Ian Stevenson

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Ian Pretyman Stevenson (1918–2007) was a psychiatrist who interviewed thousands of young children who said they remembered a past life in which they died young, and often violently. These children frequently identified people who were strangers to them in their current life as their “real” family, and in case after case their knowledge of the strangers’ families was accurate. Some children who said they had died violently had birthmarks or deformities corresponding to the wounds from their previous life, and available autopsy records of the previous personality supported their stories. Dr. Stevenson documented more than 200 of these cases.

While he wrote many articles and books on “cases suggestive of reincarnation,” his magnum opus was a two-volume monograph totaling more than 3000 pages.[1] A much shorter summary of this work comprises less than 200 pages.[2] While some people believe he proved that reincarnation is true, Dr. Stevenson, a well-trained Western scientist, merely said, in effect, that the evidence is consistent with the theory of reincarnation. He also noted that there could be other explanations, and stated that his opinion “should count for little” and readers should study the evidence carefully and reach their own conclusions.[3]

Early Life

A native of Montreal, Canada, Ian Stevenson was born on October 31, 1918. Given to chronic respiratory illness as a child, he spent a great deal of time in bed. Naturally enough, he turned to reading to pass the time. In a 2006 essay for the Journal of Scientific Exploration, he notes that he “was exposed to reports of paranormal phenomena through reading in my mother’s extensive library about oriental religions and theosophy, the latter of which was a derivative of Buddhism and Hinduism.”[4]

Education & Early Career

A gifted student with an open mind, he attended St. Andrew’s University in Scotland and McGill University in Montreal, and received his medical degree from McGill in 1943. He worked briefly as a research scientist in biochemistry, but found its reductionist viewpoint limited. Wanting to study “something closer to the whole human being,” in the late 1940s he began research in psychosomatic medicine at New York Hospital.[5] From there he moved into the study of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and by 1957, at age 38, he was Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia.[6] That same year, he published a paper casting doubt on the Freudian belief that the development of human personality is governed by our early childhood.[7] This, he noted in his 2006 essay, gave him “some reputation as a maverick,” which apparently was of absolutely no concern to him. In fact, it served him well, since “the reception of my article on this subject was useful training for responding to the rejection of my studies of paranormal phenomena.”[8]

Research into Paranormal Phenomena

Around this time he revisited his previous interest in the paranormal. “My training in medicine brought me some understanding of scientific methods, and I began to ask myself about the evidence for the unusual phenomena reported in the books I had read. It did not seem conclusive, but it also did not seem negligible.”[9] He began reading publications by the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which led him to works by the American SPR. A 1959 article for Harper’s magazine entitled ‘‘The Uncomfortable Facts about Extrasensory Perception’’[10] “earned the approval” of Dr. J. B. Rhine, well known as the founding father of parapsychology. Dr. Stevenson visited Dr. Rhine and his wife, Louisa, later that year, beginning a life-long friendship.

Then, discovering that very few reported cases of reincarnation had been investigated, he began to look at the published reports that were available in newspapers, magazines, and books. Only about half of the 44 cases he studied seemed to merit serious attention,[11] but because they did, he wrote a two-part article for the journal of the American SPR presenting the evidence and suggesting further investigation.[12] [13] He did not expect to be the person who would explore further, since in addition to teaching and more mainstream research, he also had administrative duties. The SPR article, however, came to the attention of the well-known medium Eileen Garrett, co-founder of the Parapsychology Foundation. They had met previously, and she contacted Dr. Stevenson after seeing his two-part article. Would he be interested in traveling to India to investigate a child who claimed to remember a previous life? The Parapsychology Foundation would pay for the trip.

