The Man With the Hole in His Head
Pinker on Violence

Why Only Now? (by Robert Perry)

[Thanks to Robert Perry for posing this question - RM]

Recently, I've been watching some videos on YouTube on children's apparent memories of past lives. I like this one, on the work of Jim Tucker, author of Life Before Life (an excellent book), who has carried on the groundbreaking work of Ian Stevenson on children's past life memories at the University of Virginia. Also this one, a 1992 documentary on Stevenson's work. And finally, this one, about an American boy who has memories of being a World War II fighter pilot.

As I watch these, the question that comes up for me is: Why hasn't this phenomenon been known in the West for centuries? It's clear that children in the West have these memories. They aren't that uncommon. One of the videos offers an estimate of one in every 500 children. Indeed, the daughter of a friend of mine had apparent past-life memories. Presumably, these things have been happening forever. So why did it take one man, Ian Stevenson, to bring this phenomenon to light in 1960?

The same question arises about near-death experiences. Why didn't they come into public and professional awareness before the 1970s? Presumably, they have also been happening forever. I asked Dr. Jeffrey Long, author of Evidence of the Afterlife, what percentage of NDEs would have happened in the past, without benefit of medical intervention. His "wild guess" is that "around half of all NDEs happened as a result of modern medical intervention." Given that a 1992 Gallup poll estimated that 5% of Americans have had an NDE, this would give us a rough figure of one in 40 people in pre-modern times, which is still quite an impressive frequency. So why wasn't anyone talking about them?

And if you think that we've run out of such discoveries, there is the case of Raymond Moody's shared death experiences, which he has just written about in his 2010 book Glimpses of Eternity. These are where people in the room with a dying person seem to experientially share in that person's transition. This can include apparently passing through the stages of that person's death process-leaving the body, having a life review, passing through a tunnel, entering a celestial landscape-with the dying person. While it's easy to see these as a sub-category of near-death experiences-shared near-death experiences-they don't actually fit, since no one is near-death. One person is healthy and the other person actually dies. It's a new phenomenon, one that is quite impressive, and according to Moody, also quite prevalent. Yet it too has managed to fly under the radar until very recently.

I would also include in this the phenomenon I documented in my 2009 book Signs: A New Approach to Coincidence, Synchronicity, Guidance, Life Purpose, and God's Plan. This is what I call CMPEs (Conjunctions of Meaningfully Parallel Events) - extreme synchronicities in which two events happen to occur close together in time and share a long list of parallels, with the story told by these parallels providing commentary on a relevant situation in the person's life. We've just finished a pilot study which will soon be published in Psychiatric Annals, which documents the occurrence of CMPEs in the lives of the study's participants. This bolsters what I have seen evidence of for a long time, that CMPEs do happen to people all over, even if not to everyone. Yet you will be hard-pressed to find examples of this phenomenon in the literature on coincidence and synchronicity.

Why, you have to wonder, did these phenomena - and I'm sure we could cite many others - go undocumented for so long? In the case of NDEs at least, I don't think the answer is terribly mysterious. It is common to hear NDErs say that they were afraid to tell anyone what they experienced, or that they tried and soon clammed up due to harsh or dismissive reactions. Steve Volk's Fringe-ology tells of how Elisabeth Kubler-Ross came very close to breaking the story of near-death experiences several years before Raymond Moody did, in a planned (and already written) final chapter to her now-classic book On Death and Dying. Yet she chose not to, afraid that it would kill the chances of her book getting published. Volk puts it more strongly: "Her entire life's work would have been dismissed" (p. 32).

The fact is that our culture is uncomfortable with the paranormal. In centuries past, that discomfort, I am sure, came mostly from the religious establishment. Now, I think it comes largely from the scientific establishment.

It makes you wonder what would happen without that stigma there. How many more such phenomena would come to light? And what might be the benefits of widespread and well-funded research on all such phenomena? Analogous to the scandal of sexual abuse by priests, we might find that we have been sitting on something of far larger proportions than anyone has suspected, driven underground by our collective unwillingness to face it. We might have to revise our terminology to reflect the fact that the paranormal is, in fact, normal. And more than that, we might have to revise our whole picture of reality.


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Good point. Indeed, I think we, as moderns, have systematically constructed a culture that shuts out paranormal phenomena. (Descartes' ontology certainly does this; he deliberately emptied the world of the animistic content that allowed natural magic -- a rival to his mechanistic vision -- possible).

