by Marinus Jan Marijs
Psycho: of the mind, of the psyche
adj [occurring in compounds] -phore, -phorous (= carrying; carrier, bearer)
Ian Stevenson, Carlton Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, the world’s leading authority on the subject of reincarnation, introduces in his book:
Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. 2 volumes.By Ian Stevenson. Westport. CT: Praeger, 1997. Cloth, $195.00, xx + 2268 pages, the concept of a psychophore.
This book goes into the question in which way the reincarnating individual influences the physical body of its new incarnation. Stevenson identifies three possibilities. “First, the individual may in some sense “select” its parents, motivated by strong ties of affection Second, the reincarnating individual may be able to screen and select fertilized ova or embryos. Third, and most relevant to the subject of birthmarks and defects, the individual may be able to exercise some direct control over the development of the foetus to reproduce physical attributes of the body of the previous personality”.
Stevenson writes in his book:
Any such direct influence implies some kind of template that imprints the embryo or fetus with “memories” of the wounds, marks, or other features of the previous physical body. The template must have a vehicle that carries the memories of the physical body and also the cognitive and behavioural ones. I have suggested the word pyschophore (which means “mind-carrying”) for this intermediate vehicle. . . .
The existence between terrestrial lives is therefore, according to this view, a corporeal one, but the psychophore would not be made of the material substances with which we are familiar. . . .
. . . These and other cases suggest to me that the psychophore has the properties of a field or, more probably, a collection of fields that carry the physical and other memories of the previous life and more or less reproduce them by acting on the embryo or foetus of the new body. . . . Morphogenetic fields have been imagined as governing the development of the forms that organs and the whole body of which they are the parts will have. . . .
Readers may reasonably ask whether there exists any evidence for a vehicle such as the psychophore apart from the cases of children who remember previous lives and who have birthmarks or birth defects. The answer is not much. Nevertheless certain cases of apparitions furnish some relevant evidence.
Some additional evidence for a vehicle that I have called a psychophore comes from the occurrence of phantom limbs in congenital amputees—persons born with parts of limbs missing. [183–4]”
Some features suggest why some children remember their prior incarnation and even have signs of it in their new body. In a large number of these cases that Stevenson examines, the earlier life ended prematurely by violence.
The reincarnation then happened quickly and in the same culture as the preceding life. And the violent ending of the earlier life so impressed the psychophore that it in turn passed on the impression to the new body in the form of a birthmark or defect.
It is as though a life was ended before its purpose had been achieved, so the individual was drawn back into the same milieu to finish the uncompleted experience.
Stevenson’s data refers mostly to children who remember past lives.
(in an interview he said that his estimation was that about 1 in 200 children do remember a past life).
The data does suggest this particular group did reincarnate within a few years or decades probably because their earlier life ended prematurely by violence.
When the normal process is violently interrupted, however, it would seem natural that the individual might be quickly attracted back into the same circumstances as the last life. In that case, there would not be time between lives for the psychophore to be “cleansed” of its past memories, which would therefore be incorporated into the new personality. As the individual settles into the new body and new impressions come from the senses into the new brain, however, the old memories from the past life are overwritten and die out. According to Stevenson, a child begins to talk about a past life very early, almost as soon as it learns to talk, but between the ages of 5 and 8, active memories of the past life are generally gone.
In many traditions is assumed that normally a long period of time passes between incarnations, even centuries. An extraordinary witness in support of this is Christ, in (Matthew 17:10-13): And when Jesus is identifying himself as the Messiah: “the disciples asked him, saying, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ But he answered them and said, ‘Elijah indeed is to come and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also shall the Son of Man suffer at their hand. Then the disciples understood that he had spoken of John the Baptist.” Here Christ identifies John the Baptist as Reincarnation of the prophet Elijah. As the prophet Elijah died ca. 850 B.C. and John the Baptist was born between 7- 4 B.C. This gives a timespan of eight and a half centuries.
John Algeo, in “Reincarnation: the Evidence.” Quest 89.2 (MARCH – APRIL 2001): 44-50. Gives an excellent evaluation of Stevenson’s book(s):
These books are arguably the most important works ever published on the subject of reincarnation, and their author, Ian Stevenson, is the world’s leading authority on the subject. Carlton Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, he is the author of more than a dozen scholarly books and 250 articles. His special area of research has been purported cases of memories by children of prior incarnations.
Stevenson has meticulously investigated at first hand the accounts of children who apparently remember an earlier incarnation. His investigations include not only the child who reports the memories and the persons around that child, but also the actual family, locale, circumstances, and events of the remembered life. The cumulative evidence of Stevenson’s cases is so impressively massive and detailed that alternative explanations of chance or fraud (deliberate or unconscious) are improbable in the extreme. As Stevenson points out, unless one begins with the assumption that reincarnation is impossible, it is the simple stand most convincing explanation for a large number of cases.
What makes the evidence reported in Stevenson’s most recent books so impressive, however, is that they add something new to his earlier studies, which dealt with reported memories and his investigative confirmation of the accuracy of those memories. This something new is physical bodily evidence in the form of birthmarks or birth defects on the body of the person who remembers a previous life. Those marks or defects match attested wounds or other physical anomalies on the body of the prior personality.
For example, a child may remember having lived another life including enough details about it (names, places, events) to permit investigators to identify the earlier personality. That personality died from a gunshot wound, and medical or coroner’s records establish the location of the entering and exiting wound marks made by the fatal bullet. The child who remembers the earlier life has birthmarks on places that correspond to the wounds of the prior personality. Moreover, the birthmark corresponding to the exit wound is larger than the birthmark corresponding to the entry wound, just as the wounds themselves were, that being the normal pattern for bullet wounds. That is one type of case out of many involving birthmarks and defects.
The two hefty volumes of Reincarnation and Biology present extensive reports on cases of several types: Volume 1 devoted to birthmarks and volume 2 to birth defects and other anomalies. Many of the detailed accounts include photographs. The much more concise book Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect corresponds chapter by chapter with the two-volume one but abridges and summarizes the material and is addressed to a general reader. The fuller two volumes, on the other hand, contain a good deal of technical detail and far more specific accounts of the evidence. For most readers, the shorter book will suffice, but anyone seriously interested in a scientific investigation of evidence for reincarnation should consult the longer version. And even a casual reader will find some of the detail in the two-volume set of absorbing interest.
A question that naturally arises is how the phenomenon works. Assuming that the memories of a former life are true, what causes unusual marks on a new infant body to correspond to physical abnormalities on the body of a former personality? Stevenson considers that question in chapters 2 and 3, where he points to several circumstances under which modifications in a person’s body can be made by mental rather than physical intervention. Christian stigmatics are a well-known example; persons meditating on the crucified Jesus may undergo bodily changes in which marks or open wounds appear on their foreheads, palms, feet, sides, or other places corresponding to scriptural or iconographic details of the Passion.
Other such examples abound. A mother, sibling, or spouse may have sympathetic pains and physical symptoms corresponding to those of a loved family member. Hypnotic suggestion can modify bodily functions and produce physical changes. Memories of a physical trauma suffered earlier in life can produce bodily changes that mimic the original effects of the trauma. The intense thoughts of a pregnant woman have been known to correspond with, and perhaps to cause, physical features in the embryo and resulting child.
Although the idea runs counter to the materialist assumptions that still dominate received opinion in our culture, it is clear that our mind affects our body, just as our body affects our mind. Because that is true, if reincarnation is also true, it is easy to understand that the mind of a reincarnating person (one who reincarnates quickly, with something of the prior mind intact) would affect the new body, especially when traumatic memories are involved. Thus birthmarks and birth defects would be the physical impressions of memories carried over from a past life.
Most of the twenty-six chapters in these recent books by Stevenson are case histories of various sorts illustrating the effects on a new body of memories from old lives. But two chapters (15 and 26) are especially interesting as considering the interpretation and implications of the phenomena. A reader pressed for time can gain much by skimming the case histories (which are the evidence) and reading carefully these chapters (which are the conclusions).
Ian Stevenson’s work is impressive partly because it is not credulous. He considers the evidence critically. First, he is concerned with the authenticity of their ports. That is, do they “describe events with satisfactory closeness to the events as they really happened”? Second, are there “normal” explanations for the correspondences between birthmarks and the wounds of a deceased person? Could they be the result of fraud or of chance, perhaps augmented by fantasy or suggestion? Are there “paranormal” explanations, such as extrasensory perception, possession of a child by a discarnate personality, or maternal impressions on a foetus? Stevenson concludes:
I accept reincarnation as the best explanation for a case only after I have excluded all others–normal and paranormal. I conclude, however, that all the other interpretations may apply to a few cases, but to no more than a few. I believe, therefore, that reincarnation is the best explanation for the stronger cases, by which I mean those in which the two families were unacquainted before the case developed. It may well be the best explanation for many other cases also. . . . Each reader should study the evidence carefully–preferably in the monograph [the two-volume work]–and then reach his or her own conclusion. [Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect 112–3]
In arriving at his conclusion, Stevenson does not reject the influence of genetics and environmental factors on our lives. He recognizes nature and nurture as powerful forces in molding our minds and bodies. What he proposes is that there is also a third factor, an additional powerful force, namely the effect of past lives on our present existence. The reality of that third factor has some significant implications for one’s worldview.
- To begin with, “the most important consequence would be acknowledgment of the duality of mind and body” (181). By “duality” Stevenson does not mean moral or metaphysical dualism, but rather that the mind is a reality independent of, though interactive with, the brain: “Proponents of dualism do not deny the usefulness of brains for our everyday living; but they do deny that minds are nothing but the subjective experiences of brain activity” (181). His position in this matter is much like that of William James, Henri Bergson, or Theosophy. It is that mind-consciousness exists apart from its interaction with brain consciousness, however important that interaction is during life.
- The next implication is that there must be a “place” where the consciousness exists when it is not embodied and linked with a brain: “We are obliged to imagine a mental space that, necessarily, differs from the physical space with which we are ordinarily familiar. . . . Existence there might have features that would seem familiar to persons who have given more than average attention to their dreams . . . and to some persons who have come close to death and survived” (181). The “mental space” Stevenson alludes to here will be recognized by those familiar with Theosophical teachings about the “inner” or “higher” planes of reality, which we inhabit during sleep and between lives.
- Another implication is that some features are transmitted from one life to another:
I have found it helpful to use the word diathanatic (which means“ carried through death”) as a term for subsuming the parts of a deceased person that may reach expression in a new incarnation. So what parts would be diathanatic? The cases I have described tell us that these would include: some cognitive information about events of the previous life; a variety of likes, dislikes, and other attitudes; and, in some cases, residues of physical injuries or other markings of the previous body. [181–2]
Stevenson prefers not to use the traditional terminology of philosophical and religious systems in order to avoid any extraneous associations they may have. But his “diathanatic” is very close to the Buddhist concept of “skandhas,” the material, psychic, and mental residues that are carried over from one life to the next.
- Yet another implication is that we must distinguish two “levels” of selfhood, one associated only with a single lifetime and another that stretches across lives:
We may understand better the loss through death of some or much of the previous personality by using the distinction between personality and individuality. By individuality I mean all the characteristics, whether concealed or expressed, that a person might have from a previous life, or previous lives, as well as from this one. By personality I mean the aspects of individuality that are currently expressed or capable of expression.
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