The Persistence of “Past-Life” Memories

By Neuroskeptic | November 7, 2012 5:14 pm

Many children spontaneously report memories of ‘past lives’. For believers, this is evidence for reincarnation; for others, it’s a psychological oddity.

But what happens when they grow up?

Icelandic psychologists Haraldsson and Abu-Izzedin looked into it. They took 28 adults, members of the Druze community of Lebanon. All of the participants had been interviewed about their past life memories by the famous reincarnationist Professor Ian Stevenson in the 70s, back when they were just 3-9 years old.

Did they still ‘remember’? Most of them thought they did:

Twelve of the 28 participants are sure that they still have clear memories of their past life, and an additional 12 believe that they still have some of their childhood memories, so 86% of our sample still report some memories of a past life… one man was not sure about the source of the memories, two remembered speaking of past life memories as a child, but do not have these memories now, and one thought she might only remember something of her past life because these memories were much talked about in her family.

However – it turned out that they weren’t always the same memories they’d originally reported.

As children they reported on average 30 distinct memories of past lives. As adults they could only remember 8, but of those, only half matched the ones they’d talked about previously:

This indicates that half of the statements remembered today are either fictional or distortions of the original childhood memories, or that the old lists of statements might have been incomplete.

In other words, they probably suffered from a false memory of a false memory – the mind is weird. Despite this, past lives seemed more memorable than real early-childhood:

We asked our participants what they remembered from their preschool years. We were surprised how little they remembered, and some could not remember anything. Our general impression is that past-life memories are better remembered into adult life than are normal memories from preschool years.

There was no evidence that these people suffered from any particular psychological problems as a result of their experiences, but 21% did say that overall, they preferred their past lives to their real ones.

Personally, I have a very vivid memory, not of a past life per se but rather of a very early stage in my own: I remember lying in my cot, unable to get out, rather bored, and waiting for my parents to get me up for the day.

This may really be my earliest memory, but the more I’ve thought about it, the less likely it seems. Could I have known what time it was, and that my parents would eventually come, when I was unable to even stand up by myself?

Maybe. But maybe it was just a later childhood dream about being a baby that seemed real. At that age, the line between dreams and reality is blurry as parents who’ve had to comfort a child after a nightmare will attest. I suspect this accounts for many of these ‘past lives’.

ResearchBlogging.orgHaraldsson E, and Abu-Izzedin M (2012). Persistence of “past-life” memories in adults who, in their childhood, claimed memories of a past life. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 200 (11), 985-9 PMID: 23124184

CATEGORIZED UNDER: mental health, papers, religionism, woo
  • Gavin Hubbard

    This is great. I have some very early (current life…) memories, but over the years, have felt I can trust them less and less…odd kinda feeling


    Anything accounts better for 'past lives' then the concept of a 'past life'

  • DS

    Just the other day my 9 y.o. son cried out in his sleep: “I need Cheerios. I need Cheerios. I need those little brown things.” He said it with such clarity yet he remembers nothing about any associated dream. Yes, I suspect that memories are muddled by the sleeping mind.

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful post, thank you! Unfortunately (or fortunately)I don't remember my childhood at all. So, perhaps, I had no previous lives :)

  • Anonymous
  • ALRawi

    For a child under four years, it is (probably) hard to separate reality from dreams (i.e. later dreams that are related to early-childhood real events).

  • ALRawi

    Brain vs Soul!
    Re: ''?
    I haven't seen the child 'James' talking about it. His mother did all the talking. If the child's memory are vivid, as his mother claims, why not videotaping an interview with him? Even if it is true, isn't it possible that he had watched a lot of cartoons with war planes and stuff like that, or even few books at the Kindergarten?

    Khafla ..enjoy :)

  • Moi

    This leaves out the fact that children have given exact, factual data of people who have died and even HOW they died, including names, and said that they are that person. If someone was shot in the head, for example, there have been cases of said child having a birthmark in the same location. While many are probably confabulations, there is data highly suggestive of reincarnation proper. How does it work? No clue. Also, because someone doesn't remember the memories they had or reported as children doesn't make what they originally said or remembered incorrect or a false memory. In fact it is rather uncontroversial among researchers of this phenomenon that people forget them, usually at a very early age which is why it is important to get to the child and get the data before the memories change or are contaminated too much.

