The following originally appeared in Explore Journal.
After your death you will be what you were before your birth. [i] — Arthur Schopenhauer
Birthmarks are common, occurring in up to 80 percent of infants.[ii] Many fade with time, while others persist. Parents in Western cultures often refer to them as angel kisses, stork bites, or other cute terms that are intended to diminish the concern of the affected child.
There is widespread gender bias about the origins of birthmarks. In many parts of the world, they are believed related to the thoughts and actions of the mother. They are called voglie in Italian, antojos in Spanish, and wiham in Arabic, all of which translate to “wishes,” because of the assumption that birthmarks are caused by unsatisfied wishes of the mother during pregnancy. For example, if a pregnant woman does not satisfy a sudden wish or craving for strawberries, it is said that the infant may bear a strawberry birthmark; if she desires wine and does not satisfy the wish, a port-wine stain birthmark may result; if the desire for coffee is not satisfied, café au lait spots my result.[iii] In Dutch, birthmarks are called moedervlekken, in Danish modermærke and in German Muttermal (mother-spots) because it was thought that an infant inherited the marks solely from the mother.2 In Iranian folklore, it is said that a birthmark appears when the pregnant mother touches a part of her body during a solar eclipse.2 Some beliefs hinge on “maternal impressions” — birthmarks and birth defects appearing when an expectant mother sees something strange or experiences profound emotional shock or fear.3
CHILDREN WHO REMEMBER PREVIOUS LIVES
Birth and death are not two different states, but they are different aspects of the same state. There is as little reason to deplore the one as there is to be pleased over the other.[iv] — Mahatma Gandhi
The late Ian Stevenson (1918-2007), who was Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Personality Studies at the Health Sciences Center, University of Virginia, investigated thousands of children who, about the age of two, begin making comments suggesting a previous life.[v] In many of these cases, birthmarks and physical deformities in the child correlated with events in the alleged former life. For instance, malformed fingers corresponded to the amputation of fingers from a sword in a remembered lifetime; a birthmark corresponded to the entry and exit wounds of bullets in the remembered personality; congenital constriction rings in the legs of an individual mirrored being bound by ropes in a previous existence; the congenital absence of the lower leg corresponded to an accidental amputation of the leg in the previous personality; various birthmarks corresponded to burns, knife wounds, and various other traumas occurring in the life of the remembered individual.
In addition to memories, birth defects, and birthmarks, Stevenson believed specific behaviors might be carried over from life to life. For example, he found that children often experience phobias consistent with the mode of death of the remembered personality. A child remembering a life that ended in drowning might be afraid of being immersed in water. One who recalls a life terminated by a shooting might demonstrate a phobia for guns and loud noises. If death involved an auto accident, the child might be phobic of cars, buses, and trucks. These phobias often begin before the child can speak, and there may be no obvious factor in the family that might explain them.
Philias also occur. These may take the form of a desire for particular foods not eaten in the subject’s family or for clothes that are entirely different from whose worn by family members. For example, there might be craving for tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs the previous personality was known to use, although they are tabooed in the current family.
Some subjects show skills they have not been taught or have not witnessed, which the remembered personality was known to possess.
If reincarnation is a useful biological idea it is certain that somewhere in the universe it will happen. [vi] — Kary Mullis, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1993
Stevenson coined the term “experimental birthmark” to describe a custom found in several countries in Asia. In this practice, the body of a dying or recently deceased person is marked with a substance, most often soot, in the belief that if the individual is reborn the infant’s body will bear a birthmark corresponding to the placement of the mark on the deceased — a death mark becoming a birthmark. The mark on the body serves as a kind of bar code confirming identity through time. Stevenson found that this custom was widespread in Asia, particularly in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). In the 1990s, he reported 20 such cases.5, [vii]
Psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker, who now occupies Stevenson’s position at the University of Virginia, and psychologist H. H. Jurgen Keil, of the University of Tasmania, have reopened this line of research. In 2013 they reported 18 cases of experimental birthmarks — 13 in northeastern Thailand and five in Myanmar.[viii]
I started out really young, when I was four, five, six, writing poems, before I could play an instrument. I was writing about things when I was eight or 10 years old that I hadn’t lived long enough to experience. That’s why I also believe in reincarnation, that we were put here with ideas to pass around. [ix] — Willie Nelson
Let’s take a look at examples from the seminal paper on experimental birthmarks by Tucker and Keil.
