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Why Do So Many Young Children Seem to Remember Previous Lives?

Margaret Lipman
Updated May 16, 2024
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Reincarnation, the idea that a living being can be born again in another physical form after death, is a concept central to many world religions. Derived from Latin, reincarnation literally means “entering the flesh again.” For millennia, this belief has prompted profound existential questions, yet scientifically validating or refuting it remains inherently challenging, if not impossible. Adding to the intrigue are the extraordinary cases of children who report memories from past lives.

Since the 1960s, the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia School of Medicine has documented over 2,500 children who have described their "past lives." Now led by Jim Tucker, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences, the DOPS meticulously maintains these records. Tucker notes that the most compelling cases of children recalling past lives typically occur between ages 2 and 6. These children often talk about people and places they've never seen, have nightmares, and describe events they couldn't have experienced. Some even assert that their current parents aren't their real parents. In certain cases, the details they provide are so specific that the individuals whose lives they appear to remember can be conclusively identified.

The DOPS was founded by Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist who dedicated his life to making the study of reincarnation a "respectable" science. Parapsychology, which explores mental abilities and paranormal claims outside the known laws of science, is met with significant skepticism in the world of academia. Despite Stevenson's death in 2007, the DOPS continues to collect data on children around the world who claim to remember past lives. According to Tucker, these memories usually fade as the children grow older, often disappearing entirely by the age of 7 or 8.

One notable case is James Leininger, an American child who, at age 2, started having vivid nightmares about a plane crash. He drew pictures of a burning plane and said he was a fighter pilot in World War II who was shot down by the Japanese. James gave specific details like the crash location, the name of an aircraft carrier, and the full name of a friend who was with him. His parents eventually found striking similarities between his account and the life of James Huston, an American pilot who died during the war.

While James's case is particularly detailed, many people are skeptical about children remembering past lives. Many claim that these children are recalling "false memories" and that their parents or other outside factors have influenced them to reach a particular narrative. Christopher French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, believes that false memories occur “as a result of a kind of interesting social psychological interaction between the child and those around them.” Despite this, he still feels such cases are worth researching, as they can reveal interesting things about human psychology.

Were you ever someone else?

  • Interestingly, about 30% of children in these so-called “cases of the reincarnation type” have birthmarks or birth defects that match the injuries or marks of the people they remember being. The DOPS has reported that 70% of people who remember past lives recall dying of a violent or unnatural death.

  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, these cases are more common in cultures where reincarnation is a widely held belief, perhaps because parents are more willing to entertain the idea of past lives as an explanation for an otherwise inexplicable phenomenon.

  • According to the Pew Research Center, 33% of the U.S. population believes in reincarnation. Interestingly, one in four Protestants and one in three Catholics believe they will be reborn again, despite reincarnation not being a central tenet of these religions.

  • Another name for reincarnation is “transmigration.” Modern philosophers have used this term to describe the process of life migrating to another body after death.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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