29 March 2009

"Old Souls" by Tom Shroder

Reincarnation is, undoubtedly, one of the most enduring themes in human history, traversing cultures and religions. It has been, in the wider sense, an expression of faith, hope and, ultimately, deep fear in front of the great unknown death still represents. Is there anything else beyond? That’s surely a question that has bothered every single man and woman at some point in their lives. Theories are abundant regarding to what happens after we leave our mortal coils, but the need for scientific evidence has inevitably been thwarted by the unquantifiable nature of the soul. People claiming to remember past lives aren’t hard to find but, as westerners, we have been taught to scoff at most of such cases. A feeling fueled by media appearances of egomaniacs or plainly mentally ill individuals who supposedly were Napoleon or Marie Antoinette in a previous life.

More recently, the emergence of New Age ideals that drink from the religious lore of the far-east has once again boosted the public interest in reincarnation. The intersection of such mythologies with the “tools” of modern age psychology and psychiatry produced an all new perspective expressed in both popular and academic works. It’s no surprise that the works of authors such as Brian Weiss became instant best-sellers, fitting perfectly into the new trend and, simultaneously, filling the empty space left by a progressive disenchantment with Christian tradition. “Old Souls” actually starts off amidst this environment, with its skeptical author exploring the meanders of such resurgence.

Past life events recovered through hypnotic regression cause controversy not only because of the supposed memories of the subjects, but mainly due to the doubts involving the process itself. Hypnosis, a long cherished method of psychoanalysis, became a fulcrum of contention for the results obtained aren’t absolutely truthful, resulting of an intersection of real facts and memories with the patient’s imagination and the therapist’s own expectations, both seeping through and often tampering with the truth. Looking beyond these widely popularized and questionable tales of reincarnation, Tom Shroder found the works of Dr. Ian Stevenson, psychiatrist and former director of the Division of Personality Studies in the University of Virginia.

His books and articles, virtually unknown outside the world of academia, took a different perspective on the prospect of reincarnation and the survival of the soul after death. After almost 40 years of thorough field research in various countries of Asia and America, he gathered hundreds of fascinating stories of children who naturally recounted past lives without the use of hypnosis. The serious and utterly scientific approach to the reported situations captivated the author’s interest, further catalyzed by the peer reviews published about Stevenson’s work. Tom Shroder was astounded to notice that other scientists had put forward the possibility of reincarnation in face of the present body of evidence, with some even suggesting other psi phenomena like extrasensory perception (ESP) to explain the acquisition of virtually unattainable knowledge by small children, some as soon as they began to speak. The facts were so powerful that many had difficulties to find a rational explanation based on the present state of science.

Shroder managed to convince Ian Stevenson and accompanied him on one of his last field trips to Lebanon and India. “Old Souls” is the fascinating account of that journey across of the often sordid environment of those two countries, from the war torn streets of Beirut to the overcrowded lanes of Delhi. Through its lines we can feel the difficulties and, sometimes, the perils inherent to the painstaking cataloguing of cases and their mandatory follow up. Away from the comfort of the laboratory, we discover a figure of great persistence, a man that after decades of investigative work still has the drive to face long car trips to remote villages, often just to add a few details to his files. As a man of science, Stevenson knew how hard is to venture into the unexplored areas of human knowledge and that strong proof is of the utmost importance. This book is, in itself, a powerful testament to his work and resilience.

Either among the Druze people (a religious community that emerged from the Islamic religion’s stem incorporating, among many other concepts, that of reincarnation) in Lebanon, or the Hindus in India, we come upon stories of now adult men and women whose childhood was marked, from a very early stage, by the remembrance of a different life and frequently a tragic death. Lives of common people, not prominent historical figures, just regular citizens whose existence was untimely terminated. Sometimes the outstanding tales of the children, containing many details of the previous life (names, accurate description of places and objects and the remembrance of very personal events and conversations) are further attested by birthmarks in their bodies (for example, a child whose previous personality was killed with a shot in the chest exhibits a spot where the skin has a different color or even a peculiar texture). The selection of cases is exhaustive and includes interviews with the children, their families and also the past life’s kindred.

It’s best not to dwelve into the specifics of each case mentioned on “Old Souls”, for they are quite detailed and any short description does justice neither to the subjects, nor to Stevenson’s work. Tom Shroder must be lauded for his ability to transport the reader to the physical and human landscape of distant places, candidly revealing his evolution from disbelief towards serious hypothesing of the reality of this phenomenon, without ever losing his rational, journalistic mind. Believers and skeptics will find intelligent material to ponder about, but don't expect to find definitive answers. Reincarnation is far from being a proven fact, but this volume reminds us that in face of extraordinary facts we must, at least, put aside our preconceptions and allow brave men like Ian Stevenson to do their work without spurious interferences. His legacy is very much alive among fellow scientists and simple admirers, for time will certainly remember those unremittingly researched case files as a pioneering influence on the study of reincarnation and the paranormal as a whole.

More information on “Old Souls” can be found on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Souls) as well as about Dr. Ian Stevenson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Stevenson). The webpage of the University of Virginia’s Division of Personality Studies, a department founded by Stevenson in 1967, is also recommended (http://www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/internet/personalitystudies/).


  1. Well this one changed my perspective of how reincarnation is being handled today. I had no idea that scientists were still after this subject since most of us seem to have discarded the notion that it could ever happen in our physical world.

    I hope there's at least one copy left down at the library. I'd hate to miss this one. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    "Old Souls" is quite easy to find in online Bookstores (Amazon, Abebooks, etc). That's not the case with Dr. Ian Stevenson's books, for they are published in a much smaller scale and, if you find them, the prices are simply too high for the casual reader (though I'm planning to buy some of them). That's one of the reasons why Tom Shroder's book is so good, for he manages to present in a very straightforward manner the current state of reincarnation research and, at the same time, pays a sincere hommage to Stevenson's life and work.

  3. I just finished "Old Souls" and I am wondering about what little Robert said at the end of the book? His Mother said "Was that lady familiar to you, honey?"
    "Yes," Robert replied. He looked up at her and said "Why is that, MOM?"
    I am wondering, what did he mean?


  4. From my own point of view I think that question (Why is that Mom?)summarizes the whole book, because we are presented with a compelling collection of evidence that suggests the possibility of reincarnation. Nevertheless, that's a possibility among others and since we adults find it so difficult to cope with the prospect of immortality of some kind (as implied by reincarnation) it becomes nearly impossible to explain this to a child. Curiously enough, Robert posed an interrogation that is both innocent and profound. I guess that's why Shroder chose it as a great closing for his book.