Patience Worth and the Problem of Bias

Reborn as Twins

Here’s an intriguing case of the reincarnation type reported in an Indian national news site.

It concerns two 15 year old cousins who lived next to each other, and who accidentally drowned while playing near a pond in 2010. Recently, two twin boys aged five turned up on the doorstep of the two families claiming to be the cousins reborn. The families now accept this, as the twins recognised family members and accurately answered questions about the cousins’ past life. One of the fathers says the twin claiming to be his son reborn remembers ‘everything’, for instance that he’d kept his brown wallet inside a trunk in his room, which turned out still to be there. The boys also took them to the place where the cousins had died.

These are skimpy details, such as you’d expect to find in a short news report, and easy to dismiss if you disbelieve this sort of thing. But the report has a lot in common with cases documented by Ian Stevenson and other researchers, as can quickly be seen from this collection of brief case studies I compiled for the Psi Encyclopedia: the quick rebirth after accidental death, the compulsion to contact the families of the previous life, the families’ belief in the truth of the claim, based on numerous accurate details too small and intimate to be known by strangers. (There's another, general article on the topic by Professor Jim Tucker.)

It’s exactly the sort of case that researchers might usefully follow up, in which case there’s reason to think it would develop into the kind of richly evidenced narrative that characterises Stevenson’s country case study collections. A downside is that the contact has already been made, when ideally that event would be closely observed by some disinterested third party. But that rarely occurs, and at least this case has the merit of having developed in recent days – many (most?) of Stevenson’s cases were months or years old by the time he was able to investigate them. It occurs to me to wonder how much of this sort of work, if any, continues to be carried out in India and other countries where such cases surface.

The really striking feature here is the double rebirth, by people closely connected in the previous life. There are two connected cases in Stevenson’s Turkish collection, a husband and wife who were murdered in the same crime, but these seem to have been reborn into different circumstances (Ismail Altinkilic and Cevriye Bayri). Here, by contrast, we have cousins who were also close friends, reborn as twins.

A more tantalising parallel is with the case of the Pollock twins, one of two dramatic 1950s cases that helped fuel a fascination with reincarnation in the West, along with the Bridey Murphy hypnotic regression case. This is a well-known story, but the details are worth restating. Briefly, in May 1957 John and Florence Pollock lost their two daughters Joanna, 11, and Jacqueline, 6, who were run over in the street by a car driven by a suicidal woman. In October 1958, Florence Pollock gave birth to twin girls. John immediately noticed a birthmark on the face of the younger twin, a thin white line running down her forehead, that corresponded closely to a scar on the face of the younger of the dead girls that had been caused by a fall at age two. The older twin had a birthmark – a brown patch resembling a thumbprint – in precisely the same place where the older of the dead girls had had an identical birthmark. Since the twins were found to be monozygotic (from one single egg cell, and therefore genetically identical), this sort of physical difference was not to be expected.

Four months after the birth the family moved away. When the twins were aged three their parents brought them back to the town for a visit. According to John Pollock, they appeared familiar with the streets and with the location of landmarks such as the school and a playground, before these came into view. When, later, the twins were given dolls that had belonged to the dead girls, one accurately recalled the names that their previous owners had given them.

There were also sinister reminders of the tragedy itself. On one occasion the girls appeared terrified by the sight of a car that, although stationary, appeared to be coming towards them, screaming, ‘The car! The car! It’s coming at us.’ In another incident, their mother came upon one of them cradling the other’s head in her hands and saying, ‘The blood’s coming out of your eyes. That’s where the car hit you.’ At age five, the memories abruptly disappeared. The children were in their teens when they learned about the full circumstances from their parents, and know as little about the truth as anyone else.

The outstanding – and somewhat unnerving – feature of the Pollock case is that it appears to have been premeditated – in a literal sense. John Pollock, a Catholic, had developed a belief in reincarnation that naturally brought him into conflict with his priests. He became obsessive about this and started praying for God to send him a sign if reincarnation was true. After the tragedy occurred, Pollock first felt that it was God’s judgement on him for praying for proof of reincarnation, but became convinced nevertheless that this would be the sign, and that the girls would be reborn to him and his wife. Florence’s pregnancy naturally reinforced this belief, which he clung to, even though the odds against twins were 80 to 1, and doctors could find only one heartbeat and set of limbs.

I first read about this case in a sceptical book on past life memories by the British historian Ian Wilson, Mind Out of Time. I recall at the time (some thirty years ago) finding the story absurd, and John Pollock’s behaviour an appalling example of New Age gullibility. Later, I supposed that this jaundiced view had been encouraged by Wilson, but when I went back to check quite recently I wasn’t so sure. He points out, as he could hardly avoid doing, that all the information comes from Pollock himself, and as a fervent believer in reincarnation – someone who passionately wants it to be true – he’s hardly a credible witness. Yet I sense that Wilson is nevertheless quite impressed by it – his main target in the book are memories elicited by hypnotic regression.

The case clearly can't be held up as evidence. Despite its obvious similarities with the body of research – rebirth shortly after tragic death, curiously coincidental birthmarks, phobias related to the manner of death, familiarity with locations known to the previous personality, the quick fading of memories – its grossly histrionic features make it an outlier. But that's what makes it so striking. The chief thought I’m left with – a shocking one, if we're to accept this as a true account – is the extent to which obsessive thoughts might translate into real events in our world, and at what terrible costs for the people involved.


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Like the phone friendly format, Rob.

I remember seeing a TV piece on the Pollock twins back in the early 1970s. It may even have been on BBC1's 'Nationwide'. It featured interviews with the parents. There was quite a sceptical tone to the treatment of the father's attitude. I found it all a bit unbelievable, to be honest. But that was before I knew anything about Stevenson's work.

There was a US TV documentary series on one of the Freeview channels lately called The Ghost Inside My Child, which featured each episode two accounts of American kids remembering past lives, most of which were familiar from press reports.

The two things which struck me watching the show is that the testimony of the parents made the stories altogether more believable..convincing indeed...than the impression left by the summarised version in newspaper articles....and secondly the title really intrigued me, as I'd never thought of it that way before. The show wasn't suggesting it, but the title..ghost inside my child...does raise a question: could these memories of a previous life perhaps not be from the child him/herself in the literal sense we usually imagine (one soul occupying different bodies), but rather be something akin to possession or mediumistic experiences..a spirit quite distinct from the genuine one of the child, expressing itself through a malleable young host?

Lawrence B: I thought the show was excellent. Wish they had done more, and I agree, listening to the parents, who were exceedingly normal, made it believable

Regarding John Pollock's 'fervent belief' in reincarnation, his interpretation of his daughter's deaths as punishment from God for his belief in reincarnation would likely lead him to initially perceive his newborn daughter's birth as an act of Grace from the same god. Think: "You are forgiven, now go and sin no more. Abandon your heretical beliefs".
As someone raised under a strict orthodox mindset, that's how I picture myself understanding the events.

However, when indisputable evidence started appearing, then John had little choice but to revisit his previous reincarnation-friendly ideas.
In our modern Western society, it's way too easy to dismiss an openness to evidence as confirmation bias, especially when it comes to the paranormal.
Reported cases of reincarnation is significantly higher in societies where such belief is socially acceptable. These are communities where the evidence is well known and established, so a deeply grieving confirmation bias could definitely come into play. It is also true that our obsessive fear of confirmation bias ("Oh, that was just a coincidence") can be just as damaging to our objectivity.

Remember, it's not our doubts that confound us, it's our beliefs.

"The case clearly can't be held up as evidence"

Yep it's all nonsense. No idea how people can still cling to such a silly religious idea like reincarnation. All evidence tells us when we are dead we are dead. Even Ian Stevenson admitted there was no possible mechanism. It is scientifically impossible.. unless you believe in magic.

@Waller Joel: Wow. You have surely thoroughly demolished every one of the pages upon pages of argument with three un-cited sentences typed to people who don't know or care who you are.

@Waller Joel:

First, you look like a troll, but the idea of reincarnation is not religious if it is based on empirical research.

Second, evidence of NDEs, apparitions, mediumship, and past life children points to a afterlife.

And third, Stevenson does not know what mechanism can have the reincarnation, but it is a lack of imagination or idiocy to say that there is no possible mechanism.

Jaun you are the same guy who posts all over the internet claiming rolled up cheesecloth ectoplasms of fraudulent mediums like Helen Duncan and or fraudulent cold readers like Leonora Piper were genuine. You have never read a skeptic book and you know nothing about magic trickery. Every single medium to you is genuine. You never look at the fraud. I could easily fool you in a card game. You are easily duped and gullible.

Reincarnation is an ancient religious belief. It has its origins in superstition not science. Also the word 'empirical' means to be detected by means of the physical senses, through observation and experimentation. Nobody has ever observed reincarnation happening by objective experiment. The claims of reincarnation are entirely subjective. The 'evidence' is not empirical, it is anecdotal and weak speculation. Sorry but all science shows us once you are dead you are dead. You are anti-science and that's up to you but don't keep joining blogs and forums claiming science supports reincarnation because it doesn't. Life after death can only be a religious or philosophical belief, never scientific.

Even honest parapsychologists admit this:

"The problem of individual survival belongs in the same category. It is not subject to "falsiflability." It can neither be conclusively asserted nor conclusively refuted and must therefore be respectfully passed to the attention of the theologian or speculative philosopher." - Jan Ehrenwald

I did not comment about it and my name is Juan. Yes I have read books with skeptical part about psi I have never said that all mediums are genuine. it's going to be that you're a troll.

The belief in reincarnation is religious in origin, but it may be empirical, because Stevenson's research is based on sense data.

It is true that postmortem survival is not falsifiable, but one can have data converging on it.

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