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Reincarnation, in which the same self or “soul” is reborn in a new person or animal after death, is a notion found in many religious traditions, most notably in Indian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism (see Reincarnation). Past life regression is the supposed recollection of these past lives by some subjects under hypnosis, using techniques similar to those used in recovered memory therapy.
Numerous cases of supposed past life regression have been reported, in which a subject “recalls” seemingly convincing levels of detail of a past life. One of the earliest such cases was that of American Virginia Tighe who claimed to have been Bridey Murphy, an Irish woman, in a past life. Tighe, while under hypnosis, described the life of a woman in 19th century Ireland with such realism and detail that many were persuaded she must be recalling her own past experiences. However, there were a number of discrepancies in her story – including the fact that there was no record of any woman named “Bridey Murphy” from Ireland in the relevant time period. Eventually, it emerged that Tighe had known an Irishwoman named Bridie Murphy Corkell as a child in Chicago; Tighe’s “recollections” are easily explained as memories of stories heard in childhood.
Another famous case of claimed past life regression is that of Jenny Cockell, an Englishwoman who, again, claimed to have been the reincarnation of an Irish housewife. As is typical in such cases, Cockell “remembered” a wealth of details, which she was later able to fit to a real historical figure. However, many of the details which fit were of such a generic nature that it is hardly surprising that someone matching the description could be found. More revealing are the number of simple details – such as her past husband’s name or her own surname – which she could not recall, or the details of which were inexplicably wrong.
Claimed instances of past life regression are convincing for the same reason that horoscopes can seem superficially accurate: if we attend selectively to those aspects of a story that seem to “fit”, and interpret claims in light of the facts they are supposed to fit, the claims appear far more accurate. Upon careful examination, it is clear that all such cases are far more readily explained by a combination of misremembered childhood stories and experiences, fantastical imaginations, and simple coincidence.
“A Case of Reincarnation — Reexamined” by Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 8.1, March 1998