Five years after her maternal grandfather died at age 59, Ning (not her real name), a girl, was born with an unusual birthmark in Loei province in Thailand. The birthmark carried special significance in Ning’s family. At the time of her grandfather’s death, one of his daughters decided to mark his body about two hours after he had expired in order to determine if rebirth occurred. She scraped soot from the bottom of a rice pot with her index finger and made a black mark above the deceased man’s right lateral ankle.
The daughter doing the marking, Ning’s aunt, made a mental wish that her father would take the mark with him should he be reborn, as a sign he had been reincarnated. Following her father’s death, Ning’s mother, a sister of the woman who marked the body, dreamed more than ten times about him shortly after he died. In the first dream he told her that he wanted to live with her family again.
Ning’s birthmark was a flat, hyperpigmented nevus on her outer right lower leg. It was in good agreement with the location of the mark her aunt made on her grandfather’s body.
Had the grandfather reincarnated as Ning, or was the correspondence of the marks a coincidence? Gender crossovers at rebirth are considered common in cultures that believe in reincarnation. Sometimes the ostensible reincarnated individual will speak of a former life as the deceased person, but Ning said very little that could be construed as a previous existence. One possible link, however, was that she vigorously opposed her mother’s interest in gambling; the grandfather had also criticized his daughter’s gambling habit. Another behavior of interest was that Ning stood while urinating approximately half of the time. Other cases have been reported in which girls who urinate while standing up claim to remember previous lives as males.[xviii]
Another case reported by Tucker and Keil involves not one but two experimental birthmarks. Mya (not her real name), a girl, was born outside of Yangon, Myanmar, and raised by her maternal aunt and her husband. Her maternal grandmother had died of kidney disease at 68, nine years before Mya was born. About 2 hours after she died, her daughter, Mya’s aunt, made two marks on her body with soot — one on the lateral surface of the left leg just proximal to the ankle, the other on the medial surface of the right leg on and distal to the ankle.
Before Mya’s mother became pregnant with her, she dreamed three times that her mother said she wanted to come live with her. Mya’s mother initially said no, but the grandmother became more insistent and her mother eventually said, “As you wish.” She became pregnant one month later. When Mya was born, she had birthmarks corresponding to the two marks made by her aunt on her grandmother’s body. She had no other birthmarks, and neither did her two brothers.
At about 18 months of age, she began speaking about a variety of personal idiosyncrasies, habits, and events suggesting her deceased grandmother. Among these was one habit of particular interest to her family. She would eat with one leg hiked up in her chair. She and her grandmother were the only two in the family to do that. This, and a variety of additional memories she could seemingly not have invented, as well as the two birthmarks, convinced the mother and other family members that Mya was the reincarnation of her grandmother.
PROBLEMS WITH CONVENTIONAL EXPLANATIONS
A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me.[x] — Kahlil Gibran
Only 30 to 50 percent of birth defects can currently be explained by genetic abnormalities, teratogens such as thalidomide and alcohol, and infections such as rubella.[xi] This leaves 50 to 70 percent in the “cause unknown” category. Moreover, geneticists can’t tell us why one fetus and not another is affected, nor why a birth defect takes a particular form, nor why a birthmark occurs at a particular place. In contrast, reincarnation, if real, provides a reason why a particular defect or birthmark occurs in one individual and not another, where it occurs on the body, and the shape it takes.
