Interview with University of Virginia professor Dr. Jim Tucker about research of children who remember past lives.
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Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with University of Virginia, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences Dr. Jim Tucker, M.D. about his new book, Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives. During the interview Tucker talks about the database he’s compiled:
Jim Tucker:Ian started studying these cases in the early 60s and the work just continued ever since and it has been 50 years now. So we have got over 2,500 cases from essentially all over the world. Wherever anyone has looked for cases they have been found. They are easiest to find in cultures with a belief in reincarnation but they are found everywhere. And what we started doing a number of years ago now is coding each case on 200 variables and putting them in to a database for analysis. And it has taken us years to get the cases in. We still haven’t quite finished but we have over 2,000 of them in the database now. So then you can look at patterns in the cases that you can’t see just on an individual level. So for instance we know that in 70% of the cases the previous person died by unnatural means, meaning murder, suicide, or accident. So that certainly seems to be a distinct factor in these cases. We also know that even in the natural death cases that the people tend to die quite early where a quarter of the natural death cases is under the age of 15. So again, there is something about dying an unnatural death or dying young that makes it more likely that these memories will then appear down the road.
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Alex Tsakiris: Today, we welcome Dr. Jim Tucker to Skeptiko. Dr. Jim Tucker, MD, is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia where he has continued and further advanced the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson, who studied children who report memories of previous lives. Jim is here to talk about his new book, Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives. Dr. Tucker, welcome to Skeptiko. Thank you for joining me.
Jim Tucker: Sure, thanks for having me.
Alex Tsakiris: Jim, it’s a very interesting book. I think a lot of people find it a great read. It is fascinating, with a lot of cases in it. You start off the book with a case which is also in a way a tribute to Ian Stevenson. Can you tell folks a little bit about Dr. Stevenson and in particular your experiences with him, how you came to meet him, and what he was like.
Jim Tucker: Yeah, Ian Stevenson was the chairman of the department of psychiatry here at the University of Virginia when he became intrigued by these reports of cases from various parts of the world of young children reporting memories of past lives. And he started studying them in the early 60s. He eventually stepped down as chair to study these cases full time and spent the bulk of the last 40 years of his career focused on these cases. I got involved in the late 90s. I had done my psychiatry training here at UVA but I didn’t meet him during that time. After I went into private practice I learned more about his work and became intrigued by it and initially just came by on a voluntary basis to help out with research before coming on as a full-fledged faculty member. And with Ian he was always very precise in the work and completely devoted to it. The amount of miles he traveled and the amount of time he put into this work was really quite remarkable. But he was also a very gracious person. Initially he could be a bit formal at times, really in the way that he used language so precisely. But he could also be quite warm and supportive and he was quite supportive of my initial steps in the field. And when he died in 2007 he left behind quite a legacy for people to try to carry on.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, quite a legacy in a couple of different ways. I have talked to several folks on Skeptiko, guests, who have really been transformed I guess is the only word you can say by his work. I mean, hardcore, academic, logical people who say hey, I have encountered this research and I really had to reexamine what I believe because it was done so well. But you know, in your telling of his biography and the synopsis of those 40 years it almost makes it sound like there was this clear road that didn’t have any bumps in it and that is not the case. And of course, I think a lot of people look at your work that you do there at UVA and Dr. Stevenson’s work and are in awe that you guys were able to get this done and you can still get it done. Can you add anything to that in terms of what it has been like to keep this very controversial, some would say fringy, science going?
Jim Tucker: Well, the road is certainly a lot smoother for me than it was for Ian initially. It happened because there were people who were interested and in it enough to help fund his time and to fund the expenses of the work. And a big one was Chester Carlson, who invented the Xeroxing process and of course is quite wealthy. And that allowed for an endowment to be created which really has funded the work ever since. But even so there were initially people who were at the university who were quite negative about Ian’s work and didn’t want it to happen here. But cooler heads prevailed and people saw that it was serious-minded, even if it was a topic that people might find strange. It was certainly serious-minded work. By the time I came along there were still certain issues that would come up. We basically fund ourselves, with the help of generous donors, but we’re not costing anyone any money. And the university has been always tolerant and in certain circumstances even supportive of this work. So it goes on and hopefully it will continue on indefinitely.
Alex Tsakiris: I like the way you termed it there – serious-minded research. Why don’t you tell folks a little bit about this research and, in particular, the methodology? We all know the basic story. There are children who report memories of past lives. So a case like that arrives in your inbox and I’m sure you get a lot of those at this point because you are world-famous, world-renowned for this research. How does it go from there? What is the research methodology and how do you make sure you are really getting the good stuff in this research.
