From Abracadabra to Zombies
reader comments: past life regression
I have no choice but to believe in hypnotic regression. I suffered from depression throughout my adult years. I was often on strong meds and had been hospitalized 3 times. Life was a struggle. A doctor was recommended to me for help. There is no one medicine that clears depression. This doctor showed me how to tap on areas of my face to calm the anxiety. Through the years, I have finally reasoned that the tapping short circuits the oppressive feelings. It distracts the brain. The next thing that she recommended was hypnosis. She told me nothing about regression or past lives. During the session, she guided me to envision walking on a carpet and then walking down a flight of stairs. She told me that there was a door and that I should go through it, where I would find a garden. There was bench that I should sit on. Those were the only suggestions that she gave me. I won't bore you with what happened next. Suffice it to say that I met someone and understood why and where the depression started. This happened in my head. I didn't say it out loud and the doctor had no idea what was happening. The next morning I didn't feel depressed. I took only a half dose of my medicine because, if I felt bad later, I could take the other half. I didn't need it. The next morning, I cut the half dosage in half and needed no more that day. By the third day I realized that I didn't need any medicine. It was like having a new life. I thank God that there are doctors who are not so strictly regimented. It has been several years since the depression left and I am living a wonderful life. I smile when I hear cynics try to justify their disbelief. I also feel a little sad.
reply: There is no reason to be cynical about a story with a happy ending....so far. Since your depression lifted soon after the hypnotic session, I agree that you can't help but believe in it was essental to your recovery. Your hypnotic session, however, does not sound like regressive therapy but like guided imagery. As you say the conversation and meeting took place in your head. There's nothing strange about that. Your optimism after the session was rewarded when you found that you felt ok even without the meds. Since you have been free of depression for several years, this was not a fluke. Would you have recovered without the hypnosis? We'll never know. Do you still do the face tapping to distract yourself when gloom sets in?
11 Jan 2004
Back in the 70s a Welsh hypnotherapist named Arnall Bloxham described how one of his patients, Jane Evans, gave highly detailed accounts of several previous lives. Mrs Evans had apparently been Lavinia, a lady living in Roman Britain; Rebecca, a Jewish woman living in York in 1189; and Alison, an Egyptian-born servant living in the household of the merchant Jacques Coeur in medieval France. Along with Bloxham's other patients - including Graham Huxtable, formerly an 18th century sailor - she was the subject of an uncritical TV programme which must have convinced thousand of people that reincarnation was a reality.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the only reason Mrs Evans was able to provide masses of convincing detail was that she had obtained her knowledge from popular history books and historical novels! Her life as Lavinia was based on Louis de Wohl's "The Living Wood" (1947); there can be no doubt about this because some characters invented by de Wohl also appear in Evans' "memory" and interact with historical figures.
Rebecca, the woman who died in a massacre of York's Jewish citizens, describes on four occasions how Jews were forced to wear a circular yellow badge on their clothing. In fact the badge was not introduced until a century later and the English version consisted of two white oblongs, one of many errors which indicate that the only memories being retrieved are those of Joan Evans and that she sometimes became confused or invented new material to fill the gaps. At one point Rebecca claims that the street still called "Coppergate" derives its name from a gate literally covered with sheets of copper, whereas in fact it it probably means "street of the coopers".
Alison certainly displays an impressive knowledge of her master's magnificent house and Coeur did indeed have an Egyptian servant, but she is strangely unaware of the fact that he was married with five children. The reason for this is that when Thomas Costain wrote a novel about him entitled "The Moneyman" (1948) the family was left out in order to simplify the narrative! Descriptions and pictures of Coeur's mansion can be found in many textbooks for the simple reason that it is one of the most famous private houses in Europe.
Huxtable's 18th century sailor is equally unconvincing. His ship, the 32-gun "Aggie", never existed. Nautical and archaic words used by Huxtable were commonplace in the boys' adventure stories and comics popular in his childhood, and it is clear from Bloxham's tapes of the sessions that Huxtable was familiar with Robert Newton's performance in the film "Treasure Island"!
The only mystery here is whether or not Evans and Huxtable consciously remembered the source of their past life regressions. It must be so much more satisfying to be living proof of reincarnation, encouraged by sympathetic and uncritical "researchers", than to be someone with a taste for historical novels and fuzzy memories of childhood history lessons.
Julia D Atkinson
reply: I was unable to discover much about Bloxham. [There is now an SD entry for the Bloxham tapes.] The New Zealand Theosophists say he was president of the British Society of Hypnotherapists. Another site says he was a Cardiff-based psychiatrist. He apparently understood how well the Bridey Murphy recordings were selling and saw the chance for fame and fortune in the UK. He recorded more than four hundred past-life hypnotic regression sessions, which he later admitted he'd cheated on. These were published and serialized in the Sunday Times. Jeffrey Iverson, the producer of the television show about the Bloxham tapes, wrote a book called More Lives than One: The evidence of the remarkable Bloxham Tapes. that became a bestseller in 1976. It's been translated into French.
In 1958, D. Arnall Bloxham had a book published called Who was Ann Ockenden? (Spearman; ISBN: B0000CK4LE).
More than one site on the Internet cites the work of Iverson and Bloxham as proof of reincarnation. I did find one skeptical site, however: an article on reincarnation by Harry Edwards that finds the evidence from Bloxham less than convincing.
9 Jan 2004
I'm curious to know, in your conclusion of past life regression, how you would explain how people under hypnosis recite elements from certain periods without ever learning them in their current lifetimes. Or how one speaks other languages under hypnosis or from hypnosis. The book Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss, MD gives complete proof of past lives and their benefits. Even he was a skeptic beforehand. There is just too much evidence to prove it right. As a skeptic, with all due respect, maybe you're just being skeptical for the sake of being skeptical.
reply: Before offering my explanations, I want to state that it would be fruitless to try to explain away every weird thing people experience. There is no limit to the number of theoretical explanations for any event; so, theoretically I ought to be able to offer several zillion alternative explanations for these "facts" mentioned by Mr. Sack. Not all would be equally plausible, however. But even if I produced just one plausible explanation that didn't involve spirits or reincarnation, I doubt if I could ever satisfy Dr. Weiss or Mr. Sack. And, even if I did satisfy them on one count, there is an endless number of weird things they could continue to bring up, asking me about each one: How do you explain that? I don't claim to have an explanation for everything, but some things are not that difficult to explain.
I don't believe people under hypnosis can recite anything they have not learned in this lifetime. If a recitation or speaking a foreign language takes place under hypnosis, as it did with Virginia Tighe (Bridey Murphy), the subject learned the recitation in this life. The subject may not remember learning the recitation or may not reveal to the therapist that she does remember, but of all the various possibilities that I can imagine, the most plausible is that the subject learned the recitation in this lifetime. Other possibilities are that aliens are controlling her mind and feeding her the lines like a ventriloquist with a dummy; God is speaking through her; she is telepathically picking up the recitation from someone else on this or some other planet; she was born with these lines in her soul or brain and something about hypnosis triggered the release of them to her conscious mind; or, well, you get the picture.
I don't claim that reincarnation is impossible. However, the kind of evidence Dr. Weiss and others like Mr. Sack are convinced by seems very unconvincing to me. I understand that Dr. Weiss had some personal experiences involving his dead son, colleagues, and patients that he felt could only be explained by reincarnation. However, once he accepted that belief, it was relatively easy for him to find confirming evidence of it everywhere he looked.
I don't believe in reincarnation, so, unlike Dr. Weiss, when I hear weird stories that somebody thinks can only be explained by reincarnation, I look for alternative explanations. If I can't find one, I don't assume that reincarnation is true. I assume that I don't have all the facts or that I am just not clever enough to figure out what is going on.
Given what we know about memory, hypnosis, and confirmation bias, and given what we know from cases like Bridey Murphy and Jenny Cockell, reincarnation is not the most plausible explanation for the kinds of weird things mentioned by Mr. Sacks and Dr. Weiss.
28 Mar 1999
Although not a particularly spiritual or religious person myself, I pride myself on being open-minded. I found your dismissal of many ideas to be too simplistic and fairly inaccurate.
reply: Thanks for noticing.
Several friends of mine have gone through past life regressions, a couple of them only having done it out of curiosity, and not one of them reported having been a King, Queen or famous poet. In fact, nearly every one of them reported having had pretty mundane "past lives" such as librarian, housewife, banker, etc. Also, the most notable aspect of the regressions was that each person I knew who had done it came away from the experience in an improved condition. One friend felt he had gained deeper insight into relationship issues with his father, another with his wife. One female friend who had undergone years of psychological care with little result came away a changed woman and discontinued her treatment. Five years later she still appears to be psychologically sound (it's no wonder psychologists want to shut these people down!)
reply: I'm not sure whom you think the psychologists are trying to shut down, but as far as I know many psychologists use past life regression in their therapy. Most of them are probably as impressed as you are with the apparent success of their treatments. There is a danger of self-deception when one uses personal validation, anecdotes and testimonials in lieu of controlled studies. However, that said, it is still possible that some patients might feel better after the treatment, just as some might feel (psychologically) better after a car crash or a near-death experience.