Genes, in Stevenson’s view, are being asked to explain far more than they are capable of. They provide instructions for the production of proteins, yet they give us almost no knowledge about how proteins and other metabolites become organized into cells and the complex organs that make up our bodies. These limitations are not widely admitted. As Stevenson says, “Some geneticists are not modest in assuring us that they will in due course supply all the information we need to understand embryology and morphology. This amounts to a promissory note with no immediate cash value, and in the meantime we are free to consider the possibility of other contributory factors,”[xii] such as reincarnation.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as a plant and rose to animal,
I died as an animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?[xiii]
— Rumi, 13th century Persia
What difference would it make if reincarnation were accepted? The most important consequence, Stevenson believes, would be the recognition of the duality of mind and body. “We cannot imagine reincarnation without the corollary belief that minds are associated with bodies during our familiar life, but are also independent of bodies to the extent of being fully separable from them and surviving the death of their associated body [and at some later time becoming associated with another body]”[xiv]
In saying this, Stevenson declares himself a proponent of interactional dualism, an idea that has an ancient history. Two of its most lustrous recent proponents were William James, the father of American psychology, and the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher Henri Bergson. The main idea of interactional dualism is that the brain and consciousness interact, but are not the same. The brain processes sensory stimuli and affects the content of consciousness, but it does not “make” consciousness, contrary to assumption of most neuroscientists. How mind and brain actually interface with one another remains a mystery and “is part of the agenda for future research; but that is equally true of the claims confidently made by many neuroscientists who assert that minds are reducible to brain activity.”[xxiv]
If dualism is accepted as a requirement for reincarnation, where do minds exist while waiting to take on another terrestrial existence? “I believe that we are obliged to imagine a mental space that, necessarily, differs from the physical space with which we are ordinarily familiar,” Stevenson states. “I think that introspection can show that our thoughts occupy a mental space distinguishable from physical space, even while we are alive….[This] mental space where discarnate personalities might exist … has already been … described in considerable detail by several philosophers familiar with the evidence of the phenomena now called paranormal.” Stevenson believes that thoughts and mental images might abound in this space, and some might be reincarnated. These diathanatic (“carried through death”) qualities might include cognitive information about the events of a previous life, a variety of likes and dislikes, and, in some cases, residues of physical injuries or other markings of the previous body. The intermediate vehicle carrying these qualities he designates as the psychophore, meaning “mind-carrying.”[xv]
The information that is carried over, however, does not come through in its original detail but is much attenuated. This is true not just of thoughts but of physical phenomena as well. Thus, “The baby’s body shows marks or defects at the sites of these [previous] wounds, but not the wounds themselves (except for occasional minor bleeding or oozing of fluid).”[xvi] Birthmarks and birth defects are therefore not exact reproductions of bleeding wounds, but can be considered “mental scars” of such wounds affecting the previous body.
IN SEARCH OF MECHANISM
Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.13 ― Rumi, 13th century Persia
How might experimental birthmarks — a dab of soot on a corpse — be transferred from a deceased individual to a newborn?
