Book Review


Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect

by Ian Stevenson. Praeger Publishers, 1997; xviii + 203 pages, ISBN 0-275-95189-8, paperback, $17.95.

David Pratt

The world’s leading scientific investigator of evidence for reincarnation is Dr Ian Stevenson, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia. For over 30 years he and his colleagues have been studying cases involving children who remember past lives. Most of the cases come from the Hindu and Buddhist countries of South Asia, the Shiite peoples of Lebanon and Turkey, the tribes of West Africa, and the tribes of northwestern North America. In 1997 Stevenson published details of 225 cases in a massive work Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. The same year he presented a summary of 112 cases in a much shorter book Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect.

Stevenson has discovered that birthmarks and birth defects are often related to injuries sustained in the previous life, especially injuries associated with violent death. In many cases he has been able to obtain postmortem reports, hospital records, or other documents that confirm the location of the wounds on the deceased person in question. Birthmarks often correspond to bullet wounds or stab wounds; sometimes there are two marks corresponding to the points where a bullet entered and left the body. Birthmarks may also be related to a variety of other wounds or marks, not necessarily connected with the previous personality’s death, including surgical incisions and blood left on the body when it was cremated. A boy who lost his fingers in an accident with a fodder-chopping machine and died of an unrelated illness the following year was reborn without the fingers of his right hand. A woman who had been run over by a train, which sliced her right leg in two, was reborn with her right leg absent from just below the knee. A man who, while resting in a field, had been mistaken in the twilight for a rabbit and shot in the ear, was reborn with a severely malformed ear.

Stevenson has found that most of the details that children remember about their previous life turn out to be accurate (he deals only with spontaneous memories and makes no use of hypnosis). Further evidence for reincarnation comes from ‘behavioural memories’. Children sometimes display behaviour that is unusual for the child’s family but fits in with what is known about the person whose life the child remembers. For example, there are cases where children of lower caste Indian families who believe they had been Brahmins – and in their view still were – would refuse to eat their family’s food, which they considered polluted. Conversely, a child remembering the life of a street-sweeper may show an alarming lack of concern about cleanliness. Some children show skills that they have not learned in their present life, but which the previous personality was known to have had.

Many of the children express memories of the previous life in their play. A girl who remembered a previous life as a schoolteacher would assemble her playmates as pupils and play at instructing them with an imaginary blackboard. A child who remembered the life of a garage mechanic would spend hours under a family sofa ‘repairing’ the car that it represented for him. One child who remembered a life in which he had committed suicide by hanging himself had the habit of walking around with a piece of rope tied round his neck.

Phobias occur in about a third of the cases and are nearly always related to the mode of death in the previous life. For example, death by drowning may lead to fear of being immersed in water; death from a snake bite may lead to a phobia of snakes; a child who remembers a life that ended in shooting may show a phobia of guns and loud noises; and a person who died in a road accident may have a phobia of cars, buses, or trucks. Philias (the opposite of phobias) are also common. They frequently take the form of a desire or demand for particular foods not eaten in the child’s present family, or for clothes different from those ordinarily worn by the family members. Other examples involve cravings for addictive substances, such as tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs that the previous personality was known to have used.

In some cases a child remembers a previous life as a person of the opposite sex. Stevenson comments: ‘Such children almost invariably show traits of the sex of the claimed previous life. They cross-dress, play the games of the opposite sex, and may otherwise show attitudes characteristic of that sex. As with the phobias, the attachment to the sex and habits of the previous life usually becomes attenuated as the child grows older; but a few of these children remain intransigently fixed to the sex of the previous life, and one has become homosexual’ (p. 7).

In Stevenson’s view, his strongest cases do not readily lend themselves to an explanation other than reincarnation. This means, he says, that our mind or soul, which he also calls the ‘reincarnating personality’, must be able to exist independently of the brain and body in some sort of ‘mental space’ or ‘discarnate realm’. He proposes that there is also an intermediate vehicle, made of ‘nonmaterial mind stuff’, which imprints the embryo or foetus with memories of injuries or other markings of the previous body, together with likes, dislikes, and other attitudes. He coins the term ‘psychophore’ (literally ‘mind-carrying’) for this vehicle.

Stevenson draws a distinction between personality and individuality, but his usage of these words differs from the theosophical usage. He defines individuality as ‘all the characteristics, whether concealed or expressed, that a person might have from a previous life, or previous lives, as well as from this one’, and personality as ‘the aspects of individuality that are currently expressed or capable of expression’ (p. 182). In theosophy, on the other hand, the personality is the lower animal-human self, and the individuality the reincarnating human-spiritual self. At the end of each incarnation, all the noblest and purest qualities of the personal self are absorbed by the reincarnating soul, which enters a period of devachanic rest, during which it assimilates the lessons of the previous life. The personal self is left behind in the lower astral realms or kama-loka as an astral shell (kama-rupa), which slowly dissipates into its component life-atoms. When a soul returns to incarnation, its lower astral and physical vehicles are built from many of the same life-atoms, and as these are stamped with the karmic impress of the previous personality, many of the same personal attributes (skandhas) will manifest. For the majority of people, this is the only sense in which the personality can be said to reincarnate. In some cases, however, the soul reincarnates before the astral shell has had time to disintegrate fully – a process which for an average human is said to take up to about 20 years, though in some cases it can take centuries.1

