Here are a few articles and blog posts I have unearthed recently explaining and/or debunking these phenomena. I would be interested to learn anything more. The problems as I see it for a supernatural explanation are:
- The absence of a known mechanism, especially for re-incarnation as the cause of past life regressions.
- Re-incarnation is a very complicated explanation in the absence of a genetic solution.
- No physicist to my knowledge has supported quantum theory as a possible explanation.
- Tucker, in particular, seems to have leapt from describing a phenomenon to identifying a cause without any intervening process. His predecessor in the field, Stevenson, carefully avoided drawing any such conclusion.
- There has been no replication of Tucker’s experiments by other scientists and, therefore, his findings have not been replicated, which is a key aspect of the scientific process.
- Near-death experience seems to be governed by one’s culture and religion; in other words Christians often see Jesus whereas Muslims see the prophet Mohammed.
Anyway, see what you think.
Past Life Regression – James P. Cole
Over the weekend I spoke to someone that firmly believed in past life regression, being a topic I was unfamiliar with(except in passing) I decided to do some research into the subject. There is certainly a wealth of information online about the topic. The theory basically states that under hypnosis people can access memories of past lives. There seems to be some clinical evidence that some people under hypnosis do say things that could be interpreted as memories of past lives. Although in all fairness the data collected isn’t exactly definitive or often particularly credible. I won’t go into credibility and merits of the particular studies here as they have already been discussed ad nauseum online, suffice to say there is certainly no general consensus on the credibility of any of the studies conducted from both sides of the issue. Despite the arguments about the credibility of many of the key studies in the area there does seem to be a large amount of anecdotal evidence.
While anecdotal evidence is hardly something to rely on being an open minded guy I decided to do some research into the matter. Nearly all of the articles I read about past life regression seemed to be written by proponents of reincarnation. It appeared to me there is a lot of jumping to conclusions and a whole bunch of people trying to use past life regression as evidence for reincarnation. But as is often the case with these things the people espousing these views have very little hard evidence to link the two theories let alone a testable hypothesis as to how the phenomenon could actually work.
I could find nothing in the way of a solid testable hypothesis as to how these memories are stored and transmitted from person to person and just a lot of wild conjecture. So for those of you out there trying to link reincarnation and past life regression consider the following:
There has been some clinical data collected showing that under hypnosis people can say things that could be interpreted as memories of past lives. That is all the definitive information on the matter at this time.
Many people seem to have prematurely concluded that past life regression must be the result of reincarnation. Reincarnation however is an untested and unproven theory, equally I could say that an invisible unicorn sneaks into your room at night and implants memories of past lives into your brain. Both these theories would explain past life regression or conversely past life regression could be used as evidence to attempt to validate either of these theories. Given that there is the same amount of empirical evidence to support the theory of reincarnation and also the theory of unicorn transmitted memories then I have to conclude that they are both equally probable. No article I could find could offer a decent explanation of how clinical observations past life regression and reincarnation were linked other than nebulous explanations of the “soul” or “some energy” again both theories with no physical evidence.
Seeing as the theory of the “soul” and reincarnation are both unverified theories(with no hard evidence to support them) they should both be treated with a healthy degree of scepticism. While I found many people attempting to use past life regression as evidence of reincarnation or the “soul” I didn’t find anyone trying to properly explain how these things could work or answer any of the obvious questions that arise from such explanations like:
What is the mechanism by which these memories are stored and passed from person to person?
What form does the “soul” take?
Given that the “soul” can influence our behaviour then it must in some way be interacting with normal matter so how is this interaction taking place?
Given that the “soul” must be interacting with the normal matter in some way it should therefore be possible to design an experiment to measure this interaction and collect hard data on the theory. So why don’t the proponents of these theories come up with a decent hypothesis and design an experiment to test it?
Surely if you firmly believed in something so seemingly unlikely as reincarnation or the “soul” these would be the first questions you would ask and then try to find answers to these questions, if for no other reason than to have the peace of mind of some credible basis for your beliefs. If in fact observed instances of past life regression are actually what is being claimed then the phenomenon should be studied and understood. I read several articles claiming that maybe it is “just beyond logic and science” which shows a particular brand of ignorance that treats science as a static thing, assuming if it can’t provide a definitive answer today it never will in the future. In the past many things were “beyond logic and science” which can now be accurately explained so it seems wilfully ignorant(and quite frankly lazy) to assume that something not currently understood can never be studied and explained. If proponents of theories like the “soul” or reincarnation want to be taken seriously then this sort of wilful ignorance will always keep them on the fringes of intellectual credibility. To be taken seriously proof needs to be provided and to just say “it is real but can never be understood so I can never investigate or provide proof” doesn’t exactly inspire credibility or give anyone any reason to subscribe to your theory over any other and is certainly not going to win over the people sitting on the fence.
