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Children Who Seemingly Remember Past Lives

Why might some children recount apparent past-life memories with such vividness?

Key points

  • Jim Tucker, a psychiatry professor, is the author of “Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives.”
  • It’s nearly impossible to conceive how children so young could have such vivid "memories.”
  • These types of memories typically fade around 6 years of age, according to Tucker.
Photo by Marc Bustier on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Marc Bustier on Unsplash

The ultimate "truth is stranger than fiction" accounts are to be found in Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives, a book published by Jim Tucker, a psychiatry professor at the University of Virginia.

Tucker follows in the footsteps of the late Ian Stevenson, who for decades scrupulously investigated cases in which young children around the world spontaneously volunteered—in great detail—recollections that seemed to be about someone else’s life. Much of the time, the person being spoken of had died violently or unnaturally. (In a prior post, I referenced one such instance, where a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl became distraught over her inability to find "her" children and described "her" having lost her life in a road accident.) Between them, Stevenson and Tucker have compiled more than 2,500 cases, and 70 percent of them fit this pattern.

In many of these cases, the person being spoken of could be identified through the specificity of information volunteered. Here’s a look at two very impressive (and recent) instances. For the first, I’ll quote directly from a story done for the University of Virginia Magazine by Sean Lyons. It conveys, among other things, a sense of how befuddled parents are in such a situation:

When Ryan was 4, he began directing imaginary movies. Shouts of 'Action!' often echoed from his room. But the play became a concern for Ryan's parents when he began waking up in the middle of the night screaming and clutching his chest, saying he dreamed his heart exploded when he was in Hollywood.

His mother asked his doctor about the episodes. Night terrors, the doctor said. He'll outgrow them. Then one night, as his mother tucked Ryan into bed, Ryan suddenly took hold of her hand. 'Mama,' he said. 'I think I used to be someone else.'

He said he remembered a big white house and a swimming pool. It was in Hollywood, many miles from his Oklahoma home. He said he had three sons, but that he couldn't remember their names. He began to cry, asking his mother over and over why he couldn't remember their names.

'I really didn't know what to do,' she said. 'I was more in shock than anything. He was so insistent about it. After that night, he kept talking about it, kept getting upset about not being able to remember those names. I started researching the Internet about reincarnation. I even got some books from the library on Hollywood, thinking their pictures might help him. I didn't tell anyone for months.'

One day, as Ryan and his mom paged through one of the Hollywood books, Ryan stopped at a black-and-white still taken from a 1930s movie, Night After Night. Two men in the center of the picture were confronting one another. Four other men surrounded them. His mother didn't recognize any of the faces, but Ryan pointed to one of the men in the middle. 'Hey Mama,' he said. 'That's George. We did a picture together.' His finger then shot over to a man on the right, wearing an overcoat and a scowl. 'That guy's me. I found me!'

The book didn't provide any names of the actors pictured, but she quickly confirmed that the man Ryan said was 'George' in the photo was indeed a George—George Raft, an all but forgotten film star from the 1930s and 1940s. Still, his mother couldn't identify the man Ryan said had been him. She wrote Tucker, whom she found through her online research, and included the photo. Eventually, it ended up in the hands of a film archivist, who, after weeks of research, confirmed the scowling man's name: Martin Martyn, an uncredited extra in the film.

Not long afterward, Tucker and the family traveled to California to meet Martyn's daughter, who'd been tracked down by researchers working with Tucker on a documentary. Tucker sat down with the woman before her meeting with Ryan. She'd been reluctant to help, but during her talk with Tucker, she confirmed dozens of facts Ryan had given about her father.

Ryan said he danced in New York. Martyn was a Broadway dancer. Ryan said he was also an 'agent,' and that people where he worked had changed their names. Martyn worked for years at a well-known talent agency in Hollywood—where stage names are often created—after his dancing career ended. Ryan said his old address had 'Rock' in its name. Martyn lived at 825 North Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills. Ryan said he knew a man named Senator Five. Martyn's daughter said she had a picture of her father with a Senator Ives, Irving Ives, of New York, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1947 to 1959. And yes, Martin Martyn had three sons. The daughter, of course, knew their names.

The second case is equally remarkable. It involved 2-year-old James Leininger, a Louisiana boy who loved toy planes. But he started to have repeated nightmares of a horrible plane crash. He would kick his legs up in the air, screaming, "Airplane crash on fire, little man can’t get out." Then during the day, he would slam his toy plans into the family’s coffee table while yelling, “Airplane crash on fire,” to the extent that there were dozens of scratches and dents in the table.

James talked about the crash, relating that "he" had been a pilot and that "he" had flown off a boat. His father asked him the name of the boat, and he said, “Natoma.” When his father remarked, “That sounds Japanese to me,” James replied, “No, it’s American.” James went on to say that "he" had piloted a type of plane called a Corsair, that "his" nickname was Little Man, and that "he" had a friend on the boat named Jack Larson.

After years of painstaking research, James’ father learned that an American aircraft carrier, the USS Natoma Bay, had supported operations at Iwo Jima during that World War II battle—and that it had lost one pilot there, a young man from Pennsylvania named James Huston. His plane crashed almost exactly as described: hit in the engine, exploding, crashing into the water, and quickly sinking. And the pilot in the plane next to his when this happened was named Jack Larson.

It’s nearly impossible to conceive how children so young should have such vivid "memories," or how they (or anyone connected with them, for that matter) could have known anything about such obscure figures from the past, whether it be Martin Martyn or “Little Man” James Huston. Nor do such children appear to be abused or suffering from any trauma connected with their current life. Furthermore, the families in these cases are firmly believing Christians for whom the concept of reincarnation is foreign. The parents, besides being vexed in the extreme, are inevitably reluctant to have their children’s cases publicized for fear of being mocked.

These types of memories typically fade, by the way, around 6 years of age, according to Tucker. The kids involved usually express a desire as well to fully embrace the life they’re in now.

However, the degree to which these children show heightened emotion in recounting these apparent memories is a tipoff, to me, that something truly significant is going on. A boy like James Leininger shows all the hallmarks of PTSD at age 2. Why should he?

We can get a sense for the answer by realizing how fear—that most elemental of feelings—puts our entire being on red alert. The pupils dilate, muscles are tensed, and respiration is increased as the body prepares to fight, flee, or freeze. Meanwhile, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis springs into action by releasing a cascade of hormones that serve to marshal bodily energy. If we are indeed in mortal peril, our entire body and mind tenses like a spring ready to snap. Our senses are honed to a fine edge: We notice every detail that could affect our existence.

But consider what would ensue if all that energy had no outlet—if, because of a sudden accident or foul play, someone could neither fight nor flee, but were trapped in freeze mode? We know that rats that are given even a mild shock somehow transfer the fear associated with the particular stimulus on to their pups, and even to their pups’ pups. Could there be a mechanism, somewhere between life and death, where memories associated with the struggling person’s circumstances are preserved?

It would be akin to the echoes, preserved down the eons, of the Big Bang observable through faint but distinct background radiation. Except in the cases we are considering, the intensity of the person’s feelings—his or her life energy, self-awareness, and being—might somehow be captured in a fusion of space and time. This "imprint" might become available for another, nascent life form—not “his” or “her” memories (as in reincarnation), but a transmutation just the same.

If all this is mind-bending, be ready for one additional post in this series.

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