Scientific Evidence For Reincarnation?

Written by Abu Adeeba

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Scouring the Hindu forums, discussion boards and apologetic websites, one will almost invariably find juxtaposed to the subject of reincarnation [1] scientific research on past-life regression therapy, near death experiences (NDE), out-of-body experiences (OBE), etc. as evidence for its validity.

More often than not, Hindu’s make recourse to the same evidences trumpeted by all those who believe in and propagate the theory of reincarnation-transmigration.

Initially, the large number of references cited from so-called experts and pawned off as scientific proof may at first seem convincing to the unmindful or biased mindset. However, in light of real scientific evidence to the contrary, it quickly becomes apparent to the critically minded that these alleged evidences are highly suspect with critics and debunkers aplenty.

What this article intends to show, insha’Allaah (God-Willing), is that any and all suggestions of incontrovertible proofs for past-life experiences is rejected by the mainstream scientific community due to the huge bulk of empirical research and data accumulated over the past few decades. The ones who have attempted to peddle these highly dubious results only to be convincingly rebutted are a very small fringe group that connivingly associate themselves to the scientific community.

Of course, this has not deterred the many Hindus and their co-sympathisers from unashamedly magnifying and hyperbolising any and all pseudo-scientific research in their desperate attempt to validate the patently unjust theory of reincarnation.

 

EVIDENCE AGAINST REINCARNATION

The “scientific research” of Dr Ian Stevenson is usually the primary reference cited by many past-life propagandists. However, what many of these enthusiasts do not realise is that after spending half his career investigating alleged reincarnation cases, the late doctor had to grudgingly accept the fact that he had miserably failed to convince his many colleagues in the mainstream scientific community:

Dr Stevenson himself recognized one glaring flaw in his case for reincarnation: the absence of any evidence of a physical process by which a personality could survive death and transfer to another body… But with rare exception, mainstream scientists – the only group Dr Stevenson really cared to persuade – tended to ignore or dismiss his decades in the field and his many publications. Of those who noticed him at all, some questioned Dr Stevenson’s objectivity; others claimed he was credulous. Still others suggested that he was insufficiently versed in the cultures and languages of his subjects to do credible investigations. [2] (bold, underline ours)

This is unsurprising considering that the doctor had been investigating this “paranormal” subject for the past 40 years and yet “to date, the only researchers who have verified Stevenson’s findings about children who remember past lives are people he has funded himself via the Department of Personality Studies” – hardly disinterested and unbiased verifiers. Perhaps this failure was down to the mysterious phenomenon where “the majority of cases documented by Stevenson were no longer ‘active’ at the time of their investigation. That is, the subject of the case had ceased to have recollections of the supposed previous existence and thus the evidence consists mainly of retrospective accounts by other people (e.g., parents) of the experient’s statement about that existence”. [3]

Little wonder, then, regarding his reputation in the psychiatric community, that he honestly avowed: “Not a few psychiatrists suspected that I had become unhinged”. [4]

In light of what follows, however, one will understand why it was that Dr Stevenson failed to convince his peers.

Maarten Peters and his colleagues of the Department of Experimental Psychology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands conducted research on patients of reincarnation therapists who were hypnotised to help them remember their alleged past lives. The results found that “people who believe they had previous lives are committing a source-monitoring error, or an error in judgment about the original source of a memory… This is important because source-monitoring mistakes are the first in a sequence of events that psychologists believe lead to false memories“. (bold, underline ours)

False memory or confabulation is the confusion of imagination with memory, and/or the confusion of true memories with false memories in order “to fill in gaps in one’s memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts”. [5]

Peters goes on to say:

Once familiarity of an event is achieved, this can relatively easily be converted into a belief that the event did take place.” He adds: “A next possible step is that individuals interpret their thoughts and fantasies about the fictitious event as real memories.[6] (bold, underline ours)

Moreover, “in many cases of false memories, it is very difficult to determine whether or not the perceived events actually occurred – that is, the ‘ground truth’ can not be established.” [7]

Distinguished Professor Elizabeth F. Loftus of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, has conducted extensive research into the area of memory. She states:

Hundreds of studies have been published documenting memory distortion induced by exposure to misinformation… [a phenomenon] called the misinformation effect (Loftus &  Hoff man, 1989). [8] (italicised bold ours)

The development of false memories for implausible events has been suggested as follows:

First, the event must be perceived as plausible.