Also, my limited understanding of metaphysics as explained to me by this female friend (now a devout believer) is that reincarnation is not viewed as a bad thing, or a good thing, just a necessary thing and similar to attaining Nirvana, the evolutionary goal is to reach a point where one no longer has to reincarnate. Personally, I have no particular belief on the subject, no direct personal experience with such phenomena, and my one and only attempt at meditation left me with a headache of epic proportions. However, it bears consideration that ancient worshippers once regarded the sun as a god. Today, no one considers the sun particularly sacred, but that makes it no less real, and no less vital to our existence.
reply: I'm not sure why the sun's importance despite not being regarded as divine bears consideration, but I think it is interesting that some past life regression therapists do not believe in reincarnation and do not think that their patients need to believe in it either.
Forty-two percent of the world's current population claims to have had some sort of paranormal experience. That kind of eyewitness accounting would put a suspect behind bars in any courtroom, regardless of the absence of physical evidence.
reply: Yes, and therefore fifty-eight percent don't claim to have had a paranormal experience. If more eyewitnesses see nothing, whom should we believe?
You might also consider that science changes its mind far [more] often than spiritual experience does. One can find amazingly similar accounts of near-death experiences, past life remembrances and ghostly sightings throughout history and across cultural lines. Science is constantly disproving itself.
reply: The similarity in accounts can be explained by shared expectations created by shared experiences with books, movies, stories, etc. Changing one's mind when the evidence warrants it is a sign of maturity and intelligence. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you are questioning such phenomena for the sake of expanding your mental horizons then more power to you. I believe nothing should be taken at face value, even skepticism itself. If you are simply enjoying the role of raining on someone else's mystical parade, it begs the question "Why?" The existence of a spiritual world is the unanswerable question, but if believing in one helps people to live their lives in this world, what possible difference could that make to you? You claim that such "mediums" between this world and the next are simply preying on the credulity of people for profit. Well, I assume all the proceeds from your books are not going directly to the Home for Little Wandering Skeptics. Does that mean you're preying on people's fears for the same reason?
reply: What does it mean to say that "nothing should be taken at face value"? That nothing is as it appears to be? That everything is a matter of taste? That there is no essential difference between truth and falsity? That we should stand by and let frauds work their deceits because after all one of them might be a true miracle worker?
Why stoop to the ad hominem? I don't begrudge anyone making money, if they do so honestly. And I do not claim that everyone I write about is a fraud preying on the innocent. Many of those I write about truly believe in what they are doing. Many truly believe they have "gifts," ranging from the "gift" of healing to the "gift" of seeing the future. Should I stand by and say nothing about anything simply because somebody might be benefiting from a delusional belief?
On the other side, I get many letters thanking me for helping them see things in a different light and for making their lives better.
Another tactic I find interesting is the fact that you consistently use put-downs and condescension when referring to anyone who holds a spiritual belief, a trait I find commonplace among skeptical friends of mine. Yet I almost never encounter that attitude when talking with more spiritual friends . They couldn't care less whether or not I see things their way, and accept my laissez-faire attitude without reproach.
reply: I suppose you mean 'constantly,' not 'consistently.' I hope you don't consider my correcting you a put-down or condescension. Since you have not presented any specific examples, I can't defend myself except to say that many people consider criticism of their ideas and beliefs to be personal attacks and put-downs. I certainly do not intend to refrain from criticizing ideas and beliefs for fear of hurting someone's feelings. I try to mock only the arrogant and the dogmatic.
My intent is not to criticize your tone, so much as it is to wonder at the source of it. I know many highly intelligent, educated and well-reasoning folks who believe in their own spirituality. Certainly skeptics have not cornered the market on that, and referring to spiritualist and religious believers as though they were a pack of ignorant children led easily around by the nose in order to make your case is simply a misrepresentation of the situation (something I believe you find distasteful in the average spiritualist).
reply: I think you are the one doing the misrepresenting.
You give a number of alternate explanations as to why such events take place, but
no empirical evidence to back it up. You sound as if you are supposing that people
experience deja vu as a result of present day remembrances, yet offer no reason for it
except, I assume, that you believe it to be so. You claim that a soul is unnecessary.
Well, so are humans (the universe got on quite nicely without us for billions of years)
but here we are. I do not advocate the acceptance or rejection of any particular belief
system, but I do think a little more respectfulness would not be out of order. You could
do one of two things Admit that although you are entitled to your beliefs and may be
absolutely correct, it is possible that our limited human faculties really do inhibit a
true understanding of the scope of our world. Or you could just concentrate on selling
reply: It is always nice to hear from someone who doesn't like put-downs and is respectful of other people's opinions, especially when they differ from her own.