Before I hear the cries of “Well you can’t disprove the theory of the soul or reincarnation” I will say this: The onus of proof is on the person making the claim. It is not my responsibility or the responsibility of scientific researchers to disprove every theory that anyone comes up with, it is the responsibility of the person making such extraordinary claims to provide evidence to back up their theory. In addition to this I could not find a testable hypothesis as to how the “soul” or reincarnation could work so even if I did have the resources or inclination to test its veracity there is nothing for me to test.
Anyway this is a big topic(I could write many more pages on this) and I have digressed quite a bit but seeing as nearly everything I read on the topic seemed to be desperately grasping at straws to try and link the “soul” and reincarnation to past life regression I felt that I need to at least cover the topics.
In my initial thoughts on a mechanism for how memories could be transmitted across lives genetic memory seemed like the most obvious answer. Genetic memory is the idea that some behaviours and instincts can be transferred genetically, there are many examples of this such as nest building in birds. To be honest it seemed like a pretty unlikely answer(for many reasons I won’t go into here) but it was the only explanation that immediately sprung to mind. I figured that if some epigenetic factor could somehow encode memories into a person’s genes they could be transferred to their offspring and therefore across lives. After some research I discounted this idea as many people report remembering dying in past lives and so there is no way this information could have been passed to their offspring, also you would only be able to access memories of people related to you. It would be fairly easy to design an experiment to verify or disprove the theory using identical twins separated at birth(to try and account environmental factors) who should theoretically share identical past life memories. I could not find anything about anyone actually doing such an experiment. So while genetic memory is in well documented in nature it can’t explain past life regression adequately.
So what are the other explanations for past life regression? There are a few, none of which have been conclusively proven. One is that it’s just made up, people have dreams that feel very real, I could dream I was a Roman soldier or a scullery maid in the past but I would not see that as evidence that I actually was. So it is clearly possible for the brain to create very realistic feeling scenarios that are not based on fact so this could just be what is happening to these patients under hypnosis.
Another is that the hypnotist asks very leading questions while the patient is in a hypnotised state to try and lead them towards saying things that could be interpreted as talking about actual past lives.
But as I said there is no conclusive evidence for any of theories put forward(including reincarnation and the “soul”). So the short answer is no one has a proven explanation for the clinical observations(although to be honest I am even a little suspicious of the clinical evidence).
“Ha Ha, I got you, science doesn’t know everything!” I hear the new age anti-intellectuals cry. Well no one claimed it did. Equally new age hippy “spiritualism” doesn’t explain everything either. I find people who fervently espouse unverified “spiritual” explanations to as yet unresolved questions a strange bunch, they seem to view science as a static thing(much like their own beliefs) and tend to think if science doesn’t explain something today then it never will and has somehow failed and it must be some mystical supernatural force that science can’t define. This is such a bizarre and short sighted conclusion to jump to and shows such a massive lack of curiosity, understanding and knowledge of history that I find it difficult to fathom. Less than 80 years ago we didn’t know the mechanism for how hereditary traits are passed from parents to their offspring and I’m sure there were many people saying “see, science can’t explain it therefore it must be the work of [insert crazy theory here]”. But with more research better experiments and brilliant minds we slowly but inevitably peel back the layers and discover the underlying principles of the world around us.
To think that scientific discovery has gone as far as it ever will or can, and will never explain certain things that many around us point to as evidence of the supernatural, will inevitably, like many before you, leave you looking the fool. So for those of you who jump upon unexplained(and often unverified)clinical or experimental data to try and shore up your outlandish, unproven and untested theories I say this: fervent belief in something without evidence poisons the mind, society and advancement of the human condition and will ultimately leave you open to justifiable ridicule.
So until someone can come up with a verified and tested explanation of the observed clinical data I can’t make a call either way as to whether clinical observations described as past life regression are in fact memories of past lives. But if I was a betting man my guess would be that whatever the answer it lies within the boundaries of physics, neuroscience and physiology.
Jim B. Tucker – critique
While Ian Stevenson focused on cases in Asia, Tucker has studied American children.
Tucker reports that in about 70% of the cases of children claiming to remember past lives the deceased died from an unnatural cause, suggesting that traumatic death may be linked to the hypothesized survival of personality.
Unnatural death doesn’t necessarily mean traumatic, and my question is, are the supposed causes of death reported by the children themselves, or do they identify the person who is then investigated as to causes of death? The only thing you could conclude from such comparisons is an apparent correlation between children claiming to be the reincarnations of the deceased and the accuracy with which they could describe such events, which doesn’t really imply anything beyond the immediate relationship, so this is a rather meaningless statistic.
He further indicates that the time between death and apparent re-birth is, on average, 16 months, and that unusual birthmarks might match fatal wounds suffered by the deceased.
On average the time is 16 months, well this doesn’t say much, out of ten people its possible that the times varied wildly with outliers and it could average out to 16 months; what are the standard deviations of the distribution, this is more of an indicator of spread and therefore how meaningful the statistics are. Unusual birthmarks MIGHT match fatal wounds, and they might not as well… no report here as to what percentage of birthmarks matched wounds, and that would only be percentage of people WITH birthmarks, which is probably not very high. Even if birthmarks match fatal wounds, so what, it is purely coincidental until you can identify some kind of mechanism which might somehow transmit these wounds to the body of the child. Completely meaningless statement here.
