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Stevenson, Dr Ian

Category: Scientist

 

Dr Ian Stevenson (October 31, 1918 – February 8, 2007) was a Canadian-born psychiatrist whose work was based in the USA. He worked for the University of Virginia School of Medicine for fifty years, as chair of the department of psychiatry from 1957 to 1967, Carlson Professor of Psychiatry from 1967 to 2001, and Research Professor of Psychiatry from 2002 until his death.

As founder and director of the university's Division of Perceptual Studies, Stevenson became known internationally for his research into reincarnation, the idea that perceptions can be transferred from one life to another and in addition may manifest themselves as birth marks.  He travelled extensively over a period of forty years, investigating several thousand cases of children around the world who claimed to remember past lives.  All these case histories were carefully documented and some found their way into a series of books – some written by Dr Stevenson and some by associates and trusted journalists.  Children were chosen as they are more spiritually open and they have little motive to fib.

 

His task and challenge was massive, in that the opposition he faced was very vehement.  He expected, and indeed suffered, opposition from scientists and the religious institutions which had no belief in reincarnation.  In other words Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The mystic branches of these religions incidentally do believe in reincarnation, but this is because they believe in the Great Work and destiny – not because they have scientific proof.  It fits in with the general understanding of why we are here

Many scientists have no belief in anything spiritual anyway and denied even thousands of case histories because their belief system found no explanation for them. 

Critics, particularly the philosophers C.T.K. Chari (1909–1993) and Paul Edwards (1923–2004), raised a number of issues, including that the children or parents interviewed by Stevenson had deceived him, that he had asked them leading questions, that he had often worked through translators who believed what the interviewees were saying, and that his conclusions were undermined by confirmation bias, where cases not supportive of his hypothesis were not presented as counting against it.

There will always be tail enders like this – “The earth is flat therefore, the curvature must be an optical illusion, or the instruments were faulty …. and so on”. Tedious but easily ignored.  The question actually being asked is not 'is it round', but 'how round is it?'  The rest of us are well ahead.  And it is very exciting.

gathering data

The major religions oppose it for political reasons – the concept of reincarnation was carefully removed from their doctrines very early on, in order that they had a stick to impose order on their followers.  Hell for eternity sounds more frightening as a punishment for ‘sins’ than a short period before you are born again.  So they have become hoisted on their own petard.  It may be worth mentioning that early Christianity included reincarnation and Jesus even mentions it in the Gnostic gospels – see the section on this site.

But Dr Stevenson persisted his entire life, carefully gathering the data and weathering the rather vitriolic criticisms.

But he did face a genuine challenge in explaining his findings and this is worth exploring. 

What do his findings tell us?

 If we imagine the perceptions of anyone to be like a log of events, then if anyone is able to recall events that they have no way of knowing, then, indeed, something unusual is happening that is worth exploring – but what?

 

Dr Ian Stevenson studied children who at a very early age, provided details of perceptions they couldn't possibly have acquired. The cases he documented occurred worldwide – India, the Lebanon, even places like Burma, Thailand and so on.  There were also cases in the USA.  All children, all with apparent access to perceptions they could not have built up in this life.  Again the advantage of using very young children is that one is better able to assess whether these perceptions could have been acquired via the 5 senses or not.  In areas with limited access to ‘news’ for both child and parent, the likelihood is greater.

It is a very very difficult thing to prove – the perceptions must be such that they could not have been acquired via the 5 senses.  Again Dr Stevenson set himself a truly major challenge, but one worth exploring, because reincarnation is a fundamental belief affecting how one acts in one’s life.

In the vast majority of cases, Dr Stevenson discovered perceptions relating to someone else’s life -  the perceptions of another person.  

But, this can be interpreted two ways.

The log could be ‘theirs’ – a past life, or it could be another person’s – dead or alive.

In other words, to whom does that section of perception log belong?  The person recalling it [reincarnation] or a person dead or alive [inter composer communication].

Heart transplant patients have been known to gain access to perceptions which are not theirs, but this is not reincarnation, it is access to another set of perceptions via the bridge of the heart.  It is inter composer communication.

inter composer communication?

Inter composer communication usually appears to rely on a bridge – in effect some physical linking mechanism that connects the two communicators.  It can be blood or saliva or something the person has touched.  Genuine Mediums for example can access the perceptions of murdered people via their clothes and recreate their death.

In some of Dr Stevenson’s case histories there was no possibility of a bridge being formed, as such, these cases at least point to reincarnation being a possibility

But bridges may be being formed without anyone realising.  For example, if the child was born in the same hospital as a person who died and the hospital was none too bothered about cleanliness, bridges would be formed very easily, sheets, toilets, blood, needles etc.  The high level of emotion with which these perceptions were generated also indicate a high level of accessibility.

 

The perceptions log in all the cases that Dr Stevenson found belonged to a person who had died.  In effect, the children were accessing the thoughts of a soul departed.  Practically all the people whose thoughts were accessible appeared to have died traumatically – violent death of various sorts – car crashes, murder, suicide, shot, and run over by cars – sudden and violent. In a number of cases, the children had birth marks in the position of the wounds of the person whose perceptions they had acquired, if the person had died a violent death.

 

If we believe in reincarnation as the explanation and a past life, then it may be that the perception log in these cases may not have been figuratively ‘capped off’ and so they are able to access it.  In violent or sudden deaths, it is possible that the capping off’ is not achieved in a controlled way.  To use an analogy, if a computer shuts down in a normal controlled way, the files are closed and are consistent, but if you pull out the plug the files can get corrupted and you will have ‘registry issues.

If you think it is inter composer communication, then the sheer intensity of the emotions accompanying the event may make the perceptions easier to access via the bridge.