As for other cultures, Stevenson style reincarnation case were sporadically noted long ago. See my blog entry:

On memories of previous lives, I think that Western cultures throughout History have repressed the children not to tell their memories of past lives, because reincarnation did not fit with their religious and scientific conceptions of the world. Another possibility is that children who remember their past lives are not as frequent and reincarnated only those who have died violently and prematurely.
About near-death experiences, I believe that most people in the past who were near death die, due to the absence of modern resuscitation ways that exist today.
And about synchronicity, I think that without good statistical base absent in the past, could not be distinguished synchronicities of mere coincidences.

Matt, I found that story of a Stevenson-like case in ancient China to be really fascinating. It's not strong evidence for reincarnation, as you say, but it certainly seems like evidence that the modern phenomenon goes back a long ways.

Here is a near-death experience I came across from eighth-century England:

"He came back to life and suddenly sat up - those weeping around the body were very upset and ran away. ‘I was guided by a handsome man in a shining robe,’ he said. ‘When we reached the top of a wall, there was there a wide and pleasant meadow, with light flooding in that seemed brighter than daylight or the midday sun. I was very reluctant to leave, for I was enraptured by the place’s pleasantness and beauty and by the company I saw there. From now on I must live in a completely different way.’ He later left all his worldly responsibilities and entered the Melrose monastery."

BTW, that eighth-century NDE is "an adapted extract from A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede."

One possibility is that these experiences really were extremely rare or absent in our culture in past times. UFOs are one example, where they actually were exceedingly rare before the WWII Foo fighters and Kenneth Arnold. These various phenomena would then not be what they seem to be and advertise themselves to be, but be illusions generated by a culture/society-based collective unconscious having psychic powers, for reasons having to do with contemporary mass anxieties and concerns. In other words, maybe for our society it's now group-NDE time, and the previous type of classic NDE researched by Moody and Ring, having had its time meeting needs in collective consciousness, will fade away. The classic Moody-described type of NDE would be mainly a 20th century Western phenomenon having its heyday in the 1970 and 1980s whose time is now running out. Like the dying out of the classic UFOs of the 1950s through the 1970s categorized by Hyneck as Close Encounters of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Kind.

Dave, of course that is possible, but in the case of NDEs, I think that is very unlikely. First, there are definite accounts of NDEs before the 70's. We have a compilation of NDEs by a mountain climber named Albert Heim published a collection of what we now call NDEs in 1892. He had his own NDE (a classic case of the familiar type) in 1871. Moody's own research was sparked by the classic case of George Ritchie from the 40's. Second, if you read enough NDEs, you find again and again people deciding to clam up about their experience due to ridicule and dismissal from family, friends, and medical professionals. I mentioned the story of Kubler-Ross taking the chapter on NDEs out of her book On Death and Dying.

So in the case of NDEs, we have both records of earlier ones and evidence of a kind of cultural suppression. Those two things, I would think, relieve us of having to make what seems a fairly odd assumption that this phenomenon somehow popped into being in the 70s.

In the case of UFOs is not true that it is a phenomenon that only begins in the twentieth century, because in the Bible for example, we observed multiple cases of foreign objects in the sky, only received a different interpretation of the today. Therefore, the UFO phenomenon seems to be universal, only that it has received different interpretations throughout history, suggesting that some UFOs are projections of the collective unconscious of a culture.
On the other hand, the near-death experiences seem to me an entirely different type of phenomenon, because if they seem to be universal, in the past have not had the resuscitation technologies that have now, so before most of the people close to dying died were not reanimated for narrated the experienced. Hence the paucity of cases of near death experiences to earlier times.

Juan, I really don't think that modern resuscitation techniques account for the paucity of cases in earlier times. It sounds plausible at first, but I don't think it actually holds up.

In reading and viewing lots of NDE stories, I noticed that most of them didn't involve someone being brought back by medical technology. More often, they seemed to come back spontaneously. And in a surprising amount of cases, they were not physically near death at all.

That's why I asked Dr. Jeffrey Long how many contemporary NDEs wouldn't have happened without the modern medical technology. His guess of about half obviously implies that the past frequency of NDEs was half of what it is today. That's still a lot of people--1 in every 40. I hazard to guess that if it was a physical disease affecting 1 in 40, medical science would have extensively documented it long before the 1970s.

Well. I'm doing nothing much at the moment so I may as well tell you this and I am not pulling anyone's leg. I wish to remain anonymous but everything I am telling you here is so, I know it to be the way that I know the sky is blue. Reincarnation is a fact, the full mechanics of how it works I do not know but I remember very clearly dying last time I was here and coming back again from a place of absolute perfection, so brilliant that it is impossible not to be happy and I don't just mean happy, I mean much bigger than happy, joy, ecstacy and so on if you like. I came back because last time I failed to do what I was supposed to do or rather I allowed fear to prevent me fulfilling my potential.

