Do you believe in reincarnation or the possibility that you may have lived other lives before this one? I’m… honestly not sure where I stand on the issue — and reading about some of the things people have said about alleged past life experiences hasn’t really helped clear anything up for me. The fact that I’m not sure whether I believe in past lives is somewhat unusual for me, given that I generally tend to err firmly on the side of skepticism. It’s fascinating either way, though, because… well, what if we really have been here before? Intellectually, I know that we probably haven’t… but what if?
The concepts of past lives and reincarnation have been present for most of human history; they're rife throughout a number of religions and belief systems. Somewhat surprisingly, though — or at least, surprisingly to me— there’s been a fair amount of scientific research into the whole thing as well.
Systematic research centered around past lives and past life regression kicked up in 1960, when Ian Stevenson, then chairman of the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychiatry, published a literature review of what we knew up til that point. Eventually he stepped down from his position of chairman in order to focus on his research. Others have taken up Stevenson’s mantle over the years, as well; these days, psychiatrist Jim Tucker is at the forefront of the field. He's known particularly for his work with children who believe they’ve experienced past lives.
Even before the ‘60s, though, notable cases of alleged past lives have captured the attention of the general public; for example, the Bloxham tapes, recorded by Welsh hypnotherapist Arnall Bloxham, and “Bridey Murphy,” who was allegedly a past life experienced by a woman named Virginia Tighe (later Virginia Mae Morrow), made waves in the ‘50s. Much of the time, stories of past lives are chalked up to cryptomnesia — literally “hidden memories” — brought on by confabulation, or the “unconscious process of creating a narrative that the narrator believes is true but that is demonstrably false,” according to the Skeptic’s Dictionary; still, though, we remain fascinated by them all the same.
And sometimes, the things people say about their alleged past life experiences are… kind of creepy. These nine stories kind of get under my skin.
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1. “That’s George. We Did A Picture Together.”
In a piece for UVA Magazine, writer Sean Lyons took a deep dive into Jim Tucker’s work, particularly with a boy named Ryan. It all started when Ryan was about four; while playing make-believe, he would “direct” pretend movies. Then, he started having nightmares — dreams from which he would wake up screaming, saying that his heart had exploded in Hollywood.
One day, he told his mother, Cyndi, “Mama, I think I used to be someone else.” He told her what he said he remembered — a house with a swimming pool in Hollywood, three sons he’d had — but Ryan got upset about not being able to remember certain details, like names. Eventually, Cyndi started checking out books about Hollywood from the library to show Ryan to see if it would help. It was while looking at one of these books that Ryan pointed to a man in a photograph and said, “That’s George. We did a picture together.” Then, in that same photo he pointed to another man: “That guy’s me. I found me!”
Later on, they discovered that the “George” in the photo was George Raft, who had been a star in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The man Ryan said was him was Martin Martyn, a sometime dancer and actor as well as a talent agent.
There’s a lot more to the story, too — I highly suggest checking out the full article here.
2. “Edward Wasn’t A Bad Man. He Just Wasn’t A Good Husband.”
This one is from an AskReddit thread from about a year ago. What’s interesting to me about this thread is that a lot of the comments are actually people recounting things they did when they were kids that convinced others they may have had past lives — which lines up with the fact that so much of the research psychologists have done on past life experiences centers around children, as well.
3. “That’s Where My Plane Was Shot Down.”
One of Jim Tucker’s case studies zeroed in on James Leininger, a boy born in 1998 who, at the age of two, began exhibiting behaviors and saying words and phrases that led his parents to believe he may have experienced a past life. According to James, he had been a fighter pilot during the Second World War; he said his plane had been shot down in the Pacific theater. They couldn’t figure out how he might have learned certain details he told them about from outside sources: For example, during the summer of 2000, he said that in this past life, he had flown his plane off a boat — and when his parents asked what the boat’s name was, he said “Natoma.” Research later revealed that a vessel called the USS Natoma Bay had been a Pacific-stationed escort carrier during the war.
At the age of two and a half, James’ father said according to Tucker’s case study, James pointed to a picture in a book about Iwo Jima that the family was planning on giving his grandfather for Christmas. The picture showed the island on which the dormant volcano Mr. Suribachi is located. “That’s where my plane was shot down,” James said. “My airplane got shot down there, Daddy."
4. “I Used To Be Really Good At This.”
In a submission to the website Real Reincarnation Stories, which seeks to educate folks about alleged past life experiences and connect those who say they’ve had them, a man named Mark recounted an experience he had when he was three years old. His father had just put him on the back of a horse when he found himself thinking, “I used to be really good at this.” That thought turned out to be the gateway to what Mark believes is a memory of a past life centered around a woman he loved 1,000 years ago.
Mark’s story is a little difficult to follow — the writing isn’t super clear — but from what I gather, he actually did find the woman he said he loved a century ago in this life, and that she, too, remembered that same past life. Wrote Mark, “We dated briefly, but then high maintenance kept us apart.”
