The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives
By Tom Shroder
Simon & Schuster. 253 pp. $24
Reviewed by Claire Douglas
Imagine, for a moment, that you know the earth is the center of the universe. You learned this at school, and the science and religion of your day are based on this opinion -- or should I say fact. Now imagine reading a book by a distinguished reporter who tagged along with Galileo, checking and double checking observations and experiments that seemed to show the earth revolving around the sun and the sun itself being but one of many stars. How could you believe it when your world view says the contrary? It would involve much deep questioning of both Galileo and his facts and an intellect that didn't mind being stood on its head.
This is very much the feeling a non-Hindu or non-Buddhist will have reading this fascinating book by Tom Shroder, an award-winning journalist and now an editor for The Washington Post. In Old Souls Shroder tells the story of his journeys with Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist and professor dedicated to the scientific method, as Stevenson conducted meticulous research on some of his collection of over 2,500 cases of children who spontaneously remembered past lives and who gave detailed accounts that Stevenson later checked out as valid. These are not the spacey past-life recollections that are almost a parlor game of New Age hypnosis, where people claim to have been Cleopatra or Napoleon and parrot details familiar to anyone who knows a bit of history. Instead, they are the fruit of Stevenson's 35 years of research on children born with the knowledge of a previous life -- these children remembered their former names, their parents' names and details of ordinary life that no better explanation seems to fit.
Interestingly, most of the children insisted on the reality of the former life over the present one and clung to it in spite of parental opposition. The majority also remembered a violent, usually accidental death, had phobias or birthmarks relating to trauma in those lives, and often seemed to forget or stop talking about their past lives at the age of 8 or 9. Stevenson prized being among the first to hear a child's story and then checking out the facts and the former family for himself before the two families got together.
Shroder's book details a solid corpus of work that even the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association had to admit contained evidence that would be difficult to explain in any other way than reincarnation. Shroder makes an amiable host as he plods along after Stevenson, spending a good deal of the book trying to find alternative theories that would refute the idea of reincarnation. At the same time, he gives us many vivid case histories, such as a little Lebanese girl pining for her husband and children from a former life, a little Indian girl who knew she was in the wrong family, being instead the daughter of a dearly loved father she later picked out of a crowd, and an American boy who described geographic details of his former home before it came into view. The children are mainly Turkish and Lebanese Shiites, Hindus from South Asia, as well as some from West Africa, the American Northwest, and normal, small-town USA. Shroder notes the prevalence of these sort of memories in cultures that believe in reincarnation and the difficulty for children whose culture has no room for their experience.
The contemporary well-educated Westerner may well put these scrupulously investigated histories down to suggestion, fantasy or the expression of multiple personalities. Yet Shroder doggedly refutes each argument and leads the reader along with him to a slow acceptance of the accumulating evidence. Stevenson's work rests on his two-volume study of 2,600 cases of subjects' birthmarks, birth defects, internal diseases, abnormalities of pigmentation, physique, posture, gesture and movements that can be tied to the subjects' previous lives. This is the science. Shroder brings it alive for the reader by emphasizing the human interest of the children's stories and memories themselves.
An easier way to deal with Stevenson's massive data on reincarnation is to do what the scientific community has done so far -- generally ignore it or decide that, as Shroder writes, "because something challenges the accepted understanding of the world, it obviously cannot be true, and therefore is unworthy of consideration." The earth is the center of the universe, and that is that.
This is how science has always treated new paradigms that shatter the common knowledge of the old. The reader (along with this reviewer) may want to resist being convinced by Stevenson's exhaustive work and Shroder's careful elimination of all other possibilities but reincarnation. Reading this challenging book explodes the world view we know and demands that we enlarge our perspective. If accepted, the implications of this new paradigm in the Western world are staggering -- proof that we have souls that survive from one bodily incarnation to the next. If this be so, as Shroder concludes, it makes it even more imperative that we concern ourselves with our actions and their effect on others and on a world we may well inhabit soon again.
Claire Douglas, a Jungian analyst and clinical psychologist, is the author of "Translate This Darkness" and the editor of "The Visions Seminar by C.G. Jung."