(Investigator 17, 1991 March)

Reincarnation is the belief that the "soul" gets reborn in or through successive bodies.

Or: "The passage of the soul from one material body into another."

Belief in Reincarnation is prevalent among the tribes of Borneo, the tribes of Assam, and among Buddhists and Hindus.

In ancient Greece Pythagoras (582-500 BC) and Plato (429-347 BC) believed in Reincarnation. Some early pseudo Christian groups also believed in it but were condemned by Emperor Justinian in 553 AD at the Second Council of Constantinople. The Roman Catholic Church denounced Reincarnation as heresy in 1917.

In recent years some "alternative therapists" have practiced "Past Lives Therapy". They claim that problems experienced in previous lives have physical and emotion effects upon one’s current life. If someone is afraid to learn to swim this might be because he lost his previous life by drowning. Or if he or she has a strong fear of fire this might mean they were burned to death as a witch or heretic.

Stresses supposedly get implanted on the soul and then stress the next body the soul enters. Past Life Therapy is the process of dredging up bad memories of previous lives with hypnotism and getting the client to confront them, leading to a cure.

It is used mainly for emotional problems and has had some success in Europe and America. Raymond A. Moody, for example, describes his nine previous lives in his book Life Before Life (1990) and gives many other case histories.

Some people write about "The Science of Reincarnation". An example is the book Coming Back. published in 1982.

From the existence of "consciousness" and it not being scientifically explainable the author concludes that consciousness exists before birth and continues to exist after a person’s death. In addition the author efers to "Out of Body Experiences" such as some patients report after traumatic operations.

Finally, the author observes that people are very unequal in wealth, health and opportunity. He says that this balances out by everyone having many lives.

The author's main reason, however, for promoting belief reincarnation is that it’s taught in Hindu Scriptures, which he quotes at length, and by "Vedic astrology". (p. 93)

It seems to me that the author of Coming Back uses the word "science" to create a positive attitude to reincarnation but does not take science very seriously most of the time.

According to biological science human life begins when a random sperm fertilises the female egg cell. To think of this random sperm as previously being an entire person in a previous life is biologically senseless. Memory, for example, is associated with an entire nervous system and is not somehow concentrated into one sperm and thereby transmitted. Nor has science ever identified any "soul" that can travel from body to body.

Coming Back only rarely cites scientific references or describes scientific experiments. In one of the few instances the book does cite science – in the case of Out of Body Experiences – the author fails to list alternative hypotheses. (See Investigator No. 6 pp. 8-10) To give only one’s own preferred hypothesis and treat it as a fact when there are a number of other explanations, is a misuse of science.

The author of Coming Back shows he knows about the fallacy of arbitrarily believing one hypothesis when others are equally as good by his discussion of "Hypnotic Regressions" which he acknowledges are "Unreliable Evidence For Reincarnation" (p.112).

Hypnotic regression is when subjects under hypnosis recall details of past lives. In the 1950s the book The Search For Bridey Murphy caused a worldwide sensation. In that book an American hypnotist described regressing an American woman by hypnosis to her previous life in 19th century Ireland. The woman gave many details about her previous life as Bridey Murphy including names of friends, parents, places, etc.

Later investigations in Ireland failed to verify anything at all about Bridey Murphy. What had happened is that the client, Mrs Tighe, had reproduced forgotten episodes of her present life. Indeed it's now known that even imaginary events can, under hypnosis, be dredged up and mistaken for a past life.

The Search For Bridey Murphy was followed by numerous books on the same theme and collectively they promoted widespread acceptance of Reincarnation. Such books all contained the fallacy of focusing on one (false) hypothesis as being the true one while quickly and unfairly dismissing rival explanations.

Past Life Regression is obviously very similar to the idea we began with – Past Lives Therapy.

If Reincarnation is a false belief why does Past Lives Therapy sometimes work? I surmise this is because

1 Being listened to non-judgmentally is itself therapeutic irrespective of whatever theories the listener believes in;

2 Many emotional problems subside gradually on their own. We can draw an analogy here with psychotherapy. Back in the 1950s psychologist H. J. Eysenck showed that no therapy other than "tonics, suggestion, and reassurance" was as effective as expensive psychotherapy by psychiatrists. In other words many of the apparently good results of psychiatry were to a great extent due to spontaneous improvement in the clients.
(J. Consult. Psychol 1952 No. 16 319-323; J. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol. 1955 147-146)

I suspect that the same is happening in Past Lives Therapy. The idea of Reincarnation is only incidental to whatever cures are being achieved and the real curing agents are suggestion, reassurance and non-judgemental listening.

The women's magazines and tabloids that report on Past Lives Therapy and Reincarnation without mentioning counter evidence are doing their readers a disservice. Some readers will feel that "where there’s smoke there’s fire" and will jump into unjustified belief.

In conclusion the idea of reincarnation has got no scientific backing.