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Researching Past Lives: Facts or Subjective Experience? – Wade Bettis (Is.16)

 Wade Bettis, J.D.

The author asks; “What is the best way to examine past-life regressions?” He discusses in depth two careful studies; Venn (1986) and Tarazi (1997). Although these studies are impressive, Bettis finds them both incomplete in the lack of value placed on the subjective experience of the clients. Only the factual data was analyzed. Bettis suggests that more sensitive methodologies would have revealed the deeper meanings to the clients of their past-life narratives.

Introduction

The question of whether or not the past lives that people produce in altered states of consciousness are real reincarnation memories or fantasies is an intriguing one and has not been answered yet. One common approach to the question is to research the factual material given in the past life for accuracy. Most clients do not give enough factual material to make this sort of research possible, or the lives they report are so far back in time or so obscure that checking details is not feasible.

Some cases do exist, however, in which enough factual material was given to be checked, and in which many or most of the facts turned out to be correct. One is Brown’s (1991) case of “the submarine man;” another is, of course, the famous Bridey Murphy case of Bernstein (1956/1978). In this article I discuss two other cases, that of Venn (1986) and Tarazi (1997). I use these cases to illustrate the importance of the mind-sets that researchers adopt toward past lives, and the way those mind-sets influence the methods used to research and interpret the data. Unless otherwise cited, material in quotation marks is from Venn or Tarazi, respectively.

Venn and Tarazi, independent hypnotherapist researchers, investigated the apparently factual material given by two different clients who were able to give a wealth of such data during numerous regression sessions. Treatment was successful for both clients, and after treatment was concluded, with their agreement both Venn and Tarazi continued their sessions in a search for additional researchable factual material. Venn and Tarazi then investigated the factual material in their attempts to explore the reality of the past lives their two clients produced. In this paper, the two researchers’ methods and conclusions about the reality of past lives will be compared, based upon their thorough reports (Venn 1986; Tarazi 1997). It should be noted that these two researchers were not acquainted and worked entirely independently of each other.

There are, broadly speaking, three theories regarding past-life regressions. One school of thought holds that past-life experiences can be real and factually provable. The second school of thought holds that it does not matter if past lives are a reality: What is important is that the experience of a past life can and does alleviate physical and psychological pain and gives individuals a more holistic view of themselves and the meaning of their lives. And, of course, the third school of thought holds that past-life regressions are “obviously” fantasies and have no meaning to anyone except as an exercise in imagination.

Venn

I will discuss Venn’s case first. Venn comments that a “large number of case reports have been published, but few authors reported negative as well as positive findings.” He says that past-life regressionists report only positive or supportive data in their studies, omitting fantasy, fabrication, and misinformation. About his own search for the factual material, Venn states “…all relevant archives were exhausted, and negative as well as positive data are reported.” Venn’s client, “Matthew,” experienced 60 hypnotic regression sessions. Venn’s purpose was to explore and research the reincarnation hypothesis in comparison with other theories of what individuals report as experiences from a past life or lives.

Venn states that regressions are easy to induce by the hypnotherapist and describes a study by Baker (1982) where 53 undergraduate college students were hypnotized and then regressed, with over 90% of the participants experiencing past and future lives. On the other hand, he also cites a Finnish study of 190 individuals who produced only a 7% success rate for past-life regressions.

Venn has a number of complaints about practice and research on past-life regressions. He criticizes, from an empiricist’s viewpoint, most literature on past-life regression from Bernstein (1956/1978) to the present. He faults therapists for generally having only superficial contacts with their clients, resulting in their failure to conduct rigorous interviews with follow-up investigative studies. Another claim he makes is that few past-life hypnotists have graduate-level degrees in psychology or medicine. [Ed. Note: This second claim, at least, was untrue when Venn wrote it in 1986 and is less true today, as APRT members can confirm.]

Venn also points out that leaders of professional hypnotist organizations have publicly condemned the practice of regression therapy. According to Venn, one concern is that if past-life regressions are not based in empirical and scientific facts, they will mislead the public, victimize the gullible, and foster a bad reputation for hypnosis. Hence, Venn’s concern for testing past-life regressions as a reality and/or an effective psychological modality useful in the human sciences.