So Dr Stevenson’s case histories are invaluable evidence, but they probably need to be revisited in order to determine which form of communication was in place – inter composer communication via a bridge or genuine perception recall from a past life.

I also suspect that more case histories need to be collected, given that the data may not be available from the old histories. Work continues however:

 

Jim Tucker:
Ian started studying these cases in the early 60s and the work just continued ever since and it has been 50 years now. So we have got over 2,500 cases from essentially all over the world. Wherever anyone has looked for cases they have been found. They are easiest to find in cultures with a belief in reincarnation but they are found everywhere. And what we started doing a number of years ago now is coding each case on 200 variables and putting them in to a database for analysis. And it has taken us years to get the cases in. We still haven’t quite finished but we have over 2,000 of them in the database now. So then you can look at patterns in the cases that you can’t see just on an individual level. So for instance we know that in 70% of the cases the previous person died by unnatural means, meaning murder, suicide, or accident. So that certainly seems to be a distinct factor in these cases. We also know that even in the natural death cases that the people tend to die quite early where a quarter of the natural death cases is under the age of 15. So again, there is something about dying an unnatural death or dying young that makes it more likely that these memories will then appear down the road.

 

 About Dr Stevenson

Stevenson was born in Montreal and raised in Ottawa.  His father, John Stevenson, was Scottish.  His mother, Ruth, had an interest in theosophy and an extensive library on the subject, to which Stevenson attributed his own early interest in the subject. As a child he was often bedridden with bronchitis, a condition that continued into adulthood and engendered in him a lifelong love of books. According to Emily Williams Kelly, a colleague of his at the University of Virginia, he maintained a list of the books he had read, which numbered 3,535 between 1935 and 2003.

He studied medicine at St. Andrews University from 1937 to 1939, but had to complete his studies in Canada because of the outbreak of the Second World War. He graduated from McGill University with a B.S.c. in 1942 and an M.D. in 1943. Stevenson became dissatisfied with the materialism he encountered in biochemistry, and wanted to study the whole person. He became interested in psychosomatic medicine, psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and in the late 1940s, worked at New York Hospital exploring psychosomatic illness and the effects of stress, and in particular why one person's response to stress might be asthma and another's high blood pressure.

In the 1950s, he met the English writer Aldous Huxley (1894–1963), and studied the effects of L.S.D. and mescaline, one of the first academics to do so. He tried L.S.D. himself, describing three days of "perfect serenity." He wrote that at the time he felt he could "never be angry again," but added, "As it happens that didn't work out, but the memory of it persisted as something to hope for."

 

Stevenson described as the leitmotif of his career his interest in why one person would develop one disease, and another something different.  He came to believe that neither environment nor heredity could account for certain fears, illnesses and special abilities, and that some form of perception transfer might provide a third type of explanation. He was careful not to commit himself fully to the position that reincarnation occurs. He argued only that his case studies could not, in his view, be explained by environment or heredity, and that "reincarnation is the best – even though not the only – explanation for the stronger cases we have investigated."

Chester Carlson (1906–1968), the inventor of xerography, offered Stevenson’s department financial help in further studying this area.  When Carlson died in 1968, he left $1,000,000 to the University of Virginia to continue Stevenson's work. The bequest caused controversy within the university because of the nature of the research, but the donation was accepted and Stevenson became the first Carlson Professor of Psychiatry.

The bequest allowed Stevenson to travel extensively, sometimes as much as 55,000 miles a year, collecting around three thousand case studies based on interviews with children from Africa to Alaska. Stevenson wrote that sixty-one per cent of the children recalled lives that had ended violently, the rest had died young (under the age of twelve years), or suddenly after a brief illness, or with a sense of unfinished business.

 

Dr Stevenson did have his supporters.  The Journal of the American Medical Association referred to his Cases of the Reincarnation Type (1975) as a "painstaking and unemotional" study and in September 1977, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease devoted most of one issue to Stevenson's research.  He was described as a methodical investigator.  Clearly with this number of case studies some are going to be proved of little use, but that still leaves several thousand others.  It is the sheer number of scientifically collected observations that is so impressive.  I, for one, am deeply impressed by his bravery and results.  I just hope that those who follow on after him, are equal to him in their wish to carry on the research.

Stevenson died of pneumonia in February 2007 at his retirement home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

References

Books

Stevenson helped to found the Society for Scientific Exploration in 1982, and was the author of around three hundred papers and fourteen books on reincarnation, including:

  • Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (1966)
  • Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (1997) - His major work was this 2,268-page, two-volume report which detailed  two hundred cases of birth-marks that, he believed, corresponded with a wound on the deceased person whose life the child purported to recall. He wrote a shorter version of the same research for the general reader, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect (1997).
  •  European Cases of the Reincarnation Type (2003), which presented forty cases Dr Stevenson had examined in Europe
  • Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children's Memories of Previous Lives (2005) - Jim Tucker.  Stevenson stepped down as director of the Division of Perceptual Studies in 2002, and Jim Tucker, the department's associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences, continued Stevenson's research with children.
  • Old Souls (1999) by Tom Shroder, a Washington Post journalist, which is very readable, easily understood, interesting, but not strictly speaking 'scientific'
  •  The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations (1960) - was a paper written in 1958, the winning entry to a competition organized by the American Society for Psychical Research.  It reviewed forty-four published cases of people, mostly children, who claimed to remember past lives. It caught the attention of Eileen J. Garrett (1893–1970), the founder of the Parapsychology Foundation, who gave Stevenson a grant to travel to India to interview a child who was claiming to have past-life memories. Stevenson found twenty-five other cases in just four weeks in India, and was able to publish his first book on the subject in 1966, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.

Observations

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