Tucker has developed the Strength Of Case Scale (SOCS), which evaluates what Tucker sees as four aspects of potential cases of reincarnation; “(1) whether it involves birthmarks/defects that correspond to the supposed previous life; (2) the strength of the statements about the previous life; (3) the relevant behaviours as they relate to the previous life; and (4) an evaluation of the possibility of a connection between the child reporting a previous life and the supposed previous life”.
(1) We’ve already said why this is rather meaningless; (2) This doesn’t really mean anything, a child can do some research about the deceased, most likely they read about it in the paper or something. And how do you rate the strength of their statements? No mention of this here, I would personally clarify this to be “knowledge of private information that only the deceased would know; (3) Relevant behaviours, so similarities between the deceased and the child? This would be coincidental also. Why is there no mention of personality tests being conducted, surely this would be a good way to correlate the two people if it is supposedly personality which is being passed on; (4) A connection, well we all share many connections with each other, similar interests, habits, etc… this means nothing.
All in all, there doesn’t seem to be much here to support any kind of assertion of reincarnation. The SOCS is meaningless and measures nothing but coincidences. I see no reason to take this seriously until the researcher himself takes it seriously enough to conduct a credible study.
Here’s the thing… that children do apparently report memories that the adults around them interpret as “past lives” is a real phenomenon. It’s conceivably worth investigating. You’ll almost certainly learn nothing about “past lives” and a lot about the way adults interpret and manipulate children, but an objective investigation isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
What’s out of the realm of possibility is Tucker’s version of “quantum consciousness”, which is such flagrant stupidity that he should not only have his grant revoked, but his PhD, his driver’s license, and his frequent shopper’s card at the Kroger.
OK, I shouldn’t go that far. This is science “journalism”, and it’s entirely possible that it’s the fault of the article writer that makes him sound like a lunatic. Speculating that there’s some kind of quantum woo-woo in the unsolved problem of consciousness isn’t completely idiotic, though it clearly screams “wishful thinking”. It does feel as if there ought to be some kind of “quantum license” you should be forced to get before an academic is allowed to use the word in a sentence. And it’s not administered in the psychology department.
So, just to review the bidding: it’s only kind of a waste of time and money for this guy to run down claims of reincarnation-implying statements by children. At least, as long as he is considering alternative hypotheses like “manipulation” and “confirmation bias”, which Occam’s Razor considers vastly more likely than whatever quantum hoojiggy he’s got in mind.
The question asks for “flaws” but without a description of the methodology, I can’t say one way or the other. The fact that the article doesn’t have such a description is a strong indicator that the “science journalist” is incompetent, but hey, we already knew that. That may or may not indicate more incompetence in the vicinity, but it’ll be hard to tell. Should he try to publish his results, we’ll find out then. I doubt it will be pretty.
From: Joshua Engel
Near Death Experience explained – Scientific American (synopsis, with permission). Charles Q. Choi.
Near-death experiences are often thought of as mystical phenomena, but research is now revealing scientific explanations for virtually all of their common features. The details of what happens in near-death experiences are now known widely—a sense of being dead, a feeling that one’s “soul” has left the body, a voyage toward a bright light, and a departure to another reality where love and bliss are all-encompassing.
Approximately 3 percent of the U.S. population says they have had a near-death experience, according to a Gallup poll. Near-death experiences are reported across cultures, with written records of them dating back to ancient Greece. Not all of these experiences actually coincide with brushes with death—one study of 58 patients who recounted near-death experiences found 30 were not actually in danger of dying, although most of them thought they were.
A variety of explanations might also account for reports by those dying of meeting the deceased. Parkinson’s disease patients, for example, have reported visions of ghosts, even monsters. The explanation? Parkinson’s involves abnormal functioning of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can evoke hallucinations. And when it comes to the common experience of reliving moments from one’s life, one culprit might be the locus coeruleus, a midbrain region that releases noradrenaline, a stress hormone one would expect to be released in high levels during trauma. The locus coeruleus is highly connected with brain regions that mediate emotion and memory, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus.
One of the most famous aspects of near-death hallucinations is moving through a tunnel toward a bright light. Although the specific causes of this part of near-death experiences remain unclear, tunnel vision can occur when blood and oxygen flow is depleted to the eye, as can happen with the extreme fear and oxygen loss that are both common to dying.
Altogether, scientific evidence suggests that all features of the near-death experience have some basis in normal brain function gone awry. Moreover, the very knowledge of the lore regarding near-death episodes might play a crucial role in experiencing them—a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such findings “provide scientific evidence for something that has always been in the realm of paranormality,” Mobbs says. “I personally believe that understanding the process of dying can help us come to terms with this inevitable part of life.”