5. “No, No. This Was A Long Time Before You Were Born.”
Here's another from that AskReddit thread from last year. Alas, u/faceintheblue says they haven’t been able to figure out anything about the location in the photograph, or even the magazine the photograph was in; in a later comment, they noted, “I have no idea where it is. I've gone looking, but the number of different publications that might have been in a doctor's waiting room three decades ago? It could have been anything.” Additionally, said u/faceintheblue, their mother was “pretty terribly at geography and not all that great at history, either”; all they’ve got to go on is the location being “the ruins of a monastery in an arid region.”
6. “They Were Innocent. I Killed Them.”
In another submission to Real Reincarnation Stories, a man named Topher Williams described a long, epic tale spanning from his childhood all the way through the present. It starts with lighthouses — two of them. Williams apparently drew these lighthouses a lot when he was a kid; then, later as an adult, his wife’s mother sent him a picture of the Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, Maine (Cape Elizabeth being where his wife had grown up). The lighthouse appeared to be one of the two that Williams had drawn as a child. “Maybe I [had] inadvertently seen it growing up," he wrote, "but it was a little scary nonetheless.”
After a number of other bizarre occurrences that occurred, particularly during a trip to Maine, Williams underwent past life regression therapy. In his session, he ended up recounting multiple alleged past lives — but the first is the one that really sticks out: He appeared to have been an army captain named James in Massachusetts in the late 1700s and early 1800s who had won land in a number of battles. His wife’s name was Esther. When the therapist took him to James’ death bed — which Williams said while under hypnosis, was in 1817, when “James” was 72 — the therapist asked, “How do you feel about this life?” Williams started sobbing and said, “I killed so many people … for land. It’s not worth it.” He continued, “They were innocent. I killed them.”
After some research he conducted later on, Williams dug up some information on a Captain James Buxton, who in 1780 was awarded a bunch of land in Massachusetts due to his military service. He was married to a woman named Esther. He died in 1817, aged 72.
7. “My Grandkids. They Never Visit Anymore.”
This one comes from another AskReddit thread, this time dated about 10 months ago asking parents if their kids have ever said anything that made them think they’d possibly had past lives. Yes, there are other explanations for behavior like this than a past life; as another Redditor commented, “You probably heard a relative/someone on TV say something about their grandkids not visiting and parroted it. Kids do sh*t like that all the time, we just forget the times when it isn't creepy.” Still, though — what if?
8. “When I Was Your Age, I Used To Change Your Diapers.”
A boy named Sam Taylor, then one and a half years old, said one day while his dad changed his diaper, “When I was your age, I used to change your diapers.” According to a case study review by Jim Tucker, Sam had been born about a year and a half after his paternal grandfather had passed away — and as he got older, he began talking about having actually been his grandfather, complete with details his parents didn’t think it would be at all possible for Sam to have learned on his own.
After his grandmother died, Sam’s family came into a collection of photographs from her estate. Sam kept pointing to pictures of his grandfather and saying, “That’s me!” — including an old class picture in which his grandfather was one of 16 kids present.
9. “I Told Myself That If This Was Death, There Was Little To Fear.”
This story is particularly interesting to me because it comes from a skeptic. Earlier this year, Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies underwent a session with certified past life therapist Ann Barham, and the feature Davies wrote about the experience is fascinating. Past life regression, as it turns out, isn’t solely about literal reincarnation; Davies points to this passage from Barham’s book The Past Life Perspective to make this point:
Occasionally, clients worry after the regression that maybe they “just made it up” or it was only their imagination. In the scheme of things, that isn’t particularly important. In the first place, we can treat the past life stories as illustrative metaphors for the issues and influences in a person’s current life. It gives us very rich material to work with, as any therapist who employs dream interpretation, creative imagery, sand tray work, or other projective techniques well knows.
That is, if you’re a skeptic, you can look at past life regression not as an unearthing of an actual “former life,” but as a deep dive into your psyche.
That’s what Davies found: In her session, she discovered herself to be “a high ranking male British soldier stationed in the desert during the race to colonize Africa in the late 1800s. (So not a Nazi, but not entirely far off.) Cocky and surging with affection for Queen and Country, I felt free, not plagued with self-doubt or guilt (even deserved guilt) for quite possibly the first time ever.” She also realized that in this scenario, she (as the solider) was actually dying — which brought up a whole bunch of interesting thoughts and feelings. “Somehow I managed to crawl out [of the tent] into the sand and lookup at the stars as I drew my last breath,” she wrote. “Feeling a warmth in my chest, like my heart had melted into a million tiny universes, I told myself that if this was death, there was little to fear. Once again, in my current and actual body, the one that was seated in the armchair, I found myself crying.”
Definitely check out the full piece. It can be found here.