Rethinking Reincarnation

Is there an afterlife, or is there a life after life? Putting aside various religious beliefs about reincarnation, many scientists, physicians and laypersons have tried to take a scientific approach to the subject by studying people who claim to have remembrances of past lives. Many of these claims are made more credible by the person’s detailed memories of events, people and even languages that they could have never known under normal circumstances. Especially interesting are stories of young children who have remembrances of a past they could have never experienced in their current lives. 

In his book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson offers a typical example: 

The case usually starts when a small child of two to four years of age begins talking to his parents or siblings of a life he led in another time and place. The child usually feels a considerable pull back toward the events of the life and he frequently importunes his parents to let him return to the community where he claims that he formerly lived. If the child makes enough particular statements about the previous life, the parents (usually reluctantly) begin inquiries about their accuracy. Often, indeed usually, such attempts at verification do not occur until several years after the child has begun to speak of the previous life. If some verification results, members of the two families visit each other and ask the child whether he recognizes places, objects, and people of his supposed previous existence.(Source: Wikipedia) 

Those who do not believe in reincarnation consider any reincarnation case studies to be the result of either a hoax, a misinterpretation, a coincidence or even a mental disorder. Some have suggested these many be cases of some form of psychic transference – information that has been transmitted psychically from one person to another – or postcognition, the opposite of precognition, where someone has psychic visions about something that occurred in the past, long before their own birth. 

One pseudo-scientific possibility is also worth considering when attempting to understand “reincarnation” case studies from a non-religious perspective, and that is “genetic memory.” While genetic memory is still on the fringe of modern science and has no reliable research to indicate it is a more than a hypothesis, even well-respected psychologists such as Carl Jung found the notion fascinating. Jung referred to it as the “collective unconscious.” 

In his article titled “Ancestral” or “Genetic” Memory: Factory Installed Software (Source: Wisconsin Medical Society), Dr. Daniel Treffert, M.D. talks about cases of savants – people born with severe developmental difficulties who, without being taught,  can “instinctively” understand and apply rules of music, mathematics or art, to name a few examples. From where did this knowledge originate? We presume that knowledge of these disciplines must be taught and learned, yet even medical science acknowledges that savants are not charlatans nor the products of charlatans. 

Treffert quotes famed Canadian neurologist and researcher Dr. Wilder Penfield, who said “Animals particularly show evidence of what might be called racial memory.” In other words, Penfield acknowledged the existence of a form of memory that was not experiential. Certain complex animal behavior shows evidence of a form of “knowledge” that has been acquired not through experience but through an innate process that relates to their species. 

Taking the notion of ancestral or genetic memory one step further, what if it is humanly possible not only to tap into human knowledge transferred into our DNA from our biological ancestors, but to also access individual memories from our ancestors’ experiences? Could memories become encoded in DNA strands so that they can be passed on to our descendants? Treffert maintains that although some feel genetic memory in savants may just be the brain’s ability to access certain “templates of knowledge” common to all humanity, he has concluded that the knowledge of savants may have actually been inherited from their ancestors: “From my direct observations of prodigious savants, though, it seems to me they inherit actual knowledge itself, not just the templates or scaffolding or ‘rules’ on which they can so quickly build. Thus, for me, genetic memory is inherited knowledge.” 

Returning to cases of “reincarnation” where children or adults recall specific memories and details of lives they have never lived and, in many cases, places they have never been – we have to ask whether the assumption that this is a “past life regression” is implausible even if the details of the case are verified. Could the past lives these people are “remembering” be not their own lives but the lives of their ancestors? DNA databanks that have traced people’s racial ancestry have turned up surprising results—people with generations and generations of documented European ancestry, for example, have found that their DNA markers contain clear evidence of Asian or African ancestors. Thus, it may not be surprising if someone whose family has lived in America for generations has “memories” of another life in Asia, Africa or other continents. 

If genetic memory as inherited memory can be proven, imagine how human beings could begin to tap into the lives of their ancestors. We would not be pleased with everything we could “remember,” but it could offer the human race an opportunity to appreciate how deeply we are all linked through the memories and experiences of our ancestors, and how we have a kind of immortality in the individual memories and collective knowledge we will pass on to our own descendants.