Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Some psychotherapists do too.
I recently got an e-mail from a PR firm about an “internationally certified regression therapist,” Ann Barham, who has written a book and who claims to help patients to “heal enduring challenges, release unhealthy patterns and beliefs, and find their way to more happiness and success.” They offered me the opportunity to review her book and/or interview her; I declined, but I was interested in learning more about past life regression therapy, so I elected to “interview Dr. Google” instead.
In past life regression therapy, therapists use hypnosis, leading questions, and strong suggestions to encourage patients to imagine that reincarnation is real and to imagine their past lives. Events and people from past lives are blamed for symptoms and problems in the patient’s current life. Finding a past life cause for current problems supposedly helps patients deal with them. The technique is also used in healthy people to promote spiritual advancement and self-understanding. There is no such thing as reincarnation, and the memories of past lives are nothing but fantasy.
What is a certified regression therapist?
You can certify almost anything; there are even certified psychics and certified dowsers. I learned that there is an organization that certifies regression therapists, the International Board for Regression Therapy. Their website says regression therapy focuses upon the discovery of the origins of a client’s problem and accepts the theory that present life issues or problems may have their origin in past lives, real or symbolic. They list only 63 certified therapists, located in the US, UK, Canada, Greece, Corfu, The Netherlands, and Turkey. Almost a quarter of them, 15, are in California. (Of course, there are many more regression therapists who have not been certified.) They list training opportunities in 10 countries, including India and Romania. The accreditation requirements include 40 hours of basic instruction in the induction and use of altered states, 15 hours of classroom instruction in past life therapy, and a significant supervised practicum. Certification for three years costs $265.
Are past lives real?
Reincarnation is a philosophical concept based on the idea of a personal essence that is non-material and that survives death to be eventually re-incarnated in another body. That essence is sometimes referred to as the “soul.” Reincarnation is a central belief of many religions, and a substantial minority of Americans and Europeans believe in it (estimates from various countries range from 12% to 44%). Our modern knowledge of basic science and brain science has effectively ruled out the possibility of reincarnation, and believers have never been able to produce any credible evidence that it has ever occurred.
You may remember Bridey Murphy, a Virginia housewife who became famous in the 1950s for her memories (recovered under hypnosis) of a past life as a 19th century Irish woman. Investigators found no records that matched her claims and were able to show that her alleged past life memories were fantasies built around real childhood memories of an Irish neighbor.
Believers cite the past life research of Dr. Ian Stevenson, who collected cases from all over the world. He interviewed children under the age of six who allegedly remembered details of a previous life. Skeptics have analyzed his reports and found them unconvincing, either explainable by more mundane ways the children could have obtained their knowledge or not properly verified by unbiased fact checking. Robert Carroll of The Skeptic’s Dictionary said:
I have to agree with Stevenson’s own assessment of his work: he’s provided evidence, but no compelling evidence for reincarnation. I see no way to move forward using his methods or his data, so I see his work as a colossal waste of time. On the positive side, however, I agree with him that past life regressive therapy, which uses hypnosis, is rife with methodological problems, not the least of which is the problem with suggestion contaminating any evidence that might be uncovered for a past life.
Does it matter whether they are real?
The past life “memories” are evoked by hypnosis and strong suggestions by the therapist. Essentially, the patient is encouraged to tell a story. It doesn’t seem to matter to the therapists whether the story is fiction or nonfiction. A writer on the IBRT website says, “only the person can decide whether they are real or not. It is a very subjective thing.” For example, the scene might be one where the client finds his past personality falling off a cliff. In such a case, whether it happened or not makes no difference because the purpose of this regression happens to be one where the client needs help with the emotion of fear of heights.
In a doctoral dissertation, Rabia Clark found that clients’ and therapists’ belief or absence of belief in reincarnation has no impact on the outcome of the therapy.
Similarities with other psychotherapies
I see similarities between past life regression and many other psychotherapy methods. There was the recovered memory therapy that harmed so many patients and their families by creating false memories of childhood sexual abuse. Similar false memories of Satanic ritual abuse put innocent people in jail. Freud postulated childhood traumas as the cause of adult neuroses, and many psychotherapists still spend a lot of time delving into memories of childhood experiences to explain the origins of adult problems. Dream analysis and free association dredge up fodder for inventive interpretation by the therapist. Methods like eye movement desensitization and reprogramming (EMDR), re-birthing, neurolinguistic programming (NLP), psychodrama, emotional freedom technique (EFT), primal therapy, narrative therapy, and chess therapy (yes, that’s a real thing) also provided “hooks” that were not effective in themselves but served to engage patients in the therapeutic process.
Therapy for multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) is another condition where therapists have used suggestion and hypnosis to encourage patients to imagine themselves as other people. They have invented “alters” that may have a different sex, age, and personality; alters have sometimes numbered in the hundreds or even thousands and have even included animals and inanimate objects (lobsters, trees, machines). Therapist and client become enmeshed in a folie à deux delusion and eventually imagine they are integrating all those alters into one to effect a cure.
Is it effective?
Regression therapists tell many success stories, and that is not at all surprising. Like many other gimmicks, past life regression can encourage patients to recognize problems in their lives, build a narrative that seems to make sense to them, and then hopefully move on to make changes in their lives. Just getting personal attention from a trusted, sympathetic person over several sessions can be helpful. Imagining former lives might help patients boost their egos and feel better about themselves (I used to be a princess!). It might allow them to create a satisfying explanation for the problems that brought them to the therapist and allow them to shift the blame from themselves to something that happened in a previous life. And it certainly is a way of getting patients to work with a therapist. Is it effective? We don’t know. There are no good studies. Is it a valid alternative to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)? We don’t know; no comparison studies have been done.
Could it be harmful?
Even if it seems to help some patients, it is known to have harmed others.
The recovered memories can be very frightening. They can cause anxiety: one inquirer on the IBRT website was worried that he would become stuck in a memory and turn into a different person. Memories fabricated under hypnosis can seem more real than true memories, and it can be difficult or impossible for patients to accept that they are not true, even when presented with clear evidence that the events could not possibly have occurred. Various other kinds of harm have been documented.
The Israeli Health Ministry told hypnotists to refrain from helping patients explore past lives after receiving complaints from clients who said they had sustained serious emotional damage. One patient reported that he “became emotionally stuck in an experience which made him feel as though he was enclosed in a coffin. He began to gasp for breath. After the session the man suffered repeated panic attacks and respiratory problems, and he was referred for medical and psychiatric care.”
One past life regression therapist, Dr. Rakesh Jain, has reported that “In some subjects, hypnosis and past life regression can result in side effects which can range from mild to severe one and be temporary or durable.” He describes several incidents, including development of new physical symptoms, a patient who attacked the therapist during a session, and a patient who identified past enemies and announced that he would be taking revenge on them in this life. One female patient recalled five past lives as a male and became so afraid that she wouldn’t come out of the trance. He points out that reducing pain through hypnotherapy without identifying the cause of the pain could harm the patient. He cautions that abreactions might harm cardiac patients by causing elevations of heart rate and BP and might cause further tissue damage in patients with wounds or fractures. He cites research that documents 50 complications from hypnosis, including psychotic symptoms, panic attacks, depression with suicidal behavior, symptoms resulting from inadvertent suggestions, symptom substitution, masking physical pathology, etc.
Fantasy vs. reality
There is a real world out there. Reality is not subjective. There is no such thing as reincarnation. If you have imagined a previous life, that doesn’t make it true, no matter how true it may seem to you or how useful you think it is for giving you true insights. Daydreaming is fun, as is imagining what it would be like to be another person or to have lived in a previous era. That’s why we enjoy reading fiction and historical fiction. But in my opinion reality trumps fantasy for coping with the real world. There is no evidence that past life regression therapy offers anything that reality-based therapies like CBT don’t offer, and we do know it can harm patients. I agree with the Israeli Health Ministry’s rejection of it. I’m in favor of psychotherapies that don’t speculate about the origin of psychological problems but instead emphasize methods of coping and moving forward
This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.