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Some Reflections on Children’s Memories

I’ve spent the past few weeks working on Ian Stevenson’s case studies of children who remember a past life. Specifically his four collections of ten or twelve cases each from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, and Lebanon and Turkey. These case reports are much more detailed, but also less well known than those in Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Since they’re in the SPR library here in London I thought I’d get them out and write short summaries of as many as I can.

In the process, I’ve been reflecting on the quality of the research. How good is it really? How far can we trust it? (I’ve also been thinking about the implications, but I’ll leave that for another time.)

First one needs to understand that the matches in these cases are very exact. There’s no room for the casual notion that the memories are just childish imaginings, which match up with someone in the real world by sheer chance. (According to Jim Tucker, Richard Wiseman once tried this approach, but it fell flat – which I can believe.)

Mostly these children remember where they lived in the previous life, and names of at least one or two people, including their own. Some remember half a dozen or more, and their relation (spouse, parent, sibling, etc). They are often very specific about the house where they remember living and its immediate environment. For instance they often speak of a particular tree, or trees, that stood next to it – an olive, a bo, a pera, a guava - and which they may have climbed, picked fruit from, or planted themselves.

From the outskirts of the town or village they find their way to the house unaided. They identify people by name and/or relation, in the flesh and in photographs. They frequently point out changes to the building since they died – a veranda missing; a side door blocked; walls painted a different colour; a roof that has become ‘shiny’ (the thatch having since been replaced with corrugated metal).

The details can be very specific. One child, remembering the life of a boy who died aged seven, asked for his ‘drummer’. This meant nothing to the dead child’s mother, until she found some clay toys among his old possessions, one of which was the figure of a man with a drum. Another mentioned a brother named Nimal who was once bitten by a dog. The previous personality, traced by numerous other statements, was found to have had a brother named Nimal who had once been bitten by a dog.

There’s a clear pattern that repeats itself over and over in precisely similar ways. The memories come out the moment the child can speak, start to fade at around the age of five or seven and then disappear. The child begs piteously to be taken to visit ‘her’ family. The parents seldom show much interest, and often try to suppress the memories. When a visit does take place the child passes all kinds of tests, made by the other family to be sure they are not being taken in.

The child continues to show deep affection for key members of the previous family (a former spouse, parent, child). Also he/she maintains the behaviours of the previous personality – habits of dress, dietary preferences, religious practices – that are unfamiliar to the present parents and siblings, and often comical or irritating to them.

Seeking a natural explanation beyond coincidence, I think fraud is what most people are likely to come up with first. A phrase by British historian Ian Wilson sticks in my mind, that Stevenson was taken in by a series of clever acting performances’. Could this be true?

It occurred to me that some of these cases do provide openings for a committed sceptic. One that looks quite promising concerns Sunil Satt Suxena, an Indian village boy who remembered a life as Seth Sri Krishna, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist in a nearby town. Before his death Krishna had married for the fourth time, to a woman much younger than him, and had become the centre of professional and domestic intrigues. Sunil was taken to Krishna’s former home and his widow’s home, also to the college that Krishna had founded. There he recognised people that Krishna had known in his lifetime (as well as places and objects), convincing them of the genuineness of his claim.

However Krishna had been a public personality, so a lot of the details Sunil appeared to know paranormally would have been relatively straightforward for his father to acquire. Also, unusually, four witnesses, including Krishna’s son, debunked the claim, and insisted that Sunil’s father had tutored him to make the statements. Third, Stevenson discovered through his sleuthing that the father was employed for a while by one of Seth Sri Krishna’s associates, who independently testified that Sunil had recognised him.

By now all sorts of alarm bells are ringing. Sunil’s father might have picked Krishna’s family as a suitably affluent target, and there were channels for him to collect intimate family information. Or else we might decide that the fact of the squabbles after Krishna’s death meant someone might have been motivated to initiate a fraud. Such a person could have persuaded Sunil’s father to make the claim and given him inside information to drill into the boy. (There’s at least one candidate, a teacher whom Krishna had appointed to run his college and was bitter about having been sacked by Krishna’s son.)

Stevenson points out that Krishna’s son did in fact at first acknowledge Sunil to be his father reborn, but then did a swift about-face. Why? Because, Stevenson reasonably argues, he realised that certain things Sunil (as Krishna) was saying about his own questionable conduct were damaging his reputation. That would explain why he insisted Sunil’s family was perpetrating a fraud, and why he would have got his close associates to back him up. (Allegations of fraud within the cases themselves are quite rare, and anxiety about the child’s revelations seem to be a likely cause in most cases.)