Venn does not spare the critics of past-life regression; he notes that they too have shown a lack of objectivity and freedom from personal bias. His criticisms are, therefore, directed to both sides of the controversy surrounding the studies for or against the reality of reincarnation. Venn is concerned that both sides of the controversy lack empirical or phenomenological objectivity and are allowing their preconceived assumptions, that reincarnation is or is not a fact, to stand in the way of critical and objective rigorous research. Tarazi agrees with Venn that there is a lack of critical and credible research studies based on adequate, objective, qualitative and/or quantitative methodologies.

“Matthew”

Venn’s client, Matthew, a 26-year-old optometrist’s assistant, was married with a five-year-old son. Venn conducted a thorough initial interview with Matthew; Tarazi did the same with her client, L.D. For both Venn and Tarazi, such an interview provides background on each individual’s basic fund of historical knowledge, educational background, and life experiences which may account for some of the information later given by them during the past-life regression. Venn’s historical background on Matthew centered on his past knowledge and contacts, his ability to acquire knowledge, the fact that he had never studied French or any other foreign language, and had never studied World War I history.

Matthew’s presenting problem was hypochondriacal chest pains which had commenced during his wife’s pregnancy with no apparent empirical or medical etiology. In fact, Matthew was referred for psychological counseling only after his doctor was unable to diagnose a physical cause of his chronic chest pains. Within an eighteen month period Venn guided Matthew in 60 hypnotic regressions, all but two of which were recorded on audiotape.

In these 60 sessions the personality of “Jacques Gionne Trecaultes,” a World War I French pilot, emerged through Matthew. Jacques claimed to have been shot down over Belgium in August of 1914. He relived his last mission in that lifetime when he reported having been machine-gunned in the chest by a German pilot. In this regression session he “cried, moaned, yelled, sweated, and clutched at his chest for about half an hour. He exhibited the full range of behaviors exhibited in the most dramatic abreactions and past-life regressions.”

In some of the later sessions Matthew began to speak in a heavy French accent which developed into fragmented French in the last three sessions. A native French speaker listened to the fragmented xenoglossy on tape and in one hypnotic session attempted to engage Matthew in a conversation in French. The interpreter rated Matthew/Jacque’s French as being very poor and that of a foreigner.

Venn, who was primarily interested in garnering and researching factual material, checked the information about dates, places, the history of World War I, and other factual material. However, he gave no weight or value to Matthew’s subjective experience in his empirical and quantitative ratings. He did not consider Matthew’s powerful emotional and physical reactions or his ability to speak even fragmented French to be sufficiently important to assess as data. However, more intuitive research methods and a more heuristic model might have been well suited to interpreting what was happening within Matthew’s consciousness. “Like heuristic methods, intuitive research methods emphasize the unique and personal voice of the individual researcher and depend on the experiences and insights of the researcher at every phase of the research process” (Braud & Anderson, 1998). The same can be said for the experience of the client/participant, in this case, Matthew.

Venn could also have used a phenomenological model, which would have been effective for both quantitative and qualitative material. This would have allowed Venn to search for the meanings or essences of the experience he and Matthew were sharing, rather than just quantitatively valuing the factual information being elicited. Or he could have used narrative and life story methodologies very productively. A more detailed telling of Matthew/Jacques’s story would have brought out the meaning of the regression to Matthew. A grounded theory analysis would have allowed Venn to find any interplay between his data collection and verification techniques and what was happening within Matthew’s inner consciousness. Certainly something was going on within Matthew’s psyche because Venn alludes to the fact that Matthew changed during this whole process. Any of these other methodologies would have allowed for a more complete analysis of both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of Matthew’s story.

Instead, Venn took only the factual information that Matthew reported in his regression sessions and reduced it to a couple of quantitative tables, ignoring all the intuitive, qualitative phenomena. Venn divided the factual data into 47 divisions of information and assessed each fact as true or false.

Venn concluded that his client knew a great deal about the history of World War I, although Matthew denied having studied any World War I history. Through research in public libraries Venn learned that Matthew, as Jacques, had accurately reported an impressive number of facts about World War I, including the names of aircraft, ace pilots, and obscure French towns; he knew that pilots could not communicate with the ground by radio, and that the Germans had made a significant advance on the French in August of 1914, an action which was viewed by Matthew from an aircraft, a first in military history.

Venn reports that this could appear to be an impressive case of reincarnation. He concluded, however, after a closer inspection of the historical records, that the information given by Matthew was a mixture of truth and falsehood. “Of the thirty items that were traced in public libraries or popular books, 14 were transparently false and 16 were true.” Venn investigated the more recondite and obscure records by corresponding, through a French translator, with the French military archives in Paris. He also traveled twice to the town of Thionville in France where he personally examined the city register, marriage records, and other public documents. Seventeen different items of misinformation given by Matthew were discovered by this method.

What every researcher has the right to do is to select which research modality to use and to choose how the information being studied is weighted, valued, and presented. But even within the strictly quantitative point of view of this study, Venn minimized or discounted what others might consider important facts, such as Matthew’s ability to speak any French at all, even if it was poor French, and the surprising amount of information about detailed French geography and obscure World War I information that would have been known by the 1914 French pilot, Jacques, but not by Matthew. There is no valuing or interpreting by Venn of the fact that Matthew, as Jacques, appeared to have a very good grasp of general World War I history and geography.

Lastly, and most importantly for Matthew, at least, he had a complete resolution of his undiagnosed, severe, acute, and physically disabling chest pains, chest pains which had previously placed him in hospital emergency rooms. Venn places no value on this phenomenon.

Venn also does not seem to have assessed the levels of hypnosis that Matthew reached; or if he did, he does not share it with us. James (1993) found that people at deep levels of hypnosis get more detailed past lives. Furthermore, Venn does not spend any time exploring or analyzing the complications of working with both hemispheres of the brain. Our thinking and conscious processing of facts, figures, and dates, as well as most of our language centers, are generally associated with the left hemisphere, while past-life regression and altered states of consciousness use and favor the right hemisphere of the brain. Cognitive theories of neural functioning and measurement could have been used here for a more insightful analysis of the bio-mechanical processes taking place. This would have been especially interesting when it came to measuring the differences, which may have been detectable, when Matthew was giving correct as opposed to incorrect historical information during his regressions. The number of sessions (60), also, from my perspective, seems to be excessive and unnecessary and may have placed pressure on Matthew to fabricate information to please the therapist’s demands for “facts.” This possibility was also not acknowledged or discussed by Venn.

My sensing is that Venn’s methodology diminished and minimized both the context and the experiences that Matthew underwent in his consciousness, which at a minimum alleviated his physical chest pains, leaving his psychosomatic condition in the past with Jacques, the 1914 French pilot.

Tarazi

Tarazi (1997), together with a Dutch therapist, carried out 36 formal regressions numbering over a thousand pages of taped transcripts with her client, L. D. L. D. was an American woman who gave a detailed description of the life of “Antonia.” Antonia was a woman who lived in Germany, England, Spain, and Peru during the sixteenth century. This was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Spanish Inquisition, and the build-up of the Spanish Armada.

Tarazi refers in her book to Venn’s 1986 paper, discussed above. She considers her study an example of a rigorous quantitative in-depth case study using a single subject who is regressed to a previous life over a large number of sessions with follow-up research to check the accuracy of the information given. Although both Venn and Tarazi used primarily quantitative research methods, they arrived at opposite conclusions.

“L. D.”

L.D. was a teacher, married and with two children, at the time Tarazi worked with her. She was troubled by headaches and felt she needed help in controlling her weight. She had no Spanish ancestry, did not speak Spanish, had no familiarity with the language, had never been to Spain, and was not knowledgeable about Dutch, English, or Spanish history. Yet some of the historical information L. D., as Antonia, gave was so accurate that upon closer inspection of official records and archives historians had to correct their previous and erroneous historical concepts. Some of the information L. D. gave was verifiable only in antiquated Spanish books, and some of the facts were to be found only in the old Municipal records of the city of Cuenca, Spain, to which Antonia moved in 1584.

