Ian Stevenson’s documentation of the afterlife

November 11, 2017 • 1:00 pm

For a long time I’ve heard about—and read about—psychiatrist Ian Stevenson‘s work on the afterlife, in particular his documentation of past-life experiences. For forty years, Stevenson, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, tracked down cases in which people (usually children) seemed to remember very specific and accurate things about dead individuals, sometimes far away, that, he said, had no explanation other than the transmigration of those experiences between bodies. In other words, something about those memories lived on after death, and moved into the brains of others. That’s reincarnation.

Malgorzata called my attention to a 2013 post by Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering called “Ian Stephenson’s Case for the Afterlife: Are we ‘skeptics’ really just cynics?” Bering, a science writer who specializes in evolutionary psychology, is Associate Professor at the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He also seems to have somewhat of a weakness for the numinous, as evidenced by his Sci Am article on his mother’s “terminal lucidity” when she was supposed to be completely insensate while dying.

Stevenson collected 3,000 episodes of past-life remembering, usually in children—often poor Asian children remembering experiences of members of higher castes or socioeconomic groups. The work was published in his two-volume, 2300-page magnum opus, Reincarnation and Biology, recounting children with birthmarks and scars that could be attributed to experiences in their past “lives”.

And indeed, if you read accounts like the one below, produced by Stevenson and recounted by Bering, you get a creepy feeling that maybe something’s going on we don’t understand:

In Sri Lanka, a toddler one day overheard her mother mentioning the name of an obscure town (“Kataragama”) that the girl had never been to. The girl informed the mother that she drowned there when her “dumb” (mentally challenged) brother pushed her in the river, that she had a bald father named “Herath” who sold flowers in a market near the Buddhist stupa, that she lived in a house that had a glass window in the roof (a skylight), dogs in the backyard that were tied up and fed meat, that the house was next door to a big Hindu temple, outside of which people smashed coconuts on the ground. Stevenson was able to confirm that there was, indeed, a flower vendor in Kataragama who ran a stall near the Buddhist stupa whose two-year-old daughter had drowned in the river while the girl played with her mentally challenged brother. The man lived in a house where the neighbors threw meat to dogs tied up in their backyard, and it was adjacent to the main temple where devotees practiced a religious ritual of smashing coconuts on the ground. The little girl did get a few items wrong, however. For instance, the dead girl’s dad wasn’t bald (but her grandfather and uncle were) and his name wasn’t “Herath”—that was the name, rather, of the dead girl’s cousin. Otherwise, 27 of the 30 idiosyncratic, verifiable statements she made panned out. The two families never met, nor did they have any friends, coworkers, or other acquaintances in common, so if you take it all at face value, the details couldn’t have been acquired in any obvious way.

This Sri Lankan case is one of Stevenson’s approximately 3000 such “past life” case reports from all over the world, and these accounts are in an entirely different kind of parapsychological ballpark than tales featuring a middle-aged divorcée in a tie-dyed tunic who claims to be the reincarnation of Pocahantas. More often than not, Stevenson could identify an actual figure that once lived based solely on the statements given by the child.

Bering also lauds Steven’s supposedly rigorous attempts to overcome any confirmation bias:

Some cases were much stronger than others, but I must say, when you actually read them firsthand, many are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means. Much of this is due to Stevenson’s own exhaustive efforts to disconfirm the paranormal account. “We can strive toward objectivity by exposing as fully as possible all observations that tend to weaken our preferred interpretation of the data,” he wrote. “If adversaries fire at us, let them use ammunition that we have given them.” And if truth be told, he excelled at debunking the debunkers.

In the end, Bering (remember, this is in Scientific American), doesn’t fully accept that there’s this kind of reincarnation, but doesn’t dismiss it, either:

I’d be happy to say it’s all complete and utter nonsense—a moldering cesspool of irredeemable, anti-scientific drivel. The trouble is, it’s not entirely apparent to me that it is.

. . . “The mind is what the brain does,” I wrote in The Belief Instinct. “It’s more a verb than it is a noun. Why do we wonder where our mind goes when the body is dead? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead too?” Perhaps it’s not so obvious at all. I’m not quite ready to say that I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife. But I can say that a fair assessment and a careful reading of Stevenson’s work has, rather miraculously, managed to pry it open. Well, a tad, anyway.

