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In this article, an attempt is made to explain the so-called Cases of the Reincarnation Type (CORTs), studied by researchers all over the world. The author stresses in general that a good scholarly interpretation is both parsimonious and exhaustive. Thus, although many cases can be explained by normal processes such as self-deception and fantasy, some of them definitely need a parapsychological explanation. Similarly, although ESP appears to be a more parsimonious hypothesis, it doesn't satisfactorily explain those cases that defy normal hypotheses. In contrast, reincarnation does fulfill both conditions. Finally, the author mentions some topics for further research, which go beyond a mere demonstration of reincarnation.
In 1926 an Indian girl named Shanti Devi was born in Delhi. From about her third year onwards, she purported to remember details of a previous life in the town of Muttra (Mathura), about 130 km from the place where she was born. She stated that she was called Lugdi, that she had been born in 1902, that she belonged to the Chobar-caste and that she had been married to a textile merchant, called Kedar Nath Chaubey. Moreover, she said that she had given birth to a son and had died ten days later. Only when Shanti Devi had become nine years old, her family started an investigation to see whether there had really been a man by that name in Muttra. A man named like that was found and he wrote them a letter in which he confirmed the girl's statements. Subsequently, he sent a relative of his to the girl's home and while this person was visiting the family, Kedar Nath Chaubey also dropped in unexpectedly. At this occasion, Shanti Devi recognized both persons. Then, the possibility was tested if the girl could have been in Muttra in this life and could have learnt the data from someone who lived there. This turned out not to be the case, because she had never left Delhi.
In 1936 a committee was set up to attend a visit by the girl to Muttra, in order to register her possible recognition of people and places. During her visit to Muttra, it became apparent that Shanti Devi was not only capable of recognizing people, but that she could show the committee the way to Kedar Nath Chaubey's home as well. Furthermore, she also recognized this house, although it had been painted in another colour after Lugdi's death. Furthermore, she could answer correctly questions about the interior of the home, closets, etc. Also, she recognized Lugdi's parents out of a crowd of 50 people. Moreover, her statement that she had buried money somewhere was remarkable. When they dug at the spot in question, and they did not find anything, Kedar Nath Chaubey admitted that he had already found this money after his wife's death. Finally, it turned out that Shanti Devi had used expressions at an early age that were specific for the dialect of Muttra, which had impressed the witnesses. In sum, she had uttered at least 24 correct, specific statements about Lugdi's life (Stevenson, 1960; Van Praag, 1972).
The investigation into reincarnation as it is currently carried out in a scholarly responsible way, was for the first time brought to the attention of Western investigators by D
In this article I will look at the various explanations that are offered for cases of possible memories of previous lives. While doing so, I will especially take notice of the explanatory power of the Extra-Sensory Perception or ESP-hypothesis and to the question whether the ESP-hypothesis a priori always deserves preference.
Now it is my intention to look for the most parsimonious and at the same time exhaustive explanation of the results found. The facts that are mentioned in cases like the ones above, are being taken seriously by researchers. However, this does not mean that a researcher should believe everything that he or she is told. A reincarnation researcher tries to find out as accurately as possible if deception (either conscious or unconscious), self-deception, fantasy or extra-sensory perception is involved in a certain case. But also if and how the case history in question might demonstrate survival after death.
2.1. Deception and self-deception
Stevenson (1960; 1974; 1980; 1987) but also his Brazilian colleague Andrade (1979; 1980) for example, have extensively explored the possibility of deception. In the light of their research, we can conclude that conscious deception only occurs sporadically and then only in non-typical cases. This is also corroborated by my own research with Dutch subjects. One should realize that normally, a person cannot acquire a lot of fame, status or wealth by fabricating false memories of previous lives contrary to what outsiders usually are inclined to think. However, there are exceptions. An example of such a case is that of Nirmal Singh (pseudonym) in which Indian villagers lied to a Singhalese Buddhist monk about statements a child would have made about a life as the monk's cousin. The villagers did so, because they wanted to take advantage of the Buddhist monk's generosity. In the great majority of cases, fraud is not a plausible or even possible explanation; it would make necessary too great a conspiracy by people with opposite interests (Stevenson, 1960; 1980).
This does not apply to self-deception. In a relatively large number of cases of the reincarnation type (CORTs) of Dutch adults, this seems to be the origin of paramnesia. An illustration of this process can be found in my article about the retired technical engineer F.H. (Rivas, 1991).
F.H., a retired engineer, claimed he had found out that he had drowned as the infant Alfred Peacock in the disaster of the
One might still assume that the memories applied to another passenger of the Titanic, or to another ship disaster, but none of the other passengers matched his description, and F.H. himself said that it could only have been the Titanic. Thus, F.H. did not agree with the data I had found and claimed they contained all kinds of inaccuracies. Finally, he even went as far as to claim that he had become the victim of a conspiracy.
Apparently this case did not just involve self-deception, but also a stubborn persistance in it even after it had been empirically proved that his memories could not be real memories.
The sincere man stuck to his "memories" even in spite of these results and also to his "verification", and he just accused the researcher of being a part of a conspiratory gang that was chasing after him. One way or another this self-deception must have a meaning for the subject that made it impossible for him to face the truth. Stevenson holds that there must be a direct, specific reasons to assume that a specific case involves self-deception. However, I hold that the criterion we should take is that if the subject might benefit emotionally from his or her self-deception and is at the same time capable of acquiring all the relevant information, the case might in principle indeed be explained by self-deception. Thus, a whole category of cases becomes dubious: namely cases in which the subject's parents have been relatives or friends of the person the child claims to have been. It turns out to be the case that while mourning for a loved one, people can be inclined to deceive themselves (unconsciously) in the sense of thinking that the deceased person still dwells somehere in a physical object or has passed over to another person. Bowlby (1980) speaks in this context of "mislocation of the lost person's presence". For this reason, parents might sometimes name their children after deceased loved ones. Cain and Cain (1964) even mention in this respect that: "in a few stunning cases [of mislocation], parents even changed the living child's name to that of the dead child, while in other cases newly born children were given the dead child's exact name or his name slightly changed. The dead child's identity was further imposed upon the sibling by the parents' expectations and demands upon the replacement being based on the idealized image of the dead child. The children whom Cain and Cain themselves investigated, suffered from all kinds of disturbances, but they add that it is very well possible that such a child grows up without problems related to the replacement. Now, many CORTs seem in principle to be explainable on this basis.
Stevenson (1960) holds that such a mislocation hypothesis would not agree with the common traditional view among Hindus and Buddhists that children who remember previous lives would die young. But even then, the parents' subconscious desire to replace the dead relative or friend might still be stronger than the fear that results from this tradition.
A curious example of a CORT which may be explained as mislocation, which I investigated myself, involved the son of a Dutch self-made "psychic". This man had had a friend that had died under tragical circumstances and very prematurely. Now, this man claimed that his own son at the age of three had entered his parents' bedroom to tell about an emotional vision of the exact circumstances that led to the death of his father's friend. Closer investigations revealed that the boy (then 11 years old) was strongly influenced by his father's ideas, and could hardly remember anything of this purported event independently. To me this was enough reason to suppose that his father had made the whole story up subconsciously, because he showed a very rich "imagination" in most respects.
A following "normal" hypothesis one should consider, is (childish) imagination:.
Already in 1920, Ernest Jones described a specific kind of fantasy he terms "reversal of generations". According to this fantasy, older people become smaller all the time until they have become babies again.
Jones writes: "For example, a little boy whom I know, when about three and a half years old, often used to say to his mother with perfect seriousness of manner: 'When I am big, then you will be little; then I will carry you about and dress you and put you to sleep" (See also: Rivas & Rivas, 1987).
But how far can one extend this fantasy hypothesis to explain CORTs? If one sees that a very young child identifies with a negative past life without any clear reason to do so, and while one cannot reasonably hold that he or she might do that to abreact some current problem, fantasy can't be taken seriously as a plausible hypothesis any longer. Moreover, if in a CORT, the child possesses non-trivial information which he or she can't have acquired in any normal way, the plausibility of the fantasy hypothesis completely collapses. Most (though not all) hypnotic CORTs can in principle be explained by fantasy (Rivas, 1992a).
The boundary between self-deception and fantasy lies in the fact that in self-deception the subject knows or has known that the story to which he or she clings so desperately, does not correspond to the facts, whereas in the case of fantasy the whole process must take place unconsciously. We should realize however, that fantasy, just as self-deception can be accompanied by a process of pseudo-verification, in which the subjects are convinced they are verifying elements of their fantasy, while they are really consulting documents and other sources in a very inaccurate way, or while they mix new, historically accurate information with their original fantasy.
2.3. Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP)
One category of cases concerns the "paranormal" CORTs, i.e. cases wherein the subject seems to possess knowledge or skills which relate to the life of a deceased person and which the subject cannot have acquired through normal sensory channels.
In the case of skills, it is fairly easy to establish if the subject can have acquired them in his or her (present) life or not. An example of a CORT with paranormal skills, is that of Swarnlata Mishra who performed dances and songs that she could not have learnt in normal ways (Stevenson, 1974).
Paranormal knowledge on the other hand, may be present in many cases, but after so called verification by the subjects themselves, it is often harder to establish. The safest procedure in this respect is therefore to concentrate on those CORTs wherein investigators can show on the basis of documents, or because they themselves took part in the verification of the past life, what paranormal items the subject knew with certainty. If in such cases, with statements written down or tape-recorded before verification, "hits" prevail and those hits cannot, or only extremely improbably, be ascribed to mere coincidence, we can in my view safely speak of "paranormal information". Such CORTs do indeed exist, and their number seems to be increasing, because researchers more often manage to get involved in a case before verification. An example is, among other CORTs, the case of Imad Elawar (Stevenson, 1974).
The Druse boy Imad Elawar was born in 1958 in Kornayel (the Lebanon). Ian Stevenson reached Imad's family before the verification of his statements had taken place, and he was himself involved in this verification.
When Imad was about one and a half years old, he claimed among other things to come from Khriby and to be called Bouhamzy. He had a wife, called Jamileh. Jamileh was beautiful, she dressed well and she wore shoes with high heels. Bouhamzy had a "brother" (a very broad concept in this region) who was called Amin and worked in Tripoli at the Court. Near the time of his death they were building a new garden with cherry and apple trees. He owned a farm, a small yellow car and a truck.
All these memories turned out to correspond to the life of a certain Ibrahim Bouhamzy. who had lived in Khriby, and had been known as troubleshooter and womanizer. Jamileh had been his mistress. Ibrahim had died in 1949 at the age of 25 of tuberculosis, after having stayed in a sanatorium for one year. Imad could remember his life as Ibrahim Bouhamzy best when he was five and a half years old, after which some fading occurred in his memory.
Stevenson was able to establish of many statements that they concurred to the facts; these facts could not have reached Imad in a normal way. Especially convincing at this point is the fact that his own family thought Imad Elawar would have been another Bouhamzy, which completely excludes fraud and normal explanations.
Other examples are those of Jagdish Chandra (Stevenson, 1975), Bishen Chand Kapoor (Stevenson, 1975), Kumkum Verma (Stevenson, 1975), several cases from Sri Lanka (see for example: Stevenson & Samararatne, 1988) and a recent English case in a book by Peter and Mary Harrison (1983). Also, exceptional cases of hypnosis can undeniably possess paranormal information, the best example of which is the CORT of L.D. (Tarazi, 1990).
Now, this type of cases need a "paranormal" hypothesis, which here means a hypothesis wherein a causal factor is included that does not stem from common psychology or physics. The most parsimonious thing to do next is, as Van der Sijde (1992) rightly notes, to try to explain the paranormal CORTs through a ESP-hypothesis (compare: Tenhaeff, 1954; Chari, 1962; Wilson, 1982; Ryzl, 1984).
First, let us consider CORTs with paranormal skills. There is absolutely no plausible hypothesis about how one could acquire such skills through ESP. ESP is a form of perception and it is well known that perception is indeed a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the acquisition of skills. We often need instruction, but in any case training, practice to learn skills. It is for this reason that e.g. Feldman (1980) comments on gifted children that it can only be a myth that they have skills they have never acquired through learning. As far as I know, there has never been any well documented case of the extrasensory acquisition of skills. General theories about skills indicate that we have no reason to believe that perception would ever be enough to acquire them. Which means, of course, that the ESP-hypothesis for CORTs with paranormal skills should be rejected as insufficient.
But what to think of CORTs with paranormal information? First of all, we should realize that the information does not stand on its own, but is part of the subject's conviction that he or she has lived before and of the identification by the subject with that possible personal past. This identification is usually not just a sober declaration but is usually accompanied by strong emotions and longings, that do indeed fit in the life the subject claims to recall. Therefore, the only ESP-hypothesis that we could take seriously in the explanation of informationally paranormal CORTs, is a hypothesis that would explain this identification. What matters is that by far the majority of CORTs with paranormal knowledge involve young children, so that we should take account of developmental data on young children.
It seems that children which are the primary subjects in reincarnation research, start talking about their possible memories around their third year. Now, infants and toddlers according to various investigations (Damon & Hart, 1982; Leahy & Shirk, 1985) have on average a self-image which differs from that of older children or adults. While thinking about themselves, they put more stress on concrete dimensions, like physical appearance, possessions or play activities. Identification can lead to a shift in a person's self-image, so that it corresponds more with the image one has of the object of identification. Also, we should assume that the object of identification is attractive to the child one way or the other, which implies that it corresponds to his ideal self-concept (Milrod, 1982); with the way a subject would like to be more than anything. If we assume therefore that ESP is used unconsciously to search for an identification object hitherto unknown and even deceased, it must necessarily mean that there is some kind of process through which the child tries to find a deceased person that would correspond as much as possible to his or her ideal self-concept. We should in that case only expect CORTs with deceased objects of identification that would be attractive to young children, primarily because of their external characteristics, AND in which the subject would not suffer from all kinds of unattractive inner conflicts that are linked to the life of the deceased person. Neither of these predicted properties are typical for informationally paranormal CORTs. The ESP-hypothesis is therefore insufficient (Stevenson, 1974). Also, there are at least two other important arguments against the ESP-hypothesis:
1. Outside this context only psychics would be able of showing such an extent of ESP, whereas the children in CORTs should not in even one case be characterized as psychics.
2. What could motivate a three year old child to choose a completely unknown, deceased stranger instead of a well-known person who is still alive as an object of identification?
These arguments are already very important when you consider them one by one, but in my view if they are taken together they doubtlessly force us to declare that ESP-hypothesis in general are unsatisfactory for paranormal CORTs. Just as it is clear that not all CORTs can be satisfactorily explained by fraud, self-deception or fantasy, they cannot all of them be explained by ESP.
This is because a hypothesis should not only be parsimonious but should also be judged on explanatory power. Thus we have already reached the domain of survival hypothesis, in other words either some kind of influence by a discarnate person or the reincarnation of such an entity.
2.4. ESP versus survival
As I have pointed out above and elsewhere (Rivas, 1992b) proponents of the ESP-hypothesis for reincarnation research cannot offer a satisfactory explanation of certain crucial properties of some CORTs. Moreover I think they are wrong if they state that their hypothesis would a priori always remain better than the survival hypothesis. The survival hypothesis reads by the way that paranormal utterances and paranormal skills, that are documented in CORTs, are the result of the (episodical, semantical and procedural) memory of someone who had died, but who has personally survived death.
That would mean that the objections against the ESP-hypothesis would all have to be met by far-reaching changes in the general theories concerning especially skills, self-concepts in young children, ESP itself, and identification, because the adaptations that survival hypothesis would cause in our general philosophical and/or scholarly world view always would beeven greater. There is a deep gap between the ESP-proponents and the survivalists. For the first group, the personal mind is just an integral aspect or part of a biological organism which can never be separated from that organism. For the second group, the personal mind is an entity that can in no way be reduced to the biological or material world. In philosophical terms, these are the materialist and dualist position respectively. Which one is the most plausible, that is the question. While trying to answer it, we can't suffice with an argument by authority like "Materialism is the most plausible of these two positions, because the main scientists and scientific theories of this moment are all materialistic", or "Dualism must simply be true, or else Plato would never have preached it". Instead, it is necessary to judge both positions on their intrinsic qualities.
If we try to do so, it is notable that materialism seems to have one advantage over dualism, in that it presupposes that everything that exists, consists of one and the same stuff, namely matter. In other words: materialism is a monist current that postulates only one kind of entities. In contrast to materialism, dualism is not a monist current, because it postulates two kinds of entities, as the term already suggests. So in a strictly formal sense materialism has one advantage over dualism, it is more parsimonious in the postulation of entities. But we aren't ready yet if we have just respected the principle of parsimony. Does materialism correspond to what we know for certain about the nature of reality? Materialism posits that there are only external things, and that something like subjectivity is only an aspect of those things. There is a very transparant error in this representation of things: if there are in reality only external things, then there can be no subjectivity, as this is not an external phenomenon. If you call consciousness an aspect or level of the brain, you are really saying that something which is purely material could have immaterial properties, which is by definition absurd. The only form of materialism that can therefore be a priori defended, is therefore reductionist materialism that totally denies the existence of consciousness. But the serious defence of that form of materialism is at the same time impossible, because it would presuppose that you could defend a position without any type of awareness, since such a thing would not exist.
Instead, dualism may be less parsimonious formally, but in any case it is reconciliable with our knowledge of reality. Thus we see that materialism is not an adequate ontological theory of the basic nature of the universe. That means that we should assume that mind or onsciousness do not at all exist by the grace of matter, and that they don't belong to it. This does not mean that this point alone would prove the survival hypothesis, but the survival hypothesis does indeed fit in perfectly in the dualist framework, with which we deal as soon as we stick to the reality of matter. However, for a long time an in my view conclusive philosophical argument for personal immortality has been known. It was already formulated by Plotin, and ever since, it has been reformulated by numerous other thinkers, among other examples, philosophers during the scholastic period of Christian philosophy, RenÚ Descartes, Leibniz and the logician and mathematician Bernhard Bolzano. Also, in ancient India thinkers formulated a variant of this argument, which today is being defended by the followers of the Hare Krishna-movement and others. I call this argument the substance or substantialist argument. Nowhere in the body, neither in the brain nor elsewhere, we can point to a spot where all sensorial stimuli would gather, the way they are united in consciousness. In subjective, personal consciousness we see in other words something we don't know of the body. There is an entity, a self, that experiences everything. For example as follows: Someone may listen to music, while typing a text behind a p.c. and at the same time chewing on a piece of chewing gum. He or she experiences four kinds of sensorial impressions simultaneously: the subject hears, sees, feels and tastes. Naturally the attention for different experiences can differ, but normally the subject is aware of more than one at once. The subject can also be aware of internal psychical processes: he or she can think about one thing, remember another, etc. In all these conscious processes there clearly is just one I, one and the same conscious entity that has access to all these modalities (whatever Buddhists, David Hume and contemporary cognitivists may state to the contrary).
This point proves that in the case of the personal mind we are not only dealing with something that is radically different from anything material (dualism), but also with something that belongs to a different level than the physical body. In the case of the personal mind, we are dealing with an irreducible person whereas the body, however perfect or beautiful, always remains a composite and therefore reducible (i.e. mortal) material system which will one day lose its structure. Now, this means that the mind cannot be destroyed. Just as in the case of matter, we must suppose that a personal mind is an irreducible, basic entity (which we term ontologically "substance") within reality (substance dualism). Something which constitutes a primary substance cannot fall apart into something else or just disappear, as is the case with temporal structures, e.g. material structures. Ergo, the personal mind, being a substance, is substantially immortal (Rivas, 1993).
This does not mean that structures within that personal mind would be just as immortal: those can change in time, just as in the case of material structures. Against the background of the substantialist argument we can say that not only the survival hypothesis is completely unproblematic within dualism, but it even is directly supported by a philosophical proof for personal immortality! Therefore, in my view there can be no important a priori argument against adopting a survival hypthesis if this hypothesis turns out to be better for empirical reasons. And thus, there can neither be any a priori argument against the survival hypothesis as the best explanation for some CORTs.
It is the task of parapsychology task to investigate and explain the so called "paranormal" phenomena, not to reduce all paranormal phenomena a priori to expressions of PSI-capacities. In this respect, we can draw a parallel with the investigation of the origin of species. This is in any case a part of biology, that is characterized by a certain object of study, not by one sole "indubitable theory". Just like mechanical evolution theory and teleological evolution theory are both biological theories, both the ESP-hypothesis and the survival hypothesis are parapsychological theories.
2.5. Survival hypothesis
We can distinguish between two survival hypothesis that might apply to the explanation of paranormal CORTs: possession and reincarnation.
A famous and well documented case of possession is that of Lurancy Vennum (Stevenson, 1974; Smith, 1975). In 1878 the 13-year-old Mary Lurancy Vennum from Watseka several times went into a state of trance wherein she was possessed by a whole series of "spirits", Lurancy was investigated by a certain Dr. E.W. Stevens who advised her to look for a guiding spirit amongst all those visitors so that she would create order in her chaos. When she tried to do so, a certain Mary Roff turned out to be prepared to fulfill this function. Mary Roff had died in Watseka at the age of 18, when the Lurancy was only 15 months old. Mary Roff took possession of Lurancy and apparently dominated the child for three months: Lurancy's body showed the talking, acting and remembering of Mary Roff. Lurancy even went to live with Mary's parents, where everything was familiar to her, and where she met relatives, friends and acquaintances. Also she was capable of recalling things that did indeed correspond to Mary Roff's life. The main difference between this veridical case of possession and CORTs, is that Mary disappeared after three months because Lurancy had been "completely cured" and could return to her own house. Later on Mary did occasionaly come back, with Lurancy's permission, so that she could talk with her parents (See Zorab, 1986). Thus we see two distinct personalities between whom there is no continuity, in contrast to CORTs.
This case clearly demonstrates that possession by a discarnate spirit is probably a real phenomenon. Would it not also be able to explain all CORTs? The main argument against the possession hypothesis for CORTs is, however, that in most paranormal cases there is no exchange of personalities, something which we would indeed expect if there were a strange influence by a discarnate spirit (Andrade, 1980). In other words: The possession hypothesis is also wanting for CORTs.
Which means reincarnation is the most plausible hypothesis for paranormal CORTs. In the case of Shanti Devi this hypothesis would imply for example that Kedar Nath Chaubey's wife, Lugdi, would have got a new body after her death, and would have been reborn as a the infant Shanti Devi. With this new body and this new name, Shanti Devi was still capable of remembering that she had had another body and was then called Lugdi.
Moreover, she could still remember details of the dialect she had then spoken, the relations that were important to her in her previous life as Lugdi, and other things related to her past incarnation. This means, therefore, that Lugdi not only has not only survived as Shanti Devi, but also retains access to in any case a part of the memory that related to her life as Lugdi, and that this memory has remained at least in part intact and functioning, both semantically, procedurally and episodically and both cognitively, motivationally and emotionally.
To put it bluntly: in paranormal CORTs, the subjects simply turn out to be right. They really recall a life they have lived before being born into their present physical forms. This hypothesis is the most parsimonious sufficient hypothesis that exhaustively explains all details of paranormal CORTs. There might be other exhaustive hypothesis such as that the subjects of CORTs are really demon's children, or incarnations of evil spirits who want to spread a false teaching. But such hypothesis certainly are less parsimonious than the reincarnation hypothesis.
3: Reincarnation research: Fascinating topics
Reincarnation research certainly is not one of the youngest branches of parapsychology, but in spite of this, it certainly is one of the most promising ones. More even than the study of mediumship, reincarnation research sheds light on what happens to us after death. In this enterprise, it has only just begun. Step by step reincarnation research is leaving the purely demonstrative phase, just as is it happening in ESP-and PK-research. Just as it is the case in PSI-research, there is space for more understanding of the reincarnation process.
We can think of questions like: universality of reincarnation, the causes of amnesia and memories of former incarnations, the longitudinal study of personal development over several lives, etc. All these and other questions (Prasad, 1993) have been the object of esoterical speculation for ages and we are slowly entering an age in which patient studies will doubtlessly -at least in part- be able to answer them.
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This paper was published in Dutch in the Spiegel der Parapsychologie.