The first hypnotherapist to work with L. D. was from Holland. As he began to question her on the details of Dutch history in the 1580’s she would respond with answers that most Americans would not be expected to know unless they were historians or had a love of 16th-century Dutch history; these things were not true of L. D. L. D., as Antonia, would sometimes correct the hypnotherapist with what turned out to be accurate historical information but of which the hypnotherapist was unaware. For example, in one session Antonia reported that the Spanish Governor of Holland at the time she lived there was don Fernando de Toledo. The Dutch hypnotherapist attempted to correct her, saying that the Spanish Governor was the Duke of Alva. Antonia replied: “Of course. That is the title. I gave his name.” She was right. The Duke’s title is historically better known and is most often given when he is referenced in history books. But the name she gave for the Duke was accurate, known to Antonia and not L. D. (and not the Dutch hypnotherapist, either). This bit of information was relatively obscure but verifiable.

Antonia’s information regarding her trip to and stay in Lima, Peru is important and is found in the Table Tarazi includes in her book. This information was finally verified only in a centuries-old volume found at Northwestern University that had never been checked out of the library; it mainly quoted from sixteenth century sources and was difficult reading even for a Spanish teacher who acted as a translator. Tarazi notes that “most significantly, the pages had never been cut apart. They were still connected at their outer margins so that the book could never have been read.” This volume also helped to confirm the information Antonia reported regarding the life and conflict that arose between Inquisitor Juan Ruiz de Prado and the Viceroy of Peru at the time Antonia traveled to Lima, Peru.

Antonia died by drowning in the Caribbean while attempting to escape from English pirates as she was returning from visiting her Inquisitor uncle, Juan Ruiz de Prado, who she had learned was her biological father, a man who had become an important Spanish official in Lima, Peru. “During these sessions Antonia revealed that a dispute had arisen between Inquisitor Ulloa and Viceroy Villar; de Prado supported Ulloa. The name Villar was found with some difficulty in an English source, but Ulloa and de Prado were not found until many years later in a very obscure old Spanish book.”

Antonia gave the names of several friends in the late sixteenth-century town of Cuenca. Because nobody believed the names could be verified, at first nobody attempted to verify their existence. Tarazi, when she later visited Cuenca in an attempt to verify information, was able to find eight of the friends named by Antonia in the Inquisition records and/or in the Municipal and Diocesan Archives.

Two of the facts Antonia reported contradicted the present authorities in Spain. In both cases, further research proved Antonia to be correct and the authorities to be in error. One of these was the description of the building that had housed the Tribunal of the Inquisition. The Government Tourist Office in Cuenca reported it had been at 58 Calle de San Pedro. This building did not even slightly resemble the one Antonia had described. “Later, in an obscure Spanish book on Cuenca, I found that the Tribunal had been moved in December 1583 from the given address to an old castle overlooking the town, which fits Antonia’s description perfectly.” In 1989, more was found on this in the Episcopal Archives of Cuenca. Antonia claimed to have arrived in Cuenca in May 1584, five months after the move.

The other recondite fact was L. D.’s reference to a college being founded in Cuenca, Spain. Tarazi believed that this would be easy to check, but ran into immediate difficulties, as did some history professors whom she consulted to assist her in this search for information. Neither Tarazi nor the historians could find any reference to a college being founded in Cuenca in the mid-1500’s. Even the archivist at the Municipal Archives in Cuenca had never heard of a college in that town. But Antonia had been firm in her declaration that a college had existed and that the students and faculty of this college had met regularly at Antonia’s inn. Finally, Tarazi was directed to Loyola University to check an old seven-volume work in Spanish. “I checked and found that Vol. II mentioned the founding of a college in Cuenca in the mid-sixteenth century. Even a person who reads Spanish is not likely to wade through this tome unless involved in historical research.”

Another apparent contradiction from the regressions with L. D. was Antonia’s insistence that there were only two Inquisitors at the time she was in Cuenca, Spain, which was from 1584 to 1587. She gave the Inquisitors’ names and their biographical information. One of the Inquisitors, Ximenes de Reynoso, was her lover. Antonia held to this detail despite the fact that historians, archivists, and professors insisted that there were always three Inquisitors, never two. On one of Tarazi’s trips to Spain she was able to check again the Episcopal Archives in Cuenca. The records revealed that “During the entire period that Antonia lived in Cuenca there were only the two Inquisitors whom she had named. There had been three briefly in 1582 and again in 1583, but from 1584 to 1588 there were only Ximenes de Reynoso (Antonia’s lover) and de Arganda.”