And one reason he doesn’t dismiss it is because, asserted Bering (remember, this is 2013), scientists supposedly rejected Stevenson’s data out of hand because it didn’t jibe with their materialist perspective, so they never fully examined Stevenson’s claims. Bering add this (my emphasis):

I’d be happy to say it’s all complete and utter nonsense—a moldering cesspool of irredeemable, anti-scientific drivel. The trouble is, it’s not entirely apparent to me that it is. So why aren’t scientists taking Stevenson’s data more seriously? The data don’t “fit” our working model of materialistic brain science, surely. But does our refusal to even look at his findings, let alone to debate them, come down to our fear of being wrong? “The wish not to believe,” Stevenson once said, “can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.”

In fact, scientists did take Stevenson’s data seriously, well before 2013, but, upon examining them, found them to be a tissue full of gaping holes. It doesn’t take much sleuthing on the Internet to show the number of people who found these holes and debunked Stevenson’s claims, starting with the Wikipedia section on the reception of Stevenson’s claims. Stevenson was credulous, sloppy, overly reliant on hearsay, and hardly the tough-nosed skeptic Bering makes him out to be. Note that this bit, taken from Wikipedia, recounts debunking attempts before Bering wrote in 2013 that scientists hadn’t taken Stevenson’s claims seriously. I’ve put in bold one of the more serious issues:

Robert Baker wrote that many of the alleged past-life experiences investigated by Stevenson and other parapsychologists can be explained in terms of known psychological factors. Baker attributed the recalling of past lives to a mixture of cryptomnesia and confabulation.

Ian Wilson argued that a large number of Stevenson’s cases consisted of poor children remembering wealthy lives or belonging to a higher caste. He speculated that such cases may represent a scheme to obtain money from the family of the alleged former incarnation.

The philosopher C. T. K. Chari of Madras Christian College in Chennai, a specialist in parapsychology, argued that Stevenson was naive and that the case studies were undermined by his lack of local knowledge. Chari wrote that many of the cases had come from societies, such as that of India, where people believed in reincarnation, and that the stories were simply cultural artifacts; he argued that, for children in many Asian countries, the recall of a past life is the equivalent of an imaginary playmate. The philosopher Keith Augustine made a similar argument. Stevenson responded that it was precisely those societies that listened to children’s claims about past lives, which in Europe or North America would normally be dismissed without investigation.  To address the cultural concern, he wrote European Cases of the Reincarnation Type (2003), which presented forty cases he had examined in Europe.

The philosopher Paul Edwards, editor-in-chief of Macmillan’Encyclopedia of Philosophy, became Stevenson’s chief critic. From 1986 onwards, he devoted several articles to Stevenson’s work, and discussed Stevenson in his Reincarnation: A Critical Examination(1996). He argued that Stevenson’s views were “absurd nonsense” and that when examined in detail his case studies had “big holes” and “do not even begin to add up to a significant counterweight to the initial presumption against reincarnation.” Stevenson, Edwards wrote, “evidently lives in a cloud-cuckoo-land.”

Champe Ransom, whom Stevenson hired as an assistant in the 1970s, wrote an unpublished report about Stevenson’s work, which Edwards cites in his Immortality (1992) and Reincarnation (1996). According to Ransom, Edwards wrote, Stevenson asked the children leading questions, filled in gaps in the narrative, did not spend enough time interviewing them, and left too long a period between the claimed recall and the interview; it was often years after the first mention of a recall that Stevenson learned about it. In only eleven of the 1,111 cases Ransom looked at had there been no contact between the families of the deceased and of the child before the interview; in addition, according to Ransom, seven of those eleven cases were seriously flawed. He also wrote that there were problems with the way Stevenson presented the cases, in that he would report his witnesses’ conclusions, rather than the data upon which the conclusions rested. Weaknesses in cases would be reported in a separate part of his books, rather than during the discussion of the cases themselves. Ransom concluded that it all amounted to anecdotal evidence of the weakest kind.

In Death and Personal Survival (1992), Almeder holds that Ransom was false in stating that there were only 11 cases with no prior contact between the two families concerned.. According to Almeder there were 23 such cases.

Even if there were 23 cases in which the families had no prior contact, that means that there was prior contact in 98% of these cases.  A scrupulous scientist would have at the outset eliminated cases where contact could have contaminated the “reincarnation”, leaving at most a sample of 23 rather than 1,111.

For more problema with Stevenson’s methods and conclusions, see the articles in the Skeptic’s Dictionary and SkepticReport,

What bothers me are two things: that this credulous account of Stevenson’s work was published in Scientific American, with no mention of any criticisms of Stevenson, and Bering’s false claim that scientists weren’t taking Stevenson’s data seriously, weren’t debating them, and weren’t even looking at them. That wasn’t true, even when Bering wrote his article four years ago.