Jim Tucker: Yeah, well the approach is always one of being open-minded about it. We never approach these cases from a dogmatic standpoint. Or if I may use the term a ‘new-wave’ standpoint where someone believes in reincarnation and then they approach a case as the premise being that it is a case of reincarnation. That is not how we operate. We approach a case to see how much evidence it provides that there is this connection with a past life. So yeah, when I get an email or a letter from a parent – and we do get a lot of them these days – what I am most interested in are cases where the child has given enough details where there is the opportunity to see if they can be validated or verified. So we get a lot from children who can some say some quite interesting things, but if they don’t give names of people or places then it is quite a curiosity but not really anything more than that. But then we get the cases where the children do give details that can be verified. So there are obviously some that are quite interesting and then one that has gotten a lot of press is James Leininger where a boy gave a lot of details about being a World War II pilot. And we have documentation that was made of his statements before the pilot was identified that shows that what the child said, including a number of quite specific details, all matched perfectly with the only person that it could have matched with. And in a case like that it provides evidence that there was this link to a past life and that little James Leininger seemed to have memories from somebody’s life who lived and died before.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, that’s an amazing case and it is really documented nicely in the book. For folks who haven’t heard about it, can you maybe take us back and start from the beginning there and tell us the whole thing? It’s a great story.
Jim Tucker: Yeah, this little boy, the son of a Christian couple in Louisiana, was a little fellow and liked his toy planes. But around the time of his second birthday he also started having horrific nightmares four or five times a week of a terrible plane crash. And he would be kicking his legs up in the air, screaming, ‘Airplane crash on fire, little man can’t get out.’ And these were going on night after night. And then during the day he would take his little toy planes and say, ‘Airplane crash on fire,’ and slam them into the family’s coffee table repeatedly. There were dozens of scratches and dents.
Alex Tsakiris: Not the normal kind of 2-year-old kid playing around. The kid is obsessed with these airplanes, right?
Jim Tucker: That’s right, and not just obsessed but seemingly traumatized. This is not just from playing around, this is a kid who looks like in those features that he has post-traumatic stress disorder. And then during the day he started talking some about his plane crash and he said how he had been a pilot and he had flown off of a boat and he even gave the name of a boat. He said, ‘Natoma.’ And he said that he had flown a type of plane called a Corsair and that he had been shot down by the Japanese and shot down at Iwo Jima. And he said he had a friend on the boat named Jack Larson. Well, his dad was a firm Christian who thought the ideas of past lives was nonsense and started looking into this to show that there was nothing to it. But then he learned that in fact there had been an American aircraft carrier in World War II called the USS Natoma Bay. And James was 28 months old when he gave the word ‘Natoma.’ So there was this USS Natoma Bay and it was involved in the Iwo Jima operation and it lost one pilot there, a young man from Pennsylvania named James Huston.
Huston’s plane crashed exactly as James Leininger described. It got hit in the engine, burst into flames, crashed in the water, and quickly sank – which is exactly what James described. And Huston, the pilot, had in fact flown a Corsair as James Leininger mentioned. And on the day that he was killed the pilot in the plane next to his was named Jack Larson, which was another detail that James Leininger had given. And all of these things that I have given you – again, we have documentation that was made before Huston’s pilot was identified and it all matched perfectly with the one pilot from that ship that went down at Iwo Jima, so the only person that it could match with it matched precisely.
Alex Tsakiris: From a 28-month-old boy – I mean, those of us who have kids, there is just no way to explain that in any ordinary terms. It is not like his parents had any kind of background in aviation or World War II buffs or anything like that, right?
Jim Tucker: Yes, and as a matter of fact when he said, ‘Natoma,’ his dad said, ‘That’s sounds Japanese to me.’ And James said, ‘No, it’s American.’ And no one, I don’t care if you are a military buff or what, is going to know these details unless you were involved in the Iwo Jima operation or were on the Natoma Bay. I mean this is sort of a nondescript escort carrier and World War II obviously was a huge operation with thousands of ships like this. And there is no way a 28-month-old had access to that information.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, that’s remarkable. And of course the other part that’s remarkable is the breadth of your work. I mean, this case then is not an isolated case. It fits into this huge body which you have collected. Tell folks a little bit about that body of work and in particular the database you have created and how that fits into your investigation of these past lives.
Jim Tucker: Yeah, so Ian started studying these cases in the early 60s and the work just continued ever since and it has been 50 years now. So we have got over 2,500 cases from essentially all over the world. Wherever anyone has looked for cases they have been found. They are easiest to find in cultures with a belief in reincarnation but they are found everywhere. And what we started doing a number of years ago now is coding each case on 200 variables and putting them in to a database for analysis. And it has taken us years to get the cases in. We still haven’t quite finished but we have over 2,000 of them in the database now. So then you can look at patterns in the cases that you can’t see just on an individual level. So for instance we know that in 70% of the cases the previous person died by unnatural means, meaning murder, suicide, or accident. So that certainly seems to be a distinct factor in these cases. We also know that even in the natural death cases that the people tend to die quite early where a quarter of the natural death cases is under the age of 15. So again, there is something about dying an unnatural death or dying young that makes it more likely that these memories will then appear down the road. So those are the kinds of things that we can use a database to try to learn more about exactly how this whole process takes place.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s amazing. Any other insights that you have gotten from that database in particular about maybe the age that these memories seem to surface or anything along those lines?
Jim Tucker: Well, they surface very early. It is usually around the age of two or three, and the average age is about 38 months, so just past the third birthday. And another interesting thing as far as figures go is that the children tend to talk about very recent lives. So the average interval between the death of the previous person and the birth of the child is only 4-and-a-half years but then you have exceptions like James Leininger, which is 50 years. The median interval, meaning half are less and half are more, is only 16 months. So for the most part these kids are talking about really recent lives. So the picture that comes about is that there is somebody who dyes prematurely, either by the mode of death or the age of death, and then comes back very quickly or stays in this room or however you want to conceptualize it and then these memories appear soon after the person died.
Alex Tsakiris: Fascinating, and it is also kind of a minefield of assumptions that you would have to make and then possibly challenge. I very much appreciate how you said these memories seem to emerge because we can’t necessarily – and correct me if I’m wrong – know for sure there is a perfect correlation between these memories occurring and the past life being a reality. So I guess what I am trying to say is what you’re studying is the phenomena of these recollections, these memories. This doesn’t necessarily speak to how often or what percentage of people are reincarnated and those kinds of questions that people really want to answer, correct?
Jim Tucker: Well sure, and I could say purported memories every time I say memories. So we use the term memories and it doesn’t necessarily mean the memory is valid. But I mean, the person has a memory whether it is accurate or not. These cases don’t speak to the question of whether everybody comes back, even if you accept them on face value. In fact, these may well be the exception in the sense that like I was just saying it is usually people who died violently or died young. So maybe the usual pattern is for the consciousness, even if it survives, to have some completely different kind of experience. But in these cases it seems that it sort of stays attached to this realm or however you want to view it. But in any case, quite quickly a child is born who then reports memories of that life.
Alex Tsakiris: I am glad you threw in the purported claims of memories thing because as much as we would like to we can’t ignore the debunker, or skeptical, side of this. Really, the reason we can’t ignore it is because it is the mainstream view, right? I mean, you sit there at UVA and you’re allowed to do this work but the majority of the campus community there hasn’t fully embraced this idea, no matter how overwhelmingly suggestive this evidence seems to be. You know, one of the most frequent claims that you hear from the debunking crowd is that this can all be explained by cultural bias. You touched on that in the sense that your research seems to indicate this is more likely to occur from your studies in cultures that believe in reincarnation. But I think you told me the last time we talked that this book really focuses on more U.S. and North American cases and kind of seeks to kind of challenge that assumption a little bit because you do have some good U.S.-based cases. Is that correct?
Jim Tucker: Well, that’s right. I mean, this new book is almost all American cases. And they disproved the idea that this is a cultural phenomenon. Whatever the explanation is, it is not cultural factors because these are taking place in families without a belief in reincarnation. And in our culture, without a belief in reincarnation. So there is certainly more to it than that and it is beginning to look like these cases are more common than we had known. So we are in the process of crunching the numbers of a survey study we have recently done with a number of counties in Virginia, asking families if they have had a child who has talked about a past life. And with parents of kids ages three to twelve, 6% of the households said that they had a child who talked about a past life. Now, it doesn’t mean that the memories are validated obviously because presumably they weren’t. but it is a phenomenon that is not simply a cultural creation. It seems to be more of a human phenomenon that happens and then we can explore why it happens or how it memories. And I use ‘purported memories’ not just because of the sort of mainstream critics, but also I continue to approach each case as an open question. What is the evidence that this case provides that there is a past life connection. And sometimes I am impressed by it and sometimes I’m not.
Alex Tsakiris: That is interesting what you just said a minute ago because it would suggest and it is kind of an a-ha moment as soon as you said it, but the cultural bias may be in the reporting more than anything else. We have a cultural bias that under reports this phenomenon and that is why we see the disparity between the southeast Asian cases and the U.S. cases.
Jim Tucker: Exactly, it is sampling basically. And in a lot of cultures if kids are talking about this stuff then word gets out. The families will talk about it, whereas here we have talked with parents that haven’t even told the grandparents about it because it seems kind of weird. And people don’t want their friends and neighbors to think that their kid is strange. It is certainly easier to find cases in Thailand or India or wherever, but exactly how often they are happening there compared to here we don’t really know.
Alex Tsakiris: The other thing that you touched on briefly is the religious overlay on this. Of course, this does challenge some assumptions for Christian believers but it sounds like some of the parents that you are involved with are able to overcome that and brave enough to say hey, I have to deal with my child and what they’re going through and maybe set aside some preconceived religious ideas that I have. I love how you explore that in one of the chapters in the book. I think it is chapter five, the story about Ryan who is a kid who has parents who really don’t want to believe this reincarnation story but they feel compelled to. It is a great story, or a great case, because of the extent to which you research it. Anyone will find out if they read the book and if you read some of the scholarly papers you published on this you will see it is really an extensive case study analysis that you do. Can you tell us a little bit about Ryan’s story?
Jim Tucker: Sure, and Ryan is one, again, of a pair of Christian parents. And he is a little boy in Oklahoma who started telling his mom about a life in Hollywood he had and he was crying about it every day. And eventually he pointed to a man in a picture from an old movie and said, ‘Hey, that’s me. That’s who I was.’ And he also pointed to another guy and said, ‘Hey, that’s George. We did a movie together.’ And then he pointed to another man and said, ‘That’s me.’ Well, the George he pointed to was George Raft, who was a movie star back in the 1930s or 1940s. The other guy that he pointed to was an extra who had no lines in the movie. So his mom emailed me, or actually wrote me a letter, to see if I could help in identifying him. And eventually with the help of a Hollywood archivist we were able to identify that man. Meanwhile, Ryan is saying all kinds of things about his past life. He said he had danced in New York and gone on to Hollywood. He had been in movies and he worked for an agency and he had seen the world on big boats, and he had this big house with a swimming pool. All of this stuff seemed quite unlikely to me for an extra with no lines in the movie. But it turned out this fellow was a guy named Marty Martyn and his life, in fact, did match those details. He danced on Broadway and then he went to Hollywood. He was in movies and then started a talent agency which was quite successful. And Marty Martyn went to Europe on the Queen Mary and had fancy cars and did have a big house and a swimming pool. And Ryan had said that the street address had the word ‘rock’ or ‘mount’ in it, and Marty Martyn’s house was on Rocksbury. So again, it was a case where there were a lot of specific details that were clearly documented and then once the previous person was identified the details matched in a way that is inconceivable – that Ryan could have learned all this through some normal means.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, indeed, that is another great story and great case. And the book is full of them and they are fascinating reads. I think anyone is going to enjoy and be totally drawn into them. They are really well-written, too. The part of the book I really enjoyed getting to was the last part of the book, where you talk about what all this means. And there is a quote from there that I wanted you to kind of maybe expound a little bit because you say the world exists as a shared dream. Or you kind of speculate that perhaps the world exists as a shared dream, and that is what you have maybe taken away from this research. Tell us what you mean by that.
Jim Tucker: Well, it is a little complicated. I spent a chapter exploring quantum physics, and quantum physics can be used by people sort of superficially to back new-age beliefs. But what I tried to do is show how people arrive at conclusions, as Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, did when he said that he recorded consciousness as fundamental and that physical matter was derived from it. And I show why people can think this. And eventually it appears that on the quantum level, the smallest and most basic level of the universe, that events only occur once their results are observed. So before observation, there are only potentials. There is not an outcome until it is observed. Which is analogous to our nighttime dreams, where there are all these potential figures from our life that could be in the dreams but they only exist in that world once we observe them. And it seems, in some strange way, that reality is very similar to that. And this leads to an idea that, again, the consciousness is what is fundamental in reality and that the physical universe simply grows out of that.
Well, if that is the case then we would not expect an individual consciousness to end when a physical brain dies. And our cases, of course, provide evidence that in fact consciousness does not end and that it continues on. And I then explore and speculate that if you use that metaphor, what might we say about existence after we die? And what other shared dreams might be possible? And what might they be like and who might be in them? And so forth. So it is an idea that I think is worth exploring.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it definitely is. And I love the way that you do bridge from quantum physics, which often send people in the wrong direction because so many people have rather new-age ideas that they attach to quantum mechanics and quantum theory. And then they don’t really fit it together very well. But I think you do a nice job of just kind of sticking with the basics of quantum physics and then bridging from there and trying to reconcile this fundamental question, which is really I think at the core of all of this – what is the nature of consciousness? And I think where your work, as you just said, leads us to is that we do have to take seriously this alternative idea that consciousness is fundamental. And that’s so funny because as you just described, when you jump over to that position so many of these seemingly impossible-to-solve questions kind of start opening up in a way, and start looking much more understandable, at least from our limited perspective here.
Jim Tucker: That’s right, and I think really we have to look at reality differently in order to fully understand the cases. You can’t just map these cases, obviously, on a materialist understanding of the world. But I think if you stop and consider it is not just that the world is primary, and sort of consciousness is bouncing from one life to the next or whatever. I don’t think that is how it works. But if you consider that consciousness is the primary thing and then this world that we see is just a creation of that consciousness, then it does give a different perspective of trying to understand what this is all about.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but that’s a big step from where we’re at, isn’t it? Science does seem to be marching along with this kind of materialistic, block-headed mindset that is very resistant to change. And on the back of your book you have some nice blurbs from folks who are again suggesting that maybe this book can help bust that paradigm, move us to a new paradigm – a new vista where we can see things differently. What do you think about that? What do you think, in particular, about the chance that during your career you will see that kind of shift? You will see science opening up in a real important way to these ideas that lie beyond scientific materialism?
Jim Tucker: Well, I think there is a very good chance that I will have to wait until another lifetime for that to happen.
Alex Tsakiris: That will have to be that memory, huh?
Jim Tucker: But I do think that quantum theory and quantum physicists are open to some pretty wild things. I think they have already established that in many ways the world doesn’t work the way that we think it does, that Newtonian kind of physics works great most of the time but it is really an approximation. It is not an accurate view of reality. And maybe there will continue to be big steps. I don’t have enough arrogance to think my book is going to lead to a breakthrough and suddenly society accepts the idea of consciousness as primary. But hopefully if it happens it will happen in the quantum physics arena. And hopefully there will be continued breakthroughs. The Einsteinian changes of relativity and all of that, and to some extent the quantum theory, showed us that we didn’t understand what we thought we did. And perhaps there will be new advances that will again show people that the world does not work the way we think it does and that physical matter is not all that is important.
Alex Tsakiris: And Jim, finally, you are there in I guess you would have to say the Bible Belt to a certain extent. How is your work received by religious folks, mainstream religious folks? It certainly is dogma-busting for those guys too. How do people reconcile some of this stuff?
Jim Tucker: Well, it varies. And you never know who is going to be open to it. There was a Harris poll a few years ago that showed that 20% of American Christians actually believe in reincarnation. And that tends to be a private belief they are not talking about at church, but the other thing I would say is that this work at least challenges or questions the idea of scientific materialism. So in that sense it is a fellow traveler with religious folks. It is taking the idea of consciousness and even the question of survival after death and taking those things seriously, which obviously much of science and medicine does not do. So I have not gotten angry emails from Evangelical Christians or anything like that. And in fact in some of our families are folks like that. So I think people can be open to interesting things from all sorts of perspectives, religious or otherwise.
Alex Tsakiris: I would very much agree and I think that the way that the cultural battle lines are drawn between science and religion are really a distortion of where most people sit. And I think the real issue is, as you just said, this idea of scientific materialism and its atheistic underpinnings versus people who want to explore if they are more than these biological robots they are told they are. And I think most people intuitively and through experience know they are more and I think that is why they are drawn to this work, even if it violates the strict letter of the dogma doctrine that they get on Sunday.
Jim Tucker: To some extent in science, but certainly in medicine – a lot of people are religious but they just separate out and sort of compartmentalize that part of their life with their work of trying to help people with physical illnesses. But it is something that obviously many people value. And this work, while it may challenge some of the specifics, I think overall it is certainly not an enemy of people who value spirituality.
Alex Tsakiris: Jim, where does your research go from here? What are your plans?
Jim Tucker: Well, I would like to continue to study strong American cases. There are a number in my book but the larger we can make that collection the harder it will be for people to ignore. We are also going to continue to work with the database and see what we can learn about the patterns of this whole process. And I hope, without being too specific, to continue to explore this issue of consciousness or mind and what it means and what it may mean about reality. And just sort of continue to consider the big questions while also working on the individual cases or working with the database.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. It is fantastic research and I really commend you for doing it and having the perseverance that you do. I think it is tremendous. Again, the book is Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives. Our guest has been Dr. Jim Tucker from the University of Virginia. Thanks again so much for joining me, Jim
Jim Tucker: Thanks very much for a great conversation.