Dr. Stevenson's research into the possibility of reincarnation began in 1960 when he heard of a case in Sri Lanka where a child claimed to remember a past life. He thoroughly questioned the child and the child's parents, as well as the people whom the child claimed were his parents from his past life. This led to Dr. Stevenson's conviction that reincarnation was possibly a reality. The more cases he pursued, the greater became his drive to scientifically open up and conquer an unknown territory among the world's mysteries, which until now had been excluded from scientific observation. Nonetheless, he believed he could approach and possibly furnish proof of its reality with scientific means.
(1)In the most unusual scenario, it is possible that someone who believed in reincarnation expressed a wish to be reborn to a couple or one partner of a couple. This is usually because they are convinced that they would be well cared for by those particular people. Such preliminary requests are often expressed by the Tlingit Indians of Alaska and by the Tibetans.(2)More frequent than this are the occurrences of prophetic dreams. Someone who has died appears to a pregnant or not as yet pregnant woman and tells her that he or she will be reborn to her. Sometimes relatives or friends have dreams like this and will then relate the dream to the mother to be. Dr. Stevenson found these prophetic dreams to be particularly prolific in Burma and among the Indians in Alaska.(3)In these cultures the body of a newborn child is checked for recognizable marks to establish whether the deceased person they had once known has been reborn to them. This searching for marks of identification is very common among cultures that believe in reincarnation, and especially among the Tlingit Indians and the Igbos of Nigeria. Various tribes of West Africa make marks on the body of the recently deceased in order to be able to identify the person when he or she is reborn.(4)The most frequently occurring event or common denominator relating to rebirth is probably that of a child remembering a past life. Children usually begin to talk about their memories between the ages of two and four. Such infantile memories gradually dwindle when the child is between four and seven years old. There are of course always some exceptions, such as a child continuing to remember its previous life but not speaking about it for various reasons.Most of the children talk about their previous identity with great intensity and feeling. Often they cannot decide for themselves which world is real and which one is not. They often experience a kind of double existence where at times one life is more prominent, and at times the other life takes over. This is why they usually speak of their past life in the present tense saying things like, "I have a husband and two children who live in Jaipur." Almost all of them are able to tell us about the events leading up to their death.Such children tend to consider their previous parents to be their real parents rather than their present ones, and usually express a wish to return to them. When the previous family has been found and details about the person in that past life have come to light, then the origin of the fifth common denominator ~ the conspicuous or unusual behavior of the child ~ is becoming obvious.(5)For instance, if the child is born in India to a very low-class family and was a member of a higher caste in its previous life, it may feel uncomfortable in its new family. The child may ask to be served or waited on hand and foot and may refuse to wear cheap clothes. Stevenson gives us several examples of these unusual behavior patterns.In 35% of cases he investigated, children who died an unnatural death developed phobias. For example, if they had drowned in a past life then they frequently developed a phobia about going out of their depth in water. If they had been shot, they were often afraid of guns and sometimes loud bangs in general. If they died in a road accident they would sometimes develop a phobia of traveling in cars, buses or lorries.Another frequently observed unusual form of behavior, which Dr. Stevenson called philias, concerns children who express the wish to eat different kinds of food or to wear clothes that were different from those of their culture. If a child had developed an alcohol, tobacco or drug addiction as an adult in a previous incarnation he may express a need for these substances and develop cravings at an early age.Many of these children with past-life memories show abilities or talents that they had in their previous lives. Often children who were members of the opposite sex in their previous life show difficulty in adjusting to the new sex. These problems relating to the 'sex change' can lead to homosexuality later on in their lives. Former girls who were reborn as boys may wish to dress as girls or prefer to play with girls rather than boys.
Ian Stevenson, Department of Psychiatric Medicine, University of Virginia, School of Medicine, Charlottesville, Virginia 22908
Almost nothing is known about why pigmented birthmarks (moles or nevi) occur in particular locations of the skin. The causes of most birth defects are also unknown. About 35% of children who claim to remember previous lives have birthmarks and/or birth defects that they (or adult informants) attribute to wounds on a person whose life the child remembers.
Although counts of moles (hyperpigmented nevi) have shown that the average adult has between 15 and IX of them (Pack and Davis, 1956), little is known about their cause ~ except for those associated with the genetic disease neurofibromatosis ~ and even less is known about why birthmarks occur in one location of the body instead of in another.
