by Robert T. James, J.D., C.Ht.
Robert James Fights Back! In this well-researched article, James discusses the “Anything Else But” syndrome, a mental state that seems to afflict many critics of all things parapsychological, including past-life regression work. He makes some solid criticisms of his own in this astute analysis of some of our critics’ own research. Let the critics beware!
In a recent talk given in Colorado, Dr. John Mack (1995), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author of the controversial book Abductions: Human Contact with Aliens (Mack, 1994), commented on the vigorous efforts on the part of his detractors to find that the alien abduction phenomenon is due to a cause other than that the experiences of the abductees are real. He described the efforts of his detractors as seemingly being affected by an “Anything Else But” Syndrome. A review of the literature indicates that the “Anything Else But” Syndrome is also an excellent description of the behavior that seems to motivate many of the detractors of the past-life phenomenon.
Going back many years, to 1956, shortly after the publication of the past-life regression described in The Search for Bridey Murphy (Bernstein, 1956) three psychiatrists and two psychologists published a book entitled A Scientific Report on “The Search for Bridey Murphy” (Kline, 1956). In this “Scientific Report,” in referring to the subject’s past-life memory as Bridey Murphy the authors used such expressions as “scientific fantasy” (p. xv), “science fiction life” (p. xix), “delusional material” (p. xix), and “mixture of naiveté, willingness to believe, ignorance” (p. 82); and they referred to past-life memories revealed while in hypnosis as “the hoax of reincarnation” (p. 163), and “pseudoscientific concepts” (p. 164).
Although none of the authors of the “Scientific Report” had ever personally examined either the hypnotist or the subject involved in the Bridey Murphy past-life regression, they concluded that the hypnotist’s “interest in hypnosis and reincarnation is an expression of his hidden rebellion against his father” (p. 101), and his “need for omnipotence, which might be considered to spring out of his sense of weakness in relation to the father figures in his life” (p.89). The authors also concluded that “The newborn reawakened personality of Bridey Murphy can be best understood as the rather contradictory but mutually creative effort of [the subject] and [the hypnotist]” (p. 98). The relationship between the hypnotist and the subject was described as a “folie a deux” (p. xix) (i.e., when two persons, closely associated with one another, suffer a psychosis simultaneously, each enhancing the other’s delusional system). There seems to be little question but that the authors of the “Scientific Report” believed from the start that the Bridey Murphy regression must be “Anything Else But” a past life.
More recent critics using hypnosis in past-life research are somewhat more restrained in their descriptions of past-life memories recovered while in hypnosis, but many also seem to be motivated by the same “Anything Else But” Syndrome.
In one such article published in 1982 (Baker, 1982), the author reported conducting past-life research with hypnosis with 60 undergraduate college students, divided into three groups of 20 each. Before hypnosis was attempted, each group listened to a tape recording: The first group heard a recording favorable to past-life regression; the second group heard a recording where past-life regression was presented in a neutral manner; and the third group heard a recording that treated past-life regression in “a skeptical, flippant, and derogatory manner” (Baker, p. 73).
Following the recordings, all the students “were hypnotized and regressed using identical induction and regression procedures” (Baker, p. 73). With those who reported past lives, the hypnotist explored their past lives. Twenty-nine of the students reported no past lives or just refused to respond to questions. No attempt was made to determine the depth of the hypnotic trance of any of the students.
After completing the research, Baker concluded “that past lives regression phenomena rather than being examples of the ‘reality’ of reincarnation is, instead, the result of suggestions made by the hypnotist, expectations held by the Ss, and the demand characteristics of the hypnoidal relationships” (Baker, p. 75). Baker also referred to those who believe in the reality of past lives as “uninformed” and as “gullible and true-believers” (p. 71).
A 1991 article authored by five researchers (Spanos, Menary, Gabora, DuBreuil & Dewhirst, 1991), was a report on their past-life research conducted at a Canadian university, with 235 undergraduate students divided into four different groups. The attempt to place the subjects into hypnosis in each group was by a standardized procedure: Each group listened to “a 10-min. tape-recorded hypnotic induction procedure modified from Baker (1969) followed by a 5-min. suggestion that informed the subjects that they were regressing in time, beyond their birth and into a new dimension” (Spanos et al., p. 310). As in Baker’s 1982 research, no attempt was made to determine the depth of the hypnotic trance of any of the students. The past-life memories of those who did report past lives were explored by the hypnotist seeking verifiable data.
