Dr. Ian Stevenson: A Pioneer Of Reincarnation Research

In recent times, there’s been a lot of interest surrounding past life memories.

On news reports, TV shows, and documentaries, we’ve seen many alleged reincarnation cases presented to the public.

It wasn’t always like this, however.

Interest in these stories didn’t start to blossom in the West until the late 1900s.

The spread of Eastern religions has no doubt influenced this new trend.

Still, there’s an exceptional man who should be credited as well:

Dr. Ian Stevenson.

The Unsatisfied Physician

Ian Stevenson came (or returned?) to the world on October 31, 1918, in Montreal, Canada.

After coming of age, he started his studies of medicine at the St. Andrews University in Scotland in 1937.

However, due to World War 2, he had to flee back to Canada to complete his studies in 1939.


In 1942, he gained a bachelor’s degree in science from McGill University and graduated as a Doctor of Medicine the following year.

While he was working as a physician, Stevenson developed an interest in psychosomatic disorders.

After a while, he began to tire of what he called “the reductionist boundaries of practiced biochemistry”.

Eventually, he decided to leave behind his career as a physician and take on psychiatry instead.

The Pull Of The Mysterious

In the 1950s, while he was working as an associate professor of psychiatry, he met Aldous Huxley — famed English writer and philosopher.

Huxley, known for his interests in mysticism and psychedelic drugs, had a profound effect on the inquisitive professor.

Shortly after their meeting, Stevenson began studying the effects of LSD and mescaline.

He also felt reaffirmed in his decision to pursue a more holistic approach to human beingness and health.


Inspired, he started learning psychoanalysis at the New Orleans Psychoanalytic Institute in 1951.

He finished his studies at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute in 1958, where he successfully graduated.

Due to his great dedication, Stevenson became established as the head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia.

There, he would spend the remainder of his very eventful career.

Examining The Nature Of Human Personality

After delving deep into psychoanalysis, Stevenson became rather fixated on one particular topic:

Human personality.

In 1957, he published a scientific article in the American journal of psychiatry with the headline, “Is the human personality more plastic in infancy and childhood?”.

His paper basically argued “no”, which went against most of the mainstream psychiatry and psychoanalysis at the time.


Based on his studies, Stevenson felt that this long-held view was, at best, an incomplete picture.

His academic peers were less than thrilled about him questioning the status quo.

As a result, he received a lot of critique and ridicule.


Nevertheless, his curiosity kept him looking where others did not.

Finally, he stumbled upon the phenomenon which would define his legacy:

Past life memories in children.

Blazing The Trail

In 1960, Stevenson published a ground-breaking paper with an eye-catching titled:

“The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations”.

This made quite an impression on the psychiatric community, but also among mystics, “new-agers”, and philosophers.


Eventually, Stevenson’s writings reached Dorris Helen Hudgins — wife of Chester Carlson (the inventor of the revolutionary Xerox photocopier).

Dorris was deeply interested in Hinduism and other spiritual topics.

Because of this, she urged her husband to supply Stevenson with funding to further pursue reincarnation research.

Carlson, who had begun taking an interest in such matters himself, agreed to do so.

The Journey Begins

With a sizable chunk of money secured, Dr. Ian Stevenson set out into the world to study alleged cases of past life memory.

For his first round of traveling, he decided to target India and Sri Lanka.

His reasoning was that these countries had major religions that include the possibility of reincarnation.


Because of this, parents were often more receptive to their children’s claims and encouraged them to speak more of them.

This was opposed to Western parents at the time, which (based on Stevenson’s experiences) were usually dismissive of their young ones’ past life stories — sometimes even actively discouraging them.

When he returned home from the far East, the curious psychiatrist had compiled 25 cases of potential reincarnation, which he carefully archived for future studies.


As Carlson’s funding had run out, Stevenson went back to his daily work at the University of Virginia.

In the back of his mind, however, his time in the field continued to pull on his curiosity — he wished he could have gone further.

A Helping Hand From Beyond The Grave

On September 19, 1960, Chester Carlson suddenly died of a heart attack.

When his will was read, it was found that 1 million dollars of his fortune were to be given to the University of Virginia.

The hefty donation came with a condition, however:

All of it was to be used for parapsychology research.

To Stevenson’s great joy, this enabled him to continue doing serious research into past life memories.


Some of the money was also used to establish the Division of Personality Studies.