The concept of maternal impressions or maternal suggestion is often offered as an explanation. It relies on the mother as intermediary: she sees the experimental birthmark, which makes an impression in her mind, and this is somehow transferred to the developing fetus. Some suggest that this process may be similar to that of hypnotic suggestion, in which highly hypnotizable subjects can develop blisters, stigmata, or other specific and localized skin reactions. Although these hypnotic phenomena are well known, the mechanism underlying them is obscure. As Tucker and Keil state, “As for experimental birthmarks, the question of how the suggestion of a birthmark in a mother’s mind would be transmitted to the skin of the fetus remains unanswered, but so does the question of how a suggested injury is transmitted to the skin of a hypnotized subject.” In other words, there is plenty of ignorance to go around; it isn’t limited to the possibility of maternal impressions. For Tucker and Keil, maternal impressions are not inconceivable. They say, “While the psychosomatic mechanism for such a process remains unexplained, we now know, of course, that some substances can cross the placenta, and we have evidence that at least in a general way a mother’s emotional state can affect the fetus.”[xvii], [xviii], [xix]
But even if maternal impressions are transferrable to a fetus, this could not explain all the 18 cases of experimental birthmarks reported by Tucker and Keil, because mothers actually saw the experimental birthmark in only five of the eighteen cases. The mother heard, or may have heard, of the markings in eight others, but in at least two of these they did not know the site of the markings. In at least five cases the mother did not even know the deceased had been marked.8
What are other possible explanations? Tucker and Keil suggest that experimental birthmarks may represent “a phenomenon of consciousness.” They consider two types. In one, the prayers, wishes, or intentions of the mourning family might exert physical effects in the fetus, causing the development of a birthmark in the newborn that corresponds to the marking of the deceased. The ability of intentions to alter physiological processes in others has been demonstrated in many studies in both humans and nonhumans.[xx], [xxi], [xxii] And, these authors note, there are “more than 800 experiments in the parapsychological literature suggesting that consciousness can affect random physical systems.”[xxiii] Even so, we are still groping for an explanation. Tucker and Keil: “Even these provide little basis for the idea that a prayer at a funeral could influence the fetal development of a child born months or years later, but they suggest the possibility should not be rejected out of hand.”[xxiii]
“The second consciousness-related possibility,” say Tucker and Keil, “involves what the villagers believe: that there is a continuation of the consciousness of the deceased individual in the child born with the birthmark. While this possibility may be the most speculative, it should be noted that Stevenson collected more than 2500 cases of children who appear to remember previous lives5 and more than 200 cases of children with birthmarks that correspond to wounds or other marks on the body of the identified previous personality.7 Taken in that context, the six cases in our series in which the child made statements related to the life of the deceased individual indicate that this explanation warrants consideration…. Whether these cases represent a psychosomatic phenomenon, a consciousness-mediated one, or some other process, they at least deserve more study.”[xxiii]
THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION
He had a thousand-year-old stare.[xxiv] — Louise Erdrich, The Antelope Wife
The question of the survival of bodily death deserves our sincerest consideration. As Stevenson observed, “It has been wisely said that the question of a life after death is the most important one that a scientist — or anyone — can ask.”16 And to critics who tiresomely screech that this question should be ignored because we can never know the answer for sure, Stevenson said, ““I believe it is better to learn what is probable about important matters than to be certain about trivial ones.”[xxv]
For millennia, the primary evidence favoring the survival of bodily death, which involves the extension of consciousness in space and time, was anecdotal. In our era, however, the tools with which we have objectively explored this possibility are formidable. These techniques make it possible to buttress experience with experiment. As a result, several lines of evidence now reveal a dimension of consciousness that is nonlocal with respect to space and time, as I have described in One Mind: How Our Individual Mind Is Part of a Greater Consciousness and Why It Matters.[xxvi] Several areas of consciousness research, including remote viewing, ganzfeld studies, precognition/presentiment, and psychokinesis, have yielded positive results in hundreds of experiments demonstrating odds against chance in each of these areas of more than a billion against one.[xxvii]
To put it bluntly, we now know that minds can do things brains cannot do. Minds, these experiments tell us, are not bounded. They are not limited, confined, or localized to specific places in space such as brains and bodies, nor are they localized to specific moments in time such as the present. Minds behave as if they are spatially and temporally nonlocal, therefore infinite in space and time, because a limited nonlocality, we must always remind ourselves, is a contradiction in terms.
The image of consciousness that has arisen from these careful, copious, and replicated experiments is that nonlocal minds are temporally infinite, therefore eternal and immortal. While the evidence for nonlocal mind does not confirm or endorse any specific instance of reincarnation, it is cordial to the possibility because it demolishes the prohibitions that materialistic science has erected forbidding the survival of consciousness following physical death.