Tarazi’s investigation itself took three years. The factual material took seven years to be revealed through hypnotherapy, self hypnosis, spontaneous flashbacks, and dreams. Each of these subjective ways of accessing the transpersonal can be the subject matter of qualitative research but are not usually associated with the empiricist-scientific method of knowing. Yet Tarazi valued these methods of gathering information, and they yielded verifiable data.

Another twenty-five to thirty facts reported by “Antonia” were located with a great deal of difficulty and verified as accurate. Even though some of the information was found in published English texts, even finding those required the searching of numerous libraries: the Chicago Public Library, Newberry Library, and several university libraries (Northwestern, Northeastern, Loyola, DePaul, University of Illinois, and University of Chicago) to verify the information given by L. D.

Examples of some of the other information that was verified from these sources include: The date of the first publication of the Edict of Faith on the Island of Hispaniola; Spanish laws governing shipping to the Indies; types of ships used in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and details about them; dates and contents of the Spanish Indices of prohibited books and how they differed from the Roman Index; and names of priests executed in England in 1581 and 1582, and the method of execution. Over a dozen facts did not seem to be published in English at all, but only in Spanish. As noted, a few could be found only in the Municipal Archives or the Diocesan Archives in Cuenca, Spain.

Discussion and Conclusions

There is a need for regression therapy researchers to formulate a common and/or standardized notion of values for information being verified, such as the information discussed here. According to Venn and Tarazi, there has not been enough in-depth research. Both checked the factual material given by their clients, who were regressed multiple times with intense scrutiny and follow-up on historical detail as demonstrated in their research. Both have called for similar rigorous inquiries by professionals and those schooled in research methodologies who also can set aside their biases and personal ideologies about whether past-life regression is based in fact or fantasy.

Both of these studies could have been more balanced had they focused more on the qualitative aspects of the impact that these experiences had on their individual clients. To other therapists, at least, these may be the most immediately important aspects of any case study, aspects alluded to but not analyzed or discussed by either Venn or Tarazi.

In my opinion, Venn’s study would have been richer in content and more complete if he had applied more of a hermeneutic model. This would have brought to his study a meaningful interpretation of what was happening internally with his client Matthew, which is not apparent to the reader of Venn’s paper. Certainly something was happening; Matthew resolved his chest pains and became convinced in his own mind that he had lived and died as a World War I French pilot.

From a phenomenological point of view, what were the meanings of their experiences to Matthew and L. D. in the deeper context of their inner lives? How is this now manifesting in their outer lives? These questions and processes may be at the very heart of the debate between the purely quantitative versus qualitative analysis of what individuals experience in their past lives and whether we need to worry about the fact or fiction question in past-life regressions.

In summary, I have reviewed two in-depth case studies using altered states of consciousness to explore the hypothesis of the reality of individuals being able to accurately access past lives. In both studies, quantitative data was the primary focus. I suggest the possible benefits to future studies of adding other research modalities that would value subjective experience, such as heuristics, phenomenology, grounded theory, intuitive study, narrative, and life story, any or all of which might have enhanced and enriched both of the studies discussed here.

 

References

Baker, R. A. The effect of suggestion on past-lives regression. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 25, 71-76, 1982.

Braud W. & Anderson, R. Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences: Honoring human experience. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998.

Brown, R. The reincarnation of James: The submarine man. Journal of Regression Therapy, V (1), 62-71, 1991.

Bernstein, M. The search for Bridey Murphy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956/1978.

James, R. Regressed past lives and survival of physical death: Unique experience? Journal of Regression Therapy, VII (1), 33-50, 1993.

Tarazi, L. Under the inquisition: An experience relived. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc., 1997.

Venn, J. Hypnosis and the reincarnation hypothesis: A critical review and intensive case study. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 80, 409-425, 1986.

 

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Topics on this article

Past Lives, Reincarnation

Keywords on this article

altered states of consciousness, case study, historical verification