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Past Life Memories or the Power of Expectation?


By Allan Clews


Hindu Mystics have used hypnosis for thousands of years. And yet in all of that time they never seemed to think about trying to use it to remember past lives. That took a chiropractor and amateur hypnotist in Denver working with a housewife. Or far more likely they tried it and discarded it.


Virtually all contemporary Hindu gurus consider it to be a silly affectation of westerners.


Now this is not to say that no one has obtained deep insight into their current situation by using hypnosis to explore their past lives. Some have even claimed that these sessions have helped them to recover from life-threatening illnesses, improve rocky relationships and better understand the purpose of their life. And we believe them.


There have even been a few research studies that have explored the ability of Past Life Regressions to help facilitate mental, emotional and physical healing. And to the untrained eye, these studies look very impressive because they involve a large numbers of participants who have been followed for up to five years to see how well they are doing.


Unfortunately, due to the nature of this research, none of these studies used the more scientifically-rigorous double-blind protocols, as a result they are fraught with all sorts of methodological flaws. They did not involve any kind of objective measurement (such as blood-chemical analysis, or pre and post treatment scans showing that a tumor had shrunk, etc.). They did not even set up any kind of statistical controls to filter out the placebo effect (drug companies have found that nearly a third of those who are given a fake treatment and told it will help them will actually get better).


Instead those involved in some of this research simply contacted people who were clients of Past Life Regressionists and then asked these clients (who in some case had paid a lot of money for their sessions) if it had helped them.

However, these studies are more than countered by other ones that have conclusively demonstrated that hypnosis can be used to alter and create memories. This means that even if we ignore the various methodological problems involved with these past-life studies, there are two possibilities: either hypnosis can really help people to remember a past life, or else hypnosis somehow gets the subconscious to fabricate these memories.


Fortunately, there is now a growing body of scientific evidence that tends to supports the notion that the subconscious is merely fabricating these memories. One researcher, Dr. Nicholas Spanos (who was the director of the Laboratory for Experimental Hypnosis and a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa), demonstrated in a number of studies that there are three important elements to a successful Past Life Regression.


First, the subject must be hypnotizable. Second, it helps if they are open to the belief in reincarnation. And third (which Spanos found to be the most important element in this whole process) was that the hypnotist had to convey the expectation that their client really would remember a past-life.1


Now the fact that a hypnotist's expectations can influence this process was aptly demonstrated by psychologist Robert Baker Ph.D. who conducted a study where he randomly divided 60 students into three groups. The first group were given a real pep talk and told that they were about to experience the most amazing therapy that would involve them actually recalling memories from a past life. The second group were told (in a neutral way) that they were going to experience a therapy that may or may-not be able to help them recall memories from a past-life. While the third group was told that they were about to experience a crazy therapy that some believed was supposed to help them recall memories of a past life, even though it didn't really work on anyone who was normal. Then all three groups listened to the same hypnotic script. Eighty-five percent of those in the first group recalled a memory from a past life, compared to only 60% in the second group, and 10% in the third.2


There have been other randomly controlled double-blind studies that prove we can fabricate memories while in a state of hypnosis that we later believe to be true. This is why no court in Canada will accept evidence obtained while in a state of hypnosis. Of course, this ability to alter and change memories is also one of the main tools a hypnotist will employ to help their clients overcome such things as phobias and childhood traumas (however, rather than altering the actual memory itself, most hypnotists will usually work on changing the client's understanding of, and the emotions that surround, this event).


The use of hypnosis to conduct Past Life Regressions was even explored by a special committee in Israel. In 2009, an advisory group for the Health Ministry recommended that hypnotists in Israel should stop helping their clients explore past lives. They came to this conclusion after they found credible evidence that there were risks involved in creating these types of false memories: particularly when it involved vulnerable and unstable individuals who might end up believing they were true.3


Of course, what has really helped many people conclude that hypnosis cannot be used to recall past lives has been when researchers have tried to verify key details in some of the most well-known accounts.


Now please keep in mind that in the following two cases, no one is engaging in what we would consider to be fraudulent activities (which is true of most hypnotists who practice Past Life Regression with their clients). Neither the hypnotist nor the client are deliberately setting out to deceive anyone. They merely sat down together for an hour or two hoping that something important would arise during the session that might help their client make better sense of their life. They were probably even somewhat surprised by what came out and maybe even had a few doubts of their own.

Bridie Murphy


The best-selling book and movie that turned this into a craze, The Search for Bridie Murphy, provides a classic example of how hypnosis can be used to alter and fabricate memories.


In 1952, Colorado resident  Virginia Tighe was hypnotized by Morely Bernstein, a local businessman. During the session she began speaking with an Irish brogue and claimed that her name was Bridie Murphy and that she was born into a Protestant family in Cork in 1798. She further claimed when enthusiastically prodded by Bernstein, that she had married Sean McCarthy and was buried in Belfast in 1864.


