Updated: Apr 11
Natural life is cyclical. The day turns into night and turns back into a day with the sunrise. One season is gradually replaced by another. Over time, new generations are born, and the old ones die. The continuous sequence of births, deaths and rebirths permeates nature, even if our own life seems linear. So it is not surprising that some ancient observers have looked at the seeming linearity of human existence and decided that life, like the natural world, can actually be more cyclical than linear. Many religions, philosophies and movements have embraced this belief in cyclical life or reincarnation.
Reincarnation, also called trans-migration or metempsychosis, is the concept that the soul or some aspect of it is reborn in new lives. Depending on religion or philosophy, the soul may appear embodied in people, animals or plants as it moves towards a possible exit from the cycle of births, deaths, and rebirths. Most religions that believe in reincarnation see it as a path to purity and salvation.
Reincarnation is widely recognized by the main Eastern religions, primarily Hinduism and Buddhism. It also has a history in ancient Greek philosophy. However, for people more familiar with the main monotheistic religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - the idea of reincarnation seems alien and perhaps even a little strange. This is because Christianity, Judaism and Islam linearly perceive time. Life is just a short step that determines the quality of the afterlife. For those who believe in only one life, followed by eternal afterlife, reincarnation is like a cumbersome marathon on the relay, not a short, compressed sprint.
Reincarnation in Science
Although reincarnation seems commonplace for more than 1.25 billion followers of Hinduism and Buddhism, it has not been widely recognized among those who do not practice the Eastern religion. Western scepticism of reincarnation is associated with the emphasis of monotheistic religions on a single life, a single soul and an active God who does not rely on the karmic law. And since some believers declare that they are reincarnating Cleopatra or Elvis, it is not surprising that many people remain extremely skeptical about the soul's ability to return repeatedly.
However, this general skepticism did not prevent the researchers from exploring the possibility of reincarnation. Dr. Ian Stevenson, an academic psychiatrist, led the study of reincarnation in the United States until his death in 2007. Stevenson founded the Division of Personality Research at the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehaviobe sciences at the University of Virginia. The laboratory, which later became known as the Department of Perception Research, studies children who remember past lives, near-death experiences, visions and posthumous communication, extra-body experiences and visions on their deathbed.
Stevenson, who often referred to reincarnation as "the survival of the person after death," saw in the existence of past lives a possible explanation for differences in human conditions . He believed that past experience plus genetics and the environment could help clarify gender dysphoria, phobias and other unexplained personality traits.
Stevenson's reincarnation studies focused on young children, usually between the ages of 2 and 5, who had unexplained phobias or detailed memories of a past life. Stevenson tried to confirm the facts presented by the child, details of the life of the deceased person. Sometimes he found a striking connection between memories and lives.
Stevenson has studied 2,500 cases over about four decades and published technical books and articles. He claimed that he simply wanted to suggest that reincarnation was plausible, rather than proving it absolutely. Despite Stevenson's warning, his work was largely rejected by the scientific community. The ability to connect the two lives with coincidences rather than facts, and the inability to conduct control experiments drew criticism from his research.