May 06 2024

Washington Post on Past Lives

Generally speaking the mainstream media does a terrible job of reporting anything in the realm of pseudoscience or the paranormal. The Washington Post’s recent article on children who apparently remember their past lives is no exception. Journalists generally don’t have the background or skill set necessary to deal with these often complex topics. They also don’t seem to care, looking at such stories as “fluff” pieces and see nothing but their click-bait potential. Almost universally missing from such pieces in effective skepticism. At best you may get some token skepticism, buried deep in the article, and usually immediately nullified by another anecdote or unchallenged claim. Such pieces, if they do rely on experts, focus on believers.

I have written before about reincarnation. The Post article focuses on the same researcher, Stevenson, who always gets cited, because of his large body of research. The post article, in the end, is just regurgitating the same old arguments and evidence that has already been picked over by skeptics.

The lead anecdote is of a toddler who has an imaginary friend, Nina, and begins to weave increasingly details stories about Nina and her life. The detail that gets her parents most interested is when their daughter says, “Nina has numbers on her arm and it makes her sad.” This was interpreted as a memory from a Nazi concentration camp. There are basically two ways to interpret such behavior by children – either they are genuine memories of a past life (or some other source of actual memories), or they are fantasies. Here is a typical line of argument from the Post article:

She explained that at age 2 or 3, children engage in fantasy play, but they are not likely to fabricate a statement involving their primary relationships. In other words: Saying “You’re not my mom” or “I want my other parents” or “Where are my children?” — common among these cases — is not something you would typically expect a very young child to say, let alone repeat insistently. “It doesn’t sound like confusion,” Klein says. “It sounds like a real statement. And young children just don’t make this kind of thing up.”

Um, yes they do. The problem with the logic above is that Klein is arguing this behavior is not “common” or “typical” therefore it doesn’t happen. He apparently discounts the possibility that this behavior from young children is uncommon and atypical, but still occasionally happens. Since there are mechanisms in place that literally solicit these uncommon cases, we should not be surprised. I work at a hospital that is a tertiary referral center – we get referred the weird cases from a large population. So it should not be surprising that we see a lot of uncommon and atypical cases.

This is one of the primary logical failures of the case for reincarnation based on the behavior of these children – they are selected from a vast population, which opens the door for a lot of coincidence and “atypical” behavior.

Another core logical problem with using these anecdotes as evidence for reincarnation is the frequent claim that the children involved could not or did not previously have any exposure to the subject of their memories. For example, in the case of Nina, the parents insist their child had never heard of the holocaust. As the father of two children, I find this position incredibly naive. I still remember watching Empire Strikes Back for the first time with my young children and waiting to see their reaction to the, “No, I am your father” line from Vader. Their reaction was – nothing. I had to pause the movie and find out what they thought about that shocking revelation. They both, having never watched Star Wars previously, new that Vader was Luke’s father. They couldn’t even tell me how they knew – they had just absorbed it from the culture.

Children are cultural sponges. They pick up lots of information, stuff we don’t notice because it’s in the background, or we just take for granted. Children’s cartoons are full of whimsical cultural references, some meant to be secret humor to keep parents from losing their minds. The bottom line is that there is absolutely no way the parents could know that their daughter was never exposed to any references to the holocaust. They may have even been quietly playing while the adults were having a conversation, unaware that their child was absorbing everything. How likely is this? Again – see my first point. These cases are the tip of a very large pyramid of raw material.

Is there evidence for a “psychocultural” explanation for the statements of these children? Why, yes. From the article:

“There’s no question that the cases are easier to find in cultures where there’s a belief in reincarnation,” Tucker says.

The significance of this statement is not explored. We can combine this with another admission (again, just glossed over):

“If parents ask leading questions, or if children learn that certain statements are met with dramatic or enthusiastic responses, it can be difficult to discern whether a child is just trying to please their parents.”

So, in cultures with belief about reincarnation, children with vivid imaginations, who may just be at one end of the Bell curve in terms of their imaginative play, are interpreted through the lens of reincarnation by overenthusiastic adults. That, at least, is an adequate explanation for the entire body of research that exists so far (even if it is not the most exciting). Also, I will add that there is a lot of subjective interpreting going on. The numbers on Nina’s arm may not have been a reference to the Holocaust. This is like a cold reading – lots of details get thrown out, and sometimes there can be a coincidental match. The bulk of the work is being done by the parents (or researchers), who are making the connections. Humans are good at pattern recognition, and the fantasies of these children are great source material.

As is often the case, I do find the phenomenon interesting, just not for the same reason as the believers. Human psychology is amazing, and childhood neuropsychological development is also fascinating. It is interesting that people can generate beliefs from random occurrences, and then can subconsciously employ mechanisms of self deception to reinforce those beliefs.

At the end of the day what we actually have is pretty typical human psychological behavior, from all involved, with a complete absence of any hard evidence for anything paranormal going on. Occam’s razor wins out in the end – the most likely explanation here turns out to be somewhat mundane. People can have rich fantasy lives.

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