Still, by now the case has sunk into a mire of allegation and counter-allegation, and one doesn’t feel much inclined to base any firm conclusion on it. And of course one can embellish the argument with rhetoric – this just shows that Stevenson was lamentably deficient in his judgement, etc, etc – and insist that such cases, alas, are representative of the whole canon (Paul Edwards did exactly this, as quoted in Wikipedia).

But actually they aren’t representative. Only a minority of the 64 cases in these four volumes involve a significantly better-off previous life (about 10-15%, I guess). So how do we explain the cases where there is no change, or where the previous life was considerably more wretched? What is the motive for fraud there?

I’m thinking of the Sri Lankan case of Sujith Lakmal Jayaratne, who having just learned to speak wanted to be called ‘Sammy’ and demanded to be given cigarettes and arrack (the local spirits made from coconut). Sujith later described how he went into a shop to buy cigarettes, then stepped out into the street and was flattened by a speeding lorry. He supplied other names: the village where he had lived, Gorakana (eight miles away), a father named Jamis, a wife named Maggie, a niece named Kusama, a teacher named Francis. He said he had worked on the railway and manufactured arrack. All of this was found to be precisely true of an individual named Sammy Fernando, who had lived in Gorokana, and died after being run over by a lorry.

If it was a hoax, why pick a bum with an alcohol problem? What would anyone gain from it? And how is it possible to get a child to act the part so convincingly that numerous of his relatives, friends, neighbours, and the relatives, friends and associates of Sammy and his family, were all convinced by it? The really striking thing about this case was the way an infant so convincingly acted the part of a jovial drunk, as if that was the person he still felt himself to be.

This is another strong characteristic of these cases, that the child acts continuously in the character of the previous personality (as later traced from the child’s statements). One may demand meat or fish to eat. Another, if remembering the life of a Brahmin, insists on being served first. A little girl who remembers a life as a devout Buddhist shows a detailed knowledge of prayer rituals she could not have learned anywhere.

Several that remember having been wealthy show disgust at their present impoverishment. One little boy kept demanding his father buy a car (a huge rarity in rural India in the 1960s). The previous personality, when traced, was found to have been a pampered little chap whose doting father had him driven around town whenever he felt like it.

It’s the depth and scope of the research that convinces me that this is a genuine phenomenon. Stevenson is obsessively thorough. He talks to everybody - the child, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbours, teachers. Then he goes to the locality of the previous personality and talks to any and all of his/her close family members, relatives, friends, neighbours, associates, teachers – anyone who has testimony to offer. It’s usual for him to talk to twenty people, sometimes as many as forty. He also talks to previous investigators.

The interviews are compared for discrepancies, against each other and against their own testimony on separate occasions years apart. For Stevenson doesn’t just do this once, he may go back four years later and talk to everyone he can find again. And two years after that. And again three years later. He devotes a lot of time talking to the child, especially on later visits, observing the extent to which he/she still remembers the previous life, or is still following the behaviours that match that of the previous personality.

Stevenson is extremely frank about difficulties and discrepancies in the gathering of testimony. He will point out that the child’s uncle said one thing when he interviewed him on his first visit in 1964, but then changed a detail when they spoke again in 1969, and agonise for several paragraphs about what this means, and how much significance should be attached to it.

When a member of the previous personality’s family claims to have been recognised by the child, he will reconstruct the circumstances and decide how reliable this recognition really is. If there was a chance the child might have been given hints by anyone present, he says so. If he thinks a witness is generally unreliable, ditto. If the cause of this phenomenon really is fraud, then you’d expect that to emerge in an investigation as deep and detailed as this. But there really is no hint of it.

All this also counts against the other main explanation, that such cases are artefactual, a product of wishful thinking by both families. According to this idea, the detailed information has been picked up at some point – in conversations, or perhaps from published sources like newspapers – and then unconsciously mingled with otherwise meaningless statements made by the child. When contact is made with the other family, their eagerness to be reunited with a lost loved one makes them find correspondences where none actually exist.

Stevenson gives detailed consideration to this possibility, and points out where it might exist. But it occurs with nothing like the frequency that would needed to explain the phenomenon as a whole. He spends a lot of time examining the geography of the case, the distance between the two locations and the level of ease or difficulty of communications between them – all in order to establish how likely it might have been that information could have been unconsciously transmitted by one to the other. It’s the difficulty of understanding how this might ever have happened that encourages the view of a paranormal process.

The feeling I came away with is that this is complex field work, and that one would need to have particular talents to do it well. I felt a lot of respect for Stevenson - for his commitment and attention to detail, and also for the empathy that must have been required to draw so much out of so many people.

So the answer to my original question would be, yes, this research is robust and trustworthy.

As I say, it is possible to pick aspects of it on which to build a naturalistic non-paranormal interpretation. That’s true in all sorts of other contexts, notably poltergeist-type cases, which also involve families in complex domestic situations. Materialism is in the dock; the determined sceptic has put on his wig and is furiously defending his client from the charges, seeking to undermine the prosecution’s testimony.

Fair enough. But this is about creating doubt, not constructing a coherent alternative. It’s impossible seriously to maintain that an investigator with a more ‘acute’ understanding, or a more aggressive questioning technique, might have got the truth out of these people, where Stevenson failed.

But to understand that you have to read the original research. The point of my summaries – if and when I get them finished – can only be to give readers an idea of the phenomenon. I just hope that some people will be encouraged to dig deeper - if my experience is any guide they will get a powerful sense of something rather shocking.

More about that later.

What’s It Like On the Other Side?

I came to the subject of mediumship by studying the early literature of psychic research, which eventually convinced me that it was a real phenomenon. One thing puzzled me, though: the communicators never gave much idea of what being dead is actually like – what kind of existence it is. In fact they seemed to avoid the subject. For serious commentators that seems like a suspicious circumstance, and encourages alternative super-psi type explanations.

Later I discovered books that deal rather fully with the afterlife experience, such as Helen Greaves’s Testimony of Light, and Jane Sherwood’s Post-Mortem Journal. One that interested me particularly was by Neville Randall, which describes research done with the British direct voice medium Leslie Flint. The researchers asked the kind of questions any of us would naturally ask – how do you live, what do you do with your time, etc - and for once were rewarded with detailed and vivid answers.

So the reason the early literature contains so little on the subject is that researchers never bothered to ask about it! (Or perhaps they did, but were embarrassed to mention it in a serious scientific enquiry.) Oddly, that reticence seems to continue. Books by mediums focus mainly on offering evidence of having survived death to relatives and providing them with reassurance, which I still find a bit surprising. If mediums can chat to the dead on a one-to-one basis why don’t they satisfy our curiosity about what they experience? I wonder sometimes whether there’s a hangover of Christian thinking, that afterlife conditions are beyond conception and it’s blasphemous to try to understand it.

So I was interested to come across this book by Jeffrey Marks, a Seattle-based medium, called The Afterlife Interviews. It consists of Marks talking to his sitters’ deceased relatives, having posed questions that only they can answer.

This is the first of two volumes, and doesn’t necessarily add much to what we know, or think we know, about the afterlife state from the near-death experience and mediumship. We learn, for instance, that the dying process is effortless and painless; communication is telepathic; forms are flexible and self-created; there is no time as we experience it; the Life Review is about self-judgement not punishment; existence is stress-free, except for regrets about the previous life; advancement is about working out problems in relationships; and this is done in future lives, in which members of a group reincarnate together.

But the quotes are interesting nonetheless, and there really are a lot of them. I don’t think the author will mind if I reproduce a few of them here. (Marks is speaking to the sitter, quotes in italics are what he gets from the communicator).

On the process of dying:

He says he got down on his knees. The feeling he’s giving me... “I knew life was done here; I needed to prepare.” So getting down on his knees was his act of preparation – prayer... “Then I was approached by three people. Two of them were family members.” He claims one of them as a brother. The other is also a sibling, but he’s not giving me brother or sister, just that the other is also related. The third one is not somebody he knew, but who was referenced to be like an angel. They put a hand on his shoulder and said, “It’s okay, stand up, and the angel here, is here... It's okay, you’re going to be okay.”

Another on the same topic:

She’s making me feel like, “When I got done here with the Life Review thing, the holding ground was up a level, like in a temple.” So they took her up into this temple-setting, higher level, and she’s with multiple people and with lots of people... She says, “These are other people who have died around the same time I did, and who have just completed their Life Reviews. There is the place we’re being situated before moving on to the next place.” She’s saying, “We don’t know where we’re going out of here, just that we will be going somewhere. There’s this recognition inside of us that’s telling us we’re going someplace. We’re okay".