Second, individuals must acquire the autobiographical belief that it is likely to have happened to them.

Third, individuals must interpret their thoughts and fantasies about the event as memories.[9]

There have also been studies that have “demonstrated that our personal beliefs are susceptible to the influences of imagination… Research also suggests that behaviour, as well as beliefs, can be modified through imagination”. [10]

A research paper, which looked into the shaping of people’s beliefs and behaviour through imagination, titled How Self-Relevant Imagination Affects Memory for Behaviour, concluded

Imagination is indeed a powerful tool. Even when people are not particularly motivated to change behaviour, imagination does lead to reported behaviour change… The results from this study demonstrate that researchers and clinicians cannot rely on participants or clients to accurately recall past behaviours or other attributes after self-relevant imagination has been employed. On the basis of these results, one must conclude that imagination is a powerful tool of suggestion that may play a critical role in the representation of one’s personal history. (bold, underline ours) [11]

In fact, so powerful are the “tricks of memory” that people can even convince themselves of absurd events, such as, having been abducted by aliens. Harvard experimental-psychopathology, Professor Richard McNally who ran studies on alien abductees, put the experiences down to “a form of sleep paralysis known in the profession as hypnopompic episodes – essentially a state, experienced by up to 30 percent of the population at some point in their lives, when the body is physically asleep, part of the mind is still dreaming, but another part of the mind is conscious of being awake”.

He said, however, that many of these people convinced of their abduction experience “did have astrong tendency toward beliefs outside of the mainstream“. (bold, underline ours) He added:

They’re not lying… They’re really sincere. They are, however, characterized by a range ofNew Age beliefs, by magical ideation-they tend to believe in past lives, crystals,reincarnation, alternative medicines. Second, they’re high on absorption-they can become entranced by a sunset, absorbed in a novel, they had imaginary playmates as children. (bold, underline ours)

He went on to say that most of these so-called abductees “did not actually remember, at the time of awakening from their hypnopompic episode, that they had been abducted. What they did feel was intense discomfort; many then sought the help of therapists or counselors [sic]-under whose tutelage they began to ‘remember’ that they had been abducted and experimented upon while in this strange state. In a different cultural context, the same individuals would likely have recalled being visited by witches, ghosts or Satan”.

He further states that under the suggestive questioning of clinicians: “These individuals’ minds are generating very powerful explanatory frameworks-under the guise of memory-for their sleep paralysis. They’re very resistant to reinterpretation.” Once this takes place, these memories “become an integral part of the individual’s self-identity” to the extent that they even display physiological responses under certain suggestive conditions. For example, “when asked to relive their experiences, respond in much the same way (sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, facial muscle tensions) as do traumatized war veterans”. [12]

While Costandi comments:

Other researchers have shown how easy it is to distort peoples’ recollections of real events, or to coax people into ‘remembering’ entire events that did not happen… Work by other research groups shows that memories of highly implausible events, and even impossible events, such as alien abduction and reincarnation, can be planted just as easily. [13] (bold, underline ours)

There also exists the pseudoscience known as “past life regression therapy“, which is based on the premise that traumas that occurred in previous lives contribute to current psychological and physical symptoms.

In 1988, psychiatrist Brian Weiss published a series of cases focusing on patients who were hypnotised and age regressed to “go back to” the origin of a present-day problem. When patients were regressed, they reported events that Weiss interpreted as having their source in previous lives.

However, with memories being so plastic and changeable, more scientifically rigorous and credible research found that the actual “perceived expectations of the therapist/experimenter can affect the production of reports associated with FMS [False Memory Syndrome], and also the consequent belief that the false memory is in fact true”.

