Searching For The Science Behind Reincarnation

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Say a child has memories of being a Hollywood extra in the 1930s. Is it just an active imagination, or actual evidence of reincarnation? Jim Tucker, a psychologist at the University of Virginia studies hundreds of cases like this and joins NPR's Rachel Martin to share his research on the science behind reincarnation.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about a controversial theory about living and dying and living again: reincarnation. It's long been a central tenet of certain spiritual traditions but it's not an experience that's been rigorously tested by many scientists. Enter Jim Tucker. He's a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia and he is doing exactly that – testing claims of reincarnation, especially those made by children. Dr. Tucker joins us from the Virginia Foundation to talk about the science behind this phenomenon. Thanks so much for being with us.

DR. JIM TUCKER: Thanks very much for having me.

MARTIN: When did you first begin to get interested in this, in the idea of reincarnation as a ripe subject for scientific inquiry?

TUCKER: Well, I got interested in it in the late '90s, but this work has actually been going on at the University of Virginia for 50 years. Over the decades, we've now study our 2,500 cases of children who report memories of past lives. And what we try to do is to determine exactly what they have said and what's happened and then see if it matches the life of somebody who lived and died before. Once I got involved, I began to focus on American cases. I have explained in this new book that I have out, and really some of the American ones are quite compelling.

Written By: NPR
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38 COMMENTS

  1. From the interview:

    MARTIN: And how old was James when he was making these claims?

    TUCKER: Well, it started when he was two – and a very young two.

    Notice the way he answered that. The “claims” started at 2 which is not to say that THIS specific claim, that he was the specific fighter pilot from that ship, started when he was 2. This interview is an example of how awful journalism is in the main stream press in the US. Not once does the interviewer ask the most obvious question: “How do you know that the parents weren’t exaggerating or just making up the whole thing and how do you know that the kid didn’t read about or was coached on the specific pilot and ship?”

    And why is the kid an American fighter pilot? Why not Japanese or German or British? Now if an American child suddenly started swearing like a Japanese world war II pilot in Japanese, that would be interesting.

    • In reply to #1 by Red Dog:

      And why is the kid an American fighter pilot? Why not Japanese or German or British?

      Well, I’m pretty sure I was an American in a former life, but as I was a very nice and good person in that life, I got reincarnated into French in this one.

  2. Oh, for shit’s sake. What a load. This guy claims to be “scientifically” investigating these claims? How does collecting anecdotes constitute a scientific study? When I read this article, it appears that Tucker is already biased toward believing these claims and nothing is said about any efforts to debunk them. The first question I had while reading about the “amazing” story of the kid who thought he was a fighter pilot was, when did Tucker hear about it? Was it years later, from the parents? Who is to say the kid’s parents didn’t concoct the whole thing, research some obscure WWII stories, coach the kid, and then go public? And why is it always some dramatic, heroic, or famous death instead of just old Bob Smith in Winnepesaukee who died of a heart attack while shoveling snow? My own theory is that it is because flashy deaths are more likely to get into newspapers or some other easily accessible public record and are thus way easier and more interesting to fabricate a fantasy from than going through obscure obituaries from Anytown, USA. These reincarnation books are all the same: Nothing but anecdotes and no plausible, testable claims about what a “soul” is or how or when it supposedly gets into a body. And the University of Virginia? For crying out loud! Real science programs at universities all over the country are struggling to get funding and grants, but this place can find the money to fund superstitious bullshit?

  3. “MARTIN: So, what are you trying to reveal or prove? What to you would constitute an important scientific development in this field?

    TUCKER: Well, I don’t know that I’m necessarily trying to prove anything, but I’m trying to sort of find out for myself what seems to be going on here”

    Plenty of science and critical thinking here, then…NO answer to the second question, strangely.

  4. OP;

    Say a child has memories of being a Hollywood extra in the 1930s. Is it just an active imagination,….

    Yes.

    OK not very scientific, but this a place where opinions can be expressed ?

  5. @OP – Searching For The Science Behind Reincarnation

    … and I thought it might be discussing this species – and its second childhood!!!!!!

    • Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish is a species of small jellyfish which is found in the Mediterranean and in the waters off Japan. It is unique in that it exhibits a certain form of “immortality”: it is the only known case of an animal capable of reverting completely to a sexually immature, colonial stage after having reached sexual maturity as a solitary stage.[
  6. Methinks this must have been a two year old with very advanced language skills. I wonder what he said to alert suspicions in the parents? My interactions with kids of this age have been extremely prosaic. The psychologist sounds gullible right from the start.

    • In reply to #15 by Nitya:

      Methinks this must have been a two year old with very advanced language skills. I wonder what he said to alert suspicions in the parents? My interactions with kids of this age have been extremely prosaic. The psychologist sounds gullible right from the start.

      http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/Technology/story?id=894217
      The story is from 2005.