  • DS


    Is there a “true Scotsman”?

  • Monty

    Little seemingly impressive details like a birthmark that matched the location of a fatal wound in a previous life are the sort of clues that tell us where this stuff really comes from. This is etiological mythology – ie. storytelling to explain a peculiar characteristic in a person.

    Is little Sally afraid of water? She drowned in her last life. Why does James obsess over airplanes and have nightmares about them? Because he was a fighter pilot tragically shot down in a war over half a century before.

    In fact in the case of James Leininger in the YouTube vid linked above, his mother always found him “on his back” experiencing these vivid disturbing dreams. Anyone who has investigated sleep paralysis and the terrifyingly vivid hypnagogic visions it produces will soon recognise this as the likely source. (The same condition is also the root of alien abductions, demonic incubus/succubus vistiations and more besides.)

    As the mother admits the troubling phenomena were given an interpretation by the grandmother, who even encouraged the supposedly skeptical parents to meet a regression counsellor. The TV report doesn't say what the counsellor's involvement with the child consisted of. This “explanation” then became the control narrative allowing the family to unwittingly reinforce and encourage the past-life hypothesis for the son.

    The mother has admitted James also had an imaginary friend called Billy when he was younger. The father (an Evangelical Christian by all accounts) researched the details in order to cope with his own cognitive dissonance. Mr and Mrs Leininger wrote a best-selling book called Soul Survivor (with another in the pipeline) and have lived off this myth for the last five years or more. Their co-writer, Ken Gross, claims to be a hard-boiled skeptic. I doubt he wrote it for free. When you look closely no one comes out of this looking impartial or truly objective about the matter – although please note I am not suggesting they invented the story maliciously.

    It continues to impress the credulous but it is rather unimpressive without the mythology and has been debunked many times before. For example

  • CC

    It seems more that memories on the 'past life' timeline fade just like normal memories and this neither proves them to be false nor real. To assert this fading makes the memories false suggests bias.

    Also, we cannot generalise instances in which children were coerced to all cases. If we do that then the fact that some mothers take children to doctors to get themselves more attention would mean all mothers taking a child are out to just get attention. So not the case.

    We really don't know either way, yet, no matter how loudly we share our opinions. It is something we may find out, when our time comes.

    The more interesting question is how does it assist emotional and mental processing to have these experiences and that belief system. Are there advantages to learn about? When we know that even normal memories are re-constituted each time we access them, can we say ANY memory is real?

    Being skeptic is so easy. Exploring the deeper implications has far more to offer though.

  • Anonymous

    In what way is this neuroscience?

  • Neuroskeptic

    It's not, it's psychology, but that's one of the things I blog about

  • Anonymous

    I used to have a few brief memories of I don't really know what but as a child I remembered being an adult woman in a coat standing in the rain in a city. Weird. Don't know what it means. If anything.

  • Anonymous

    There does not seem to be any reason, apart from sheer anti-reincarnation prejudice, for assuming at the outset that past-life memories must be false. There is nothing remarkable about the fact, highlighted in this study, that the memories fade over time. If you read the whole of Stevenson's and Tucker's research, the results and conclusions are not easy to explain without the idea that they are indeed past-life memories.

  • Mark Bodle

    I believe in reincarnation but my one issue with memories from past life is why do nobody report memories of being an Alien on the planet Nimbar 500,000,000 years ago. I say this because I do have a memory of an entirely alien planet the smells, sounds, colors, feelings, and cultural way. So why cant I find anybody without a I died in the Civil War story or I was a Shogun or I died in WW2. Its always so normal. Nobody has a 10 sec memory as a Dog, why… because most are fakes!!!



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


See More

@Neuro_Skeptic on Twitter


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar