I Saw A Light and Came Here: Children's Experiences of Reincarnation
Erlendur Haraldsson and James Matlock are psychical researchers with decades of experience between them, and together they have produced a valuable contribution to the literature on cases of the reincarnation type, featuring memories, mostly found in children, which suggest that some aspect of a living person’s personality was previously incorporated in a deceased person. Erlendur has conducted extensive field research, investigating in the region of a hundred cases, and was associated with Professor Ian Stevenson (who looms large in the book), the pioneer of the field. Matlock is an anthropologist who has also studied reincarnation. Together they examine the phenomenon, and the societies and belief systems from which it springs. They are convinced that while there may occasionally be unreliable aspects to the accounts they have gathered, there is a core that indicates that reincarnation does take place.
The book is clearly laid out and is very readable. It is divided into two parts, with each author responsible for a section. Erlendur has followed in Stevenson’s footsteps – often literally – and begins with a discussion of his research in Lebanon, India, Sri Lanka and of course his native Iceland. After a selection of case studies to give an overview of how reincarnation research is done and the complexities involved in assessing the findings, he examines survey data on beliefs internationally, psychological characteristics of the children claiming memories of past lives, and how long their memories last. He also tackles the issue of claimed memories from between lives and relates these to deathbed visions, near-death experiences, apparitional and other spontaneous experiences suggestive of survival, and mediumship.
Matlock does not have as much field experience and has conducted the bulk of his investigations via social media and email, which have thrown up a considerable number of possible cases. He begins with a brief historical overview of reincarnation beliefs then continues with a selection of examples from Nigeria, India, Brazil and North America. He broadens out the discussion by analysing universal and culturally-specific features of the reincarnation experience (the phenomenon is not homogeneous). Most cases occur within national boundaries but a chapter is devoted to international ones. Another examines xenoglossy, the ability to speak a language not learned, which occurs in rare instances. In an intriguing analysis Matlock shows that there seems to be an influence on reincarnation recall according to whether a death was expected or unexpected, and he tackles the thorny problem of why some people remember past lives but the majority do not.
Despite the number of cases on file, the core problem is that the investigators are dealing with anecdotes, and despite tables of data the researchers were only able to gather accounts retrospectively. There is no way of knowing what might have taken place behind the scenes beforehand, even where all parties seem sincere. In instances that are extra-familial and long-distance there is still the possibility that information could have been acquired by normal means; unlikely in some cases but still leaving room for doubt. The children studied often seem precocious, with more advanced language skills than their peers, yet their behaviours could still be on the normal spectrum for their age, and they were acting in a way that is commensurate with the expectations of those around them.
If this criticism appears to conflate anecdote with lack of standards on the part of the investigators, it is not intended to – based on what is presented here these cases have been gathered rigorously in an attempt to pin down what occurred. However, it should be borne in mind that the psychical research literature contains reports that sounded strong, and have been repeated by authors who were confident they were so, but which on re-examination showed flaws that cast them into doubt. To their credit the authors discuss weaknesses and cases that turn out to be spurious, but in uncontrolled circumstances who knows what was happening that could undermine a solved verdict, a category Matlock is happy to use. Unsolved ones are those in which no deceased person can be found with sufficient matches, though it is possible they will be found in the future. However, the tern implies that if a case is ‘solved’, i.e. there are sufficient similarities to be able to link past and present lives, reincarnation is prima facie proved, when of course this goes beyond the evidence because there are always other possible explanations. Indeed it goes beyond Stevenson, who used the term ‘suggestive’ to indicate that there is still the possibility that some other factor is at work.
Physical marks in children matching those which the previous claimed person, who often died in violent circumstances, had acquired are sometimes considered to provide support for reincarnation, and Stevenson was particularly interested in them. They have even been applied to dead bodies in an attempt to identify the subsequent incarnation. However, they raise additional problems. While we might agree on the possibility of a mechanism whereby some personality essence is ‘uploaded’ (using the term metaphorically) at death and then ‘downloaded’ at birth, how physical effects might be transferred into this database and then back out to create a match is more difficult to envisage. Marks are selected which correspond with those of an alleged previous personality, but there could be others which are ignored because there is no correspondence.
Whether the reader finds the authors’ presentation convincing or otherwise, the most significant issue surely, and this is a well-worn but still valid criticism, is how reincarnation can be characterised as the continuation of the personality after bodily death when the personality’s continuation on this showing is so tenuous. Matlock attempts to sidestep the problem by reference to subconscious processes guiding an individual’s development from life to life across the boundary of death (even if previous lives cannot be recalled), assisting in the process of ‘biological, cultural and social adaptation’. He does not see this as necessarily an upward spiritual process (Erlendur by contrast favours a circular/spiral model), and does not consider cosmically-imposed karma to be a factor. Yet looking at the misery of the world it is difficult to see such hypothetical adaptations making much difference even if they do exist. Caveats aside, something is clearly going on here even if it transpires there is not a paranormal component, and I Saw a Light and Came Here is essential reading for anyone with an interest in cases of the reincarnation type.
A separate review of I Saw a Light and Came Here by a different reviewer will appear at a later date in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.