randombio.com | speculative science
Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015

Is the idea of reincarnation so crazy?

On stories of children remembering past lives.

O ver the past few years, we've seen many books full of anecdotal stories about children who remember past lives. The latest is called Memories Of Heaven. The anecdotes in this particular book aren't very convincing, but many people find the idea fascinating.

Frankly, the idea of reincarnation sounds to me like a mixed blessing. You spend seventy years learning how to parallel park and how to talk to people without getting punched in the nose, and then you get reborn and have to learn it all over again. To me that sounds like somebody's idea of hell.* But what we want and don't want is irrelevant in deciding the truth.

I've spent thirty years doing research on learning and memory. I have studied in great detail how people remember things at the biochemical level. There is no question that memories are stored in synaptic connections in the brain, and that they are a physical phenomenon. We can trigger specific memories by stimulating individual neurons in the brain. Blocking protein synthesis prevents new memories, even if they're already stored in short-term memory, from being remembered 24 hours later. The evidence that memory is physical is overwhelming.

But there is other evidence, mostly circumstantial, that suggests that some small children may have remembered details about past lives.

Water drop
A water droplet losing its individuality as it falls back into a pond.

It goes without saying that these stories are inconsistent with what we know about the brain. As we say in the lab: both of these results can't be right! Or can they?

Some of the stories are not credible. People claiming to be Frédéric Chopin, George Washington, and other celebrities are almost certainly highly confused. One little girl, for instance, claimed to be Anne Frank, and when taken to Amsterdam she was said to have known the street directions to Anne Frank's house. Surely she's not just making this up, but when someone claims to be a famous person about whom books and movies have been made, they must first prove they were not influenced by them. This is almost impossible to do.

Other cases seem more convincing. In one famous case, a three-year-old kid claimed to be Sidney Coe Howard, the person who wrote the screenplay for Gone With the Wind. Another kid, it was claimed, would cry himself to sleep with homesickness for his past life of smoking cigars, lounging around his Hollywood swimming pool, and dancing with ‘dames.’ His most salient past-life memory was of getting socked in the mouth by Marilyn Monroe's bodyguard. Surely no kid could make something like that up, right?

Another story tells of a little kid who spontaneously recited a 20-minute lecture on theological metaphysics that was so intellectually sophisticated his father couldn't comprehend any of it. Of course the father didn't have a sound recorder on him at the time, so we only have his word for it.

And that's the problem. Most of these people aren't scientists and they're not collecting data in a scientific way. So we have no way of knowing whether the story really is as told, or whether the subject was coached in some way. Maybe, for example, that one kid was just saying “Coe!” and the parents added the rest. Children will say almost anything to gain favor with a parent. They are not considered reliable witnesses in court for this very reason.

We also have no way of knowing how many other stories we're not hearing about because the child was proved wrong about some important detail. What if 99.9% of these stories turned out to be fake and were thrown out? In science this is called cherry-picking your data, and it's frowned upon.

Nonetheless, these stories are very popular. Ian Stevenson, a professor at the University of Virginia, compiled a great many such stories, and they are admittedly fascinating.

There are at least three possibilities.

  1. Reincarnation could be real and there is some unknown phenomenon that allows a person's memories and perhaps personality traits to be preserved after death.
  2. The reincarnation stories could be fabricated, garbled, or exaggerated. Think about UFO cases, where witnesses sound credible until one views their film and discovers that they have, unbeknownst to themselves, photographed a reflection of a lamp, the planet Venus, or their neighbor's flying drone.
  3. The world itself might not be real, and something that we don't have a clue about is producing both of these sets of data. If so, then everything we know, including the fact that you are now reading this article, is an illusion. Nothing, including our own minds or the evidence we see, can be trusted.

Philosophers have to deal with possibility #3, but possibility #1 is the only one that is scientifically interesting. But how could it work? As I mentioned above, memories are physical. But that doesn't rule out that they might also be something else.

It is easy to demonstrate, for example, that there is more to our consciousness than physical matter, nerves firing, and sodium ions flowing across our membranes. Simply ask the question: why am I me and not you? This is clearly a meaningful question, since we encounter the truth of it every day, but we have no way to address it with our current knowledge.

This ‘me-ness’, if it's a real thing, might be part of the universe—maybe our souls are “localized vortices in the one thing that is everything” as Roger Scruton put it. If so, it's certainly conceivable that they might not just disappear after death. Maybe our consciousness flows back into the energy background of space like drops of water in a pond. Maybe it's not so far-fetched to think that some part of our individuality could turn up in somebody else, and who knows, maybe a few memories could be dragged along with it. That's an awful lot of ‘maybes’; demonstrating any of them would not be easy.

Or maybe, as the Buddhists say, our individuality is an illusion, and we only appear to be separate individuals because of our limited vantage point (you had to know Buddhism was going to come into this sooner or later).

Many philosophers have thought about these problems, and of course theologians think about them a lot, but it is still something we have no clue about, and no idea how to study. However, this does not mean, as some philosophers claim, that it is a pseudo-problem. Nor does it mean that it's not a scientific question. I can think of a million questions that the guy behind the counter at the local hardware store can't figure out how to study scientifically. Not because he's not smart, but because he doesn't have the conceptual framework. Just because we can't frame it as a scientific question doesn't mean it's not one.

What we need, then, is a conceptual framework to help us study these questions. The idea of life after death isn't necessarily crazy, but we need a workable hypothesis to test, or we'll get nowhere.

It's tempting to speculate. Maybe information flow in our brains does something weird to the space-time continuum. Or maybe the answer is in the way time and quantum phenomena are related.

The problem is that anybody can speculate about such things, and pretty soon it all starts to get new-agey.

Scientists won't study new-agey stuff, and they can't afford to study a question that might not even be real. The case histories are just not documented well enough. Until that changes, science can only file it away as one of many interesting phenomena that we don't yet understand. We've got quite a collection already.

* The only thing that would be worse is dying and not being reincarnated.

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