by Titus Rivas, MA
In this paper, two questions are addressed: Is reincarnation a universal process? and To what extent is our psychological structure preserved from one life to another? The first question is answered affirmatively and the author gives a plausible explanation for the absence of conscious memories of previous lives in most people due to organic and functional factors of amnesia. About the preservation of psychological structure, the author concludes that we have reason to believe that structure is completely preserved, although much of it latently, in a dispositional form. Attention is also given to the consequences of the foregoing for our views on childhood and to the question whether amnesia concerning previous lives is functional.
Researchers such as Ian Stevenson, Jamuna Prasad, K.S. Rawat and others have studied cases of the reincarnation type which contain information, emotional and motivational patterns, and skills that most probably are not satisfactorily explainable by any so-called "normal" hypothesis. Of the parapsychological hypotheses put forward to explain such cases, reincarnation certainly appears to be the most plausible (Rivas, 1993, 2000). Thus, at least some people can be said to have reincarnated into a new physical body after they died. Now, we will have to ask ourselves how probable it is that not only such children as are studied in veridical cases of the reincarnation type (including the ones never reported), but most if not all of us have lived before. This problem may be termed the question of the universality of reincarnation. Another question is whether the memories and personality structures that turn out to have been preserved in verified cases of the reincarnation type are exceptional not only on the conscious level but also subconsciously. In other words: Is psychological (cognitive, emotional, motorical, etc.) structure usually destroyed after death or at the moment of reincarnation? Or should we suppose that what we find to be actively present in consciousness is not all there is in the person's mind as a whole. I would like to call this question the problem of the preservation of psychological structure.
Personalism versus impersonalism
Before I try to answer both these questions, I will first have to clarify what I mean by "reincarnation". My own conceptualisation of reincarnation is personalistic. I hold that the mind is not some impersonal or collective category, but the life of a constant, substantial self. In Western philosophy my position can be linked with that of such philosophers as Leibniz, Bernhard Bolzano, T.K. Österreich and John Foster. There can be no mind without a self. The self is the ontological substance which is the condition for mental life. This goes for any mind, both animal and human, and even for any possible extraterrestrial and discarnate minds. We simply cannot coherently conceive of a mind that would not be linked to a subject. Here I will not go into the extensive literature about the problem of self in Western and Eastern philosophy of mind. Suffice it here to state that my position especially opposes the Buddhist notion of anatta and other such impersonalistic conceptions. The self is what I conceive to be the personal agent that is the subject of all of psychological life or experient. Thus, it is also the entity that reincarnates and remembers its previous life. The person who remembers what he or she experienced in a previous life is exactly the same person as the one who originally experienced what is now being remembered. It is only within this personalistic context that the questions of the universality of reincarnation and the preservation of psychological structure make any sense. This shows that the philosophical problem of personal identity cannot be disregarded if we dig deeper into the topics related to reincarnation.
1. Universality of reincarnation
How universal is reincarnation? I am aware that there are many doctrines, both religious (exoterical) and esoterical, which answer this question in pertinent ways. Now, as empirical researchers and theorists, we cannot trust any such doctrines. This is because they are usually based completely on authoritarian statements of "gurus" who claim to possess perfect knowlegde. In the West, there are also some examples of such influential gurus like H.P. Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, and Rudolf Steiner of the Anthroposophical Society. Similarly, many socalled spiritualistic movements have clear ideas about what souls reincarnate and even within what kind of time span and geographical region. The claims of such gurus are as absolute as they are inconsistent with one another. Instead of believing in any of them, it is therefore necessary to deal rationally with this problem of universality and to stay independent as scholars, rejecting the purported self-evident truths of all such diverse "revelations".
By these words I obviously do not intend to offend any religion or its adepts, but I just stress the important truism that rationally unfounded dogma should not enter scientific theory. Let us consider what can be said about the universality of reincarnation on a rational basis.
Not all people remember a previous life. At least certainly not consciously. If we were to identify the number of people who have reincarnated with that of persons who consciously remember their former lives, we would in fact be identifying past experience with the conscious recollection of it. In general, this is unwarranted, as we all know regarding our present life. Consciously, we cannot remember everything we have experienced. Actually, if we consider every moment we have lived through, we see that only a tiny fraction of our experience can be recalled consciously. This is why we have to conclude that the fact that most of us cannot consciously remember any previous life does not necessarily mean that there can have been none, but may also mean that a process has occurred which is psychologically known as amnesia, the loss of conscious memory. We may have forgotten what we have experienced rather than not have had any previous life at all. The question of universality depends therefore on the question of how plausible it is that amnesia is the real reason why most of us don't seem to remember anything of our psychical past before the physical conception of our bodies. Let us therefore first look at the main types of amnesia that exist and see whether it seems convincing that any of them is the cause of our widespread conscious ignorance about our personal previous lives.
