By John W. Whitehead
March 21, 2008
Many believe in the possibility of an after-life, but what about the possibility of a before-life? Is reincarnation possible? Jim B. Tucker, MD, attempts to provide answers to these questions and more in his book Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005).
Dr. Tucker is a board-certified child psychiatrist and research director at the University of Virginia Division of Personality Studies. He serves as Assistant Professor of Psychiatric Medicine at the University of Virginia Health System, as well as the medical director of the Child & Family Psychiatry Clinic. Dr. Tucker is currently conducting research into children’s reports of past lives throughout the globe, focusing on the United States.
Skeptical? So was Dr. Tucker. Raised a Southern Baptist, he had never taken the notion of reincarnation seriously until he encountered the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson, a fellow researcher at the University of Virginia. After reading about Dr. Stevenson’s work on near-death experiences in the local newspaper, he was sufficiently intrigued. While Dr. Stevenson conducted his extensive research for and reported primarily to the scientific community, Dr. Tucker, with his book, has brought this ground-breaking work to the public at large.
Dr. Tucker’s work focuses primarily on young children’s reports of past lives. Their memories are often evocative, as children demonstrate not only a detailed knowledge of what they claim to be their past lives, but also often express strong and enduring emotions attached to these past memories. Children as young as two and three years of age have thrown fits in their homes, claiming that their parents are not their real family, and have asked to be taken home to their true families. The children frequently insist that they be taken to villages and cities distant from their homes, often places where they have never before visited. Once there, they’re able to identify landmarks and can often lead family members and researchers to the homes of their “past-personalities.” These children repeatedly demonstrate the ability to provide astonishing details regarding their past lives, indicating names, nicknames, identifying family members, dwelling-places, occupations and other incredible details. They also show strong personalities from previous lives, acting paternal to adults decades older than themselves and being caring and gentle toward supposed past spouses.
The modes of death of the past personalities also come into play. Many children have phobias related to the deaths of their past personalities; those whose past personalities match individuals who have drowned demonstrate an extreme fear of water. One child even tried to strangle a man he claimed had killed him in his previous life. Children often show birthmarks that are related to their previous personalities, relating to a wound or other striking physical characteristic or to a mark made intentionally by family members who believe in reincarnation.
However implausible notions of an immaterial realm and reincarnation might seem initially, the mounting evidence of Life Before Life is uncanny. Based on over 2,500 investigations into previous lives, the book does not insist that you believe in its conclusions, only that you look at the research with an open mind and come thoughtfully to your own conclusions.
Recently, Dr. Tucker took a break from his research and discussed his book, his research and his thoughts with me for Oldspeak.
John Whitehead: How long have you believed in the possibility of reincarnation, and what was it that made you believe in the possibility of past lives?
Jim Tucker: You phrased that correctly. I believe in the “possibility” of reincarnation, which is quite different from saying that I believe in reincarnation. The work we do at the University of Virginia is certainly taking a scientific, objective approach. We are not trying to be zealous for any particular point of view but are just looking at what we think is an interesting phenomenon in trying to understand it.
JW: Doesn’t your work point more to the factual nature, rather than the possibility, of reincarnation?
JT: It does point to it, but it doesn’t prove it. The cases we’ve studied supply evidence that there can be a carryover from one life to another, but that is certainly not the same as saying the cases prove reincarnation. But if you look at our strongest cases as a group, the best explanation is that, at least under certain circumstances, there can be times where memories and emotions and sometimes even physical traumas can carry over from one life and somehow be passed to another.
JW: Are you saying there is an entity such as a soul? Are you saying that it is psychic energy?
JT: It’s hard to know. It is completely speculative. Dr. Ian Stevenson, who started this work here at UVA and was my mentor before he passed away, coined the term “psychophore” to describe an entity that would carry this force on to the next life. What that entity might be like, there is no real way of knowing. Different religions that believe in reincarnation have very differing views of what the process entails. There are some that essentially believe a soul moves from one life to another. But then there are others that believe there is this sort of continuation but not necessarily a separate entity that continues on. Thus, it is all speculative. But most interesting to me are the take-home messages of these cases. It is that they contribute to evidence that there may be life that survives the death of the body. To me, that is more interesting than the particulars. The particulars are interesting, but the real take-home message is that they suggest that the physical world may not be all there is. There may be this other spiritual, mental or whatever you want to call it world or other facets of life that can carry on after death.
