concealed a ventriloquist underneath the table. Dr Stevenson stated that any new idea is a disturbance to the tranquillity of the mind, and scientists are no exception.

Dr Stevenson believed in an evolving God and that we are all the participants of his grand experiments. He did not want his rudimentary research to be associated with any religion. Asked about the usefulness of eliciting previous life memories artificially, he quoted from Jesus and stated ‘To paraphrase from Jesus Christ, sufficient unto one life is the evil thereof’.

I had thirty years of postal correspondence with Stevenson and his papers on apparitions have been highly helpful for my studies of Marian apparitional experiences, but Stevenson always admitted his ignorance on Mary’s appearances, and was humble enough not to comment on their authenticity.Lack of deeper understanding of the subjects’ culture he investigated is one of the arguments against his investigations. Stevenson wrote to me once, ‘My aim has never been to prove reincarnation, but only to find and report whatever evidence there is that makes it seem possible’. Only time will tell whether Stevenson had made any Freudian errors.

Dr Stevenson retired in 2002, leaving his works to successors led by Dr Bruce Greyson and Dr Jim Tucker. Dr Stevenson suffered from bronchial defects right from childhood and he always wondered whether it was the continuation from a previous life, and also believed in the probaibility that the cause of one’s death may be predetermined in a previous life. Predeceased by his first wife, Octavia, he leaves a second wife, Margaret.

Competing interests: None declared

Competing interests: None declared

James Paul Pandarakalam, Consultant psychiatrist

St Helens North CMHT, St Helens WA 9 3DA

Click to like: