Signs of Reincarnation is a 15-week (semester-long) inter-disciplinary graduate-level introduction to reincarnation research and theory. It is situated within consciousness studies but draws on psychical research and anthropology, among other fields. You will read original lectures and published articles and discuss them with your fellow participants in online forums. The course is self-paced with an estimated time commitment of 6-8 hours per week, including the discussion periods. There may be additional requirements for students taking the course for credit.
Lectures and readings are provided as PDF files that may be downloaded and read on devices such as tablets and dedicated e-book readers. There is no required textbook, but you may want to consider purchasing Ian Stevenson's Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation (2001) and Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation: Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged (1974/1980), to which frequent references are made.
The weekly discussion forums are intended for discussion among participants but a separate Q & A forum is provided for querying me about matters of substance. Other resources include a bibliography including all works cited in the lectures and a glossary of specialized terms used in the lectures and readings.
This course will give you a comprehensive and up-to-date acquaintance with serious reincarnation studies, especially of children who claim to remember previous lives. You will learn to assess reincarnation claims critically and come to appreciate the relation of beliefs to cases. You will learn how cases are investigated and analyzed and will be prepared to make your own contributions to the field.
The picture above is of an American girl with past-life memories at about the age she began to relate them.
Unit 1: Introduction to the Study of Reincarnation Signs
Lecture 1.1: What is Reincarnation? Different beliefs systems have different ideas about how reincarnation works. Before we can discuss the subject intelligibly, we must agree on some basic definitions.
Lecture 1.2: Signs of Reincarnation for the Tlingit. The Tlingit Indians of south-eastern Alaska check newborn babies for birthmarks and look for other signs of who they were before so that they may be reincorporated into Tlingit society.
Lecture 1.3: Reincarnation and Consciousness Studies. Reincarnation is usually treated as a religious belief but signs allow it to studied scientifically. We will be examining reincarnation signs within the framework of consciousness studies.
Video 1: Have We Lived Before? This YouTube video documents the case of a Sri Lankan girl who claims to remember having lived before. The case is typical of those we will be studying in this course.
Unit 1 Discussion Forum. Coming into this course, what did you understand reincarnation to be? Has your understanding changed? At this point, how likely do you believe reincarnation is to occur? Why?
Unit 2: The Belief in Reincarnation
Lecture 2.1: Reincarnation and Tribal Society. About 50% of the world's tribal societies have reincarnation beliefs and these beliefs are related to social practices in ways one does not find in more developed societies.
Lecture 2.2: A Short History of the Belief in Rebirth, West and East. The belief in reincarnation developed out of tribal ideas independently in Greece and India. The notion of karma was introduced by the Indian tradition.
Lecture 2.3: Karma, God and the Individual in Reincarnation Theory. This lecture describes three resolutions of the Selection Problem, the problem of how new parents are selected in reincarnation.
Reading 2: Reincarnation in Contemporary England. Sociologists Tony Walter and Helen Waterhouse report the results of interviews with survey respondents who profess a belief in reincarnation, some despite contrary religious teachings.
Unit 2 Discussion Forum. How do you account for the differences between animistic tribal beliefs and those of the world religions? How might signs and experiences relate to the beliefs?
Unit 3: Research Styles and Interpretive Frames
Lecture 3.1: Signs of Reincarnation Recorded before 1960. The same sorts of signs, including claims by children to remember previous lives, have been reported in relation to the belief in reincarnation for many centuries.
Lecture 3.2: Research Styles in Modern Reincarnation Studies. Ian Stevenson began to study of past-life memory claims in the 1960s. This lecture discusses ways reincarnation cases are studied today, from the field to the armchair.
Lecture 3.3: Critical and Interpretive Frames. Fraud, self-delusion, parental guidance, spirit possession and psi have been advanced as explanations for the reincarnation case data, but all fail to account for it adequately.
Reading 3: Improving the Study and Documentation of Cases. Vitor Moura Visoni uses a Turkish Alevi case studied by Jürgen Keil to critique the methods used field investigations of reincarnation cases.
Unit 3 Discussion Forum. At this point in the course, what do you see as the best interpretation of the reincarnation case data? Defend your point of view to your fellow students.
Unit 4: Child Studies: Imaged Memories, Statements and Recognitions
Lecture 4: Child Studies: Imaged Memories, Statements and Recognitions. Children's past-life memories closely resemble memories of the present life. Both classes are associative and mistakes are made under similar conditions.
Video 4: James Leininger Documentary. This documentary of the James Leininger case features interviews with his parents and other witnesses to his claims to have been a World War II fighter pilot.
Reading 4.1: The Case of Nazih Al-Danaf. Erlendur Haraldsson and Majd Abu-Izzeddin describe how a Lebanese Druze child's statements and recognitions led to his being identified as the reincarnation of a specific deceased person.
Reading 4.2: Errors in Autobiographical Memory. In this classic paper, Ira Hyman and Elizabeth Loftus discuss the kinds of mistakes people make in remembering things that happened to them.
Unit 4 Discussion Forum. What similarities and differences do you see between past-life memory and memory of the present life? What are the theoretical consequences of your conclusion?
Unit 5: Child Studies: Behavioral Signs of Reincarnation
Lecture 5: The Child’s Behavioral Identification with the Previous Person. Children with past-life memories typically behave in ways reminiscent of the person whose life they recall.
Reading 5.1: Unusual Play in Young Children. Ian Stevenson documents ways in which children's play in reincarnation cases may be related to the previous person's vocation, avocation, or circumstances of death.
Reading 5.2: Burmese Children who Behave like Japanese Soldiers. Ian Stevenson and Jürgen Keil describe the striking behaviors of a series of children who said they had been Japanese soldiers killed in Burma during World War II.
Reading 5.3: Children Who Speak of Lives as Buddhist Monks. Erlendur Haraldsson and Godwin Samararatne report three cases of Sri Lankan children who claimed that they were Buddhist monks in their previous lives.
Unit 5 Discussion Forum. What do you think of the behavioral signs in children's reincarnation cases? How would you explain these signs within the psychosocial (social constructionist) theory?
Unit 6: Physical Signs of Reincarnation
Lecture 6: Birthmarks and Other Physical Signs. Physical signs in reincarnation cases include similairties in features as such as stature and facial structure, in addition to birthmarks and congenital abnormalities.
Reading 6.1: Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Ian Stevenson discusses birthmarks and birth defects corresponding to the previous person's death wounds in reincarnation cases.
Reading 6.2: The Case of Purnima Ekanayake. Erlendur Haraldsson describes a Sri Lankan girl with birthmarks matching death wounds confirmed by medical records.
Reading 6.3: Gitxan Cases of Pierced-Ear Birthmarks. Antonia Mills reports three cases of children born with marks on their ears where earrings had been worn by the persons whose lives they recalled.
Unit 6 Discussion Forum. Congenital physical signs make no sense on the psychosocial theory but they also pose a challenge to reincarnation interpretations. How would you explain them?
Unit 7: Child Studies: The Interval between Death and Rebirth
Lecture 7: Signs of Discarnate Agency. Children's intermission memories and other evidence suggest that an active consciousness survives bodily death.
Reading 7.1: Memories of the Intermission. Poonam Sharma and Jim Tucker analyze reincarnation cases with intermission memories. There are strong similarites to near-death experiences.
Lecture 7.2: Searching for a Womb. Anthropologist Jean-Guy Goulet describes apparitions of spirits coming to be reborn in a Canadian first nations society.
Reading 7.3: A Case of the Possession Type in India. In this important case reported by Ian Stevenson and colleagues, a reincarnating spirit replaces the one with which the subject was born.
Unit 7 Discussion Forum. The material of this unit bears on the Selection Problem addressed in Lecture 2.3. Does it help you to decide among the three solutions presented there? Why?
Unit 8: Child Studies: Cross-Cultural and Cross-Historical Patterns
Lecture 8: The Interplay between Beliefs and Cases. Beliefs about reincarnation have a clear relationship to cases of apparent reincarnation but the association is not as strong as the psychosocial theory implies.
Reading 8.1: A Strength-of-Case Scale. Jim Tucker introduces a scale to measure the relative strength of reincarnation cases and reports features correlated with it.
Reading 8.2: Turkish Cases a Generation Apart. Ian Stevenson and Jürgen Keil compare Turkish Alevi cases they investigated independently and find them to be very similar in their main features.
Reading 8.3: Cases in South India: Why So Few Reports? Satwant Pasrcha addresses an important question: Why are there so many fewer reincarnation cases reported from South than from North India?
Unit 8 Discussion Forum. What significance do you draw from the cross-cultural and within-culture cross-historical patterns in reincarnation cases? How would you account for the relative paucity of cases in South India?
Unit 9: Child Studies: The Psychology of Past-Life Memory
Lecture 9: Psychological Issues in Past-Life Memory. Children who recall previous lives may be better rather than less well adjusted than their peers, but they may also have special needs stemming from their memories.
Reading 9.1: Ordinary Children vs. Those Who Claim Previous-Life Memories. In this landmark paper, Erlendur Haraldsson compares the psychological profiles of Sri Lankan children who recall past lives with those of a matched control group.
Reading 9.2: Phobias in Children Who Claim to Remember Previous Lives. Ian Stevenson shows that phobias in children's reincarnation cases nearly always correspond to the circumstances of the previous person's death.
Reading 9.3: Nightmares in Western Children. Antonia Mills reports three cases of American and Canadian children with nightmares that seem to relate to previous lives.
Unit 9 Discussion Forum. There appear to be both benefits and dangers associated with past-life memory. Would you want to remember a previous lives? Would you like your children to? Why or why not?
Unit 10: From Child to Adult: The Developmental Continuum
Lecture 10: Developmental Factors in Past-Life Memory. Past-life memories are expressed differently in adults than in children, but transitional cases show them to be related along a continuum.
Reading 10.1: Age and Stimulus in Past Life Memory Cases. In an examination of published cases, I found that the initial memories of older subjects are significantly more likely to have been cued than were those of younger subjects.
Reading 10.2: State of Consciousness Factors in Reincarnation Cases. D. Scott Rogo argues, contrary to my position, that child and adult forms of past-life memory are fundamentally different.
Reading 10.3: Search for Sharada. V. V. Akolkar describes his investigation of an important adult case previously reported by Stevenson and colleagues.
Unit 10 Discussion Forum. Who do you think wins the debate between Rogo and me, or is it a tie? What lessons do you draw from the Sharada case?
Unit 11: Hypnotic Age Regressions to “Previous Lives”
Lecture 11: Fantasy and Fact in Age Regression to “Previous Lives.” Age regressions under hypnosis are not a reliable way of learning about past lives, perhaps because they encounter psychological blocks against recall.
Reading 11.1: Hypnosis and the Reincarnation Hypothesis. Jonathan Venn details his attempts to verify memories of a previous life reported in a series of age regressions.
Reading 11.2: An Unusual Case of Hypnotic Regression. Linda Tarazi was able to verify an extraordinary number of details about a 16th century life recalled under hypnosis, yet could not identify the protagonist.
Reading 11.3: The Relationship between Archetypal Medicine and Past-Life Therapy. Psychologist Richard Booth explores the connections between past-life therapy and the archetypal medicine of Alfred Ziegler, based on the ideas of C. G. Jung.
Unit 11 Discussion Forum. Compare and contrast spontaneous memories of previous lives with those evoked under hypnosis, from an evidential point of view. Can age regressions be dismissed entirely?
Unit 12: The Contributions of Shamans, Psychics and Mediums
Lecture 12: Third-Party Testimonials of Past Lives. Past-life identifications by shamans, psychics and mediums can be more reliable than memories arising under hypnosis, perhaps because they bypass psychological defenses.
Reading 12.1: Sensitives and Mystics. Karl Muller analyses cases of psychic practitioners who remembered their own previous lives or related the past lives of others.
Reading 12.2: Past Life Readings as Religious Symbology. J. Gordon Melton shows that Edgar Cayce's life readings were strongly influenced by Theosophical concepts.
Reading 12.3: Past-life Recall in Brazilian Spiritism. Stanley Krippner explores the role of past-life recall in Brazilian Spiritist psychotherapy for multiple personality disorder.
Unit 12 Discussion Forum. Must we presume the Akashic Records to be the source of information about past life information given by psychic practitioners? Do you see advantages to my proposed alternative?
Unit 13: Mind/Brain Relations, Survival of Death and Reincarnation
Lecture 13: Beyond Materialism. There is a great deal of evidence for a dualistic relationship between mind and body independent of the reincarnation data.
Reading 13.1: Terminal Lucidity: A Review and a Case Collection. Michael Nahm and colleagues describe numerous cases in which comatose and brain-damaged patients suddenly regained awareness shortly before they died.
Reading 13.2: A Communicator of the "Drop-In" Type in Iceland. Erlendur Haraldsson and Ian Stevenson report a case of mediumship with clear evidence of purpose from a discarnate agent whose identity was confirmed.
Reading 13:3: Quantum Physics in Neuroscience and Psychology. Physicist Henry Stapp and two colleagues from neuopsychology explore the implications of Stapp's ideas for quantum biology.
Unit 13 Discussion Forum. Quantum theory is turning out to be central to our understanding of biological as well as physical systems. What implications does this have for how you view the reincarnation data?
Unit 14: Postmortem Survival and Reincarnation: Philosophical Concerns
Lecture 14: Personal Identity and Discarnate Survival. Philosophers have long struggled with issues central to developing a satisfactory theory of reincarnation. The data point toward panpsychism as the most promising approach.
Reading 14.1: F. W. H. Myers’ Approach to the Problem of Survival. Emily Cook (now Emily Kelly) discusses Myers' concept of consciousness as composed of subliminal and supraliminal strata and how he deployed this in survival theory.
Reading 14.2: Personal Identity and Survival. Philosopher C. D. Broad explains his idea of Ψ-components, or personality traits, and the role these might play in the discarnate survival.
Reading 14.3: Survival and the Idea of "Another World." In this classic paper, philosopher H. H. Price explores similarities between the afterlife and dream states.
Unit 14 Discussion Forum. How is Myers concept of consciousness useful in understanding what survives and reincarnates? What do you think postmortem survival might be like?
Unit 15: Reincarnation and Life
Lecture 15: A Theory of Reincarnation. An adequate theory of reincarnation must be able to explain a range of phenomena. It must supplement and yet not conflict with established findings in psychology and biology.
Reading 15.1: Changes in Heart Transpant Recipients. Peter Pearsall and his colleagues describe ten heart transplant recipients who took on personality traits of their donors.
Reading 15.2: The Explanatory Value of the Idea of Reincarnation. Ian Stevenson summarizes problems in psychology and biology, from childhood phobias to gender identity disorder, which reincarnation might help to explain.
Reading 15.3: Experimental Birthmarks: New Cases of an Asian Practice. Jim Tucker and Jürgen Keil report Thai and Burmese reincarnation cases in which marks made on dying or deceased bodies were reproduced as birthmarks.
Unit 15 Discussion Forum. How would you assess the theory of consciousness, survival and reincarnation proposed in this course? Can you think of a superior way to explain the data?