The Science Behind Reincarnation

Suzanne was only 16 months old when she pulled the phone off the hook and said, "Hello, Leila?" into it over and over. Though just a baby, Suzanne claimed to be the mysterious Leila's mother. By the time she was two, Suzanne had mentioned the names of this woman's other children, her husband, parents and brothers -- 13 people in all.

At 3, Suzanne recited portions of a funeral oration for the woman's brother. Ultimately, she begged her parents to take her to her "real" home. So the couple, who lived with Suzanne in Beirut, made inquiries in the Lebanese town the little girl insisted she was from. There, they found a family who fit the particulars Suzanne had mentioned.

And there, they learned that minutes before undergoing heart surgery, the woman in question had tried desperately to call her daughter Leila.

The family, including a sister of Leila's, confirmed much of what Suzanne had been saying: names, places, the funeral oration. Suzanne identified members of the dead woman's family from photographs. Though she was a child, she treated the dead woman's grown children as a mother would. She asked if their uncles, when they returned to Lebanon, had distributed "her" jewels to Leila and her sisters, a deathbed request known only to the family.

Incredible as it sounds, this is one of the true cases of reincarnation studied by Dr. Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. Though some people scoff at the notion of past lives, Stevenson has spent nearly 40 years researching this very topic and has uncovered some astounding results.

Old Souls

In the book "Old Souls, The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives," Tom Shroder chronicles Stevenson's efforts. In 1997, Shroder, a Washington Post editor, accompanied Stevenson to Lebanon, where Stevenson tracked down and re-interviewed subjects he had first studied some 16 years earlier. In 1998, the two traveled to India on a similar mission.

"Old Souls" is a riveting firsthand account of scientific evidence of past lives, but not from adults undergoing past-life readings or hypnotic regressions in a clinical setting. No, these accounts come straight from the mouths of babes, small children who spontaneously speak of previous lives, beg to be taken "home," pine for mothers and husbands and mistresses from another life, and know things there seem to be no normal way for them to know.

Shroder begins his journey as a hardened skeptic, but quickly comes face to face with concrete evidence that, try as he might, he cannot discount.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

The evidence is hard to refute. There is the little boy who remembered his life as a mechanic. At the age of 25, the mechanic was thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. The boy recalled the name of the driver, the exact location of the crash, the names of the mechanic's sisters and parents and cousins, and the people he hunted with.

And then there's the girl who remembered being a teenager named Sheila, killed while crossing the road. The girl named the town Sheila lived in, Sheila's parents and siblings. When Sheila's family heard of the girl's story, they went to see her. Upon meeting them, the girl recognized them by name and relationship without prompting.

And then there's the little boy named Joseph who lived in Virginia. From the time he learned to talk, Joseph called his mother by her name and called his grandmother "Mom". As he got older, Joseph began recalling obscure events from the life of his Uncle David, who died in an accident 20 years before Joseph was born -- and who was rarely mentioned because of the family's abiding grief.

3,000 Case Studies

Stevenson's case studies go on and on -- nearly 3,000 to date. In scores of cases around the world, multiple witnesses confirm that children have spontaneously supplied names of towns and relatives, occupations and relationships, attitudes and emotions that pinpointed a single, dead individual -- often unknown to their present families.

Stevenson has been trying to make sense of these cases for almost 40 years, examining records, interviewing witnesses and measuring the results against possible alternative explanations. In each case, he methodically documents the child's statements. Then he identifies the deceased person the child remembers being, and verifies the facts of the deceased person's life that match the child's memory. He even matches birthmarks and birth defects to wounds and scars on the deceased, verified by medical records. His strict methods systematically rule out all possible "normal" explanations for the child's memories.

When Shroder persuaded Stevenson to take him along on the investigative journeys, he was surprised by more than just the cases. In a 1999 article in the Washington Post, he wrote of Stevenson, "Even though he was on the eve of turning 80, his stamina was astounding. Ranging far outside the cities in both Lebanon and India, relentlessly logging 12-hour days seven days a week in often inhospitable environments, he rarely betrayed the slightest fatigue. It was all I could do to keep from begging him to take a break."

But the journalist understood the doctor's compulsion. The cases they encountered were every bit as difficult to explain away as Stevenson had said. Wrote Shroder: "...the only way to account normally for what people were telling us was to hypothesize some massive, multi-sided conspiracy, either conscious fraud or some unconscious communal coordination among people from different families and communities with no obvious motive or clear means to cooperate in a deception."

Wacko or Scientist?

When Shroder first came across Stevenson's work in 1989, he wondered if he might be "the kind of wacko who also had a drawerful of fragments of the True Cross or a radio that communicated with a race of blood-red dwarves on the fifth moon of Jupiter."

But this was clearly not the case. A 1975 article in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" noted that Stevenson "had collected cases in which the evidence is difficult to explain on any other grounds" besides reincarnation.

And Shroder found other serious scholarly articles that assessed Stevenson's work, including some by researchers who had investigated similar cases themselves. Some produced case reports almost identical to Stevenson's, although the conclusions tended to be somewhat more cautious.

For example, after investigating ten cases in India in 1987, anthropologist Antonia Mills wrote: "Like Stevenson, I conclude that while none of the cases I studied offer incontrovertible proof of reincarnation or some related paranormal process, they are part of a growing body of cases for which normal explanations do not seem to do justice to the data."

Still, mainstream scientists have all but ignored Stevenson's efforts. How history will remember him remains to be seen. As Dr. Harold Leif wrote in the "Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease," "Either he [Dr. Stevenson] is making a colossal mistake, or he will be known as the Galileo of the 20th century."

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