I have been thinking about the evidence we have for life planning before we are reborn. That we plan out our lives in detail, and even make a contract with ourselves or with God, before we resume corporeal embodiment, is a widespread idea in New Age metaphysics. It seems to be confirmed by many reports of memories during regressions to previous lives under hypnosis, especially in those described by Michael Newton in his popular books, Journey of Souls and Destiny of Souls. Newton draws a picture of healing showers, staging areas, waiting rooms with soul cluster groups, and tribunals before which spirits evaluate how well they met the goals they set for their last human lives and formulate plans for their next.
However, judging by the spontaneous case data, all this is quite fanciful. There are no healing showers, staging areas, or soul cluster groups, and spirits do not assess their past lives or plan their future ones, in memories of the intermission (the interval between lives) that surface spontaneously, in the waking state or dreams. We do see some degree of personal choice in the selection of parents, and sometimes of sex, ethnicity, place of rebirth, etc., and assisting spirits sometimes present slates of options and even provide glimpses of what the upcoming lives will be like, but none of this reaches the level of detailed life planning that has become the popular conception of the interlife state.
Spontaneous prebirth memories—memories of the womb or discarnate existence, without accompanying past-life memories—are reported much more often than intermission memories, and so we find a greater variety of phenomena in them. We hear about more detailed life planning occasionally in prebirth memories, but it does not appear to be common with them, either. How are we to account for this situation? If life planning before reincarnation is the rule, why do we hear about it regularly in regression accounts but seldom in spontaneous memories?
Let’s start with what we know about spontaneous intermission memories. Iris Giesler-Petersen and I made a study of 85 published intermission memories that is now in press in the Journal of Near-Death Studies and should be out later this month. Although many of the case subjects—most of them young children—talked about how they came to their parents, we did not find life planning mentioned in any of the cases in our sample. Life planning is not mentioned by Poonam Sharma and Jim Tucker in a 2004 study of intermission memories in Burma (https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/wp-content/uploads/sites/267/2015/11/REI31.pdf), either, nor in a survey undertaken by Masayuki Ohkado and Akira Ikegawa in Japan (http://ohkado.net/articles/ohkado_ikegawa_2014.pdf).
Thirteen of Ohkado and Ikegawa’s 21 subjects did talk about why they decided to return, but their reasons do not sound like life planning. Three said that it was to meet or help their mothers; five said that it was to help other people; two said that it was to become happier than they were in their previous lives; three said simply that it was to enjoy life; and one said that there was a reason, but he forgot what it was when he was born.
What the intermission memories and other features of the spontaneous cases suggest is that although there are choices many of us can make about where and even when to reincarnate, these choices are limited. They appear to be driven above all by emotional factors—ties to people we were with before, parents to whom we are attracted to for one reason or another, sometimes the country or ethnic group into which we want to return. Such choices are not invariably available, though. When death is violent and unexpected, there is often less evidence of control, as if the psyche had become befuddled by the lack of preparation for death. In some cases, a nonhuman spirit entity assists by providing guidance or a choice of options, but we seldom hear of reflections over past deeds or planning of the circumstances of the next life, except in the limited arenas of choice over parents, sex, etc. I provide examples of the choices we see in the book I wrote with Erlendur Haraldsson, I Saw a Light and Came Here.
The intermission may be broken down into five stages: (1) Death and its immediate aftermath; (2) Discarnate existence; (3) Choice of new parents; (4) Life in the womb; (5) Birth and its immediate aftermath. Memories of all five stages have been reported, although no subjects remember all of them, and most memories relate to Stages 1-3. Prebirth memories are very much like intermission memories, and may be a subset of them. They lack Stage 1, but that may be only because it is not remembered. Maybe everyone goes through all five stages, but not everyone remembers all of them.
On the other hand, it is possible that prebirth memories without memories of Stage 1 represent pre-existence without an earlier embodied life. This may sound strange, but actually it is a very old idea in Western religion and philosophy. It was argued about in early Christianity and pre-existence of the soul, not its reincarnation, is what led to the anathematization of Origin in the 500s CE. Perhaps surprisingly, the idea is still around. It is the position taken by Richard Eyre, who in his book Life before Life says (on p. 13), “our spirits lived long before they inherited our bodies—not in other persons, but in another place, in a pre-mortal realm where we each developed and became who we are and from where we foresaw this physical life as a continuing phase of our experience and our spiritual progression.”
Given the possibility that Eyre is right about some cases, could that difference account for differences between prebirth and intermission memories? What are those differences, other than the absence of Stage 1? I need to be careful here, because although many collections of prebirth memories have been published, and many more such cases have been reported in Internet forums such as PreBirthExperience.com (http://www.prebirthmemories.com/), we don’t yet have careful analyses of these cases. We don’t have a good understanding of their characteristics, just impressions gained from reading many accounts.
There are some differences which may or may not be important. First, unlike intermission memories, most prebirth memories have been reported from culturally Western countries. Second, they haven’t been nearly as well studied as intermission memories. Most of them are anecdotes told by one person, often the experiencer when he or she reached adulthood and is recounting memories from earlier in life. Phenomenologically, though, intermission memories and prebirth memories are very similar. Case subjects recall meeting the spirits of deceased people and nonhuman entities in both, and in both they talk about how they came to their new parents.
Probably because most prebirth memories come from the West, they refer to a discarnate existence in heaven. This fits with one of the things Iris and I discovered about intermission memories: Western accounts usually talk about heaven, but Asian ones refer to time spent in a terrestrial environment. For the most part, in prebirth memories there is no talk about life planning, just as there is none in intermission memories. Nor is there much talk about life reviews, judgments, or penalties paid after death, in either prebirth or intermission memories. So prebirth and intermission memories are pretty much indistinguishable, except that prebirth memories do not refer to Stage 1 of the intermission experience.
There is one major exception to this observation, and that is Cosmic Cradle by Elizabeth and Neil Carman. In that collection, a great deal is made of life planning, and there are several case examples of it. I have not yet studied all these closely, but I have noticed what seems to be a pattern. When life planning is mentioned, it seems to be by adults who are recalling memories from childhood, sometimes after a lapse of years. One 35-year-old woman said that she had tried as a child to hold onto her memories of her birth, but they had slipped away. Later, on a meditation retreat, she had retrieved her intermission memories (she believed). Her account includes detailed memories of life planning, including how she was going to relate to the various people in her life, etc.
Although it needs to be supported through further research and analysis, I now have a working hypothesis of what is going on: I think the idea of detailed life planning in advance of reincarnation is something that has been imagined by our culture. It certainly does not seem to be something that all people do, unless it is something that almost everyone forgets about, while they remember other things. Adults trying to recall things they remembered as children, and people under hypnosis, may be especially likely to draw on the cultural expectation and draw the idea of life planning into their experiences. The same thing might also impact some genuine intermission experiences, if our cultural values are carried into death and influence what we experience then, as does seem to happen very often.
We should look closely at prebirth memories to see if there is more sign of life planning with them than with intermission memories. If there is, that could be evidence of pre-existence without prior incarnation. It may indicate that life planning is important at the beginning or early stages of one’s reincarnation career, but not so important later. We also need to know exactly how many prebirth memories there actually are, and we need to see more of them from non-Western countries. Many, probably most, collections of prebirth memories include past-life memories, and if not past-life memories as such, then memories of being in a womb before, but having one’s body lost to a miscarriage or abortion. When there are true prebirth memories, they are often vague or brief, about time spent in a discarnate state, or choosing parents, or in the womb, or birth, but very rarely all of them together. If there are a lot of prebirth memories where Stages 2-5 are all recalled, and only Stage 1 and past-life memories are absent, I will be more inclined to think that perhaps pre-existence without prior incarnation does occur some of the time. However, based on what I have seen to date, I think it more likely that the other stages and past lives occurred, but simply are not recalled.
Possibly hypnosis is able to reach levels of memory that cannot be brought to mind without it. This is what Newton claims for his method, and many who champion regression memories take this position as well. However, there are many problems with the regression material. Subjects under hypnosis are known to be very suggestible, and will often produce what the hypnotist expects. Moreover, hypnosis is known not to be a good memory-enhancer, which is why testimony based on hypnotically-retrieved memories is not allowed in courts of law. There are other things about the regression material that should raise suspicions too. Memories of reincarnation in the same family are common in spontaneous cases, but unknown in the regression material.
The structure of the prelife or interlife experience is also very different in spontaneous memories and in hypnotically-induced ones, and with spontaneous memories, there are accounts of perceptions of the material world and of interactions with it and living people, through dreams, communications through mediums, poltergeist activity, and apparition sightings. Iris and I found veridical perceptions during all five stages of the intermission experiences, and they have been reported in all stages of the prebirth experience too (and in NDEs, for that matter)–and yet, so far as I am aware, they have never been reported by anyone undergoing regression. Why is that? If interactions with people and the material world are regularly reported in spontaneous memories, why should they not be reported in memories brought up under hypnosis too?
Putting all these things together, I can’t see any reason to think that accounts of the intermission under regression would be more reliable than spontaneous memories, so where they are differences, I am inclined to go with the spontaneous memories. I can easily accept that there is a degree of personal choice in reincarnation, but I do not see evidence for routine reviews of lives just completed or detailed planning of the life to come. Reincarnation choices appear to be much more limited and are largely informed by emotion rather than rational thought. At least that is what the spontaneous case data seem to be telling us. My conclusions are tentative, though, and I could be wrong about them. As always, I am led by data, and if data emerge to take me in a different direction, I will go there.
This post was revised from a post in the Signs of Reincarnation group on Facebook: