The scientific evidence for past lives or reincarnation – from formal research rather than just anecdotal evidence – comes from two main directions.
The first is hypnotic regression, but this is not generally considered to have produced anything conclusive. The principal reason for this is that it’s relatively easy for sceptics to come up with alternative explanations, such as suppressed memories (from books, newspapers, TV programmes and films), false memories implanted by the hypnotist, or simply fantasy.* Having said this, past life experiences under hypnosis are usually very convincing to the person having them, and there is some useful research in this area. I can recommend the book Reliving Past Lives: The evidence under hypnosis by Dr Helen Wambach for a comprehensive description of her own research.
The second line of research, which is rather harder for sceptics to explain away, comes from studies with young, sometimes very young, children, particularly those conducted by psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, who published a number of books on his research. There are two reasons why these studies are more convincing than those involving hypnosis: firstly, the suppressed memories argument is not plausible when the subjects are two to three years old and secondly Stevenson’s subjects mainly lived in semi-literate cultures where access to other sources of information was extremely limited.
To give you an idea of this research I’d like to give a very brief summary of one of Stevenson’s classic cases – that of Imad Elawar.** Imad was born in in a village in Lebanon in 1958, and the first word that he spoke was “Jamileh”, the name of the mistress of Ibrahim Boumhazy, who had lived in a village 20 miles away and died in 1949 at the age of twenty-five. As soon as Imad learnt to speak in sentences he began to talk about his past life, and at the age of two recognised a neighbour of Boumhazy’s in the street. He also gave many details about Boumhazy’s house, relatives and his life. At that time the people of the region tended to do little travelling, and the members of the Elawar and Boumhazy families insisted that they had never met. After collecting as much information as possible from both villages, Stevenson took Imad (then aged five) to Boumhazy’s village, where he recognised many of Ibrahim Boumhazy’s relatives and addressed them correctly. They were amazed at Imad’s behaviour, which was just like Ibrahim’s.
Stevenson collated 57 factual statements made by Imad; of these, 51 were verified as correct. This case, and others like it, is very difficult to explain if it is not a genuine example of reincarnation. Communication between communities in the region was extremely limited at the time. Imad had never visited the other village and the two families were adamant that they had never met. Fraud was also most unlikely, as Imad’s comments were more of an embarrassment to his family than giving any benefit.
“Super-ESP”, i.e. telepathy from Boumhazy’s family, is of course a possible explanation for the information given by Imad; it’s the sceptic’s “Get out of jail free” card, as it can explain almost anything – except perhaps Imad’s behaviour. In cases like this, reincarnation is the most straightforward explanation, and these cases do give very strong evidence – but not, of course, conclusive proof.
*None of these arguments affect the effectiveness of past life regression for therapeutic purposes, for reasons that I have explained in other blogs and articles.
** A detailed discussion of this case can be found at http://www.criticandokardec.com.br/imad_elawar_revisited.html#review