All but one of the students who reported past lives stated while in hypnosis that in their past-life identity they were of the same sex that they are now. All but one in their past lives claimed a country of residence in North America or Western Europe; mostly in Canada where they then resided. As to the subjects’ past-life memories, these authors suggested that “they construct a life story that weaves together plot lines, details, and characters that are derived from a wide range of sources (e.g., personal experience, television shows, novels) and that is expressed as a first-person report” (Spanos et al., p. 318). The authors concluded that “In summary, when constructing past-life identities, subjects appeared to choose historical periods and cultural contexts with which they were likely to be relatively familiar (e.g., late 19th Century Canada)” (Spanos et al., pp. 311-12).
The authors also stated “from a sociocognitive perspective, hypnotic past-life identities are viewed as socially constructed fantasies that are cued by the demands of the hypnotic past-life suggestions” (Spanos et al., p. 309), and that “subjects learn to develop past-life identities that are consistent with the expectations of their therapist or hypnotist” (Spanos et al., p. 310).
In the studies above, both Baker and Spanos, et al. used hypnosis in a manner in the past-life research that would be readily recognized as inappropriate and ineffective by most experienced hypnotists. It is common practice in traditional psychological research, in order to determine the effect of an independent variable upon the dependent variable, to treat all subjects exactly the same with regard to the independent variable. This practice results in considerable standardization, a good thing in some forms of research. However, the problem with using a standardized hypnotic induction technique as an independent variable in order to determine its effect on the memories of past lives in hypnotized subjects (the dependent variables) is that such standardized hypnosis induction methods are quite inappropriate as they fail to consider the highly subjective nature of hypnosis.
The problems with using standardized induction techniques in studies involving hypnosis are well stated by Dr. Michael D. Yapko: “The most serious fault of such hypnotizability studies is that standardized induction procedures do not recognize individual differences in subjects. Assessing individual differences and then specifically forming suggestions on the bases of those differences is the most fundamental prerequisite for successful clinical hypnosis. Using the same technique with each person without variation is one way of assuring failure with a significant number of people” (Yapko, 1990).
In a later book, Dr. Yapko also observes “How a given person will respond to a word or phrase is unpredictable. Remember, the person is using his or her own frame of reference (i.e., experiences, understanding) to make meaning out of your words” (Yapko, 1995).
The importance of the fact that in the studies above Baker and Spanos et al. did not know the depth of the hypnotic trance of any of the subjects, or even if any of them were actually in a hypnotic trance at all, is as stated by Dr. Edith Fiore: “If they [clients] are in a light to medium trance, they often are simultaneously judging, analyzing and at times, censoring” (Fiore, 1989). Indeed, in using rigidly standardized inductions with no regard to the depth of the hypnotic trance, it is not surprising if subjects conformed their stories to the suggestions and views of the researchers.
There are well-known and time-honored methods of determining depth of hypnosis by observing the physical responses of the subject that occur at different stages of trance depth. Some of these are degrees of lethargy, eye catalepsy, and the catalepsy of isolated muscle groups (light depth); partial amnesia, glove anesthesia, aphasia (medium depth); or complete amnesia, hypermnesia, and bizarre post-hypnotic suggestions (deep depth); and there are other responses. There are also standard assessment procedures developed by researchers for assessing trance depth such as the different Stanford scales, the Harvard scales, and others. Any well-trained hypnotist is aware of the uses of these scales. However, these standard assessment scales are not very satisfactory in clinical practice as they are time consuming and do not constitute a quick, flexible, and accurate way of determining depth in a hypnotic trance. Furthermore, an initial depth reached by a subject is not dependably maintained throughout the hypnotic session.
Le Cron (1971) developed a “yard stick” self-reporting system of measuring depth with a range of from 1 to 36 (light to deep), based on the assumption that a subject’s subconscious mind would always know how deeply in hypnosis it was at any given moment. Tart (1970), following the same assumption, refined the self-report method (with a range of from 1 to 10) for use as a quick and accurate way of determining depth. It is particularly useful for repeated uses during a hypnotic session where inevitably fluctuations in depth will occur. Tart’s method correlated significantly with the standard (but more cumbersome) scales in common use and with his clinical estimates of depth. Because of its smaller range, Tart’s 1 to 10 scale is more useful than Le Cron’s 1 to 36 yardstick to work with clinically and in comparing large groups of research subjects.