A significant feature of the cases studied by Stevenson is that the interval between lives is often no more than a few years. According to theosophy, such a short interval is exceptional. The general rule is that the period of postmortem rest is about 100 times the length of the previous life; the average period is sometimes given as 1500 years, but this is because the average life-span at present is about 15 years.2 The explosive growth in world population in recent times is an indication that reincarnation is taking place more quickly than in the past – a reflection, in part, of the quickened pace of life and greater thirst for material things in the present age. In rare cases, reincarnation can even take place almost at once, as G. de Purucker explains:

Certain human beings have made so small a link with their spiritual nature that when death comes nothing has been built up in the life just past to bring the devachanic state into existence. As a result, they sink into a state of utter unconsciousness, in which they remain until the next incarnation which comes very quickly.
    Several instances of almost immediate reimbodiment have been reported which, if genuine, would represent those rare and extraordinary cases of apparently normal human beings who, for one karmic reason or another, reincarnate possibly within a year or two after death. Compared with the great multitude of average individuals who undergo both kama-loka as well as devachan between incarnations, they are very few in number. Such are by no means evil or wicked, but are what one might call passive or neutral, spiritually, and, because during life they had not as yet awakened to that characteristically spiritual life which produces the devachanic experience, they pass a short time in the kama-loka and incarnate again.3

In 51% of the cases Stevenson has investigated, the children remember dying in violent circumstances. As a rule, victims of accidents or violence, including people who commit suicide, remain earth-bound until their vitality is exhausted, after which they may pass through kama-loka and enter the devachan; in some cases reincarnation occurs very quickly.4 The younger the age at which people die, the less opportunity they will have had to activate the lower and higher mental energies that determine the length of the stay in kama-loka and devachan. Another important factor is our beliefs and expectations concerning the afterlife. People who do not believe in life after death will generally be drawn back to earth sooner than those who do. And people who believe in reincarnation but have a strong conviction that they will reincarnate very quickly will tend to return sooner than those with no such conviction. In some of the cases Stevenson has studied, people have apparently predicted before they died in what family they would reincarnate and the birthmarks by which surviving relatives would be able to recognize them. Similarly, it is possible for noble-minded and altruistic people, including chelas, to stamp their consciousness with an impulse to return to earth quickly to continue their work for humanity. For most people, however, a long period of postmortem rest is just as natural and essential as a good night’s sleep.

Clearly the exact nature and length of the different stages of the after-death journey must be extremely varied to suit the karma of the individual in question. As Mahatma KH wrote to A.P. Sinnett: ‘Bear always in mind that there are exceptions to every rule, and to them again and other side exceptions, and be always prepared to learn something new.’5

The very fact that the children involved in Stevenson’s investigations are able to recall details of their previous life is a sign that the cases are not entirely typical, for the ability to remember past lives is not usual for the mass of humanity today. Stevenson stresses that remembering a previous life is almost never a pleasant experience: the children concerned are often troubled by confusion regarding their identity, and sometimes feel a division of loyalties between present and previous families. Fortunately, their memories of a past life tend to fade between the ages of 5 and 8.

Stevenson believes that reincarnation is a ‘third factor’ contributing to the formation of the human personality and certain physical features and abnormalities, and that it operates alongside genetics and environmental influences. From a broader, theosophic perspective, on the other hand, genetic and environmental factors can be regarded as the karmic consequences of our thoughts and deeds in past lives. In fact all our physical and mental characteristics can be viewed as ‘memories’ of previous incarnations.

As regards the workings of karma, Stevenson makes the following interesting comment: ‘Readers of the numerous accounts of murders figuring in the cases I have already described will surely have noted that, if we interpret these cases as instances of reincarnation, it is the reborn victim who has birth defects, not the murderer. This can offend our sense of justice. ... In answer to this objection we can say that we do not know what happens to most murderers, if they should reincarnate. In a very few cases that have come to my attention, however, a subject who remembered having been a malefactor has had an apparently related birth defect’ (p. 126). For instance, a person who had murdered his wife in his previous life was reborn with a malformed right arm: it was shorter than the left one, the fingers of his hand were extremely short, and the major muscle of his right upper chest was absent.

The cases Stevenson describes illustrate very clearly that feelings of sympathy and antipathy towards others are often closely bound up with events in past lives. For example, children may instinctively feel animosity and vengefulness toward people at whose hands they have suffered in their previous life. The animosity may generalize to other members of the same group. For example, a child in India who remembers a previous life that ended in murder by a Moslem might show a hatred for all Moslems. It is easy to see how this could lead to a vicious karmic circle in which individuals, or groups of individuals, slug it out from life to life. This underlines the importance of spreading a proper understanding of karma, reincarnation, and the spiritual unity of all beings, for these teachings enable us to make sense of suffering, strengthen our ability to forgive, and encourage us to make universal brotherhood the keynote of our lives.


  1. G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism, TUP, 1974, p. 580; G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, TUP, 2nd ed., 1940, p. 781.
  2. The Esoteric Tradition, pp. 680-1.
  3. Fountain-Source of Occultism, pp. 593-4fn; see also Studies in Occult Philosophy, TUP, 1945, pp. 615-7.
  4. See Studies in Occult Philosophy, pp. 575-6; The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, TUP, 2nd ed., 1926, pp. 109, 112-3, 131-2 / TPH, chron. ed., 1993, pp. 197-8, 200, 212-3; H.P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings, TPH, 1975, 7:178-81.
  5. Mahatma Letters, 2nd ed., p. 136 / chron. ed., p. 239.


February 1998. Printed in Fohat, Spring 1998.