Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives, by Tom Shroder

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Ian Stevenson (1918-2007) was a US-based Canadian psychiatrist who researched reincarnation cases, or as he cautiously phrased it in book titles, cases ‘of the reincarnation type’ or ‘suggestive of reincarnation’.  His is still the best-known name in the field of serious reincarnation research, yet his reputation has been buffeted since his death by accusations of credulity and poor methodology.  Tom Shroder’s 1999 book dug under the surface of Stevenson’s published work to provide a glimpse of what it was like to undertake overseas trips to collect data, and he also gives an insight into Stevenson as a person.

Actually the story does not begin with Stevenson but with Brian Weiss, who wrote the bestseller Many Lives, Many Masters in which he describes using hypnotic regression to past lives in order to treat a patient for a severe phobia, with positive therapeutic results.  Shroder, writing an article on Weiss’s approach, was unconvinced that his patients were tapping into past lives, and when Shroder himself underwent the procedure felt he was role playing (a feeling I can endorse).

Tapping into alleged past lives through hypnosis seemed to lack credibility, evidence of no more than the human imagination’s creativity.  Anyway, for Weiss and other therapists employing the technique the primary concern was its efficacy in assisting their patients’ recovery, and the validity of the past lives recounted by them was of secondary importance.  Weiss admitted he had done no research to see if there was any supporting evidence for the claimed lives described by his clients.

Then Shroder learned about the fieldwork being conducted by Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia.  Funded to a large extent by money from Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography, Stevenson had for decades been collecting case studies of individuals who as children, generally between the ages of about two and five, claimed to be able to recall past lives.  Hypnotic regression threw up ‘past lives’ from centuries before, but Stevenson’s cases featured previous lives from no more than a few decades before, death often occurring only several years prior to the birth of the supposedly reincarnated individual, among people who were still alive and could corroborate the evidence.

In the reports supplied to Stevenson, if the two families met the child would typically recognise members of the deceased person’s family, neighbours, the location of places that in some instances no longer existed, recount events that were private and known only to the person being told and the dead person, and might act in ways characteristic of the dead person.  Sometimes the child remained close to the deceased person’s family, occasionally feeling they had two sets of parents.  The child might exhibit mannerisms and dress preferences beyond their years.  However, memories were often fractured, with gaps and inconsistencies, and tended to fade with time.

Tracking down Stevenson’s books proved to be difficult, but having examined the literature discussing his work and talking to the man himself, Shroder asked to be allowed to accompany him on field trips to examine his methods, and document those aspects of an investigation which never make it into the published report.  Shroder went on two major expeditions with Stevenson, to Lebanon and India in 1997 and 1998, where they undertook a mixture of following up old cases to fill in details, and checking new ones.  The final examples in Shroder’s book are from the US, but are sketchily drawn in comparison with the others, included mainly to rebut the claim that spontaneous reincarnation memories only arise in cultures with a tradition of believing in reincarnation.

The book graphically describes the difficulties Stevenson faced in places with poor, not to say dangerous, infrastructure, language barriers, complex bureaucracy and patchy records, moving among people who not infrequently projected hostility, either on account of anti-American feeling or resentment at the disparity in affluence; and it’s not lost on Shroder that circumstances have improved somewhat since Stevenson began his trips in the early 1960s.  The group had more than one encounter where its members felt physically threatened.  Stevenson, aged nearly 80, took it all in his stride.

Shroder is surprised to find that reincarnation anecdotes are so common among the Lebanese Druze and in India when he was expecting them to be hard to find.  Naturally though the quality varies enormously and there is no perfect case.  Ideally Stevenson wanted ones where the families had not met to compare notes prior to his interviewing them, and he was particularly interested in birthmarks as evidence of a correspondence between physical trauma in the previous life and the reincarnated one; he went to a great deal of effort to trace medical reports containing such details. Intra-family cases had a low value as information could easily have been conveyed to the child.

Shroder weighs the evidence and asking the questions an intelligent newcomer to the subject would ask.  You get a good feel for the sheer physical effort required to research these cases, a sense not available from reading Stevenson’s own publications.  The two clearly got on well and Stevenson gave Shroder an interview in which he talked about his life.  The book’s strength is its effort to cast a light on the cases Stevenson investigated on those trips, but we are repeatedly reminded that they are a handful out of thousands he and his associates studied, and there is no overall analysis by Shroder of Stevenson’s collection.

Assuming they are not dismissed out of hand, the reader will probably share Shroder’s ambivalence towards these cases.  Some details seem convincing, yet there is always a feeling there could be a normal explanation, and however stretched to explain a particular case it is always going to be more plausible than the reincarnation possibility, sets of facts with no supporting theory as to how the process might be accomplished.  As Shroder puts it, ‘In the absence of compelling reasons to believe in souls and soul transfers in and of themselves, a rational person had to choose the unlikely over the unexplained.’

That is not to say there will not be an explanation eventually, and Shroder sits on the fence, probably the most sensible critical posture.  What he does feel is that while there are difficulties in reaching neat conclusions about whether the children really do somehow incorporate elements of deceased individuals’ surviving personalities into their own, such instances point to some larger force linking us which we do not understand.  It may sound nebulous, but he still considers such matters appropriate for scientific scrutiny.

He stands in for the interested reader who would like to take the evidence seriously but finds these investigations share the general problem of spontaneous cases in the lack of control, and the reliance on good faith and accuracy of recall by witnesses.  One common charge he refutes is that lower-caste children conveniently recall lives of people from higher castes, which will be socially advantageous to their families. Shroder found that while this does happen, generally past lives are recalled within the same social sphere, or even where it is disadvantageous – crossing religious boundaries for example.  Overwhelmingly, the families Stevenson interviewed were not in it for the money.

While it does air some of the issues, Old Souls is not the best place to start for those wanting an overview of reincarnation research, laying out the arguments pro and con; but for those who would like some insight into the data-gathering process this is an invaluable addition to the literature.  As a snapshot of Stevenson’s life the book is admirable, but leaves one wanting a fuller assessment of his career.  However, he conceded his books were not best sellers, so Old Souls usefully brings his research to a wider audience.  If it leads to more people reading his work it will have done a good job, even if the conclusion is that Stevenson spent a large amount of Chester Carlson’s money and endured a great deal of discomfort for scant return.  As to Stevenson’s undoubted dedication, in her personal reminiscences of Stevenson published in the January 2008 number of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Mary Rose Barrington writes the following:

‘Recently I discovered Old Souls (Simon & Schuster, 1999), a book by the journalist Tom Shroder, who in the late 1990s accompanied Ian on his reincarnation research travels in Lebanon and India, writing his own account of these enterprises. Only after reading Shroder’s descriptions of hours spent in extreme discomfort on dirt track roads, arduous journeys undertaken in the hope of interviewing a witness, obtaining a document, examining a birthmark; of weeks spent surrounded by squalor, and sometimes by hostile crowds, in dire conditions, all borne with stoic heroism despite his advanced age and imperfect health, only then did I realise the courageous and unstinting dedication that went into Ian’s collection of reincarnation-type case records.’

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