This department of the university was fully dedicated to the investigation of near-death experiences, possible reincarnation cases, and other paranormal topics.


The Journey Continues

With the new funding, Stevenson was more eager than ever to go out into the world and search for answers.

In the following years, he traveled all around the globe, documenting potential cases of past life memory in children.

Most of his time was spent in South America, Lebanon, West Africa, and South-East Asia.


As mentioned earlier, Stevenson’s first expedition only included India and Sri Lanka.

Skeptics often highlighted this fact in an attempt to discredit his initial study — claiming the people there were vulnerable to delusions due to their religious biases.

However, as Stevenson kept widening the scope of his research, it became clear that children’s stories of past lives were not exclusive to the East.

At the end of his career, he even compiled a sizable collection of cases from traditionally-Christian European countries (detailed in his book “European Cases of the Reincarnation Type”).

A Short Summary Of Stevenson’s Findings

Out of all of the thousands of cases Stevenson documented, the most convincing ones had 6 major features in common — which he learned to look out for.

These were as follows.


1. Abrupt Death

With about 50% of all cases, the child had reportedly suffered a sudden, premature, or violent death that ended their previous life.

Also, Stevenson deduced that those who suffered grisly wounds more often than not had corresponding birthmarks on their new bodies.


Example 1

A notable example of this was a man who ended his life with a gunshot to his head.

His alleged reincarnation (a small boy) was born with two noticeable birthmarks.

One was under the child’s chin, while the other was on the top of his head.

Stevenson examined the documents relating to the deceased man who the boy claimed to have been.

This revealed a shocking truth:
The boy’s birthmarks lined up exactly with the trajectory of the bullet that pierced the deceased man’s skull.


Example 2

Another fascinating case was of a boy who claimed to have been killed by an attacker with a shotgun.

This child had a large, peculiar birthmark in the middle of his chest.

Stevenson managed to get a hold of photos of the deceased man the boy claimed to have been.

After inspecting the images, it was found that the boy’s birthmark matched the placement and shape of the shotgun blast that killed the man.



2. Early Communication

In most of the well-documented cases, the child starts talking about their previous life as soon as they can.

Right after learning to put together sentences, they relay information about being another person with another family — often complete with details about their former career, housing, pets, and favorite hobbies.

Often, the children will feel “caught between worlds”, as they speak of their “real” or “other” parents, and refer to themselves by their past incarnation’s name.



3. Remembering Parents

Based on the information given by the children, Stevenson was frequently successful in finding their former parents.

When reunited with their previous family, the kids were able to identify the different members by name and/or relationship.

In many instances, children with past life memories will form lasting relationships with their old parents while living with their new ones.



4. Similar Looks

Based on the documented cases involving plenty of photographs, it seems like the facial structure remains fairly consistent between lives.

Stevenson noted that it’s unclear if this is a common thing, or if it’s related to the traumatic deaths of the children (a similar phenomenon to the birthmarks, perhaps).



5. Enduring Personality & Habits

One of the most interesting discoveries for Stevenson related to the personalities and habits of the children.

A strong preference for particular foods or activities, for example, appeared to carry over into their new lives.

The kids also seemed to retain much of their skills relating to hobbies and/or professions from their previous incarnations.

Stevenson speculated that this might, at least partly, explain the puzzling phenomenon of child prodigies.



6. Spiritual Relationships

One of Stevenson’s most interesting studies involved 31 sets of twins with convincing cases of past life memories.

With every one of these examples, the twins had very close ties to each other in their former lives — parent and child, friends, siblings, or even lovers.

The Legacy Of Dr. Ian Stevenson

On February 8, 2007, Ian Stevenson died of pneumonia at his retirement home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

During his eventful career as a psychiatrist, he had documented over 2500 cases of children with alleged past life memories.

According to him, in about half of these cases, he and his colleagues were able to verify most of the information given by the kids.


When Stevenson passed, he left behind a grand legacy that will no doubt inspire many generations to come.

To date, he’s been one of the most influential figures in reincarnation research and parapsychology in general.

Despite facing constant critique and ridicule from many of his peers, he blazed the trail for future researchers, like Jim B. Tucker, to continue the quest for answers.

“Reincarnation, at least as I conceive it, does not nullify what we know about evolution and genetics.

It suggests, however, that there may be two streams of evolution – the biological one and a personal one – and that during terrestrial lives these streams may interact.”

– Dr. Ian Stevenson

Books by Dr. Ian Stevenson:

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