Humans throughout history have diligently sought to demonstrate reincarnation. One way, we’ve seen, is by marking a dying or deceased body with soot and observing whether the mark reappears on a subsequent newborn as a birthmark at the same location. If the “birthmarked” child begins to recall events in the “deathmarked” individual’s life that could not be known through normal means, the significance of this sequence of events increases. Although inconclusive, I admire this approach; it is simple, ingenious, noninvasive, and about as low budget as can be imagined. This ancient, sooty method deserves our respect, because it points in the same direction as modern research: the indestructibility of consciousness through time.
Voltaire observed, “It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.”[xxviii] He realized that the marvel is consciousness itself, not how many turns it makes on the wheel of life.
[i] Schopenhauer A. Quoted in: Searchquotes.com. http://www.searchquotes.com/search/Birth_Marks/. Accessed 2 April, 2014.
[iv] Gandhi M. Quoted in: Searchquotes.com. http://www.searchquotes.com/quotation/Birth_and_death_are_not_two_different_states,_but_they_are_different_aspects_of_the_same_state._Ther/11098/. Accessed 8 April, 2014.
[v] Stevenson I. Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation (Revised Edition). Jefferson, NC: McFarland; 2001.
[vi] Mullis K. Quoted in: Brainyquote.com. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/reincarnation.html. Accessed 2 April, 2014.
[vii] Stevenson I. Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Westport, CT: Praeger; 1997.
[viii] Tucker JB, Keil HHJ. Experimental birthmarks: new cases of an Asian practice. Journal of Scientific Exploration. 2013; 27(2):269-282.
[ix] Nelson W. Quoted in: Brainyquote.com. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/reincarnation.html. Accessed 2 April, 2014.
[x] Gibran K. Quoted in: Goodreads.com. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/reincarnation . Accessed 2 April 2014.
[xi] Stevenson I. Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Westport, CT: Praeger; 1997: 3.
[xii] Stevenson I. Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Westport, CT: Praeger; 1997: 180.
[xiv] Stevenson I. Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Westport, CT: Praeger; 1997: 181.
[xv] Stevenson I. Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Westport, CT: Praeger; 1997: 181-3.
[xvi] Stevenson I. Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. Westport, CT: Praeger; 1997: 182.
[xvii] Tucker JB, Keil HHJ. Experimental birthmarks: new cases of an Asian practice. Journal of Scientific Exploration. 2013; 27(2):280.
[xviii] Glover V. Maternal stress or anxiety in pregnancy and emotional development of the child. British Journal of Psychiatry. 1997; 171: 105-106.
[xix] Lou HC, Hansen D, Nordentoft M, Pryds O, Jensen F, Nim J, Hemmingsen R. Prenatal stressors of human life affect fetal brain development. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. 1994; 36: 826-32.
[xx] Dossey L. Reinventing Medicine. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco; 1999: 37-84.
[xxi] Dossey L. Healing research: What we know and don’t know. Explore (NY). 2008; 4(5): 341-352.
[xxii] Braud W, Schlitz M. A methodology for the objective study of transpersonal imagery. Journal of Scientific Exploration. 1989; 3(1), 43-63.
[xxiii] Radin DI, Nelson RD. Evidence for consciousness-related anomalies in random physical systems. Foundations of Physics. 1989;19: 1499-1514.
[xxiv] Erdrich L. Quoted in: Goodreads.com. http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/776379-the-antelope-wife. Accessed 2 April, 2014.
[xxv] Stevenson I. Quoted in: Michael Schmicker, Best Evidence. New York, NY: Writers Club Press; 2000: 223
[xxvi] Dossey L. One Mind: How Our Individual Mind Is Part of a Greater Consciousness and Why It Matters. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House; 2013.
[xxvii] Schwartz SA. Crossing the threshold: nonlocal consciousness and the burden of proof. Explore (NY). 2013; 9 (2): 77-81.
[xxviii] Voltaire. La princesse de babylone. In Romans et Contes. Paris; Editions Garnier Frères; 1960: 366.
Image by S Pallavicini, courtesy of Creative Commons license.