Academia and the Afterlife: The Research of Dr. Ian Stevenson

By Raymond Coffin Jr.

Religions all over the world, both new old, and ancient alike, have held the continuation of existence after death as a major tenet. More commonly known as reincarnation, it is the belief that our souls inhabit our earthly bodies only temporarily and will continue to exist for all of eternity. Though these religions differ in details about the afterlife, they all have held the continuation of the soul as a core tenet. 

Many scholars in the academic world have simply written this notion off as no more than a fairy tale, the vivid imaginations of our ancestors and contemporaries alike. However, not everyone in the academic world holds this dismissive point of view. Dr. Ian Stevenson, (1918-2007) was a psychiatrist from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and he had dedicated more forty years of his life to the research of reincarnation. He approached his research with an objective, scientific, and open mind, and compiled an extraordinary amount of data in favor of the existence of reincarnation. 

Dr. Stevenson gained international recognition for his thorough, lifelong work on the subject. He was the founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies, where they brought the scientific method of investigation to such phenomena as reincarnation, near-death and out-of-body experiences, and altered states of consciousness. Dr. Stevenson was praised for his work that yielded evidence suggesting that physical injuries and memories can in fact be transferred from one lifetime to another. His extensive travels took him all over the world over a span of 40 years, investigating more than 3,000 cases. He presented evidence that children who recalled past lives possessed illnesses, unusual abilities, and phobias that could not be explained by geographic location or hereditary connection. Dr. Stevenson was  profoundly impacted by his own research, leaving no alternate explanations of the phenomena other than the actual existence of reincarnation.

He began his research in 1960, after he received information about a child who reported having memories of a past life. After arriving in Sri Lanka, where the child and his family lived, he began to thoroughly question this child, along with his parents. The child gave startling details and even knew who his parents were in his previous life. Dr. Stevenson then interviewed the parents of whom this child reported being their son in his prior life. It was then he became convinced that there was some unknown force of nature at work here, and that reincarnation was undoubtedly worth further scientific investigation. That same year, Dr. Stevenson published two articles in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research about this child, and became dedicated to scientifically prove one of the world’s greatest mysteries. 

In 1966, six years removed from the child in Sri Lanka, Dr. Stevenson would publish a book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. This publication would be considered an all-time classic on the subject. In 1982, after investigating many more claims of past life recall, he co-founded the Society for Scientific Exploration. SSE is a society dedicated to providing open access peer-reviewed research on consciousness, physics, energy, healing, and much more, and he would contribute around 300 papers and fourteen books on the subject of reincarnation. Dr. Stevenson brought a serious, academic mind to controversial topics without bias, something that the scientific world desperately needed at the time.  

Dr. Stevenson would be best know for his work in the 1997 2,268-page, two-volume book, Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birth Marks and Birth Defects. This massive manuscript focuses on birth marks, anomalies, and birth defects on children who recall having past life memories. He presented more than 200 cases with photographic evidence of children having memories and birthmarks that directly corresponded with the lives and wounds of deceased people whom these children recalled as having lived in a past-life. This was primarily a scientific-academic text, so later that same year he released a more condensed version for the general public called Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect.

Most of Dr. Stevenson’s findings in the study of this phenomenon are truly startling. For example, he investigated a case where a child from Thailand had claimed to have had memories of living as his uncle in a previous life. This child was born with a huge wound shape defect on the back of his head and a deformed right big toe. But what makes this case raise some eyebrows is that the actual uncle was killed almost instantly by suffering a heavy knife strike to the head, directly in correlation with the child’s anomalous birth defect. To make matters even stranger, the boy’s uncle had suffered a chronic toe infection to his right big toe years prior to his death, and again, in direct correlation with the boys second birth defect, a mysterious deformation of the right big toe. This is just one of many intriguing cases all over the world that is highly suggestive of reincarnation.

Dr. Stevenson was a great scientific man who spent over forty years of his life’s work in the attempt to prove one of the world’s greatest mysteries. He investigated all claims without bias or prejudice. The goal of this article is to encourage you to always keep an open mind, to not dismiss claims without doing the research first. Too many times in the scientific community are claims dismissed and even ridiculed with proper research even being done on the subject. The world in which we live, and the universe it inhabits, is stranger and more mysterious that we can possibly imagine. 

For more information about Dr. Stevenson and his research into the reincarnation phenomenon please visit:

Categories: Health, Science & Technology

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