Bernstein turned this account into a best-selling book which led to an explosion in the use of hypnosis to recover memories from past lives. However, it also made skeptical American journalists flock to Ireland to see if they could uncover any real evidence  to back up  these claims.


Fortunately, Bridie Murphy would have lived at a time when detailed records were kept. Unfortunately (at least for those who promote Past Life Regressions), these journalists were unable to find any birth, marriage or death records to match any of these claims.


However, while they were unable to find any corroborating evidence in Ireland, reporters from the Chicago American decided to try another approach and look closer to home.  They quickly discovered  that Bridie Murphy was not a previous incarnation of Virginia Tighe, but really the name of an old Irish lady who lived across the street from Virginia Tighe in Wisconsin, when she was a small child.

The Bloxham Tapes


Another  series of cases involving  Past Life Regressions called The Bloxham Tapes  were  serialized in one of Britain’s most respected newspapers, The Sunday Times, giving them far too much credibility. These tapes were named after the Welsh hypnotist Arnall Bloxham who recorded them.


Bloxham gave Jeffrey Iverson, a BBC producer, access to his recordings and Iverson found one  person's recollections to be  so compelling that  he felt they deserved to be singled out. Here Ann Evans (a pseudonym for a Welsh housewife) recalled six previous lives in such detail, that  it was  heralded as definite proof that hypnosis can be used to remember previous lives.


Iverson even  turned Evan's stories  into a BBC television program and wrote a best-selling book about them called More Lives Than One? The Evidence of the Remarkable Bloxham Tapes. The only problem was that when other people began to  do a proper job of  investigating these extraordinary details, it was discovered that  these recordings  were not so remarkable after all.


The first past life  Evans recalled was  when she was  Livonia, the wife of a man named Titus who  lived in  Eboracum (the present day English city of York) in the 3rd century. Her husband  was a tutor to the  youth who eventually  grew up to become the Roman emperor  Constantine the Great.  Evans even  'recalled' an incident when the young Constantine was being trained in the use of weapons by one Marcus Favonius Facilis.


There were so many details in this one scene alone that were considered to be so historically accurate, the only way to account for this was to accept that Evans was either secretly an amateur  historian who  had spent years studying  this era, or else she had recalled it from  a past life.


The only problem with this explanation was that when a man named Melvin Harris set out to discover the  true origin of this memory, he found  all of these 'remarkable' historical details in  a novel published in 1947  called The Living Wood by Louis de Wohl. This novel included  a fictional character  named Livonia and the scene involving the future Constantine the Great being trained in the use of weapons by another fictional  character named Marcus Favonius Facilis.


Evans also 'remembered'  being a Jewess named Rebecca  who had lived in York in 1189.  However, some of the  'remarkable' details of  this  'past life'  were subsequently found to have been  broadcast in  a  radio play on the massacre of the Jews in York in 1190.


Evans  also mentioned that she  been forced to wear a round yellow badge in  that life. However,  researchers quickly realized that things did not quite add up, because Jews were not required to wear distinctive badges  until 1218.  And  even when they were, these badges were not round and yellow, but white and elliptical.


Evans also  'remembered' being  an Egyptian servant named Alison who worked in the household of a French moneyman named Jacques Coeur in 1450. Coeur was a real person who lived  in Bourges at this time.


However, Evans  'recalled' that he was unmarried and childless, when in fact Coeur was not only married, but was also the father of five children. It turns out that many of the remarkable details of this 'past life' came directly from a novel about Coeur called The Moneyman that was published in 1948.


And what makes this  even more revealing is that Thomas Costain, the author of this novel, deliberately left out the fact that Coeur was a married father in order to make the plot more compelling.


Occam's Razor


There is a principle used by scientists called Occam's Razor. Simply stated, it is when there are two possible explanations for something, the simplest one is most likely correct.


In this instance we have two competing explanations. Either hypnosis allows us to magically tap into those normally inaccessible memories we have from lives we lived in other times and as other people, or else hypnosis allows us to make-up these memories.


And not only is the second explanation the simplest, it is also that one that is supported by the evidence.


What if a Past Life Comes Up in a Session


If a past life comes up in a session, will we stop or ignore it.


No.


We believe in going with the flow and using whatever arises during a session because we trust the subconscious mind to reveal what needs to be revealed in order for deep healing to occur.


However, we will view it as a metaphor and not a reality.


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1. Spanos, Nicholas. "Past-life Hypnotic Regression: A Critical View," Skeptical Inquirer 12, no.2 (Winter 1987-88) 174-180.
2. Baker, Robert A. Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions From Within (Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1992.)
3. Haaretz Magazine, Dan Evans (Haaretz Health Correspondent), July 24, 2009.