JW: You use the word “spiritual.” Do you believe there is a possibility reincarnation is spiritual?
JT: Of course. But then you reach into the question of how you really define that word. These cases provide evidence that there is something beyond the physical realm.
JW: There is an unseen world.
JT: There is an unseen facet to the world. It doesn’t necessarily mean there is a separate heaven or hell or an unseen world in that sense.
JW: Have you considered the dimensional theories which some propose that there are different dimensions of existence?
JT: There could be. Unfortunately, it’s all speculation. What we’re trying to do is get glimpses at this invisible thing that by its very nature obviously is hard to classify.
JW: From reading your book, it seems that you’ve come to the conclusion that there is a force that exists apart from the physical body.
JT: Yes. But I am not necessarily saying that our scientific studies have demonstrated that there is this force that carries on. However, the implications in the cases, such as a young child who says I was so and so and I lived in such and such place and it proves to be true, points to something that has continued on after the previous person died.
JW: Were you ever a skeptic about the possibility of a force beyond the physical world?
JT: In some ways, I consider myself skeptical now in the sense of being open-minded and trying to look at what the evidence says. A lot of people use skeptic essentially to mean certain debunker. I have never been dismissive of the work. But certainly for most of my life, I never really considered reincarnation at all.
JW: But through your work, you now believe in the possibility of reincarnation?
JT: It has led me to become more convinced that there is more to the world than just the physical part of life.
JW: How does that affect you mentally or spiritually?
JT: When you come to that sort of conclusion, it opens you up in subtle ways to experience things a little differently than you did before and hopefully with a little more perspective. The hope for all of us, if we feel like there is more than just the day to day grind of the physical world, is that we can keep things in perspective. Hopefully, we can get more out of our experience in this life.
JW: Does your work make you think more about the fact that there is a God or the possibility of a God? Does that come into play here? Who or what is running the show if there is this other world where people go? In your book, people seem to have conversations with entities of the other world, what some people call angels.
JT: There are children who describe that. Of course, those memories are completely unverifiable, as opposed to the ones where they say they remember something from another life and we can check to see if those things actually happened. But you eventually start accepting the premise that there is something else going on here besides the physical world. This opens up all sorts of possibilities. And again, the different religions that believe in reincarnation have looked at the situation differently. Some do have a God or many gods that are controlling the process. For others, it is more of a naturalistic kind of mental energy type or process that wouldn’t necessarily have an overarching controlling mind that is running things.
JW: Your studies seem to indicate that we are not simply organisms that climbed out of the Darwinian ooze and we die but that there is something else going on, whether it is spiritual, psychic or whatever it might be called. We’re really complex.
JT: I think the evidence is there that the consciousness component of ourselves is an entity in its own right in the universe.
JW: Maybe it was there from the beginning of all being.
JT: Presumably, it was. If you look at various pieces of evidence, you can make a strong case that consciousness should be considered a separate entity in the universe—separate from the individual beings that contain it.
JW: How has the scientific community of people received your work?
JT: Their reactions vary. Obviously, there are a lot of people in the scientific community who either dismiss the work or just ignore it. But it has gotten a positive response at times. When Ian Stevenson was writing his scientific books, they were getting reviewed in the Journal of the American Medical Association with very positive comments. There have been other journals that have seriously considered the work. You never know who is going to be open to these things and who is not. But there are certainly some colleagues who are quite supportive and others who just turn their noses up at us.
JW: Often so-called paranormal and/or spiritual activities are portrayed as in opposition to science. Are you saying that is not true?
JT: I am absolutely saying that is not true. The whole point of our research division is to look at such phenomenon and parapsychology. If people look into it, they find that it has been a very carefully done scientific work for a very long time. There is no reason that unusual phenomenon or paranormal phenomenon can’t be studied with the same sort of scientific approach that you would use to study any other phenomenon.
JW: Why don’t we hear more about your work? Why do you think it is still an obscure kind of philosophy or science? Is it that people don’t want to believe it?
JT: There are a couple of reasons. Some of the people in the field like Ian Stevenson, my mentor, were never really interested in going after the general audience. His goal was to convince the scientific community to seriously consider his work. You have people who are a little reticent to go out there and get lumped in with all sorts of crazy things and get ridiculed. And if you are in the mainstream scientific thought, which carries a lot of weight, you don’t get as much notoriety.
