How Reincarnation Works

Reincarnation in Science

The Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia studies reincarnation and other seemingly paranormal events.
The Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia studies reincarnation and other seemingly paranormal events.
© Photographer: David Coleman | Agency:

Although reincarnation seems conventional to the more than 1.25 billion practitioners of Hinduism and Buddhism, it's not widely accepted by those outside of Eastern religion. The Western skepticism of reincarnation is tied to monotheistic religions' focus on a single life, a single soul and an active God who does not rely on karmic law. And with sporadic believers announcing they're Cleopatra or Elvis reincarnate, it's not surprising many people remain extremely skeptical of the soul's ability to return repeatedly.

However, this general skepticism has not prevented researchers from exploring the potential for reincarnation. Dr. Ian Stevenson, an academic psychiatrist, led the study of reincarnation in the United States until his death in 2007. Stevenson founded the Division of Personality Studies under the University of Virginia's department of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences. The lab, which later became known as the Division of Perceptual Studies, focuses on examining children who remember former lives, near-death experiences, apparitions and after-death communications, out-of-body experiences and deathbed visions.

Stevenson, who often called reincarnation the "survival of personality after death," saw the existence of past lives as a potential explanation for the differences in human condition [source: New York Times]. He believed past experiences plus genetics and the environment could help elucidate gender dysphoria, phobias and other unexplained personality traits.

Stevenson's reincarnation studies focused on young children, usually between the ages of 2 and 5, who had inexplicable phobias or detailed memories about a previous life. Stevenson would attempt to corroborate the facts the child presented with the details of a deceased person's life. He sometimes made startling connections between memories and lives. One Lebanese boy studied by Stevenson not only knew where a deceased stranger tied his dog but also that the man had been quarantined in his room -- a fact the family attributed to his pulmonary tuberculosis.

Stevenson studied 2,500 cases over the course of about four decades and published technical books and articles. He claimed he merely wanted to suggest reincarnation was plausible, not to prove it absolutely. Despite Stevenson's caveat, his work was largely rejected by the scientific community. The potential for piecing two lives together with coincidences rather than facts and the inability to perform control experiments opened his research to criticism.

To learn more about reincarnation and death, look over the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Bosch, Tori. "Am I the Buddha?" Slate. December 27, 2007.
  • "Buddhism." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • "Division of Perceptual Studies." University of Virginia.
  • "Eightfold Path." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • Fox, Margalit. "Ian Stevenson Dies at 88; Studied Claims of Past Lives." The New York Times. February 18, 2007.
  • "Hinduism." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • "Jainism." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • "Karma." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • "The Lessons of the Buddha." NPR. January 23, 2006.
  • Mims, Christopher. "Remember a Previous Life? Maybe You Have a Bad Memory." Scientific American. March 30, 2007.
  • "Mystery Religion." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • "Myth." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • Pressly, Linda. "Many happy returns." BBC News. December 15, 2004.
  • Rabinowitz, Gavin. "Girl Born With 8 Limbs Conscious, Smiles." Associated Press. November 9, 2007.
  • AR2007110900295.html
  • "Reincarnation." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • "Religion and Ethics: Buddhism." BBC.
  • "Religion and Ethics: Hinduism." BBC.
  • "Religion and Ethics: Jainism." BBC.
  • "Religion and Ethics: Sikhism." BBC.
  • "Orpheus." Encyclopedia Mythica.
  • "Time." Encyclopaedia Britannica.