Reincarnation and Past-Life Studies

Reincarnation is the phenomenon whereby the soul leaves the body at death and enters a new body at the beginning of a new life. The word reincarnation derives from the Latin term meaning “the re-entering of the flesh.” Millions of people believe in reincarnation, and some religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, are in part focused on the premise of reincarnation and rebirth. For people who belong to these religions, reincarnation is regarded as a natural phenomenon. Reincarnation belief structures center on notions like karma and moral consequences — what one does in any given life has consequences and an aftermath that carries on to the next one, be it good or bad. According to many cultures, faiths, and belief systems, one experiences many lifetimes, working through karmic-type issues, until the soul attains a level of spiritual evolution that will allow it to be freed from the earthly plane and the cycle of incarnation. Many people have come forward claiming to have memories of past lives. However, many people who have memories of previous lives have no background in such beliefs, revealing it to be a universal phenomenon.

Remembering Past Lives

Therapies, such as past-life regression, help people to relive moments and experience memories of past lives. Some allow participants to work through traumas from past lives that are affecting them in the present, in order to heal psychologically. Extremely traumatic past experiences are believed to be more likely to leave an imprint on the current life.

Children and Reincarnation

Often it is young children under the age of five who show evidence of past-life memories. They often recount tales of experiences they can't possibly have had and share information that children of this age wouldn't know. Likewise, these memories most often fade as children get older. For example, a case study report by Erlendur Haraldsson from the Department of Psychology at the University of Iceland, published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, investigated four children in Sri Lanka who claimed to remember a previous life at the early age of two to three years:

Detailed written records were made of the statements of three of the children before any attempt was made to examine their claims. In two cases, these statements made it possible to trace a deceased person whose life history fit to a considerable extent the statements made by the child. In these cases, no prior connection of any kind was found to have existed between the child's family and that of the alleged previous personality. The pattern of these cases resembles those earlier reported.

… The children are at a preschool age when they start to make claims about a previous life; they usually start to “forget” at about the time they go to school; some of them claim to have died violently earlier; they express the wish to meet their earlier families or visit their homes; and some of them show behavioral idiosyncrasies that seem to differ from what they observe and would be expected to learn from their environment.

While critics hold that children this age are subject to a belief in fantasy, many consider these types of reports compelling proof of reincarnation.

Remembering Past Lives

Scientists are working on assembling evidence of the past lives of those who claim to remember them, and are determining what causes people to have these memories. Some people have highly compelling graphic memories of past lives that are often seen as genuine proof of reincarnation. According to the article “The Mystery of Reincarnation” by theological scholar Patrick Zukeran, proponents and scientists studying the reincarnation phenomenon suggest that “hypnotic regression, déjà vu, xenoglossy, birthmarks” are proof that past lives exist.

With hypnotic regression, the subject often recounts people, places, and events with stunning and descriptive accuracy that they seemingly would have no way of knowing. Psychologists that specialize in past-life therapy conduct the sessions of hypnosis. However, it has been found that hypnosis is not 100 percent reliable, as it can make the mind susceptible to manipulation (intentional or otherwise), distortion, and conflation of fantasy with reality.

Critics believe that individuals are manipulated by therapies such as hypnosis that are used to recapture past-life memories and that these “memories” have no validity. However, some people have experienced the often near-miraculous healing of physical illness upon the recollection of past-life experiences where the ailment or illness in the present mirrors an ailment or experience from a past life.

Although there are multiple explanations for déjà vu — including the assimilation of present experience with a past one from memory, forms of dream recall, and neurological distortion — proponents of reincarnation attribute déjà vu to memory elicited from past lives. Xenoglossy involves an inexplicable and abrupt ability to speak a language that a person has never learned before. This also is thought to indicate a past-life experience. Those who believe in reincarnation often suggest that a person's birthmarks can resemble those of a deceased individual — although this is difficult to substantiate.

So, is there “proof” of reincarnation, a phenomenon believed by millions the world over, from a vast plethora of cultural and religious backgrounds? While it is always difficult to prove anything with scientific certainty, reincarnation and past lives are fascinating subjects that continue to compel further research

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