Perhaps needless to say, Dr. Stevenson traveled to India that August during his summer vacation, and also spent a week in neighboring Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). During those few weeks he was surprised to discover more than 30 cases of children who said they remembered a past life. While he only had time to study a few cases thoroughly, he noted the location and some details about the other cases.[14] Another surprise was that these children also displayed behavior atypical for their current family but which, in cases where their claims were verified, matched the behavior of the child’s previous personality. Thus, he noted, “My first journey to Asia therefore showed the need for more journeys.”[15]

Another person who had noticed his two-part article for the American SPR was a man named Chester F. Carlson, a chemist and engineer who invented xerography. A skeptical materialist until he married his second wife, he was impressed enough with her ESP abilities to start funding research into the paranormal. He contacted Dr. Stevenson and subsequently funded much of his reincarnation research in Asia and elsewhere. When Mr. Carlson died in 1968, he left $1 million to the University of Virginia with the stipulation that it be used to fund Dr. Stevenson’s research. Not surprisingly, this was somewhat controversial among some University administrators, but with the support of two open-minded men (one the President, the other Chancellor of Medical Affairs), Dr. Stevenson was able to remain at the University while turning his attention full-time to researching “paranormal phenomena, especially those suggesting life after death.”[16] He also established what is now known as the Division of Perceptual Studies, which “is a highly productive university-based research group devoted to the investigation of phenomena that challenge mainstream scientific paradigms regarding the nature of human consciousness. DOPS researchers objectively document and carefully analyze data collected regarding extraordinary human experiences.”[17] The DOPS is staffed by researchers who studied under and worked with Dr. Stevenson, as well as other scientists who are interested in “addressing the serious study of the nature of consciousness and its interaction with the physical world.” [18]

While Dr. Stevenson also published research on topics including mediums[19], ESP[20], and xenoglossy[21], he is certainly best known for his work on reincarnation. This work has managed to impress some skeptics who nonetheless have an open mind,[22] in part because Dr. Stevenson went to great lengths to address and rule out more “rational possibilities.”[23]

The Evidence for Reincarnation

Dr. Stevenson found that there are four nearly universal characteristics in children who say they remember a past life:[24]

- they speak about their previous life quite early, between the ages of 2 and 4;

- they generally stop talking about their previous life between the ages of 5 and 8;

- there was often a violent death in the previous life; and

- these children frequently talk about how they died in the previous life.

Other characteristics of individual cases varied by culture. The time period between death and rebirth ranged from 4 months to nearly 3 years.[25]

The research team has always preferred to interview children, their present-day families and their previous families very soon after a child begins talking about a previous life. Unfortunately this is not always possible. Dr. Stevenson noted that the shorter the time between the child’s speaking of a memory and the child and families being interviewed, the easier it is to establish the authenticity of a case.[26]

He does not use the term “authentic” to mean a case strongly implies reincarnation. When he speaks of a case being authentic, he means that “the reports given to investigators … describe events with satisfactory closeness to the events as they really happened.” In other words, the family’s experiences are verifiable; “authenticity refers only to the accuracy of the informants’ descriptions of events and says nothing about the interpretation or explanation of those events.” He believes that all the cases included in his monograph and the summary meet this definition of authentic.[27] His work is greatly detailed and supported by numerous photographs.

Based on his research, Dr. Stevenson was extremely skeptical regarding accounts of reincarnation that were based on hypnosis or past life regression. Apparently these methods tend to produce a large number of people claiming to have been Napoleon, Mary Magdelene, or other famous and/or powerful people.[28]

Support and Criticism

Of course, Dr. Stevenson’s work is controversial. Scientific materialists, who believe that consciousness is produced by the human brain and that the universe consists only of matter, do not find Dr. Stevenson’s research to be persuasive.[29] In a 1999 interview in the New York Times, Dr. Stevenson noted “an inappropriate reluctance on the part of some of my colleagues in medicine to even look at the data.”[30] One of his successors at the University of Virginia has noted that, although Dr. Stevenson’s case reports are incredibly detailed, his work is often dismissed without being studied.[31]

On the other hand, in addition to Jesse Bering’s blog (see reference 22), Prof. Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf (1922-2010), an award-winning professor of engineering physics at the University of Virginia, believed Dr. Stevenson’s work showed that “the statistical probability that reincarnation does in fact occur is so overwhelming … that cumulatively the evidence is not inferior to that for most if not all branches of science.”[32]

The publishers of the British Medical Journal stated:

It was always hurtful for Dr. Stevenson to note that his critics did not bother even to look into the evidence he gathered so painstakingly over the years, like Galileo’s critics who refused to look through his telescope, or Edison’s when he demonstrated the phonograph and the scientific community commented that he had concealed a ventriloquist underneath the table. Dr. Stevenson stated that any new idea is a disturbance to the tranquillity of the mind, and scientists are no exception. [33]

Overall, the objections perhaps say more about Dr. Stevenson’s critics than about his work. Like much other research that provides evidence for consciousness being far more powerful than a brain-created experience, it challenges adherents of scientific materialism to examine their beliefs. While some are unwilling to do this, the number of scientists who are inclined to consider the evidence appears to be growing — a hopeful sign.