Newman and Baumeister (1996) and Spanos, Menary, Gabora, DuBreuil, and Dewhurst (1991), found that subjects assign more credibility to their pseudomemory when the therapist or experimenter express a belief in the possibility that such phenomena actually do occur. Wilson (1982, cited in Spanos, Menary, et al. 1991) ascertained that the time lapse reported between past lives was consistent with the therapists’ beliefs regarding the issue. If the therapist believed that past lives followed directly after each other with no gap, their clients were found also to report it. Conversely, if therapists believed there was a time lapse between such lives, their clients’ reports also reflected it.[14] (bold, underline ours)

As for the techniques and results used in an attempt to prove past-life experiences, then Psychologist Donald A. Eisner after citing the research of Spanos et alia observed:

Rather than evidence of reincarnation, these studies support the notion of a socially created identity re-enactmentInformation during these past-life sessions came from a multitude of sources including TV shows, novels and wish-fulfilling daydreams. …

There are no controlled research studies that demonstrate the viability of the underlying concept of reincarnationNone of the field studies to date has confirmed that people who are age-regressed [15] to an alleged prior lifetime have veridical recollection. The use of suggestive techniques tends to taint the examination process and may produce artifactual responses. [16] (bold, underline ours)

Other research conducted by Nicholas P. Spanos, Evelyn Menary, Natalie J. Gabora, Susan C. DuBreuil, and Bridget Dewhirst, of Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, found that highly hypnotised hypnotic subjects, and thus extremely susceptible to suggestion, had what are known as a “hidden self”. These “hidden self experiments indicate that contextual cuing can lead motivated, nonsimulating subjects to define themselves as having a secondary identity and to respond in a manner consistent with that self-definition” to the extent that  “hypnotic past-life identities are viewed as socially constructed fantasies that are cued by the demands of the hypnotic past-life suggestions. This conceptualization suggests that the intensity with which subjects experience past-life identities may be related to a general propensity for becoming absorbed in fantasy activity and imaginative role playing”. In detail, they stated:

Contrary to the reincarnation hypothesis (Wambaugh, 1979), past-life reportersfrequently supplied inaccurate historical information, did not possess information that might reasonably be expected of a person who actually lived in the relevant historical period, and made historical errors that would have been impossible for a person who lived in the era in question. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that past-life reports are fantasies that subjects construct on the basis of their often limited and inaccurate historical information (Kampman, 1976; Wilson, 1982). In constructing these fantasies, subjects tend to choose historical periods and localities with which they are relatively familiar. To meet the demands of the hypnotic regression suggestion, they weave events, places, and persons from their own life experiences into a historical fantasy drama that they then describe in the form of an autobiographical narrative given by a past-life identity.

Kampman and Hirvenoja (1978) obtained findings consistent with this hypothesis by hypnotizing their past-life reporters again and asking them for the sources of their past-life reports. These subjects reported that stories heard as children, books, and events in theirown lives were the sources of information used to build their past-life identities. …

Subjects with a propensity for engaging in fantasy and imaginative role playing in everyday life were particularly adept at becoming so absorbed in their past-life fantasies that their awareness of their primary identity tended to fade into the background. These highly imaginative subjects also tended to experience particularly intense past-life experiences. These findings are consistent with a substantial body of theory and evidence (Sheehan & McConkey, 1982; Shor, 1970; Spanos, 1971; Spanos & Barber, 1974) indicating that absorption in the construction of suggestion-related imaginings is associated with a partial fading of current reality concerns and with experiencing the behavioral and subjective events called for by suggestions. [17] (bold, underline ours)

They continue:

Subjects learn to develop past-life identities that are consistent with the expectations of their therapist or hypnotist. Our results are also consistent with findings indicating that hidden observer reports are shaped by expectations transmitted by experimental instructions (Spanos & Hewitt, 1980; Spanos et al., 1983), with numerous studies indicating that subjects incorporate information acquired prehypnotically into their hypnotic enactments (Lynn, Nash, Rhue, Frauman, & Sweeney, 1984; Orne, 1959; Spanos, Cobb, & Gorassini, 1985). [18] (bold, underline ours)

And they conclude:

The present findings provide no support for versions of the reincarnation hypothesisholding that past-life responders invariably provide historically accurate accounts… Instead, our findings, along with the work of Kampman (1976) and Wilson (1982) support the usefulness of viewing hypnotically induced past-life identities as contextually generated, rule-governed, goal-directed FANTASIES. According to this hypothesis, subjects construct these fantasies to meet the demands of the hypnotic regression situation. The suggestions employed in this situation require that subjects’ fantasies be framed as autobiographical historical minidramas that are narrated by a first-person singular identity other than the subject (i.e., by a secondary personality). To meet these demands, subjects tend to choose historical times and places with which they are relatively familiar or in which they have a special interest. Within these constraints, they construct a life story that weaves together plot lines, details, and characters that are derived from a wide range of sources (e.g., personal experience, television shows, novels) and that is expressed as a first-person report… Both the anecdotal findings reported by Wilson (1982) and the findings of Studies 2 and 3 demonstrate that past-life responders shape their past-life fantasies to correspond to the expectations transmitted by the hypnotist. [19] (bold, underline, capitals ours)

These fantasies can also be induced and encouraged by and during the actual process of hypnosis, as Dr Robert Baker puts it:

For a long while it was believed that hypnosis provided the person hypnotized with abnormal or unusual abilities of recall. The ease with which hypnotized subjects would retrieve forgotten memories and relive early childhood experiences was astonishing…
However, when the veridicality of such memories was examined, it was found that many of the memories were not only false, but they were even outright fabrications. Confabulations, i.e. making up stories to fill in memory gaps, seemed to be the norm rather than the exception. It seems, literally, that using “hypnosis” to revive or awaken a person’s past history somehow or other not only stimulates the person’s desire to recall and his memory processes, but it also opens the flood gates of his or her imagination. [20]

A classic example of these shortcomings was demonstrated by the infamous ‘Bloxham tapes’. The Cardiff-based hypnotherapist, Arnall Bloxham, who was the subject of a BBC documentary and subsequently featured in a book by Iverson (1976/77), forwarded one particular case, amongst others, of Welsh housewife Jane Evans. Evans apparently provided details of six previous incarnations, which included Allison, a maid who lived in the house of a wealthy French merchant named Jacques Couer in the 15th century.

Although Iverson felt that the case for reincarnation was established, subsequent investigation by Harris (1986) proved him wrong. In fact, in both of these cases and others, there were significant errors in the accounts produced. For example, Jane Evans reported that Couer was single with no children. In fact, he was married with five children – something that most maids would notice. Such errors provided the clue to the source of the story. A novel by Thomas B. Costain entitled The Moneyman was based upon Couer’s life but the author had taken the literary liberty of deliberately omitting Couer’s family as they kept getting in the way of the plot development. It appears that Evans had read the book and then forgotten reading it. During the hypnotic sessions these details had re-emerged and had been taken to be real memories.
In the case of Jane Evans and many other similar claims, it is generally believed that no deliberate hoax was involved. Instead, these are seen as being cases of CRYPTOMNESIA (literally, ‘hidden memories’; see Baker, 1992). It is argued that an individual can store away information from a variety of sources during his or her life, such as from novels, films, history books, or wherever, without later being aware of the source of the information. When the information is later recalled under hypnosis, perhaps elaborated upon by the individual’s own fantasies, the memories can be taken to be veridical. [21](bold, underline, capital ours)

Steven Jay Lynn and Judith W. Rhue, Professors of Psychology at Ohio University, found similarities between past-life regression subjects and patients suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD – also known as (DID) Dissociative Identity Disorder). After categorically rebutting the notion that “although some believers in reincarnation hold that people can be hypnotically regressed back past their birth to previous lives (e.g. Wambaugh, 1979), the available evidence provides no support whatsoever for this notion. Instead, the available data suggest that past-life experiences and enactments are fantasy constructions (Baker, 1992; Spanos, Menary, Gabora, DuBreuil, & Dewhirst, 1991)”, (bold ours) [22] they state:

Past-life constructions are important because they are similar in many respects to the multiple identities of MPD patients. Like MPD patients, those exhibited by past-life responders often display moods and personality characteristics that are different from the person’s primary self, have a different name than the primary self, and report memories that the primary self was unaware of. Just as MPD patients come to believe that their alter identities are real personalities rather than self-generated fantasies, many of the subjects who enact past lives continue to believe in the reality of their past lives after termination of the hypnotic procedures. [23]

But, what is MPD/DID diagnosed as? According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, MPD/DID, though controversial, is considered a mental illness/disorder.