Tart’s scales are not only very useful in investigating the validity of regressed past lives (James, 1995), but they are particularly effective in past-life therapy where it seems most desirable to achieve as complete a dissociation between the conscious and subconscious minds as is possible. See for example the use of Tart’s depth measurement method in past-life therapy research with people with phobias (Freedman, 1995), where a medium-to-deep level was required and in which good therapeutic results were obtained.
Neither Baker nor Spanos et al. used any measurements of trance depth in their 1982 and 1991 research studies and those studies are thus so flawed that the results and conclusions of the researchers are certainly suspect. Nor were their standardized induction methods the best choice for this research. Is it possible, or even probable, that their subjects, in a light hypnotic trance, or possibly in no trance state at all, were role playing, or “developing past-life identities that are consistent with the expectations of their hypnotists,” or “analyzing or censoring,” or just plain fantasizing?
Notice, for example, that in Spanos et al. (1991), all but one of the subjects reported that in their past-life identities, they were of the same sex as they now are; and that most reported living in Canada where they then resided. Contrast these results with a research study reported in 1993 with a large sample of subjects more representative of the population than undergraduate college students, and where a measured medium-to-deep hypnotic trance state was attempted during each regression (James, 1993). In this 1993 study, large numbers of the subjects seemingly regressed to different genders and different skin colors in their past-life memories, to many different locations in the world, and back to time periods ranging from the years 19 to 1930.
Actually, Baker and Spanos et al. miss the major point involved in past-life research. I suggest that it need not be the major concern of past-life regression research that all past-life memories are true. Is it possible that in a hypnotic past-life regression, even at a deep hypnotic level, subconscious material other than true past-life memories may masquerade as real events? I think so.
One should also remember that the reality of past-life memories recovered in hypnotic regression may be the primary concern of a given researcher or project, but it is not the primary concern of the therapist. Most past-life therapists ask “Do the past-life memories, whether real or not, cause a positive change in the client?” Psychiatrist Raymond Moody (1991) answers this question:
“But speaking as a psychotherapist, I would have to say that it doesn’t matter if these experiences in past-life regressions represent real past lives or not. What matters is that they are becoming recognized as effective tools in psychotherapy.”
Dr. Roger Woolger (1988) concurs: “…the psychotherapist is mainly concerned with helping the patient get better, not in proving a theory or in promoting a doctrine,” and “… as a therapist and not a philosopher, I am perhaps fortunate in that I am not shackled by the problem of belief or disbelief.”
Still, the fact remains that one of the most important points in past-life research is whether any of the regressed memories obtained in a hypnotic trance are true memories of past lives. Several cases have by now been well-validated; the following five, described briefly, are only a sample.
- A patient (L. D.) of psychotherapist Linda Tarazi (1990), regressed while in hypnosis to the life of a Spanish woman named Antonia, born November 15, 1555. Tarazi spent over three years researching and validating the life of Antonia in many libraries and universities; she traveled to Spain, North Africa, and the Caribbean, and corresponded with historians and archivists. Many of the corroborating details of the life of Antonia could only be found in old sources published in Spanish, and some could only be found in Spanish archives, unavailable to L. D.
- Therapist Rick Brown’s subject Bruce Kelly (Brown, 1991) regressed while in hypnosis to the life of James Edward Johnson who was a crew member of the U.S. Submarine Shark. On February 11, 1942, the Shark was sunk by the Japanese Destroyer Amatsukaze and all the crew members perished. Kelly’s memories of the details of the life of Johnson, including his life before he joined the Navy, were substantiated by the records of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the United States Navy, and civilian records such as a birth certificate and high school attendance records.
- In the 1970s, “Dolores,” the wife of a Methodist Minister, was hypnotized by her husband and regressed to the life of Gretchen Gottlib, a young German girl living in the past in Eberwalde, Germany. While in the personality of Gretchen, Dolores spoke responsively in German (i.e. she gave responsive answers in German to questions asked of her in German). Dolores had had no previous knowledge of the German language. The case was extensively investigated by Dr. Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist at the School of Medicine, University of Virginia (Stevenson, 1976).