1.1. Types of amnesia
According to Baddeley, Wilson, and Watts (1995) amnesia can be either organic, i.e. based on brain disorders or lesions, or functional, i.e. based on psychodynamic factors (such as defense mechanisms). In their book, Daniel Tranel and Antonio R. Damasio have published a paper called "Neurobiology: foundations of human memory". They stress the fact that several parts of the brain are involved in organic amnesia. Damage to the lateral parts of the temporal lobes for instance, is linked to problems in retrieving factual knowledge. Damage to the hippocampus is involved in amnesia concerning new factual knowledge. And lesions of the basal ganglia and cerebellum are related to impairment of motor skills. Finally, damage to the nonmedial system can significantly compromise previously acquired information. "When the damage is bilateral, in fact, retrograde memory may be severely compromised for a wide array of knowledge. Patient Boswell, one of the few well-studied cases with extensive bilateral nonmedial temporal destruction, has lost nearly all capacity to retrieve knowledge about his past. Outside of a few shreds of general information regarding his hometown, and his former occupation, he can recall virtually nothing regarding important events of his past life - for example, he cannot remember details about his spouse, his children, places he has lived, or his educational history. Even the few pieces of information that he does retrieve cannot be placed correctly in the context of his autobiography." (page 39) It is clear that if organic factors are to explain the blankness of most of our conscious minds regarding previous lives, they must be similar to the ones involved in the kind of general retrograde amnesia as the one patient Boswell suffered from. On the other hand, possible amnesia about previous lives might also be functional. This is defined in J.F. Kihlstrom and D.L. Schacter's "Functional disorders of autobiographical memory" (in the same book, page 337) as: "memory loss that is attributable to an instigating event or process that does not result in insult, injury or disease affecting brain tissue but that produces more forgetting than would normally occur in the absence of that instigating event or process". The most likely candidate for a range of functional amnesia as would be necessary to explain our blankness about real previous lives, involves the so-called dissociative disorders, like multiple personality and especially fugue. Just as in the case of organic general amnesia, a person may lose virtually all access to his retograde memory, though in that case through purely psychological factors. Gregory and Smeltzer (1983, page 291) state: "Less often, there may be generalized amnesia (for the entire previous life, including loss of knowledge of personal identity and, rarely, even loss of the ability to use language or understand the function of common objects)." With this information in mind, we are able to conclude that retrograde amnesia about previous lives may in principle be caused both by organic and by functional factors.
1.2. Amnesia and past lives
Let us now elaborate on our insight that amnesia about previous lives might be caused both psychogenically and somatogenically. What specific organic and psychological factors could be involved?
1.2.1. Organic factors
From near-death experiences (NDEs) we know that the cessation of brain function near brain death, in itself does not seem to cause loss of memory for the discarnate mind. On the contrary, the psychological functioning of a person who experiences an NDE is generally enhanced, and especially memory of the present life is enlarged (see for example: Morse, 1990). People are often presented a caleidoscope of all kinds of experiences of their current life when they approach their physical death. This would unequivocally imply that possible amnesia cannot be linked to brain death. In other words, the only possible source of organic amnesia concerning previous lives would not involve the previous but the present brain. Now, could it be the case that such organic memory loss is caused by brain damage in the present body? Perhaps brain damage could play some role in those individuals who actually show the overt signs of it. But they are only a small minority within the totality of the human population. Thus, brain damage cannot be a plausible explanation for amnesia in persons without any physiological abnormalities, i.e. for the majority. The conclusion is therefore that if organic amnesia occurs in this context, it probably has to involve a developmental neuroanatomical or neurophysiological factor, not a lesion or any other form of damage. After reincarnation, the psyche has to interact with a brain which is not yet fully developed. After birth the brain matures just like other organs of the body, and it is well conceivable that especially during the first period of childhood, insufficient brain development might impair retrograde memory of previous lives (a theory which may already be found in some writings by Allan Kardec, and of the movement for Krishna consciousness). In that case, retrograde amnesia would be the result of the specifically human characteristic of a long period of anatomical and physiological maturation. Our brains and bodies are far from fully developed at birth and need a growth period of at least about two decades to be completed. By the way, this is generally linked by biologists to the need of an extremely complex apparatus (the brain) to interact with our higher mental faculties. Ironically, if we accept the hypothesis that it is the incomplete cerebral development of man that makes us forget as infants what we experienced in our previous lives, it would mean that such organic retrograde amnesia is the price we pay for our higher mental functioning during physical life. Now, the hypothesis of organic amnesia concerning former incarnations would surprisingly enough apply to all people, including