Among 895 cases of children who claimed to remember a previous life (or were thought by adults to have had a previous life), birthmarks and/or birth defects attributed to the previous life were reported in 309 (35%) of the subjects. The birthmark or birth defect of the child was said to correspond to a wound (usually fatal) or other mark on the deceased person whose life the child said it remembered. This paper reports an inquiry into the validity of such claims. With my associates I have now carried the investigation of 210 such cases to a stage where I can report their details in a forthcoming book (Stevenson, forthcoming). This article summarizes our findings.
Children who claim to remember previous lives have been found in every part of the world where they have been looked for (Stevenson, 1983; 1987), but they are found most easily in the countries of South Asia. Typically, such a child begins to speak about a previous life almost as soon as it can speak, usually between the ages of two and three; and typically it stops doing so between the ages of five and seven (Cook, Pasricha, Samararatne, Win Maung, and Stevenson, 1983).
My investigations of these cases included interviews, often repeated, with the subject and with several or many other informants for both families. With rare exceptions, only firsthand informants were interviewed.
I did not accept any indicated mark as a birthmark unless a firsthand witness assured me that it had been noticed immediately after the child's birth or, at most, within a few weeks. I enquired about the occurrence of similar birth marks in other members of the family; in nearly every instance this was denied, but in seven cases a genetic factor could not be excluded.
Birth defects of the kind in question here would be noticed immediately after the child's birth. Inquiries in these cases excluded (again with rare exceptions) the known causes of birth defects, such as close biological relationship of the parents (consanguinity), viral infections in the subject's mother during her pregnancy, and chemical causes of birth defects like alcohol.
Figure 1 shows a birthmark (an urea of hypopigmentation) on an Indian child who said he remembered the life of a man, Maha Ram, who had been killed with a shotgun fired at close range.
The high proportion (88%) of concordance between wounds and birthmarks in the cases for which we obtained postmortem reports (or other confirming documents) increases confidence in the accuracy of informants' memories concerning the wounds on the deceased person in those more numerous cases for which we could obtain no medical document.
Figure 3 shows a major abnormality of the skin (verrucous epidermal nevus) on the back of the head of a Thai man who, as a child, recalled the life of his uncle, who had been struck on the head with a heavy knife and killed almost instantly.
The series includes 18 cases in which two birthmarks on a subject corresponded to gunshot wounds of entry and exit. In 14 of these one birthmark was larger than the other, and in 9 of these 14 the evidence clearly showed that the smaller birthmark (usually round) corresponded to the wound of entry and the larger one (usually irregular in shape) corresponded to the wound of exit. These observations accord with the fact that bullet wounds of exit are nearly always larger than wounds of entry (Fatteh, 1976; Gordon and Shapiro, 1982).
Figure 5 shows a small round birthmark on the back of the head of a Thai boy, and Figure 6 shows a larger, irregularly shaped birthmark at the front of his head. The boy said that he remembered the life of a man who was shot in the head from behind. (The mode of death was verified, but no medical document was obtainable.)
I have calculated the odds against chance of two birthmarks correctly corresponding to two wounds. The surface area of the skin of the average adult male is 1.6 meters (Spalteholz, 1943). If we were to imagine this area square and spread on a flat surface, its dimensions would be approximately 127 centimeters by 127 centimeters. Into this area would fit approximately 160 squares of the size 10 centimeters square that I mentioned above.
BETWEEN WOUNDS AND BIRTHMARKS
Another Burmese child said that she remembered the life of her deceased aunt, who had died during surgery for congenital heart disease. This child had a long, vertical linear hypopigmented birthmark close to the midline of her lower chest and upper abdomen; this birthmark corresponded to the surgical incision for the repair of the aunt's heart. (I obtained a medical record in this case.)
Two Burmese subjects remembered as children the lives of persons who had died after being bitten by venomous snakes, and the birthmarks of each corresponded to therapeutic incisions made at the sites of the snakebites on the persons whose lives they remembered.
THREE EXAMPLES OF BIRTH DEFECTS
Figure 8, shows the right side of the head of a Turkish boy with a diminished and malformed ear (unilateral microtia). He also had underdevelopment of the right side of his face (hemifacial microsomia). He said that he remembered the life of a man who had been shot (with a shotgun) at point-blank range. The wounded man was taken to a hospital where he died 6 days later ~ of injuries to the brain caused by shot that had penetrated the right side of the skull. (I obtained a copy of the hospital record.)