She says you’re standing there with this bunch of people... Some people are in a state of shock, due to the Life Review. Some people are actually socializing about what they experienced.

“What we all noticed was a ‘compelling’ inside of us that was going to lift us somewhere into wherever this new place was where we were at. We didn’t know where, but we knew that we could trust it; there was a feeling to it.” She says, “I was a little bit humbled...” humbled is the feeling... She’s making me feel like she talked to a few people there, but it wasn’t like socializing... it wasn’t a whole lot of talking, because she was still caught in the emotion of what she had just gone through...

There’s nothing in the environment that might cause worry and stress. But individuals can stress themselves:

She says there are some people who hold themselves very seriously in their development and journey ... that they will take themselves too seriously ... and in being that serious will develop an inner stress, which could be interpreted as an inner challenge. Aside from that, she says nobody is forcing you to do anything, nobody is telling you to do anything. "There isn’t a boss chewing on your ass." It’s all very much self-directed. She writes the world ‘self’ out in front of me. "Self-motivated and self-directed." It’s going to depend on the character of the individual as to inner challenges, stress, and issues. She says, "Yes, I have things that I’m working on, but I try not to let it get to a point where it brings my energy down or makes me concerned." She says, "I learned a lot from the Life Review, in terms of holding stress in the body."

There’s a particularly interesting section about perception of time, which they recognise is an illusion, but without really understanding how it works.

He says, "Our Time here on the Other Side is completely not relevant to your Time there. This is where the worlds disconnect." It’s like he pulls a second earth out and disconnects it and says this is where we really separate in terms of our atmosphere and environment. "Time doesn’t have meaning here, where you guys really drag things out."

Another says:

"Time is a process that whittles down products of experience... Now we can consciously put ourselves in a moment-by-moment experience, but we accept it as an illusion."

But if past, present and future are all wrapped up in a simultaneous sort of being, how does that fit with past lives? There are several statements to the effect that one can look back and see the personalities one was in the past, but without wanting to associate with them.

He recognises them, but he does not socialise with them. It’s not because he’s afraid, it’s just because he doesn’t want to get caught up in the whole Time thing. He understands he is his own individual and these are just aspects of a greater portion of his being, but he still wants to move forward in expressing himself, who he is as an individual, and not let any of these others dictate to him... or ‘codify’ his possibilities.

There are consistent statements to the effect that relationships continue across different lives, in which everyone benefits.

He says, "Yes, I even chose those family members that did not like me and that I did not get along with. But at the time you make these choices, you understand the gains and the losses that are going to occur through the nature of the relationship." He says, "You do formulate the pattern and everything. You can go into... not necessarily liking it... but it is still your choice, because you understand what the parties are going to get out of it."

Another individual made a similar statement – that there are certain people in the family that you don’t necessarily like, but provide opportunities to grow – but added that there are others who are there to provide an opportunity to work out past problems.

There are some people in the family that really are not of your inner circle, but you have had dealings with in the past, so you are balancing out these relationships that you may have had prior that may have had issues, problems, things out of balance... inequality, inequality. He says, "When you go through the Life Review, and you understand your injustices to others, it is a natural reaction for you to want to repair that injustice with that person; and to do it in a much more meaningful way than to just say ‘I’m sorry.’ You want to make it a vital, physical, emotional, and spiritual connection of forgiveness. The only way you can do that ... is through engaging them through these processes." He’s making me feel like, "Yes, you could change that nature of the relationship in the spiritual realm, but some people come from the perspective of since they got messed up down on earth, that is where we need to correct it; that’s where the balance will come in; they have to have the balance in the same dynamic in the same areas. Some people will have these reincarnational experiences to provide these experiences to bring balance."

Marks himself seems thoughtful and perceptive, and shows a willingness to question the process. In the introduction he anticipated some of my concerns, in particular what confidence can we have that he’s not just imagining this stuff. He says in each case the interview proper only started when the communicator had answered all kinds of evidence-based questions, in order to establish his/her identity to the satisfaction of the sitter, and adds:

Every spirit has a unique feeling to them and along with that feeling comes nuances in personality, tone, and style of response. What I soon discovered was that these nuances found their way into the responses of the questions. What’s more, on several occasions, the deceased would forego answering a question until they had an opportunity to throw out another personal validation to reveal we were still ‘in sync’.