Books by Ian Stevenson

1969: The Psychiatric Examination. New York: Little, Brown

1970: Telepathic Impressions: A Review and Report of Thirty-Five New Cases. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press

1971: The Diagnostic Interview. New York: Harper & Row

1974: Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (2nd ed: Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press (1st edition published in 1966)

1974: Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of a Case. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press

1975: Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol. 1: Ten Cases in India. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press

1977: Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol. 2: Ten Cases in Sri Lanka. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press

1980: Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol. 3: Twelve Cases in Lebanon and Turkey. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press

1983: Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol. 4: Twelve Cases in Thailand and Burma. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press

1984: Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press

2001: Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation (2nd ed.) Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Press (1st edition published in 1987)

1997: Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Vol. 1: Birthmarks; Vol 2: Birth Defects and Other Anomalies. Westport, CT: Praeger Scientific

1997: Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. Westport, CT: Praeger Scientific

2003: European Cases of the Reincarnation Type. Jefferson, NC: McFarland

YouTube Talks (partial list)


  1. Stevenson, Ian (1997). Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Vol. 1: Birthmarks; Vol 2: Birth Defects and Other Anomalies. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers
  2. Stevenson, Ian (1997). Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers
  3. ibid., pp. 112–113
  4. Stevenson, Ian (2006): Half a Career with the Paranormal. Journal of Scientific Exploration 20(1):13–21; p. 14
  5. https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/wp-content/uploads/sites/360/2015/11/Stevenson-s-Obit-Emily.pdf
  6. ibid.
  7. Stevenson, I (1957): Is the human personality more plastic in infancy and childhood? American Journal of Psychiatry 114:152–161
  8. Stevenson, Half a Career, pp. 13–14
  9. ibid., p. 14
  10. Stevenson, Ian (1959): Harper’s Magazine 219:19–25
  11. Stevenson, Half a Career, p. 15
  12. Stevenson, Ian (1960a). The evidence for survival from claimed memories of former incarnations. Part I. Review of the data. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 54:51–71
  13. Stevenson, Ian (1960b). The evidence for survival from claimed memories of former incarnations. Part II. Analysis of the data and suggestions for further investigations. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 54:95–117
  14. Stevenson, Half a Career, pp. 15-16
  15. ibid., p. 16
  16. ibid., pp. 16–18
  17. https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/
  18. ibid.
  19. Stevenson, Ian (1973). A communicator of the ‘‘drop in’’ type in France: The case of Robert Marie. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 67:47–76
  20. Stevenson, Ian (1959): Harper’s Magazine 219:19–25
  21. Stevenson, Ian (1974b). Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of a Case. University Press of Virginia. (Also published in 1974 in Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 31)
  22. See, for example, Jesse Bering’s article at https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/ian-stevensone28099s-case-for-the-afterlife-are-we-e28098skepticse28099-really-just-cynics/
  23. Stevenson, Ian (1997). Reincarnation and Biology, pp. 10–11
  24. Stevenson, Ian (1997). Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers; p. 9
  25. ibid.
  26. ibid., p. 10
  27. ibid., pp. 109–110
  28. https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/wp-content/uploads/sites/360/2015/11/Stevenson-s-Obit-Emily.pdf
  29. See, for example, https://www.quora.com/What-problems-do-most-scientists-have-with-Ian-Stevensons-and-others-studies-on-reincarnation
  30. https://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/26/weekinreview/conversations-dr-ian-stevenson-you-may-be-reading-this-in-some-future-past-life.html
  31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1839221/
  32. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/ian-stevensone28099s-case-for-the-afterlife-are-we-e28098skepticse28099-really-just-cynics/
  33. https://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/11/01/professor-ian-stevenson-emperor-parapsychology