those children and adults who do in fact remember their previous lives. This is because all of us have (seen from a relative perspective) started this life with underdeveloped brains; not one of us - and this applies to all subjects in veridical cases of rebirth as well - is born with a fully developed brain. So the "underdeveloped brain-hypothesis" can adequately explain amnesia in all people, but it cannot at all explain why some people would consciously recover their memories of their past lives, such as children in paranormal Cases of the Reincarnation Type (CORTs) (Stevenson, 1970). For this, we need another hypothesis. It is clear that this hypothesis cannot read that the brains of subjects of CORTs are substantially different from those of other people. Not because this would have been empirically proven not to be the case, but simply because memory of a previous life would in principle have to be neuroanatomically possible for any child with enough cerebral development to produce coherent speech. In this respect, all children without physical handicaps are basically the same. Thus, it is probably not a cerebral difference then, but a psychological one which must be responsible for the disappearance of amnesia in some children after their brains have developed enough. A neuropsychological experiment could be carried out on children who remember previous lives. Granted that they are not afraid of such an investigation and are willing to cooperate with it, they might be voluntarily subjected to safe, harmless tests that would show what parts of their brains are active while they remember the previous life and whether these parts are anomalous in any way. The modern techniques of brain scanning are a lot safer than the older ones so that such a test can be done without any real risk and should not be seen as immoral, i.e. as long as the child itself does not object to it.
Please note that postulating physiological factors does not at all amount to accepting a physicalist account of memory. In this case, it is a matter of applying dualist interactionism and the transmission or filter theory of the brain's somatogenic influence to the manifestation of non-physical memories.
1.2.2. Psychological factors
Within psychological factors we can distinguish between functional causes of amnesia which would be the result of external pressure from the present environment and such that would be the outcome of inner psychological processes stemming from the previous life itself. External pressure would always involve an environment hostile to children recovering memories of their previous lives. Through some kind of natural "aversion therapy" children would learn from their parents that it is nonsensical, dangerous or even evil to be talking about their previous life. They might internalize this negative attitude and thereby repress their memories. If this is indeed an important factor, we would expect that many children prematurely lose their memories in countries and (sub)cultures which are opposed to the idea of reincarnation or at least to remembering past existences. This is a theory which can only be tested on a large scale by carrying out extensive research in Western countries. The prediction would be that we would find many cases in the West wherein there would indeed be some memory, but not enough to make verification possible. Also, we should expect - starting from this model - that in circles in the West in which reincarnation has become a more respectable concept we would find relatively more verifiable cases of memories of a previous life. Naturally, it would already seem that this factor is present and must play an important part.
Internal psychological factors would include the absence of strong motives to remember the previous life. The hypothesis that such factors would play a role in amnesia, would predict that people with for instance (in several respects) strong personalities and people with special reasons to remember their past (such as traumas) would be overrepresented within the population of subjects who remember previous lives. That this is indeed the case, is indicated among other things by the relatively high occurence of memories of a life ended by a violent death, which could be seen as traumatic (Stevenson, 1987). Other factors, such as personality types, have also been studied in this respect by Dr. Ian Stevenson (1987, pages 210- 217).
It is well possible to formulate a model including specific factors, both organic and functional, that could account for widespread amnesia about previous lives.
1.4. Reasons for postulating universality
Of course, showing that a plausible account can be offered for amnesia about past lives is not the same thing as proving that amnesia really applies to every person who does not remember any former existence. However, I would like to point out three strong reasons to believe that this plausible account really corresponds to how things are, in this respect.
First, many children who originally remember previous lives also exhibit partial or almost total amnesia after they have grown up. In other words, remembering a previous life is as vulnerable to amnesia as remembering anything else.
Secondly, and in my view this is the main argument, if we look at nature, things hardly ever occur as mere exceptions. It is by analogy much more plausible, and apart from that even more parsimonious on a theoretical level, to assume that reincarnation, which occurs at least in thousands of cases, is the rule rather than a freak of nature.
Finally, sometimes memories of previous lives only show up long after childhood, spontaneously or (in exceptional verified cases) through hypnosis. Thus, it is seen that amnesia in childhood does not equal non-existence of memory. I therefore conclude that reincarnation is indeed a universal process and that the absence of memory should be explained by amnesia as I have tried to do above, not through the absence of previous lives.
