Finding My Religion
BY: DAVID IAN MILLER
(From left to right) Dr. Jamuna Prasad, Kum Kum (girl who had vivid past-life memories), Dr. L.P. Mehrotra and Dr. Ian Stevenson (who began studying children's apparent past-life recollections 45 years ago at the University of Virginia). Photo courtesy of Dr. Jim B. Tucker.
June 13, VIRGINIA (SF GATE) Psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker studies past-life memories of children.
No one knows for sure what happens to us after death. But Dr. Jim Tucker is trying to find out. Tucker is medical director of the Child and Family Psychiatric Clinic at the University of Virginia. He also works at the university's Division of Perceptual Studies, which scientifically investigates paranormal phenomena such as near-death experiences, ghosts and reincarnation.
His book "Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children's Memories of Previous Lives" (St. Martin's Press, 2005) tries to verify statements from children who claim to have had past-life experiences. The work continues the research of Dr. Ian Stevenson, who began studying children's apparent past-life recollections 45 years ago at the University of Virginia.
It's controversial terrain for a scientist, but Tucker takes his work quite seriously. The book has been heralded as "a first-rate piece of research" by Harvard biologist Michael Levin, and Booklist described it as "powerful grounds for credulous speculation." I spoke with him recently by phone from his office in Charlottesville, Va.
How did you get interested in this subject?
(Dr. Jim B.Tucker is medical director of the Child and Family Psychiatric Clinic at the University of Virginia. He also works at the university's Division of Perceptual Studies, which scientifically investigates paranormal phenomena such as near-death experiences, ghosts and reincarnation.
I got interested after I was remarried. I was trained at UVA in child psychiatry and wasn't feeling particularly fulfilled by that work. My wife was open to a lot of alternative things like psychic phenomena and New Age ideas, and that got me curious about them, too.
I think when I started looking at things, I became open to the possibility that we're more than just our physical bodies, that there is more to the world than just the physical universe. That's basically why I'm doing the work. Because I'm open to it, I want to see what I can learn about it.
What are some of the signs that might indicate to you that a child has had memories of a prior life?
The most obvious sign is when the child starts talking about it. The child will say, "I used to be big, and I'd do such and such thing," or sometimes they'll say, "In my last life I ..."
They actually use that language?
Occasionally, yes. Sometimes they will say something like, "Oh, the last time I had a wife," or whatever. There is one case here in Charlottesville -- the only thing the child ever said to the mom about it was -- one day they were driving down the road, and the little boy says, "In my last life I drove a big truck." Of course, that was completely unverifiable. But you know, you get statements like that, and then in the cases that are useful to investigate, you get a lot of specific details.
Many of them, three-quarters of them, will talk about the way that they died. And usually what they say will focus on things that happened near the end of the previous life -- not exclusively, but they will usually talk about people they knew at the end. So if they are describing a life as an adult, they will be much more likely to talk about a spouse or children than about parents and that sort of thing.
And you investigate whether the people these children claim to have been actually existed?
Yeah. We look at whether there are any behaviors or birthmarks that link to the "deceased" person, and if we identify a previous person whose life seems to match that description, we get the details of that life as carefully as possible to see just how well things match up.
I'm sure you encounter plenty of skeptics. How do you respond to the criticism that these memories of past lives are simply fantasies?
If it's a case where the statements aren't verified, then it may well be just fantasy -- like the boy who said, "I used to drive a big truck." If you have got one where the children have made numerous statements about another life that is quite some distance away, including proper names and everything else, and it all checks out, then unless you are going to say, "It's all one heck of a coincidence," you can't really just blame all of that on fantasy.
But how do you know that the ideas the children have about past lives weren't suggested to them by someone else? Maybe they just heard stories that they are retelling?
Those are questions that you have to look into when you're doing this research. If you have got a child who is talking about someone who died, say, in the same village, then you really have to be concerned that they learned about it through normal means. But if you've got someone talking about an ordinary person who died 150 miles away, well, that becomes much less likely that they heard about the person from someone else.
How do you find subjects to investigate?
In the American cases, the parents find us. Often they do so on the Internet. People start searching and come across Ian Stevenson and the work that's going on here at UVA, and so they e-mail us. In other countries, we have people looking for subjects, so often they will hear about a case and then alert us.
What's one of the more striking cases that you've come across?