Now we can’t simply say that Stevenson is wrong because we haven’t yet had evidence of reincarnation, and so it can’t occur. Some of his more intriguing cases should have been—and apparently were—examined by others, and refuted.  The prior probability of Stevenson being right was low, and now seems even lower, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Bering’s piece.  People love this stuff, of course, because it confirms their wish that something of us lives on after death, but we have to guard against this kind of confirmation bias. As Richard Feynman said about doing science, “. . . . you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” Despite Bering’s dubious claim that Stevenson was a hard-nosed skeptic, Stevenson apparently fooled himself and Bering as well.

46 thoughts on “Ian Stevenson’s documentation of the afterlife

  1. Science will have a hard time disproving reincarnation but then most things that do not exist are hard to disprove. It is just hard to believe that so many believe the unbelievable.

  2. It was JBS Haldane, I think, who once suggested that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine – it’s stranger than we CAN imagine. So while ‘mind’ could well be found to be separable from ‘material instrumentality’, it’d still present in ways totally different from anything supposed by us to date. To me assertions of ‘reincarnation’ ideas, in its various forms, is simple wish fulfilment and/or self-validation by the person insisting on it. I actually met some people, years back, who insisted they were reincarnated (they were part of Rudolf Steiner’s pseudo-religious woo woo cult). Naturally they were reincarnations of the sort of historical figures you learn about in school history – I recall that one had (apparently) been Cleopatra’s hand maiden. Unsurprising; nobody’s going to be a reincarnation of Scum Peasant No. 183,996 whose life consisted of moving mud from one place to another, are they? Of course when I was cynical about it I was told it was because I was too stupid to understand Steiner’s ‘advanced science’. Quite.

    1. I’ve noted in previous comments that some years ago, I found myself serving as an animal keeper/temple assistant to a menagerie of medium sized wild cats (ocelots, servils, etc.)and all kinds of exotic birds at a place called Isis Oasis, where a bunch of people who devoted themselves to indulging in their collective delusion that they were incarnated devotees of Isis. This place was run by a thoroughly nutty couple, the woman was high priestess and her husband was a ‘past live therapist’. I had to stay completely stoned the entire time I was there, which,between these kooky people and diabolical macaws out to maim people they didn’t like, thankfully, wasn’t very long.

    2. Steiner. Few things get my blood to boilin’ more reliably than his ridiculous legacy. I actually heard a “Waldorf inspired” parent say to her child, “I know I’m a difficult mommy, but you must have chosen me for a reason.” What a cruel and stupid thing to say to a bewildered child!

      1. Oh yes, I’d forgotten that one – thinking about it, I recall hearing one of the Steiners I briefly knew insisting that a child was crying out to be born to him and a woman not his wife, which justified him having an affair with her. I also recall being solemnly told that if children ‘intellectualised too early’ (whatever that means) then they’d get bad teeth. What always surprised me was the sanctimony with which his proselytes dismissed any non-believers – if you didn’t Believe, then you were a moron and not worthy of Steiner’s higher intellect. I blogged about it last year: https://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/is-rudolf-steiners-philosophy-a-sign-that-humanitys-already-hit-peak-stupid/

      2. Wow. I’d heard of Steiner before – indeed, I remember cycling past a Steiner school many times, to and fro from Stoner Bob’s Pit of Depravity – but never had any reason to find out anything about his/ their schooling methods. They sound like a right bunch of nutters.
        I’m sure they’ll be very popular.

    3. nobody’s going to be a reincarnation of Scum Peasant No. 183,996 whose life consisted of moving mud from one place to another, are they?

      That interesting bit about reincarnation was amusingly addressed in BULL DURHAM.

    4. The Haldane chestnut roasts itself every so often in the course of talk about our strange universe. Yet within the constraints of the English language/logic the good three-first-initial professor has asserted something that he not only cannot know but not even imagine.

  3. Questions that spring to my mind are things like
    a) Are there humans living who are ‘originals’ (presumably there was at least one?)
    b) How could we tell an ‘original’ and ‘go around’ apart?
    c) What is a possible mechanism for reincarnation?

    Otherwise all you have is anecdotal data of a fairly poor quality for something that there is no clear evidence for beyond the usual cognitive biases.

    1. I seem to recall a science fiction novel from the ’70s (Arsen Darnay’s The Karma Affair, perhaps?) featuring an epidemic of babies born brain-dead when population growth exceeded the number of souls available for reincarnation.

    2. Since there are more people alive today than everyone who ever lived combined, there has to be a lot of virgin souls.

      Unless we’re time-sharing.

        1. That argument gets very iffy unless you define “human”. Denisovans included? Neanderthalers? Erctus? “Hobbits”?
          To a palaeontologist, or Professor Cobb, every person you’ve ever talked to has been barely distinguishable from a fish.

    3. Actually there is only one original, who is reincarnated in parallel and living several lives simultanously.

      We’re all the same mind only our experiences and brains are different. So think about that next time you throw a boogar at someone, you’re throwing at a parallel reincarnation of yourself.

  4. I think this person ought to read Oliver Sacks’ popular science book “Hallucinations”. Understanding what the brain under duress (or certain substances) is more than enough for most scientists to see what (roughly) is going on in these situations. But of course that wouldn’t sit well with the pet assumptions of Stevenson that he clearly was seeking to “prove”.

  5. In regards to people who hope something lives on after death: I’m not one of them.

    That’s not to say I wouldn’t possibly want some extended existence (not sure for how long). Rather, I sure as hell don’t want to accept some ticket to an eternal existence…if I don’t know what the existence would be like! Just “existing” isn’t good enough, and if the existence is in any way something I wouldn’t like, being stuck in that mode for eternity is utterly nightmarish.

    I’m constantly amazed by those who believe in (and “hunt” or whatever) ghosts. Some say confirming ghost give them hope for an after-life, some just want to confirm ghosts. But what I virtually never see is the level of consternation I would think is rational, should you believe in hauntings. I mean, if your encounter with the after life are souls STUCK in some perpetual ritual they can’t get out of, or stuck haunting some particular local, house, room or whatever…how HORRIFYING! What a horrendous fate that would be for an eternal, or even very long, after life. How do people believe in hauntings and say “Whew, glad there’s an afterlife!”

    1. The Greeks had a myth of a mortal who did something pleasing to a god or gods – I forget his name, or the god(s), or the nature of the act – and they rewarded him with immortality. But they forgot – maybe deliberately, being evil sons of bitches – to grant the boon of eternal youth. It’s not a pretty ending.

    2. On the other hand, skeptically hunting ghosts can be interesting.

      The recent issue of Teaching Philosophy has an article on how to integrate such in to classes on critical thinking, epistemology, philosophy of science, etc. (I disagree with some of the details, but the principle is differently worthwhile, I think.)

      I also remember as a kid (I was in grade 3) hearing about a “haunted house”, so my father, sister and I went over to see it one weekend and we got a good lesson about the dangers and such of condemned buildings, the strength of rotting wood and such.

  6. … the transmigration of those experiences between bodies.

    Cue the theremin synthesizer anytime you hear a phrase like that.

  7. Now we can’t simply say that Stevenson is wrong

    If Stevenson’s claim is that his cases constitute convincing evidence for reincarnation, then yes, we can say he’s wrong about that (whether or not reincarnation actually happens).

  8. Now we can’t simply say that Stevenson is wrong because we haven’t yet had evidence of reincarnation, and so it can’t occur.

    I’m not about to entertain the possibility of reincarnation, until a plausible mechanism for it is put forth.

    1. How about, just to begin, a plausible definition of “re-incarnation”, before worrying about mechanism?

      Without it, forget it, don’t waste your time. And I’d add that I regard much of Scientific USian, sorry Scientific American, to be a similar waste of time, only exceeded by much of public TV’s so-called science programming, at least when it comes to math/physics.

      With any such definition, the claim of reincarnation’s existence would almost certainly be in contradiction to the so-called Standard Model of particle physics. So non-existence can be proved in that sense: all the huge evidence for that model being adequate for complete explanations, modulo calculation difficulties, of all chemistry, biology, astrophysics, engineering etc., at least on or ‘near’ the solar system, is then evidence against its existence.

      By the way, in my humble (well, maybe not) opinion, the 2015 book by Frank Wilczek entitled “A Beautiful Question” is an absolute classic. His discoveries, some done as a 19-year old physics doctoral student for which he eventually shared a Nobel prize, were the final and huge step in establishing the Core Theory, as he prefers to rename it.

      By the way, Jerry, at that time about 45 years ago, Wilczek had just finished undergrad work at U. Chicago (and in mathematics, not physics, as it happens).