CONCLUSION

There is so much more evidence that could be presented. However, for the sake of brevity, this should be sufficient for the unbiased and critical mind to realise that past-life experiences, connected to reincarnation or otherwise, are nothing more than fantasy driven claims made by those who may just be suffering from mental illness.

Hence, where does this bulk of evidence presented by mainstream science leave those Hindus desperate to prove the validity of reincarnation through hook or by crook?
We believe they are in a catch-22 situation, for we have shown that:

  1. The so-called evidence of past lives is rejected by the mainstream scientific community due to the presence of an overwhelming volume of empirical proof accumulated over the past couple of decades.
  2. No amount of proof can vindicate Hinduism from the charge that the karmic theory and the concept of reincarnation portrays God as inherently unjust and cruel.
Footnotes
[1] We have covered this topic in detail showing how untenable this concept is and how it theologically renders the Creator as inherently unjust:  No Reincarnation, No Moksha, No Mukti in the Vedas  Does Vedic God of Arya Samaj deserve worship?  Reincarnation: Reality or Myth? 
[2] T. Shroder (2007), Ian Stevenson; Sought To Document Memories Of Past Lives in Children , (The Washington Post, 11 Feb).
[3] H. J. Irwin, C. Watt (2007), An Introduction to Parapsychology, (McFarland & Company, Inc.), p.210.
[4] J. Arehart-Treichel (2004), Psychiatrist Explores World Beyond ‘Normal’ , (Psychiatric News, Vol. 39 No. 23, American Psychiatric Association, 3 Dec), p.21.
[6] C. Mims (2007), Remember a Previous Life? Maybe You Have a Bad Memory , (Scientific American, 30 Mar).
[7] M. Costandi (2007), Alien Abduction, Reincarnation and Memory Errors , (Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, 11 Apr).
[8] E. F. Loftus (2003)Make-Believe Memories , (American Psychologist, Nov), p.868.
[9] G. A. L. Mazzoni, E. F. Loftus, I. Kirsch (2001), Changing Beliefs About Implausible Autobiographical Events A Little Plausibility Goes a Long Way , (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol. 7 No. 1, 51-59, by the American Psychological Association).
[10] A. K. Thomas, D. E. Hannula, E. F. Loftus (2007), How Self-Relevant Imagination Affects Memory for Behaviour , (Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21:69-86; published online 10 July 2006 in Wiley InterScience), p.70.
[11] Ibid., pp.83-4.
[12] S. Abramsky (2004), Memory & Manipulation, (OCWeekly, 9 Sept), pp.5 –6 .
[13] M. Costandi (2007), op. cit.
[14] K. Gow (1998), The Complex Issues in Researching “False memory Syndrome” , (The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies Vol. 1998-3).
[15] Age regression is a controversial aspect of hypnotherapy in which the patient returns to an earlier stage of life in order to explore a memory or to get in touch with some difficult-to-access aspect of their personality.
[16] D. A. Eisner (2000), The Death of Psychotherapy: From Freud to Alien Abductions, (Greenwood Publishing Group), pp.166.
[17] N. P. Spanos, E. Menary, N. J. Gabora, S. C. DuBreuil, B. Dewhirst (1991), Secondary Identity Enactments During Hypnotic Past-Life Regression: A Sociocognitive Perspective , (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol.61 No.2), pp.311-12.
[18] Ibid., p.313
[19] Ibid., p.318
[20] R. Baker (1992), Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions from Within, (Prometheus Books, Buffalo, N.Y.), p.152.
[21] C. C. French (2003), Fantastic Memories – The Relevance of Research into Eyewitness Testimony and False Memories for Reports of Anomalous Experiences, (Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol.10, No. 6-7), p.164.
[22] S. J. Lynn, J. W. Rhue (1994), Dissociation: Clinical and Theoretical Perspectives, (Guilford Press, NY), p.140.
[23] Ibid.
 Reprinted with slight changes and with kind permission of islam-sikhism.info. Original title: ‘Evidence’ for Reincarnation DEBUNKED, by Abu Adeeba. Source: http://www.islam-sikhism.info/soter/debunk01.htm
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