JW: As you indicate in your book, children who are two or three years old have these memories and then they begin to fade. They might remember a past life. Why do you think that, as they grow older, seemingly crystal clear memories begin to fade?
JT: They usually seem to lose the memories between the ages of five and seven. It turns out that a substantial minority of the kids actually don’t seem to lose their memories. One of our colleagues is doing a study of children who are now adults. A fairly significant minority say they still have some memories, but most of them lose them. They lose them at the same time that we all lose our memories of early childhood. It is a phenomenon called early childhood amnesia where people as adults remember almost nothing of their early childhood before the age of three or four. This is true even though those events were in their long-term memory at one point. Just as we lose our memories of earlier events, these children seem to be losing their apparent past life memories. Thus, it all fits together. It makes sense that they would lose those, just like they lose early childhood memories.
JW: Is this how we are structured genetically?
JT: It has more to do with the neurodevelopment process, and it is a very active place early in life. For whatever reason, memories are forming. But the earliest ones are falling by the wayside again around the ages of five or six or seven.
JW: Many of the past memories people have are concentrated in the Middle Eastern or East Asian countries where religion more predominantly believes in reincarnation. Do you believe that raises some questions about the reliability of your studies?
JT: There are many American cases where the families have no belief in reincarnation whatsoever. It is true that it is easiest to find children within cultures which have beliefs in reincarnation. It may be that they are more common there. However, it is certainly easier to find them because people talk about those cases. Sometimes there will be reports in the newspapers about them, whereas in the United States many families are quite embarrassed about what their kids are saying. They simply don’t tell anyone. Even the grandparents won’t know about it. Now with the Internet and so forth, people find us. But they may be emailing us when they haven’t told anyone else. We’re hearing from more and more American families, dozens and dozens of them. This phenomenon does clearly exist in cultures without a belief in reincarnation and in families without a belief in reincarnation.
JW: What is your approach when you are solving the identity of these past personalities? What should people know about how you conduct yourself in doing this?
JT: It varies. A lot of the cases people have solved before we get there. So, in that situation, what we do is go to the child’s family and talk with the parents, as well as with a child, and document every statement the child made about a past life. And then if the child has named a place and people have gone and looked, then we go to the other side of the case and talk with the family that has been identified as the previous family. We go through every statement and see if it is actually accurate for the past life or not. We have had cases where the family thought it was a match, but when we looked at it, it was not a match. People had gotten carried away. But then you get cases where kids have given a lot of details. Ian Stevenson studied one where a girl gave 25 proper names and the relationships of the names to the previous person, and then you verify that each one is actually accurate
JW: So these at times are very detailed accounts?
JT: Sometimes they are incredibly detailed. We get cases where a child will talk about a past life once. There is not a whole lot to do about that one. But then you get ones where children are giving numerous names, places and details about how they died or people they knew near the end of their lives
JW: This is something no one could have told a child.
JT: There are cases where kids will talk about being deceased family members. In such cases, there is always the question of even though the parents know they didn’t tell the child, could the child have overheard or learned through some sort of normal means? But then you get ones where the children are talking about people who live many miles away, and there is no realistic way they could have possibly known about them.
JW: What do you believe happens in the divine intermission between lives? What is happening there?
JT: Statements made by children about the time between lives tend to be often completely unverifiable, as opposed to things about a past life. But if you look at what the children do say, it seems that it may vary from individual to individual. And when we’ve studied this, we have found that the children who talk about the time between lives are more likely to remember names and verified statements from the previous life than kids who don’t talk about the time between lives. Thus, there is some reason to at least look at what they say. It varies. Some kids just talk about hanging around where the previous person lived or died. Some will talk about witnessing their own funeral. Sometimes there are verifiable details. One girl complained about her ashes being scattered, rather than buried, the way she wanted. She gave a lot of statements. Anyway, the previous person turned out to be a woman who, when she died, had wanted her ashes buried under a tree at the temple complex where she studied. However, when her daughter went to do that, the root system was too expansive. She couldn’t bury the ashes so she ended up scattering them. There are cases like that where the children’s statements are verified for the time between lives. And some will talk about just hanging out there and then eventually deciding to attach to a new set of parents. But then there are others who will talk about going to other realms. Some of the American children will use the word heaven and say they talked with angels. Occasionally, they say they talked to God. Some of their reports are similar in many ways to near death experience reports that people who have been near death have talked about as well. We don’t have any firm answers about what happens between lives, but there are a lot of intriguing reports.