2. Preservation of psychological structure
The very plausible hypothesis I have described above that it is the fact that our brains are underdeveloped at birth which explains amnesia in all of us as infants, has consequences for the next question, that of preservation of psychological structure. One of its implications is that when children remember their previous lives they do so after they have temporarily forgotten them. And this in turn means that the organic amnesia must have been a question of the impairment of retrieval, not of destruction. If memories are recovered, they can never really have been lost in the first place. Similarly, we must expect the same for all kinds of psychological structures, such as personality traits, skills, and factual knowledge. Cases of the reincarnation type do indeed show the active preservation of such elements. We should therefore expect that the entire psychological structure is in some form preserved within the mind as a whole, albeit on a dispositional, subconscious level. There is no reason to believe that any part of the mind is lost for ever after death or after reincarnation. This conclusion seems to harmonise remarkably well with the viewpoints of Dr. Jamuna Prasad where he writes that any act invariably produces its effect in our inner nature (Prasad, 1993, p. 31). These effects he calls "samskars" or "vasanas", terms he has borrowed from the Upanishads, without adhering uncritically to these scriptures.
3. Causes of amnesia during the intermediate state
Apart from the organic and functional factors that explain amnesia about previous lives, several traditions also mention specific factors that would occur in the state between death and reincarnation when the soul dwells in some other dimension. For example, according to ancient Greek mythology, the river Lethe would wash away all memory of earthly life (Bartelink, 1969). Similarly, other traditions for example talk about special types of food offered by spiritual beings that would induce amnesia but could also be refused. I do not claim that it is impossible that there are factors of this nature that might explain a part of the amnesia so common in many people. However, I do hold that for the time being we do not need any such exotic causal factors as long as we can explain amnesia by organic and functional causes alone. This is simply a matter of theoretical parsimony, a virtue not to be underestimated in science.
4. Consequences for our views on childhood
The conception of the universality of reincarnation in principle leads us to regard all children, not just those who actively remember past lives, as reincarnated souls. Two aspects may be distinguished in this context. On one hand, the fact that adults temporarily lose the fullness of their memories, personality and skills, might fill one with horror and sadness. However, there obviously is a great consolation: Reincarnation implies survival of bodily death and, in this context, childhood is usually comparable to a succesful rehabilitation process. Parallel to neurological maturation, people can recover and even expand their psychological potentials of the previous life they had before their functional regression due to brain underdevelopment. On the other hand, we may also conceive the fact that we reincarnate as a kind of natural rejuvenation process. This positive notion implies that childhood is not only a period of limitation and of dependence on others, but often also a period of recovering strength, especially (I sadly should add) in the West.
Thus, whereas reincarnation may at first seem a basically humiliating phenomenon, if we take a closer look, it usually is an interesting, moving and continuously recurrent stage within the enormous, constructive process of our personal evolution, in which nothing should be expected to get lost for ever.
[Online addition February 2nd 2017: Note that I do not mean to say that reincarnation would have to go on for ever. In fact, I believe that at a certain point of personal evolution, reincarnation would not be necessary in anymore. Childhood is therefore only a continuously recurrent stage for as long as reincarnation is necessary.]
5. Amnesia is in itself dysfunctional
In contrast to all kinds of doctrines stating that amnesia regarding past lives is a positive, functional process, I hold that its consequences have always been rather nasty. Of course, there might be some positive effects of forgetting a previous life. For instance, it might help a reincarnated soul to adapt to its present existence. However, the sum total is clearly very negative. First of all, if people do not remember that they have lived before, they lack the security and consolation that such memories offer in the sense that they are immortal and cannot be destroyed by physical death. Especially in Western culture, this has had, and still has, disastrous consequences. Moreover, to forget the whole of one's autobiographical history before birth amounts to a tremendous range of alienation. If we knew more about who and what we have been in the past, we would know better who and what we really are now, and where we stand. It might also enhance our interest in life, our passion for it in the positive sense of this word, our love for ourselves, our dignity, and our love and respect for all of our fellow-beings. Therefore, I strongly believe that it would be good if we could remember our previous lives at will .
In this context, I want to propose the following experiment in children who remember previous lives. They could be hypnotized, not so much to broaden their memory of the past existence, as to consolidate it for the rest of their lives. I'm of course talking about (post-)hypnotic suggestions that they would remember everything at will for ever. If we believe, as I do, that remembering a previous life is as such a very positive, even transcendent phenomenon, this is a way we might use to preserve conscious memory in people who have already shown to remember their past life. At a later stage, if this plan works for children who remember previous lives, we could try on that basis to devise a specific posthypnotic (auto)suggestion that could consolidate important memories of the present life for their conscious use in all of our next incarnations.
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This paper was published in 1999, in a more extensive Dutch version in Spiegel der Parapsychologie, 37, 2-3, 81-104, as: Het geheugen en herinneringen aan vorige levens: neuro-psychologische en psychologische factoren.
I wish to thank Chris Canter for correcting the English of this paper.