- Another well-investigated case (Stevenson & Pasricha, 1980), which did not involve hypnosis, was that of Uttara Huddar, born in 1941 in India. In 1974, a new personality, “Sharada,” suddenly emerged in Uttara. Sharada could not speak Marathi, which was Uttara’s native language, but instead spoke fluent Bengali. Uttara was unmarried, but as Sharada, she dressed and behaved like a married Bengali woman. Sharada did not recognize Uttara’s parents or friends. Upon investigation, the details Uttara gave as Sharada were found to correspond to the life of a Bengali woman who had lived in the early 1800s.
- A Jewish-American housewife, who had never been to Scandinavia or knew intimately anyone who could speak any Scandinavian languages, regressed while in hypnosis to being Jenson Jacoby, a peasant farmer. Jenson was probably born somewhere in Sweden near the Norwegian border in the middle or latter part of the seventeenth century (Stevenson, 1974). While in hypnosis in the personality of Jenson, the subject responsively spoke Swedish with a little Norwegian and some Danish in it. The investigation was spearheaded by Stevenson but involved many others.
There are many other examples. Because of the numerous case reports from different sources from people with good credentials, there now exists more than sufficient evidence that either 1) some subjects lived before their present lifetimes, or 2) some subjects, under certain conditions including hypnosis, seem to be able to access information concerning the lives of persons who have lived before, and with whom they identify so strongly as to report their past lives in the first person.
Although the belief in past lives is many centuries old, the belief has traditionally been based, like the major religions of today, upon religious scripture, divine revelation, and faith, without verifiable empirical data. Today’s scientific methods realistically require that the proponents of a theory or proposition such as the existence of past lives assume the responsibility for demonstrating the truth of their assertions. I believe that this burden has now been met. The recall of regressed past-life memories is no longer a matter of religious belief or dependent upon the insights of the enlightened, but is a matter of demonstrable, human experience.
With the well-investigated and reported cases, such as the foregoing five examples and others, it is safe now to say that the burden of proof has shifted to the detractors to show that such reports are not true. Books like A Scientific Report on “The Search for Bridey Murphy” and research studies where the authors merely try to fit past-life reports into the constructs of their particular disciplines and prior belief systems, where they both begin and end with the “Anything Else But” attitude and ignore the existing evidence, would seem to be of very limited, if any, value.
Bernstein, M. The Search for Bridey Murphy. New York: Doubleday, 1956.
Brown, R. The reincarnation of James: The submarine man. Journal of Regression Therapy, V (1), 62-71, 1991.
Fiore, E. Encounters: A psychologist reveals case studies of abductions by extraterrestrials. New York: Ballantine, 1989.
Freedman, T. B. Past life therapy for phobias: Patterns and outcome. Journal of Regression Therapy, IX (1), 20-29, 1995.
James, R. T. Regressed past lives and survival after physical death: Unique experiences? Journal of Regression Therapy, VII (1), 33- 50, 1993.
——— Verifiable past lives: Readily available? Journal of Regression Therapy, IX (1), 7-19, 1995.
Kline, M. V. [Ed.] A Scientific Report on “The search for Bridey Murphy”. New York: Julian, 1956.
Le Cron, L. M. The complete guide to hypnosis. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971.
Mack, J. E. Abductions: Human contact with aliens. New York: Scribner’s, 1994.
——— Studying intrusions from the subtle realm. Speech given September 16, 1995, at Fort Collins, Colorado, 1995.
Moody, R. A. Coming back: A psychiatrist explores past life journeys. New York: Bantam, 1991.
Spanos, N. P., Menary, E., Gabora, N. J., DuBreuil, S. C., & Dewhirst, B. Secondary identity enactments during hypnotic past-life regression: A sociocognitive perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 308-320, 1991.
Stevenson, I. Xenoglossy: A review and report of a case. Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 31, 1974.
——— A preliminary report of a new case of responsive xenoglossy: The case of Gretchen. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 70, 65-77, 1976.
Stevenson, I., & Pasricha, S. A preliminary report on an unusual case of the reincarnation type with xenoglossy. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 74, 331-348, 1980.
Tarazi, L. An unusual case of hypnotic regression with some unexplained contents. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 84(4), 309-344, 1970.
Tart, C. T. Self-report scales of hypnotic depth. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, XVIII (2), 105-125, 1970.
Woolger, R. J. Other lives, other selves. New York: Bantam, 1988.
Yapko, M. D. Trancework: An introduction to the practice of clinical hypnosis. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1990.
——— Essentials of hypnosis. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1995.