Jan. 26, 2001
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Rebecca Arrington

Ian Stevenson stands in front of a projector screen showing a slide of him (and others) conducting an interview with a woman in Burma.

Stevenson studies children who remember past lives

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

A Lebanese toddler picked up the phone repeatedly and said, "Leila, Leila" -- the name of someone she had never met or heard about. Later she began to describe Leila's family in rich detail.

The child remembered lying in a hospital longing to speak with Leila, the daughter of a Lebanese woman who had died thousands of miles away in Virginia. The child could name all the woman's relatives and recalled wanting to ask her brother to ensure that her daughters received her jewels.

This is only one of thousands of cases Dr. Ian Stevenson, Chester Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and director of the Division of Personality Studies, has investigated, many of which are documented in Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation. Recently reissued by McFarland and Co., the book describes his research for over 30 years in at least 20 countries.

Stevenson's work is also documented in Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives (1999), by Tom Shroder, author and Sunday Style editor at The Washington Post. Shroder described his subject's research at a U.Va. Medical Center Hour Jan. 17, at which Stevenson could not appear for medical reasons.

Stevenson, who came to U.Va. in 1957 to chair the psychiatry department, began his reincarnation research at that time. "I was dissatisfied with current theories of personality such as psychoanalysis, behaviorism, neuroscience and genetics," he said in an earlier interview. "I don't think these alone or together adequately explain the uniqueness of human beings."

He collected reports of people who claimed to remember past lives, most of them young children, and published an article on 44 cases, which won a prize.

Hoping to find more such children and study them systematically, Stevenson visited India in 1961, where he found the cases were much more abundant than he'd expected.

Meanwhile, his prize-winning article drew the attention of Chester Carlson, inventor of the photocopy machine, who was interested in reincarnation. He funded Stevenson's initial research, allowing him to relinquish his clinical duties, and endowed a chair for him in 1967. When Carlson died, he left the University $1 million for Stevenson's research.

In 30 cases he and his research team have collected, "we know there can't be any error of memory on the part of the informants," he said. "For these cases, someone -- usually ourselves -- made a written record of what the child said before any verifications were made."

In such a case in Lebanon, for instance, a 5-year-old boy talked about a village that was 50 kilometers away, describing events in a man's life and naming his relatives, Stevenson said.

"He also talked a great deal about a woman who turned out to have been his mistress and described [a rifle] the man had owned," he said.

"After I recorded his statements, we took the child to the deceased man's house and he made several quite striking recognitions, such as where the dog had been chained and where the man's bed had been ... He also remembered the last words the man had spoken, 'Huda, send for Fuad,'" Stevenson said.

He has found cases across the globe, including in the U.S., but there seem to be more in places where the dominant culture accepts reincarnation.

"I don't have a good explanation [for that]," he said. "I worry about it. The obvious explanation is that children aren't encouraged to speak [about their experiences] where it's suppressed in the West."

He added that children in Asia are also often discouraged from speaking about the past lives they remember -- not from skepticism, but because they don't like what the child says, or they believe the child may become ill because of the apparent memories.

"These children can be troublesome, especially if they say they came from a higher class or caste, and they grumble about the food and the clothes. They can also become tediously repetitive in talking about their past life, sometimes including pretty sordid murders," he said.

Stevenson's work has also been "suppressed." Despite his having published several thick volumes of carefully documented research, as well as survey results indicating that approximately 28 percent of the public in Western Europe and North America believes in reincarnation, he's received scant attention from the scientific community.

"It's just too subversive. Science changes very slowly," he said, adding that he hopes researchers outside his team will investigate the cases he's studied.

The lack of interest hasn't slowed him down. Stevenson is currently working on two books that describe European and American cases, respectively. He is also studying twins, one or both of whom claims to remember a previous life. And, in the past 10 years, he has focused on children with birthmarks and birth defects.

"There are children with an irregular area of pallor on the chest," he said. "The child points to that and says he was shot in the chest in a previous life. We get a post-mortem report that shows the person [whose life the child remembers] was killed by the shotgun blast and the wound was at the site of the birthmark."

And then there are cases that arrive in the mail, only a few of which have been compelling. "Some adults have claimed they have memories," he said. "We have four reincarnated Thomas Jeffersons on file."


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