      From 2005 skeptico

      “At 18 months old, his father, Bruce Leininger, took James to the Kavanaugh Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas, where the toddler remained transfixed by World War II aircraft.

      A few months later, the nightmares began. “

      …and another thing. You would think there would be more and stories than just this one from 2005.

      WARNING: There are several books that use this story!!!

  7. We’re going to spend the next few minutes talking about a controversial theory about living and dying and living again: reincarnation

    Controversial theory?!?!? Reincarnation?!?!? Nonsense and bollocks more likely……

  8. There was an old lady. A rich old lady, with no family and few friends. Nearby was a Buddhist temple. A poor temple, with a leaky roof and a decrepit wooden statue.

    The abbot of the temple befriended the old lady, and they often talked about Buddhism late into the night. At last, one day, the old lady said “Abbot, I have been so moved by your teaching that today I amended my will”

    The abbot was overjoyed. At last, his temple would soon be repaired, and the wooden statue replaced by a bronze one. Praise be to Buddha!

    Then the old lady died, and her will was read. She had left all her fortune to … herself, in her next incarnation.

  9. Trouble with any research into this stuff is the way you would establish a connection between a claim and an actual past life is equally available to those making the claim. Pretty hard to conclude therefore that the father is not making a claim on the son’s behalf, also if a child expressed an interest in aircraft would not said parents supply said son with many pictures, books etc. about aircraft including WW2.

    The real test would be to see if said toddler can remember how to say start a WW2 aircraft, what was the fuel pressure? Which of these controls is the rudder? what flap setting should be used on take-off? What is the stall speed? etc. Considering the amount of pilots who fought in WW2 in aircraft and died it would be surprising if he couldn’t find a number of matches.

    • In reply to #24 by Red Dog:

      Here is a Youtube video on the topic:

      Well, it looks like grandma is an expert on reincarnation! Who would have guessed? I’d be prepared to take bets on the fact that she did a fair bit of babysitting as well. He acquired all that knowledge from somewhere….maybe an old tv program or movie, or perhaps just listening to conversations going on in the background. The more attention he gets from talking about WW2 planes, the more interest he’ll show.

  10. Actually, the boy who thought he was a fighter pilot is an old story. I recall a TV show that featured the boy. At the time I was into this stuff and it seemed quite convincing. My explanation of this now is that the boy made small comments that were elaborated on by the adults. Then, “I remember that.” “I flew….” Of course the adult probes the child to get more words. Then the story grew and the boy parroted the story and the adults elaborated more and connected it together as it grew. If anyone has any doubt as to how parents can steer a young child, watch “My Kid Could Paint That.” There is a scene in which the girl whined about continuing to paint and the father let her stop. I took note of the stage of the painting on the canvas, guessing that I would see it again. Sure enough the father gave her the canvas later in the film so that she could expand /continue to do more on the canvas. If you give a kid a blank canvas and have them make a mark and then keep giving them the same canvas, eventually it gets filled. If you then say, “hmm, it’s a little empty here,” the child will make marks in that area. It works the same for stories too.

    • In reply to #26 by QuestioningKat:

      Actually, the boy who thought he was a fighter pilot is an old story. I recall a TV show that featured the boy. At the time I was into this stuff and it seemed quite convincing. My explanation of this now is that the boy made small comments that were elaborated on by the adults. I recall it startin…

      I was thinking of “My Kid Could Paint That” (interesting movie BTW) but I have a simpler explanation that I thought was pretty likely when I saw the My Kid movie: the dad did the paintings. The dad had been an artist. They had two groups of paintings in that movie, the ones that were claimed to have been painted by the kid and then there was one or two that actually WERE painted (i.e., while people were watching) by the kid. They were like night and day. The supposed paintings had structure, patterns, etc. The actual ones looked like what you would expect a kid to create given a bunch of paint.

      I agree about the small comments. It’s amazing how good we are as humans in picking up on those things without even knowing it. And not just humans. There is the case of Clever Hans, the horse that people thought could do arithmetic. It turned out the horse was picking up subtle cues about the answers to simple math problems from watching his owner, the owner claimed to not even be aware of it.

      • In reply to #28 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #26 by QuestioningKat:

        Actually, the boy who thought he was a fighter pilot is an old story. I recall a TV show that featured the boy. At the time I was into this stuff and it seemed quite convincing. My explanation of this now is that the boy made small comments that were elaborated on…

        Exactly. This is how mediums and psychics come up with their “amazing – how did he/she know that?” stuff. It’s just cold-reading, and all of us are capable of it to a greater or lesser degree. We pick up on small clues, combine it with whatever knowledge we have, make some guesses and come up with a conclusion. Sometimes we’re accurate, sometimes (often) not. We also tend to notice things that coincide with or reinforce our own interests and ignore things that do not. Putting scattered bits of information together to form a coherent whole is part of our evolutionary survival toolkit.

