• A division of the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia has conducted extensive research into the “past life memories” of children.
  • These spontaneous child “reincarnation” stories usually have elements in common, like the violent death of the previous personality and intense emotions.
  • Some critics use psychological explanations like false memories or cryptomnesia to account for these children’s recollections.
  • If a child begins telling stories of a past life, psychologists recommend that you listen calmly and validate their experience.

Imagine that you have a two-year-old daughter. She’s happily playing with toy construction equipment in a sandbox. Then, out of left field, she says, “When I was a grownup I used to drive a forklift like this one. Except mine was orange and had the number five on it. Once I had an accident at my warehouse and I got a bad booboo right here.” Then she casually holds up her hand to display her odd birthmark, which resembles a scar. “My wife Karen gave me medicine but it was actually poison and I died. My wife was mean.” Then she goes back to playing with her trucks.

How do you react? Follow-up questions? Freakout? Do you dismiss your daughter’s statements as a product of her vivid imagination? Do you call a child psychiatrist? An exorcist? Do you frantically research unsolved murders of forklift drivers? Or do you reach out to the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia (UVA), where children with “reincarnation” experiences are taken seriously? [For the sake of readability, I’m not going to put reincarnation and related words in quotation marks throughout this piece, but please feel free to apply your own skepticism. Or don’t.]

Research into Childrens’ Past Life Memories

DOPS has 1,200 of these sorts of pediatric reincarnation cases on file, including one where a four-year-old boy remembered his previous life as a Hollywood movie extra, and one where a two-year-old boy suffered nightmares from the WWII-era plane crash that had killed his previous incarnation, a real-life pilot named James Huston. 

Some of these children volunteered specific names and details related to their former adulthoods, which proved to match actual biographies. Other children had birthmarks that matched up with fatal wounds from their previous personalities. One child in India was born with stubs instead of fingers on his right hand. He described a machine accident that had severed his digits in a past life. 

Studies on reincarnation belong to the field of parapsychology, which researches paranormal claims about telepathy, near-death experiences (NDEs), and other psychic phenomena which might defy scientific reasoning. Psychiatrists and academics like those at DOPS try to rule out logical explanations for childrens’ past life memories while remaining open to the idea of, say, human consciousness surviving material reality. These researchers might entertain the notion of psi, the unknown factor implicated in the sixth sense and telekinesis (moving objects with one’s mind).

What Exactly Is Going on at UVA? 

First, it should be noted that only a small portion of parents likely bring their children to mental health professionals when they begin recounting past lives. But for the children who were interviewed by clinicians like the late Dr. Ian Stevenson and Dr. Jim Tucker, the current director of DOPS, the stories are remarkably similar.  

  1. Kids usually “remember” their previous experiences when they’re between the ages of 2 and 7. After that, memories begin to fade or the children lose interest. The kids seem to become less invested in the past and more in the present.
  2. The vast majority of the reincarnation stories (around 70%) involve violent or unnatural deaths.
  3. Most of the previous lives were lived nearby (within about 500km or 310 miles) and had ended within a year or two of the child’s birth. 
  4. The children who recount past lives tend to have more advanced verbal skills at a younger age. 
  5. The children might experience heightened emotions like longing for their former families, phobias relating to their past experiences, or anger at their “murderers.” 
  6. The memories are spontaneous, awakened when the child sees something that they recognize and can verbalize the recollection. 

Children who report memories of past lives often live in countries like India, Sri Lanka, and Lebanon, which share cultural beliefs about reincarnation. But American parents with no preexisting beliefs about reincarnation have also brought their children to paranormal researchers at DOPS. 

Possible Psychological Explanations

Critics of paranormal research and psi-dependent conclusions argue that human psychology is responsible for childrens’ stories of past lives. They might blame the following: 

  • False memories. The children are remembering something that didn’t happen. 
  • Cryptomnesia. The children are remembering something they’d once been told and forgotten, which they now recognize as new. 
  • Confabulation and fantasy. Kids are concocting “honest lies,” like about how they got their birthmark. 
  • Suggestibility. Younger children are more open to accepting false narratives, though perhaps no more so than adults are when the misinformation relates to familiar subjects. 
  • Dissociation. The kids might be mentally disconnecting from reality. But multiple studies have shown no clinically-relevant evidence of dissociation or psychopathology in children who remember past lives.
  • Attention-seeking. One study showed that “reincarnated” children had higher attention-seeking scores. 
  • Exaggerated credit. The families credit the children with more knowledge than they actually demonstrate. 

But none of these psychological explanations account for the children whose memories are recorded, then after much concerted effort, are shown to be based on real lives with abrupt endings. 

Meanwhile, researchers who study the paranormal might have psychological biases that influence their conclusions. For example, confirmation bias might lead someone to interpret evidence in a way that supports an existing theory. Defenders point out that many of the statements made by these children are falsifiable, that is, able to be disproven. This means that they’re not typical pseudoscience.

Parenting and Past Lives: Some Advice

I’m not going to pretend to know what’s possible in this world, but as a paranormal-agnostic parent I can give you some advice. If a child tells you that they used to be someone else, just go with it. Don’t get spooked. Don’t get excited and tell your kid that they’re legit reincarnated. Listen to their stories, but try not to react. 

It’s “important that the parent remain calm and allow the child to describe what they are experiencing,” says Chelsea Wages, a resident in counseling at Thriveworks in Colorado Springs, CO. You can listen to the child’s perspective, ask questions, and validate their feelings, even if you don’t understand what’s going on. Wages says that if you dismiss a child’s spiritual experience, you risk “causing children to internalize their experiences,” which might mean that they’re more reticent about opening up in the future.

Usually these sweet lil’ reincarnated kids go right back to playing with their trucks until they make another memory association. If a child seems frightened or traumatized, then by all means contact a child psychologist so they can work through their feelings. To paraphrase Jacqueline D. Woolley, a psychology professor at University of Texas-Austin who studies fantasy-reality distinctions in children, “You want to work with the emotion, not the past life.”