|Amnesia and Reincarnation|
|Is reincarnation a universal process? To what extent is our psychological structure preserved from one life to another?|
AMNESIA: The universality of reincarnation and the preservation of psychological structure
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
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
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".
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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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Neue Falluntersuchungen und ein Vergleich mit den Ergebnissen von Ian
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- Morse, M. (1990). Closer to the light. New York: Villard Books.
- Prasad, J. (1993). New dimensions in reincarnation research. Allahabad: Arvind Printers.
- Rivas, T. (1991). The logical necessity of the survival of personal memory after bodily death (lecture). Rajsamand.
- Rivas, T. (1993). Reïncarnatie-onderzoek: Op zoek naar de zuinigste toereikende hypothese. Spiegel der Parapsychologie, 32, 3/4, 171-188.
- Rivas, T. (2000). Parapsychologisch onderzoek naar reïncarnatie en leven na de dood. Deventer: Ankh-Hermes.
- Stevenson, I. (1970). Twenty cases suggestive of reincarnation. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
- Stevenson, I. (1983). Cases of the reincarnation type: Volume IV. Twelve cases in Thailand and Burma. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
- Stevenson, I. (1987). Children who remember a previous lives: A question of reincarnation. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
- Stevenson, I. (1997). Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Westport: Praeger.
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.
|psychical research, parapsychology, personalism, reincarnation, personal evolution, impersonalism, amnesia, memories of previous lives|