No one makes you come back here, I believe I did it because I wanted to try and overcome my particular problems that I still have and have failed again to overcome ( a tendecy to worry, anxiety, low self esteem etc). I think I have improved but there are phobias in me that have always been there pre-birth, I just know, I didn't learn them, I had wonderful parents and they didn't think like me.

What is leaving your body like ?
I remember lying down somewhere without anxiety simply waiting to 'go' so to speak, all the while thinking...why didn't I do more with this body that I am now going to leave behind here. Why didn't I show more courage for what does it matter now what happens to it, it is just a shell that I am about to abandon. I remember this very clearly and this thought came back with me and has been a driving force all my life. Unfortunately I cannot report that I have overcome my problems. I've had a small amount of success but 'I' remain largely as I was, I believe.
I feel somewhat like a stranger here because of what I know...this life is important but we are like wooden dolls compared to what we are when we return home. Lastly I have cheated a bit in that I knew/know all about the life review so I made sure that I caused others as little harm as possible, putting them first often to my own detriment. Is that a good idea ? Not necessarily, probably not but I will find out next time at the 'interview' so to speak.
This is an honest account, make of it what you will. I've posted anonymously because I don't want to embarrass my family etc. Regards.

Anon, I found your story fascinating, of course. Glad you were doing nothing much at the moment.

Don't know if this was your intention, but you make my point. You post anonymously, so as not to "embarrass my family etc." Does make one wonder how many of us are out there keeping quiet for basically those same reasons, and what would happen if everyone at once started speaking up. Like I said, we might find that the paranormal is far more normal than anyone has believed.

Hello, Robert,
Thanks for the comments. No, it wasn't my intention to prove your point, these things sound so ridiculous, I am rather too thin skinned to withstand the huge merryment it can cause (derision from materialist knowalls etc)
Imagine being parachuted into a world that you know isn't the 'real one' ( you are supposed to forget about where you came from but you can't because it's so much better than this one) and having to 'pretend' ....well that's how I feel everyday. Somewhat like a secret agent in a foreign land. And the frustration at hearing the intelligentsia, Dawkins Academia and Co rubbishing what I know to be so, but I can't prove.

Such is life, of course.

Just want to chime in and say to Dave that he should really look into the available data on any subject for which he wants to advance such strong a case. UFO's have been along with us for a long time, whatever theory you profess about them notwhistanding.

That's the whole case Vallee makes (a researcher who notably disfavours the ET hypothesis) and a strong case it is. I suggest you look into his books, that is, of course, should you be interested in seeing it for yourself.

Anon, your statement about "wooden dolls" has really stayed with me over the last day. I really like it. I don't have your memory of something before this life, and I see it has made you feel even more like a fish out of water than the rest of us! It seems kind of ironic, though, that while it is causing you such discomfort, I'm trying to use the same idea to get rid of my discomfort. In my path (A Course in Miracles), the idea that this world isn't the real one is an idea we are supposed to be practicing all the time as a way to feel immune from all the crap in this world--all the stuff done to us and all the less than perfect stuff we ourselves do (and apparently are). So perhaps that vexing awareness you have could one day turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

But Robert.. This world certainly is real enough, for it arose from whatever principle of existance reigns over ATI. I think that any answer we offer for the phenomena that we confront should also account for this world and the relationship it might bear with other layers of existence.

I dont know how far turning a blind eye helps us.

XXII, I don't think seeing the world as illusory means either turning a blind eye or thinking the world has no relationship to other layers of existence. It's very striking to me just how many people return from NDEs and other sorts of spiritual experiences with the realization that the world is an illusion. I mean, it's often very ordinary people with no spiritual background (other than church). And they are plainly told "the world is an illusion." I think what rescues that view from being mere lack of engagement is the notion that even if the forms aren't real, the minds behind the forms are real as well as incredibly valuable. You see, I think, both ideas in NDEs, and between the two of them you have a basis for both immunity and engagement.

Hello again, Robert. I'll make this my last comment because I don't want to make it a big issue on this blog.
I actually wish I didn't know what I 'know' and then I could join in life with more enthusiasm than I have, like everyone else does (mostly). Oh, don't get me wrong, I look normal, act normal etc but at the bottom of me I just see life as a ridiculous charade.
Still, it must have some importance, there must be a reason why we choose to come back or are sent back ( I don't remember being forced ).
Maybe you cannot know ecstacy if you always have ecstacy, so maybe we have to leave perfection so that we can go back and recognise it as so. Maybe, I don't know, but I do know that other side is there.

Thanks for your comments, Regards.

Robert --
Thanks for the historical NDE; interesting! Catherine Zaleski did a good comparison of historical (I think medieval) and modern NDE accounts that's well worth looking at. The book's called 'Otherworld Journeys (OUP, 1989),' if you're not familiar with it.

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