        In the case of reincarnation, it seems to be just a wish that something of ourselves can survive death superimposing itself on a whole lot of otherwise insignificant comments and completely natural coincidences. Plus, I think all parents naturally want to believe their child is somehow exceptional or gifted, and the “he’s a reincarnated fighter pilot/actor/war hero” is part of that.

  11. I have a simpler explanation that I thought was pretty likely when I saw the My Kid movie: the dad did the paintings. The dad had been an artist. They had two groups of paintings in that movie, the ones that were claimed to have been painted by the kid and then there was one or two that actually WERE painted (i.e., while people were watching) by the kid.

    Yes, but I don’t think it’s a matter of a simpler explanation – it’s ALL of our explanations. I’m sure the Dad added a few strokes, but probably only as filler. Being a former art teacher, it is a common practice to guide and encourage the child to keep adding to their work. They have such poor attention span that they would prefer to make a few scribbles and call it a day. In order to complete an entire sizable painting, the father would have to continuously point out the blank areas especially around the edges and or keep giving her the same canvas . Most kids don’t go over the edge. There is a scene in which the father actually was coaxing his daughter to keep working while she was on a strike.

    I looked at the paintings- compositionally, intellectually, the work is on par with kids her own age. Her work lacked much of the consideration that is involved with quality adult abstract works.

  12. Exactly. This is how mediums and psychics come up with their “amazing – how did he/she know that?” stuff. It’s just cold-reading, and all of us are capable of it to a greater or lesser degree. We pick up on small clues, combine it with whatever knowledge we have, make some guesses and come up with a conclusion.

    Yes and there is a great deal of reliance on making connections through analogies. Interestingly, the analogies tend to be very simplistic. Having trouble with your feet? Perhaps, you are having emotional difficulty moving forward in life. People connect the dots from one situation to the next. Randomly say two words and I’ll show you how it works.

  13. I thought it disingenuous of Jim Tucker not to mention influences from the boy’s family (his father and grandmother in particular), except to claim towards the end of the interview that the father took some four years to find out that details the boy had mentioned correspended to a real Second World War case. I would have expected a psychologist to have checked out the family first, as normal procedure for a psychologist’s investigation of the case involving a two-year-old. There seems to be plenty of material there for more pedestrian explanations of the lad’s nightmares. But, of course, I am missing the point of the interview, which was to market Mr Tucker’s book.

  14. Jim Tucker was a long time aide to Professor Ian Stevenson who documented thousands of cases of children claiming to have lived past lives. They attempted to document these claims as objectively as possible in an attempt to eliminate hoaxes, coincidences, childish flights of fancy etc. where possible. It’s a fascinating body of research which prompted arch skeptic Carl Sagan to comment: “There are three claims in the [parapsychology] field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study,” the third of which was “that young children sometimes report details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”

    Maybe it’s worth sharing Sagan’s open-mindedness in considering this body of research and those advocating it rather than rejecting it (and them) out of hand.

    Washington Post article on Ian Stevenson’s work here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/10/AR2007021001393.html

  15. Their is a fake science that addresses this issue. It’s the Cult of Scientology and involves the fleecing if every last dollar you have to satisfy their Cult’s lord and Prophet, David Miscavidge. Once you are properly brainwashed into thinking you’ve lived in past lives your cajoled into joining the big push of clearing the planet of space Aliens. This requires signing on with them for a Billion year contract. Whereby, you live on rice and beans, are issued a military uniform, and commence to disseminate the burblings and babblings of L. Ron Hubbard, a failed silence fiction writer from the 1950s. Their are about 25,000 ‘Sea Org’ members who are currently in the fold of this endeavor. All of them were trained at Flag in Clearwater Florida. Their are probably 100,000 or more very un satisfied and de-frocked members who, although they have been ex-communicated from said church, STILL believe in the mediocre writings and unproven dogmas of L. Ron Hubbard. This is no small issue as these are citizens of this planet who are not necessarily stupid but gullible as the word seems to suit the human race. We individually and collectively are deservingly due for a mass extinction. It’s written in our DNA. I have no proof to verify this but I don’t need any. It’s called lookup and Duck.

  16. Reincarnation dicussionss all seem to miss an important point: detailed familiarity with a previous time can’t be used as evidence, because it might equally well be evidence for other paranormal phenomena.

    1 Telepathy The subject might be acquiring his information direct from the mind of a Professor of history whose speciality is that time period, with or without the Prof” s being aware of it.

    2 A really way-out possibility: bi-location. The subject might literally be in two places at once, in the test lab and in a university library.

    No doubt there are other possibilities.Once you open the door to the paranormal or the supernatural, you cannot pick and choose.

  17. We’re going to spend the next few minutes talking about a controversial theory about living and dying and living again: reincarnation.

    Ah well!
    I have a nice reincarnated Lawson Cypress tree in my back garden.
    I know it is a reincarnation of the now dead Cypress tree which was in my front garden, because some plants are rejuvenated when they are cloned – and I took the cutting from which it grew!

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