JW: If what the child says about dates and who they once were is accurate, why wouldn’t we think that what they’re talking about in the sort of divine intermission is accurate?
JT: It may well be, but we just can’t verify it. We can if they talk about a funeral where details are provided. It’s the same as with near-death experiences. If they’re talking about an out-of-body experience where they see doctors working on them and it can be verified, then if they talk about going to heaven, it may well be true. I’m not saying it isn’t, but you just can’t verify it in the same way. Frankly, some of the stories get a little fantastic at times, but who is to say what things are like between lives? These reports need to be considered seriously, but it is a different level of support for them compared to the past life statements.
JW: Let me quote from your book: “As I discussed earlier, 70% of the previous personalities died of unnatural means in cases where the mode of death is known, and of course a number of those dying by natural means died suddenly as well. This suggests that a violent or sudden death is much more likely to produce a future case of a child with past life memories than other types of deaths.” Are you saying that the sudden deaths greatly increase a person’s chance of being reincarnated? And that people who died a normal death go somewhere else?
JT: That is certainly a possibility. About 70% of the cases do involve someone who died by unnatural means.
JW: By unnatural means, you mean car crashes, getting shot—those kinds of things?
JT: Yes, anything other than just natural, physical, expected deaths. But the other factor that is quite important is the age the previous person died, with younger ones being much more likely to be part of future cases than older people. That involves not just the unnatural deaths. Normally if you look at natural deaths, you have very few in the early years. Of course, the older we get, the more likely we are to die naturally. But with these, it is almost a reverse slope where the younger people are much more likely to die. To state it better, the previous personalities in our cases, even the ones who died by natural death, are much more likely to die at a younger age than an older age. Thus, it looks like the two factors that are significant are dying young or dying an unnatural death. These either contribute to memories carrying over to the next life or they contribute to the person having a next life. My current thinking is that even if these are cases of reincarnation, it would not mean that we were all reincarnated. For some individuals, the process continues in other directions. It wouldn’t necessarily mean another life on this planet in this physical body. But who knows what other realms? You could call it heaven or whatever you want to, but something besides being here on earth. There are certain factors that can cause the consciousness to more or less be grounded here and to be carried on in another life.
JW: In the divine intermission, is there any indication of people going to a place like hell or are they headed in that direction?
JT: You get more of that in near-death experience cases where most of them are positive. But there is a substantial minority of cases where it is essentially hellish or it is very unpleasant. With our cases, occasionally you do get children who talk about unpleasant experiences.
JW: What are you talking about? Demons? Monsters?
JT: No, I am not talking about little devils or whatever, but where they are all suffering or not being allowed to eat or drink. This is done by other entities but not necessarily monsters—more human-like individuals. Thus, there are unpleasant experiences in the afterlife. But most of them seem to be relatively pleasant. Again, a lot of these reports come from cultures that do not have a concept of heaven and hell. The reports themselves may well be colored by what people make of them. An American child might call it hell, whereas a child in Thailand might call it something completely different. But if you look at other areas again like near-death experiences, they can to some extent provide support for whatever your beliefs were before you looked at the cases. In general, it looks like it is not necessarily a simple, straightforward process. It is not as simple as St. Peter marking you for heaven or hell or whatever. It is not as simple as the New Age idea of everyone dies and it is perfect. It is more complicated than that.
JW: Our discussion seems to be more about the fact of consciousness. You mentioned it early on in this interview—that is, the fact that consciousness is something independent of everything else. There is an argument that everything is consciousness—that we are basically the products of consciousness. How do you come down on all this?
JT: Consciousness is an important element. Quantum physicists have some pretty wild ideas that frankly are difficult for even other scientists to fully understand. There are people who say that consciousness seems to be the primary entity in the universe and the physical part is secondary to it. If you accept that premise, then you have to look at the implications to us as living creatures, the consciousness that we have and where it might come from. Is the brain creating consciousness or simply filtering it from some other source? It‘s all rather interesting.
Information on Dr. Jim Tucker can be found at lifebeforelife.com and healthsystem.virginia.edu/dops.
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.