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Factors in Spontaneous Past Life Recall

Written by: Michelle Belanger

This is another excerpt from Dr. Ian Stevenson's informative but hard to get book, Children Who Remember Previous Lives. In this selection, Stevenson reviews the factors that seem to influence a child's recollection of his or her previous personality. In italics, I give my own commentary on his ideas throughout this sizeable passage.

The Lives Most Likely to be Remembered
I have already discussed (in chapter 7) the high incidence of violent death among the deceased persons figuring in these [rebirth] cases. I said that in 725 cases from six different cultures, 61 percent of the previous personalities had died violently. I have also explained why I believe that the high incidence of violent death in the cases reflects a real factor in the generation (and fixation) of the memories and not merely an artifact in the reporting of the cases.

The circumstances that usually accompany a violent death deserve attention no less than the violence itself. Violence is usually accompanied by extreme physical suffering, except when a victim loses consciousness almost immediately from an injury to the head or neck. In addition, violent deaths are nearly always sudden and unexpected. In wartime soldiers die violently, but they expect that this may happen to them, whereas persons who die in private murders, village, tumults, and vehicular accidents do not expect to die at the time that they do. We should also remember that young persons die violently more often than do older ones; a violent death is usually an early one. Therefore, when we appraise the effects of a violent death on a person who experiences one and apparently survives to have memories of it, we must take account not just of the violence as such, but of all the associated elements, such as the accompanying physical suffering, the unexpectedness of the death, and its prematurity.

For all the prominance of violent death in these cases, it must take more than a murder (or another type of violent death) to start a case. I say this because unless our cases are much more underreported than I think they are, the incidence of cases if far below that of violent death among the peoples where we find cases. In other words, of all the persons who die violently, only a handful have lived lives that a subject of one of these cases later remembers. I shall return to the question of what makes some lives ending in vilence more memorable, so to speak, than others. Before doing that I shall mention some subgroups within the nearly 40 percent of previous personalities who died naturally.

When we examine the previous personalities who died naturally, we can distinguish several groups among them. Although we have not yet made a quantitative analysis of the numbers in each of these groups, I believe that together they would comprise the majority of the previous personalities dying natural deaths.

One group of these deceased persons who died naturally did so suddenly, that is, within twenty-four hours of being apparently well or not expected to die in the near future. Sunil Dutt Saxena, the subject of a case in India, remembered the life of a man who died this rapidly when he was in his early sixties. On the morning of the day he died, he seemed well and had attended to some business normally. Toward noon he became ill, and he was dead by early evening, probably of a heart attack.

Another group of the deceased persons figuring in these cases who died natural deaths were those who died young, by which I mean under the age of twelve. We must interpret this observation cautiously, because the countries of Asia where the cases are found most abundantly have a high mortality in childhood compared with countries of the West. Even so, I think that among all the deceased persons figuring in the cases, children form a group that is out of proportion to the numbers of children (compared with the numbers of adults) who die in the countries where I studied these cases.

Still another group were those of persons having what I call “unfinished business.” The best examples are mothers who died leaving infants or young children needing care. Also in this group are some persons who had debts to pay (or to collect) when they died.

In another group of cases we can characterize the previous personalities as engaged in “continuing business.” Typical examples of this group were prosperous businessmen intently absorbed in their businesses and in the accumulation and spending of the wealth associated with these. A retired person, no longer ambitious to earn more money, could not qualify for membership in this group, but an active merchant could.

If we now consider these five groups of persons who died either suddenly (whether violently or naturally), in childhood, with unfinished business, or with continuing business, we can see that all their lives ended in a state of incompleteness. At the time of death they might all, for different reasons, have felt entititled to a longer life than the one they had had, and this in turn might have generated a craving for rebirth, perhaps leading to a quicker reincarnation than that among persons who died replete with life, so to speak, at its natural end.

When we examine individual cases, we can often find two or more of the factors I have mentioned occurring at the same time. For example, some of the previous personalities who died violently also were young children at the time they died, and some of the persons with unfinished or continuing business died violently or naturally but suddenly.

Notably, the factors Dr. Stevenson gives for why certain individuals are driven to reincarnate swiftly on the heels of the death of their previous personality are also the self-same factors understood by most parapsychologists to inspire deceased personalities to linger as ghosts. What we can deduce here is that a sense of incompleteness imprints itself upon a soul, driving it to cling to the previous lifetime. This clinging will cause the spirit to either remain near the people and places important to it in life as a discarnate entity or it will inspire the spirit to attempt rebirth close to the location of that previous lifetime, sometimes in a body strongly reminiscent of its previous body, and carrying enough information from the previous lifetime so it can attempt to pick up where it felt its life was interrupted.

The Kinds of Persons Most Likely to Remember a Previous Life if They Reincarnate
In the preceding section I described types of lives, especially those having unusual circumstances at the time of death, that the subjects of these cases seem frequently to remember. We have seen, however, that people living the lives and dying the deaths of the types described are much more numerous in the general population than are the cases. We should, therefore, look for other factors in influencing the remembrance of previous lives.

One might ask: What sort of person, if he died and reincarnated, would be most likely to remember a previous life? Unfortunately, I can say little in response to this question.

Perhaps the most obvious category of persons likely to remember a previous life might be that of persons with unusually good memories. The most obvious questions, however, are the most often overlooked, and I have given attention to this one only recently. I can, nevertheless, mention two pertinent cases in Lebanon that I happened to be studying at the same time. One is the case of Suzanne Ghanem, to which I referred in chapter 7 in connection with the large number of proper names (of the previous life) she had been able to state. Suzanne also stated an equal number of other details, making her one of the leading subjects with regard to the total number of details of the previous life recalled. I inquired about the memory of Saada (the previous personality of Suzanne's case) and lerned that she was recognized in her family as having had an unusually good memory, especially for the names of people. The subject of the other case, Said Zahr, was making statements that his father thought referred to the life of a well-known Druse sheikh. One of the sheikh's sons learned about the case, made some study of it himself, and took me to meet the subject and his family. The sheikh had been an eminent person and greatly venerated. Much about him was common knowledge among the Druses; moreover, a family's prestige would mount if its members could say that the sheikh had been reborn among them. For these two reasons the sheikh's son adopted an attitude of extreme reserve toward the case and could not shake a suspicion that the subject's father had coached his son, although there was no direct evidence of this. At one point in our discussion of the case, I commented on the paucity of the subject's statements; he seemed to remember extremely little about the previous life. To this the sheikh's son replied: “That might be a feature in favor of the case's authenticity; my father had a very bad memory.” If we assume that the case was authentic and best explained by reincarnation, we could say that if the sheikh's memory had been even worse than it was, he would have remembered nothing at all in his next incarnation.

In chapter 6 I referred to Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson's observation, from testing children in Sri Lanka, that the subjects of cases on the whole had better memories that their peers who did not claim to remember previous lives. It is, however, not enough to have a good memory in this life in order to remember a previous one. Otherwise, we should have expected some of the great mnemonists to have remembered previous lives, and there is not even a hint that any of them did. We might then turn to other mental qualities that might facilitate remembering a previous life. The mental clarity that accompanies the serenity of spiritual development may be such a factor.

This illustrates, among other things, that there is a portion of memory that operates independent of the physical processes attributed to memory by materialist science. Furthermore, it is suggestive of the fact that a being's style of memory can carry over from one incarnation to the next. The remarkable memory attributed to Suzanne's previous personality clearly carried over to her current life, allowing her to remember a number of very specific details between lives. In the case of the sheikh, the remarkably poor memory of the previous personality seems to have carried over to the current life, making it almost impossible for the current incarnation to remember specific details.

Although it cannot be known for certain, it can be conjectured in Suzanne's case that her previous personality placed a significant amount of importance upon remembering peoples' names; if the previous personality did indeed hold a special significance for such details, it is possible that even in the interim between lives, she retained a sense of this importance, therefore clinging to her memory of the information.

It has been our experience that the carry-over of memory-style is exceptionally persistent, crossing over not just between two lives, but actually spanning countless lifetimes. As the sheikh's son remarks that the child's spotty memory may actually offer an argument in favor of his identity as his father's reincarnation, so we may take note that similarities in the clarity of memories you experience throughout your past lives, as well as similarities in the number and type of details remembered, may help to verify the validity of these recollections as legitimate memories as opposed to the products of cryptoamnesia. As a general rule, any individual “memory” that seems to differ in content, clarity, and detail significantly from all other memories from this current and prevous lifetimes, should be approached very cautiously in terms of validity.

In chapter 3 I referred to the longstanding belief in Buddhism and Hinduism that spiritual development, through meditation and meritorious deeds, clarifies the mind and enhances memory. The tulkus of Tibet are said to remember the previous lives of spiritually evolved lamas. These lamas had led, for the most part, fairly ordinary monastic lives, and nearly all of them had died naturally. One might say of them that, although the events of their lives were not memorable, the persons who had lived these lives were remarkable and may have carried the mental clarity they attained by their spiritual practices into another incarnation...

Among the cases involving pious previous personalities, the interval between death and presumed reincarnation was just as short, on the average, as it was in the cases with violent deaths or with natural deaths associated with any of the cirumstances I mentioned that might lead to an early rebirth. Therefore, the lives of the pious previous personalities figuring in our cases may have been remembered because, for presently obscure reasons, the interval between death and birth was short in their cases.

What Dr. Stevenson is leaving unsaid in the cases involving spiritually evolved previous personalities is the issue of volition. In both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, an individual who has sufficiently advanced the state of their eternal being through meditation and meritorious deeds is perceived as being able to gain freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth to such an extent as he or she can subsequently choose to either remove him or herself completely from the realm of physical incarnation or choose the time, place, and circumstances of the next rebirth. Such spiritually evolved individuals, called tulkus by Stevenson but more commonly known as bodhisattvas in India, are seen as being able to exercise volition in matters of rebirth and, having gained conscious control of the process, are further capable of exercise volition in how much they remember of their previous lives.

That meditation and internal alchemy assist an individual in achieving the control and clarity necessary to achieve this volitionary state, we have no doubt. Still doubtful, at least when compared to our own experiences, is the value of meritorious deeds. We have seen a great many scoundrels in addition to apparent saints achieve the ability to voluntarily remember their past lives and participate directly in the activity of rebirth.