One that stands out is a little girl in India named Kum Kum Verma -- Dr. Stevenson investigated her case. She started talking [about a past life] when she was 3 years old, which is usually the age when people begin to speak about past-life memories.
She described living in a city of a couple hundred thousand people that was 25 miles away from where she lived -- and not just the city, but the section of the city where she said she had lived, and she gave a lot of details. One of her aunts took notes on her statements before anyone tried to investigate. They include things like her son's name, the fact that he worked with a hammer, the grandson's name, the town where his father in that previous life lived, the fact that there was a pond at her house, that she kept an iron safe at her house, that she had a sword hanging near the cot where she slept and even that she had a pet snake that she fed milk to. So we are talking about ridiculously specific details.
And you were able to verify these details?
Yes. It turned out that there was someone who lived in the section of the city that she had described, somebody whose life matched all of those details. And this was a case where the families had no contact before the case was investigated, because the father was a well-to-do landowner and he apparently was not happy that the little girl was remembering the life of the blacksmith's wife.
Have you ever worked with adults who claimed past-life memories?
Once in a blue moon. Occasionally, there will be adults who contact us and say, "When I was a child, I remembered this." And usually the memories will leave by the time the child is 6 or 7, but occasionally they will persist, so we will get people who say, "Oh, I've had this memory since childhood."
Why do you think some people have these kinds of memories, and not others?
That's a very good question, and we've tried to look at it. One of our colleagues did psychological testing of some kids with these memories in Sri Lanka and Lebanon, and then we've done a small study of psychological testing with the kids here. And they seem to be normal, first of all. They tend to be quite bright. But they don't particularly seem to be suggestible or to dissociate a lot or whatever, so it doesn't seem to be a question of pathology on the child's part that causes them to have memories.
What I would like to do -- what I'm hoping to do in the future -- is also do tests of the parents, to see if there are particular parents who are more likely to have these children. But one key feature that I mention is that 70 percent of these children will report dying violently or suddenly. So that certainly seems to be a key factor.
Have you encountered cases where people seemed to reincarnate after having died peacefully of old age in their beds?
You certainly get some of those -- nothing's absolute.
After spending so much time studying this, do you now personally believe in reincarnation?
People often are unhappy with my inconclusive answer to that question.
What I say in the book is that after reviewing many of the strongest cases we have, the best explanation for them is that memories and emotions at times seem to be able to carry from one life to the next. So I think the evidence is there to support [reincarnation]. Now, if you are asking, Is it part of my personal belief system? Not particularly. I'm not a Buddhist or Hindu or anything like that. I'm open to the possibility, obviously, or I wouldn't be spending time on this research. But I'm not a zealot as far as pushing some sort of religious doctrine.
Is there anything in your own religious background that might have led you to be open to the idea of reincarnation?
Well, I grew up Southern Baptist. Reincarnation is obviously not part of that tradition, but being open to spirituality was certainly something that I grew up with.
Do you have any memories of past lives?
No, I'm afraid not. And no one in my family has ever had anything like that either.
Your book references quantum physics. How do quantum theories relate to reincarnation, do you think?
I think they relate in the sense that the physical universe is not what it seems to be, from what we can tell from quantum mechanics. And at least on a quantum level, it seems to be dependent on our observation of it. Quantum physicists talk about electrons, or events being potential, rather than actual physical entities. So that there are various potentials, basically until somebody looks, and then it sort of forces the universe to make a determination about which potential is going to be actualized.
So one take-home message from that is that consciousness is not just a by-product of a physical brain but is actually a separate entity in the universe that has a big impact on things in the universe. And there are people looking at the idea of how, in a quantum way, consciousness can affect the physical brain. If you are open to that possibility, if you are truly going to consider the fact that consciousness is that separate entity in the universe, then you have to consider the possibility that consciousness is not dependent on just being a by-product of a functioning brain. It's going to continue after the brain dies.
Is it challenging to work in an area of research that some view as more science fiction than science?
If I were looking to have some highly achievement-oriented academic success, yeah, it would be; this would not be the course that anyone would take. But you never know who is going to be open to [this material]. I've been surprised to find that some of my colleagues are just as open to it as I am.
I tend to be a fairly skeptical person. Even though I am spending a lot of time with these cases, I don't go to a case assuming that it's a case of reincarnation. It's sort of my natural default to see whether it can be explained through normal means. But to be fair and open-minded, if you look at some of the strongest cases, I think you need to be open to the possibility that there may be more going on in life than we know about.
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During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.