Bruce Goldberg was a dentist, but now dentistry is his hobby.

That he was enticed away from his profession is not unusual. What he is doing now, however, might be seen as extraordinary -- and even bizarre.

It began with an interest in hypnosis, which he saw as a marvelous way to relax patients and help them overcome so-called dental phobia that keeps patients out of drill's way by the tens of thousands. "Fear," says Goldberg, "is the number one reason people don't go to the dentist."

Bruce Goldberg found very quickly that he had a talent for it. He also discovered he was doing something more than relaxing his patients. He was, it seems, helping them to re-experience past lives.

He sits there and says this with absolute conviction. You believe, at least, that he believes it.

Bruce Goldberg, 36, erstwhile dentist, is now a practicing hypnotherapist in Baltimore. As his interest in teeth waned, he went back to school -- Loyola College in Baltimore -- and earned a graduate degree in counseling psychology. Now he estimates that dentistry accounts for only 15 to 20 percent of his time. It is, he says, "more of a hobby" than a vocation.

The rest of the time he practices "regression therapy" -- that is, using past (and sometimes future) lives to find the source of such problems as depression, phobias, eating disorders and other psychosocial ills, even nail-biting, smoking and insomnia.

He has, he says, "done 16,000 of these regressions in the last 10 years." He concedes that some 5,000 people he has treated this way "don't believe the past lives are real. However," he insists, "my success rate at solving whatever problem they came to him with is around 80 to 90 percent, working on some very complicated problems."

WDVM reporter Mike Buchanan let Goldberg regress him into a past life in front of Channel 9's live cameras. "Well," Buchanan says, "I'm not exactly sure what did happen. I'm a real easy hypnotic subject. But of course I wanted something to happen. The cameras were rolling and I couldn't very well say I didn't feel anything. Then this farmer popped into my mind . . ." Buchanan saw himself as an Iowa farmer in, he thinks, 1922. His crop had failed because of "a plague of locusts." Later on, Goldberg told Buchanan that Iowa Farm Bureau records confirmed a serious locust infestation that year.

"Hmmph," says Buchanan, "is what practically everybody said when I told them about it. Then we had a little problem -- one of my lives overlapped with one of my other lives . . ."

Then he asks, "Tell me, would you go to this man if you needed a root canal?"

Goldberg's technique is to hypnotize his subjects, tell them they will remember everything, and then lead them (to a background rhythmic metronome beat and unmelodic music) down a long corridor to a door bathed in bright light. When you open the door, poof! You're in a past life.

He talks a lot about karma and reincarnation and transmigration and the eastern philosophies and religions upon which his belief system is based. He will be giving a semester-long course on clinical hypnosis next year at a Baltimore county community college, he says.

The writer had two experiences, with Goldberg's guidance. Goldberg saw what occurred as past-life experiences. The reporter had the sense that she might be improvising. Whatever they were, they were powerful. Both were reported to Paul Kurtz, founder and chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

"So," says Kurtz, "you had an experience. People who drink alcohol and see pink elephants have experiences."

Kurtz, a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, says that Goldberg "is typical of the current craze for the paranormal -- astrology, tarot cards, past lives -- that is sweeping the country. It can be very dangerous, because he is practicing psychotherapy based on untested conjecture. It sounds as if he's abandoned his scientific credentials."

Kurtz had not heard of Goldberg, but Goldberg said he knew about Kurtz -- and said that "he didn't have a very good reputation."

The committee Kurtz heads and its publication, "The Skeptical Inquirer," have been devoted for about a decade to debunking claims about UFOs, psychic abilities and alleged poltergeist activity. Speakers at a recent conference included Sidney Hook, the eminent American philosopher, and Leon Jaroff, managing editor of Discover magazine. Fellows on Kurtz's committee include writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov, psychologist B.F. Skinner and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.

"What is happening in these so-called 'past-life' regressions," says Kurtz, "is that the suggestions help you tap into your subconscious. The subconscious is at work and there is plenty there of which you are unaware. It is a much more reasonable hypothesis that, rather than regressing to a past life, you were recalling things from the recesses of your mind and embellishing them with your own creative imagination.

"A lot of people are going through past-life hypnosis these days, and I think they are being confused and misused by people claiming this when it is purely their own creativity. Hypnotherapy," he adds, "is a new feature, but there is no validity to the hypothesis."

Goldberg, Kurtz is told, does something else. He progresses people into future lives.

Kurtz laughs, loud and long. "Well that," he says, "that one is really new."