Hypnotic Regression to Previous Lives
A Short Statement by Ian Stevenson, M.D.
The following remarks have been written in an effort to reply most effectively to the large number of letters and inquiries that I receive from persons who wish to apply to me for hypnotic regression to previous lives, wish me to recommend a hypnotist to them, or wish me to investigate some material that has emerged from such an experience.
Many persons who attach no importance whatever to their dreams–realizing that most of them are merely images of the dreamer’s subconscious mind without correspondence to any other reality–nevertheless believe that whatever emerges during hypnosis can invariably be taken at face value. In fact, the state of a person during hypnosis resembles in many ways–although not in all–that of a person dreaming. The subconscious parts of the mind are released from ordinary inhibitions and they may then present in dramatic form a new “personality.” If the subject has been instructed by the hypnotist–explicitly or implicitly–to “go back to another place and time” or given some similar guidance, the new “personality” may appear to be one of another period of history. Such evoked “previous personalities” may be extremely plausible both to the person having the experience and to other persons watching him or her. Experiments by Baker1and by Nicholas Spanos and his colleagues2 have shown how easily different suggestions given by a hypnotist can influence the features of the “previous personality” in conformity with suggestions.
In fact, however, nearly all such hypnotically evoked “previous personalities” are entirely imaginary just as are the contents of most dreams. They may include some accurate historical details, but these are usually derived from information the subject has acquired normally through reading, radio and television programs, or other sources. The subject may not remember where he obtained the information included, but sometimes this can be brought out in other sessions with hypnosis designed to search for the sources of the information used in making up the “previous personality.” Experiments by E. Zolik3 and by R. Kampman and R. Hirvenoja4 have demonstrated this phenomenon.
A marked emotional experience during the hypnotic regression provides no assurance that memories of a real previous life were recovered. The subjective experience of reliving a previous life may be impressive to the person having the experience, and yet the “previous life” may be a fantasy, like most of our dreams. Also, benefit (even dramatic improvement) in some physical or psychological symptom does not provide evidence that a real previous life has been remembered. Persons with psychosomatic symptoms and psychoneuroses recover following a wide variety of psychotherapeutic measures. There are many general effects of any psychotherapeutic measure. Improvement may be due exclusively to these and have nothing to do with the special technique, whether hypnotic regression, psychoanalysis, or whatever, of the psychotherapist.
It is worth emphasizing that very young children who remember verified previous lives often have phobias, such as of water, even though they remember the event that seems to have generated the phobia, such as a death from drowning. Thus remembering the cause of a phobia or some other symptom does not necessarily remove it.
Persons considering hypnotic regression experiments should ask themselves: What benefit would there be for me in coping with my present difficulties if I did remember something that seemed somehow connected with them from a previous life? Would such a memory, even if it were real, remove the difficulties?
This being a brief statement, it cannot do justice to all the complex aspects of the subject, but I will mention that very rarely something of value may emerge during experiments with hypnotic regression to “previous lives.” Examples occur in instances where the subject proves able to speak a foreign language not normally learned.
The procedure of hypnotic regression to “previous lives” is not without some hazards. Instances have occurred in which the “previous personality” has not “gone away” when instructed to do so and the subject in such cases has been left in an altered state of personality for several days or more before restoration of his normal personality.
I am not now engaging in experiments with hypnotic regression to “previous lives.” I do not recommend hypnotists to persons who wish to have this experience. I do not approve of any hypnotist who makes promises to clients that suggest they will certainly return to a real previous life under his direction. I do not approve of anyone who charges fees for acting as a hypnotist in such experiments.
I do not undertake verifications of details that may emerge from such experiments except in the extremely rare instances that seem to me to show strong evidence of some paranormal process. Instances of responsive xenoglossy (speaking a foreign language not normally learned) may be included in this small group that I am interested in investigating.
Although opposed to commercial exploitation of unwarranted claims for hypnotic regression, I am in favor of serious research with hypnotic regression.
The above remarks apply with some modifications to amateur experiments with ouija boards, planchettes, and automatic writing. In most such experiments the persons concerned tap into nothing more than the subconscious layers of the minds of one or more of the participants. The dangers of deception and self-deception are perhaps greater than in experiments with hypnosis, especially when the persons experimenting become convinced that they are being guided by discarnate personalities. Here again, in rare instances some paranormal process may be involved in the results of such experiments and very rarely they have produced evidence suggestive of actual contact with a discarnate personality. But in the majority of instances such evidence is totally lacking.
For further information and references to articles and books based on scientific investigations which provide the support for my position on this matter, I refer correspondents to my book Children Who Remember Previous Lives (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2001). I have also published “A Case of the Psychotherapist’s Fallacy: Hypnotic Regression to ‘Previous Lives'” (American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis. Volume 36, pages 188-193, 1994). Reprints of this article are available; see Publications. It is article #STE40 on the “Reincarnation” list.
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2 Spanos, N.P., Menary, E., Gabora, N.J., DuBreuil, S.C., Dewhirst, B. “Secondary identity enactments during hypnotic past-life regression: A sociocognitive perspective.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 308-320, 1991.
4 Kampman, R. and Hirvenoja, R. “Dynamic relation of the secondary personality induced by hypnosis to the present personality” in Hypnosis at Its Bicentennial, edited by F.H. Frankel & H.S. Zamansky. New York: Plenum Press. 1978