Hindu looking illustration of the stages of life moving from birth to death and all the stages in betweenMy father went to medical school at McGill University in Montreal, Canada in the 1940’s at a time when there were some really distinguished physicians walking in the halls such as Hans Selye (the originator of the concept of ”stress”) and Wilder Penfield, who did a series of amazing experiments with surgery for epilepsy which revealed memories of the patient’s childhood that were left almost totally intact (even to the smells and sounds).  My dad told me that in his graduating class, the most promising med student was a man called Ian Stevenson, who I believe was first in his class.

I had actually heard about Dr. Ian Stevenson years before when I came upon a book that he wrote called ”Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.” He had in the meantime become the Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia, and took up the interesting research sideline of traveling around the world interviewing children who claimed to have lived in a previous life.  Stevenson was a meticulous recorder of the stories that these kids told, and what was remarkable and not in the least ”woo-woo-ey” about his method, was that he would then go to the place where the child said he or she had lived and died, and would see if their stories checked out.  They did, almost 90% of the time!

Stevenson wrote:  ”A typical case of this type begins when a small child, usually between the ages of 2 and 4, starts to tell his parents, and anyone who will listen, that he remembers living another life before his birth . . . A child claiming to remember a previous life usually asks to be taken to the place where he says he lived during that life . . . If the child has furnished enough details . . . the search for the family of the person he has been talking about is nearly always successful . . . The child is then usually found to have been accurate in about 90 percent of the statements he has been making about the deceased person whose life he claims to remember.” (Source: Ian Stevenson, ”The Explanatory Value of Reincarnation,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 164 (1977), p. 307-308).

Stevenson investigated thousands of cases of this kind in cultures as disparate as Alaska (among the Tlingit), Lebanon, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and even the U.S. and Europe.  His findings were published, not in New Age books or magazines, but in scientific journals and university presses.

One fascinating research outcome of these investigations was his development of a hypothesis regarding unexplained phobias in very young children.  Stevenson believed that the phobia was often related to something that had happened in the child’s previous life.  Children, for example, who had a deep-seated fear of guns, often reported having been killed in a past life by firearms.

Another remarkable finding of Stevenson’s research related to his work concerning birthmarks and birth defects.  Stevenson wrote a two-volume 2268 page work for the academic publisher Praeger, documenting instances where birthmarks and birth defects could be traced to identifiable events in a child’s previous lifetime that seemed to explain them.  A Tlingit (Alaskan) child, for example, who had a birthmark on his back said he had been killed in a fishing accident.  When Stevenson investigated the individual reported by the child to be the person he had been in the earlier lifetime, it was discovered that sure enough he had been a fisherman who had been speared and killed in that precise location of the body.

These investigations pose a direct challenge to our rational scientifically-grounded culture, which regards the possibility of reincarnation as patent nonsense.  What is compelling in Stevenson’s case is the meticulous way in which he went about researching his subject (using the scientific method, essentially, to come to conclusions that did not fit in with the accepted scientific paradigm).  He built into his research different ways of disqualifying other alternative explanations for his findings, including the possibilities of families talking to each other, or of using mental telepathy, or using other ordinary and/or non-ordinary methods of communication.

From my perspective as a Jungian-influenced educator and psychologist, these findings make perfect sense.  Carl Jung himself has recounted in the Tavistock Lectures of 1935 that:  ”you find with many children an awareness of the contents of the collective unconscious, a fact which in some Eastern beliefs is interpreted as reminiscence of a former existence.” (Collected Works, Volume 18, p. 95).  In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, for example, the Dalai Lama is chosen by having a search committee go out and look for a young child who recognizes the events in the life of the recently deceased Dalai Lama as his own (this was how the current Dalai Lama was chosen).

Both Stevenson and Jung point out that as the child grows into his fifth or sixth year, a veil descends over these memories, and the child’s attention turns toward adapting to the outer surroundings (going to school, having chores, learning etiquette, making friendships etc.).  Forgetting these memories is probably nature’s protective mechanism for ensuring a certain level of stability for the child.  If you believe that you were a king in ancient Greece, then cleaning up your bedroom could be a big hassle!

What parents, relatives, and child care workers should understand, however, is that when very young children (2 to 5 or 6) start making these claims, they should not be told ”oh, that’s just your imagination” or ”stop making up things!”  Neither should you encourage these memories (if that’s what they are).  Simply listen to what the children are saying, and acknowledge their words (or pictures if they draw or paint their memories) and do it in a gentle and kind way.  From a developmental perspective, the years between two and six represent a unique window in the life of a human being that will never come again, because it’s a time when children are close enough to birth to see a much wider horizon than most people see, and at the same time they are old enough to be able to represent these experiences in words, or through art, drama, or song.  Cherish this time in your child’s life even if you think it’s all a bunch of malarkey.


For more information about childhood memories of reincarnation, as well as other psycho-spiritual reflections on the different stages of life, get my book The Human Odyssey:  Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life.

This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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2 Responses
  1. And what a horizon that is, Thomas.

    I have read Leslie Jamison and she wrote about Ian and some kids who have told their reincarnation stories.

    And when you said: “If you believe that you were a king in ancient Greece, then cleaning up your bedroom could be a big hassle!” it was very relatable.

    I think too of healthy narcissism and preserving self-esteem and roleplay.

    Again there are so many patterns.

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