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September 21, 2010

For the entry on Past Lives, click here

The Claims

Reincarnation is the belief that someone can survive their own death and be reborn in a new body.  It is a central part of several religious worldviews, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Scientology.  For some, reincarnation can even cross species barriers, such as a deceased person being reincarnated in a dog’s body.

Clearly, the notion of reincarnation depends on the mind/body duality, that the mind and body are separate entities.  That way, the mind (or soul, if you like) can move out of one dead body, and into another living body.

The Evidence

Some people claim to have memories which they think are best explained as coming from a previous incarnation. Birthmarks and deformities reminiscent of fatal wounds are also thought to indicate that one is the reincarnate of the deceased.  Unexplained knowledge, phobias, and behaviours are allegedly related to one’s previous life and death.

Memory is arguably the biggest source of evidence for reincarnation.  However, studies show that therapists can easily implant false memories in their patients, either inadvertently or on purpose [1].  This is particularly problematic in Past Life Regression Therapy, in which a “therapist” encourages the patient, often hypnotised, to try to recall their past life.  To the patient, false memories are indistinguishable from true memories.

Psychology research has shown that the best predictor of someone recalling memories from a past life is their expectation that it’s possible [2].  This suggests that past-life memories – far from being historical fact – are mere confabulations that reflect a willingness to believe.

What about the other evidence such as birthmarks, phobias and knowledge?  Many of the headline reincarnation cases have been scrutinized, with explanations far more prosaic.  For example, the famous case of 3-year old James Leninger started when he had nightmares of being in a plane crash, and his mother couldn’t explain how he knew some details about the Corsair WWII airplane.  Perhaps it’s because little James had recently visited a WWII museum [3].  And yet, this is considered by many to be proof positive of reincarnation.


While a reincarnation story that strings together several threads of evidence might seem compelling, the important question is, how does this story measure up against the backdrop of objective scrutiny?  Maybe there is a mountain of evidence for reincarnation.  But that mountain is just the tiniest bump on a planet of other explanations.  There is a good reason that science, and the court of law, don’t accept anecdotal evidence.


[1] Loftus, Elizabeth. The Myth of Repressed Memory (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994).
[2] Baker, Robert A. Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions From Within (Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1992.)

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Antonymous permalink
    September 24, 2013 12:51 AM

    It is pretty clear that while there is not enough evidence to prove reincarnation to be real, there really isn’t enough evidence against it. So for now, the existence of reincarnation is neither true, nor false.

  2. January 11, 2012 1:46 PM

    My dad does not report to have memories from a past life. Thus, I am not asserting that my dad is Julia Caesar reincarnate.

  3. John Rudkin permalink
    January 11, 2012 1:04 PM

    Can one conclude from Jeff’s response that he has NOT looked at the evidence of Stevenson and Cockell (inter alia), even though he has heard of them ? .

    His assertion that “Finding evidence to confirm something is easy” is obviously wrong. Here’s a challenge for you, Jeff; show how easy it is to find evidence and produce evidence to confirm that your father was Julius Caesar’s daughter.

    Making assertions is easy………

  4. June 17, 2011 1:35 PM

    Yes, I’ve heard of both of them. Lots of people claim to have been reincarnated. My write-up pertains equally to them. Finding evidence to confirm something is easy. Finding DISconfirming evidence is even easier, but usually goes unnoticed. I recently read, “Heads, I win. Tails, you forget we had a bet.”

  5. John Rudkin permalink
    March 2, 2011 2:18 PM

    Has the author of this piece looked at the evidence gathered by(e.g.) Ian Stevenson and Jenny Cockell?

    If not, why not?

    If yes, why no commemts?


  1. Parapsicologia, a “ciência” que tornou-se pseudociência | Universo Racionalista
  2. Past Lives « Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence
  3. Parapsychology « Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

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