      1. all the huge evidence for that model being adequate for complete explanations, modulo calculation difficulties, of all chemistry, biology, astrophysics, engineering etc., at least on or ‘near’ the solar system

        “Near” for values of “near” extending a good way to the edge of the observable universe. There are subtle effects in things like the wavelengths of natural maser systems and the nuclear physics of r-process nucleosynthesis which we can (and do!) detect to a good faction of the edge of of the observable universe. Variation in the laws of physics over that range of space/ time is observationally constrained to be very low.
        We had another nice demonstration recently with the 1.7 second delay between GW170817 and GRB170817a at 130 million ly range, confirming Einstein’s 1916 (IIRC) prediction that gravity waves travel at the speed of light (electromagnetic radiation in a vacuum to a precision of 1.7 (s) parts in 130 million (ly) * (60 * 60 * 24 * 365.25 s/yr), giving the precision cited as 1 part in about 2*10^15. That’s actually a minimal estimate of the precision, because it’s not incredible that it took a part of that 1.7 s for the optical (well, GR) emission to crank up to full power, and we do know that intergalactic and interstellar space isn’t a perfect vacuum (a proton or so per cubic metre), which would delay the arrival of the light here.
        The god squaddies and their apologists have a lot of improvement to do to get their description of the universe to 1 part in 10^15. Getting to 1 part in 1 would be a start, and they’re not there yet.

        1. Yes, maybe with ‘near’ I was being overly conservative. I imagined the possibility of there being some kind of, say, chemistry, with a liberal interpretation of that, sufficiently close to the singularity of a black hole, or rather what will replace that in our future theories. So I’d prefer ‘near’ not to extend past the nearest black hole, wherever that is!

          Which reminds me that Wilczek in his book has his “Core Theory” including GR, so it’s more comprehensive than the usual understanding of the Standard (quantum) Theory of particles. Somewhere in the book is a rather clear explanation of how the contradiction between relativity and quantum is much exaggerated by popularizers, in their quest to dramatize the efforts of so many present theorists in fundamental physics. That was refreshing, and even quite convincing to this sometime math logician, a subject within which there is little or no dispute about the precise meaning of ‘contradiction’ (and that every meaningful proposition, and so its negation also, follow from one).

  9. Besides not having access to the source of the “data”, there are some problems with the content in the given example of the toddler. Though presented as unique facts, that are not really.

    One of the elder males in the family was bald. What are the odds?

    There was a flower vendor near the Buddhist stupa. There is likely one near every Buddhist stupa, and they are not uncommon in India.

    There were dogs in the backyard fed meat. As there are in backyards all over the world.

    It was near a Hindu temple where they smashed coconuts. As they do at many traditional Hindu temples on all the formal occasions.

    I’m not impressed.

  10. “…exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means.”

    Only if you’re loathe to consider the possibility that people lie, as Stevenson seemed to be.

    Hitchens: “What is more likely: that the whole natural order is suspended, or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?”

  11. I think Jesse Bering got some Templeton funding. I don’t know for sure or all the details. I have a hunch that maybe he played up his open-mindedness on the topic when he was getting some funding from them.

    I found a google cached copy of a blog post about Templeton. There appears to be a comment from Jesse Bering saying “They continue to fund me.”


    It also looks like he received a prize from Templeton for the Aeon essay that the first commenter on this post linked to.


  12. “People love this stuff, of course, because it confirms their wish that something of us lives on after death, but we have to guard against this kind of confirmation bias.”

    There’s an easy solution for people who are afraid of dying and want to live for ever. All they need to do is identify “themselves” with their genes instead of their consciousness. After all, the consciousness is merely an ancillary thing that happens to exist solely by virtue of the fact that it happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Voila! They have already lived for hundreds of millions of years, and are potentially immortal. That seems to me a much more parsimonious solution to their problem than all the spiritualism bunk.

  13. I remember reading some of these stories and being impressed that, if true (Ahem.) could be evidence for reincarnation. Since I am a teacher, there is a bias toward that belief in that what teacher would reject a system in which if you didn’t learn your lessons, you had to do it all over again?

    But eventually I rejected these “findings” as being insufficient (I couldn’t verify them or not). What is lacking is a mechanism by which the memories of a person dying could be transfered to a person being born or stored for a time and then given to someone being born.

    Then there are problems with memory. I have asked many people what is their earliest memory. Mine is from the age of about five or six and it is a tiny fragment. Women seem to have earlier memories than men. But still, how the heck can we not remember being four or three (in my case) but harken back to before we were born to an entire other life?

    There were flabbergasting stories of Mexican children who helped locate objects in towns many miles away, towns they had never visited, that if true, would be quite convincing. But our history is more repleat with scams and lies than anything else, so it is entirely possible that the whole thing was a set-up to get a miracle proclaimed by the church or to get famous or … who knows.

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