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Ian Pretyman Stevenson

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: (Published 29 March 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:700

Professor Ian Stevenson, an emperor in parapsychology

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,
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

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

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

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

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

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: No competing interests

02 April 2007
James Paul Pandarakalam
Consultant psychiatrist
St Helens North CMHT, St Helens WA 9 3DA