Published on Psychology Today
October is here, which means soon we’ll start to see houses and storefronts decorated with pumpkins, ghosts, and witches in preparation for Halloween. You might think that Halloween is mostly a modern holiday, but it turns out its roots go back over a thousand years. It originated from a Celtic festival that was documented for the first time in about the 9th century. During that time, November 1 marked the new year, and on the night before, they celebrated Samhain—a day where they believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred for just one day. As a result, the Celts traditionally wore costumes on October 31 to ward off any spirits that might have crossed over into our world.
This might sound like an old wives tale to you, but it turns out that a lot of people—most in fact—all over the world believe in the existence of some kind of afterlife, and a quarter of people in some countries (and up to 50% in others) believe in reincarnation (Moraes et al., 2021). In fact, people have claimed that there is evidence for reincarnation in some of the creepy things that children say. And more specifically, what children claim to remember about their “past lives.”
Dr. Ian Stevenson—a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Virginia—has been investigating evidence for past-life memories in children from all over the world, including cases documented in the US, Africa, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Europe. Altogether, over 2500 of these cases have been investigated worldwide. Stevenson found that children who experience memories of a past life start talking about it around the age 3, and they stop reporting these memories (or talking about them altogether) by the age of 7 or 8. There are a few creepy things about these “memories.” First, about 75% of children that recall these memories can cite details about their deaths, many of which are unnatural or untimely. Second, many of these children even have birth marks or birth defects that match the location of the (often fatal) wounds from their “previous lives.” On top of that, 20% of these children say they have memories of their time “between lives,” where they might have attended their own funerals or attended other family events from the grave (Tucker 2008).
It sounds a bit far-fetched, I know, but some of these stories are quite compelling. For instance, take the story of Chanai Choomalaiwong, a boy from Thailand. “When he was three years old, he began saying that he had been a teacher named Bua Kai who had been shot and killed one day as he rode his bicycle to school. He begged to be taken to his parents, that is, Bua Kai’s parents, and he named the village where he said they lived. Eventually, he and his grandmother took a bus that stopped in a town near that village. His grandmother reported that after they got off the bus, Chanai led her to a house where an older couple lived. Chanai appeared to recognize the couple, who were the parents of Bua Kai Lawnak, a teacher who had been shot and killed on the way to school five years before Chanai was born. No autopsy report was available for Bua Kai Lawnak, so Stevenson interviewed witnesses who saw the body. His widow reported that the doctor involved in the case said that her husband had been shot from behind, because the small, round wound on the back of his head was a typical entry wound, whereas the larger, more irregularly shaped wound on his forehead was typical of an exit wound. Chanai was born with two birthmarks, a small, round birthmark on the back of his head, and a larger, more irregularly shaped one toward the front,” (Tucker, 2008, page 245).
Creepy, I know. And incredibly convincing. But there are alternative explanations to account for why children have these “memories.” First, these kids aren’t crazy; researchers checked, and these kids in general are highly intelligent with no behavioral problems (Tucker et al., 2014). On the contrary, fantasy in general is a normal and healthy part of child development. In fact, children spend a large amount of time pretending, especially between the ages of 3 and 8. They (at least in Western industrialized countries) are also constantly exposed to media including books, television shows, and movies where animals can talk, people can fly, and objects magically appear out of thin air. That doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t tell fantasy from reality; they are just open to more fantastical ideas. One study, for example, showed that while 4 to 6-year-old children can easily tell you that a cup is real and a monster is imaginary, they aren’t always sure whether things they imagine could become real (Harris et al., 1991).
This could be one explanation for why children’s memories of past lives disappear by age 7 or 8—this is when children are better able to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It could also be that children who believe in reincarnation are encouraged to live these fantasies by the people around them. Indeed, reports of children who claim to recall past lives are most common in countries where belief in reincarnation is also common (Tucker 2008). However, it could also be the case that parents in other countries who don’t believe in reincarnation are more likely to ignore these statements or refrain from reporting them. We of course don’t know for sure. And since there is no way to prove or disprove the existence of life after death, science can only take us so far.
So, whether or not you believe in ghosts, goblins, or life after death, it might be worth listening to your kids’ fantastical stories this holiday season—they might actually be a piece of history!
Photo by Pietro Izzo/Flickr
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Harris, P. L., Brown, E., Marriott, C., Whittall, S., & Harmer, S. (1991). Monsters, ghosts and witches: Testing the limits of the fantasy—reality distinction in young children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9(1), 105-123.
Lane, J. D., & Harris, P. L. (2014). Confronting, representing, and believing counterintuitive concepts: Navigating the natural and the supernatural. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(2), 144-160.
Moraes, L. J., Barbosa, G. S., Castro, J. P. G., Tucker, J. B., & Moreira-Almeida, A. (2021). Academic studies on claimed past-life memories: A scoping review. EXPLORE.
Tucker, J. B. (2008). Children's reports of past-life memories: a review. Explore, 4(4), 244-248.
Tucker, J. B., & Nidiffer, F. D. (2014). Psychological evaluation of American children who report memories of previous lives. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 28(4), 583-594.