Figure 9 shows fingers almost absent congenitally on one hand (unilateral brachydactyly) in a child of India who said he remembered the life of another child who had put his right hand into the blades of a fodder-chopping machine and lost his fingers. Most cases of brachydactyly involve only a shortening of the middle phalanges. In the present case there were no phalangeal bones, and the fingers were represented by mere stubs. Unilateral brachydactyly is exceedingly rare, and I have not found a published report of a case, although a colleague (plastic surgeon) has shown me a photograph of one case that came under his care.
Figure 10 shows congenital absence of the lower right leg (unilateral hemimelia) in a Burmese girl. She said that she remembered the life of a girl who was run over by a train. Eyewitnesses said that the train severed the girl's right leg first, before running over the trunk. Lower hemimelia is an extremely rare condition, and Frantz and O'Rahilly (1961) found it in only 12 (4.0%) of 300 cases of all congenital skeletal deficiencies that they examined.
Because most (but not all) of these cases develop among persons who believe in reincarnation, we should expect that the informants for the cases would interpret them as examples according with their belief; and they usually do. It is necessary, however, for scientists to think of alternative explanations.
The most obvious explanation of these cases attributes the birthmark or birth defect on the child to chance, and the reports of the child's statements and unusual behavior then become a parental fiction intended to account for the birthmark (or birth defect) in terms of the culturally accepted belief in reincarnation.
the parents (and other adults concerned in a case) have no need to invent and narrate details of a previous life in order to explain their child's lesion. Believing in reincarnation, as most of them do, they are nearly always content to attribute the lesion to some event of a previous life without searching for a particular life with matching details.
the lives of the deceased persons figuring in the cases were of uneven quality both as to social status and commendable conduct. A few of them provided models of heroism or some other enviable quality; but many of them lived in poverty or were otherwise unexemplary. Few parents would impose an identification with such persons on their children.
although in most cases the two families concerned were acquainted (or even related), I am confident that in at least 13 cases (among 210 carefully examined with regard to this matter) the two families concerned had never even heard about each other before the case developed. The subject's family in these cases can have had no information with which to build up an imaginary previous life which, it later turned out, closely matched a real one.
In another 12 cases the child's parents had heard about the death of the person concerned, but had no knowledge of the wounds on that person. Limitations of space for this article oblige me to ask readers to accept my appraisal of these 25 cases for this matter; but in my forthcoming work I give a list of the cases from which readers can find the detailed reports of the cases and from reading them judge this important question for themselves.
I think I have shown that chance is an improbable interpretation for the correspondences in location between two or more birthmarks on the subject of a case and wounds on a deceased person.
Persons who reject the explanation of chance combined with a secondarily confected history may consider other interpretations that include paranormal processes, but fall short of proposing a life after death.
One of these supposes that the birthmark or birth defect occurs by chance and the subject then by telepathy learns about a deceased person who had a similar lesion and develops an identification with that person. The children subjects of these cases, however, never show paranormal powers of the magnitude required to explain the apparent memories in contexts outside of their seeming memories.Another explanation, which would leave less to chance in the production of the child's lesion, attributes it to a maternal impression on the part of the child's mother. According to this idea, a pregnant woman, having a knowledge of the deceased person's wounds, might influence a gestating embryo and fetus so that its form corresponded to the wounds on the deceased person.
in the 25 cases mentioned above, the subject's mother, although she may have heard of the death of the concerned deceased person, had no knowledge of that person's wounds.
this interpretation supposes that the mother not only modified the body of her unborn child with her thoughts, but after the child's birth influenced it to make statements and show behavior that it otherwise would not have done. No motive for such conduct can be discerned in most of the mothers (or fathers) of these subjects.It is not my purpose to impose any interpretation of these cases on the readers of this article. Nor would I expect any reader to reach even a preliminary conclusion from the short summaries of cases that the brevity of this report entails.
"Originality and truth are found only in the details" (Stendhal, 1926).
I am grateful to Drs. Antonia Mills and Emily W. Cook for critical comments on drafts of this paper. Thanks are also due to the Bernstein Brothers Parapsychology and Health Foundation for the support of my research.
Correspondence and requests for reprints should be addressed to: Ian Stevenson, M.D., Division of Perceptual Studies, Box 152, Health Sciences Center, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22908
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