One rather curious detail is that he says that when he played back the recordings he picked up quite a few EVP (electric voice phenomena) comments, which were consistent with what he was receiving psychically and reporting to the sitter.

I started by thinking that I wasn’t really learning anything new. But cumulatively the book had an effect on me – it’s not just about facts, it’s about people like you and me giving a sense of lived experience in a recognisable contemporary way. The quotes are a lot funkier than what you find in the older books, where the presentation tends to be rather formal. Here one is left with a feeling of survival as a reality, and not just an abstract notion. So it's a sort of meditation on the subject.

This first volume sets the stage, Marks says, while volume 2, ‘goes deeper into the landscape, lifestyles of the deceased, and philosophical viewpoints on the nature of creation, God, etc.’ Since all kinds of new questions emerged while he was doing the interviews, he’s thinking of doing another round for a third volume. I shall look forward to seeing them, and I’ll be interested to know what other readers think.

On the Non-Existence of France

Everyone is used to hearing stories about a country called France, and although no serious person gives them credence, I confess I have often found myself wondering about them. To be clear, I’m an open minded person, with advanced degrees in geography and modern languages, and if there truly were convincing evidence of such a country I would be the first to acknowledge it.

So it was with interest that I came across a new book by someone named John Isthisgy Forreal that discusses the existence of France, and supports his thesis with all kinds of testimony. At a superficial glance it looks serious and one might very easily be taken in. The author gives descriptions by people who claim to have visited France, and by people who claim to live there and actually speak a language called French. Alas, all fail the test. The tired tropes and tricks that go into creating the illusion of this fabled place have been exposed over and over again.

Indeed, it is a great pity that the author, who is not without intelligence, wasted so much time on such an obviously futile endeavor. Sadly, Forreal seems unable to distinguish truth from fiction. He has signally failed to provide any idea of the scientific protocols that would be needed for such a claim as the existence of France to stand. Nor does he grasp that the burden of proof for such an extraordinary claim rests on the person making it.

In fact I should have put the book down then and there, but curiosity persuaded me to persevere. I then came across a totally ridiculous discussion of alleged chateaux in somewhere called the Loire Valley, which I have to say dismayed me by its obtuse naivety. Is the author not aware that the existence of chateaux has been repeatedly unmasked as a sham, as one can confirm for oneself at any time by consulting Wikipedia?

If just one person could provide convincing proof of being French, for instance by speaking a language that made sense instead of being a lot of gutteral nonsense, then of course the existence of France would be validated as real. But no one has. Not a single one. Instead we are treated to stories of obvious imposters with names like Napoleon and Voltaire and a laughably fake panoply of kings called Louis. What the author seems unable to grasp is that these were never more than unvalidated anecdotes, and the plural of anecdotes is not data. Also, we should never forget that fraud is rife. As we know, many gullible people were taken in by the recent visit to our shores of a man claiming to be the president of France, particularly in the media, which is notorious for its lack of discernment in such matters.

There is a much better book on the subject, one which I can heartily recommend, Nonsensical Tales of Imaginary Countries and the Charlatans Who Promote Them, by James Bunkerdash, a world authority who has gained remarkable insight into such matters while never stirring more than five miles from his home in Albuquerque.

I could go on, but you get the point. This is me venting at the discovery of a new one-star review of Randi’s Prize on the US Amazon site, so splendid in its stately stupidity as to deserve singling out in a competitive field. In fact I’m not entirely sure it’s not a spoof (in which case, well done, you got me!) Please no one leave any comments – it deserves to be left complete and untarnished.

I often catch myself thinking that I understand the sceptic mentality, and could engage with it if only I had the right tools and arguments. But then something like this comes along that reminds me how I utterly out of my depth I am. It’s completely baffling, as though some demon had cast a spell on certain people that, on this matter, stops them recognising a logical chain of reasoning. I know that’s exactly what they think about people like me, because they keep telling me so, but that just compounds the mystery. They're convinced they have some special access to this thing called Critical Thinking denied to us lesser mortals. As I may have said before, I wish the critics would address my actual arguments, instead of trampling over them in their rush their preferred destination.

Anyway, this diverted me from more serious matters. Specifically the post I was actually planning to write today, and which will now have to wait until later in the week. Grrr. My fault for checking up on my Amazon page – I really should just leave it to look after itself.