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Claims of Reincarnation: An Empirical Study of Cases in India.

Pasricha's book is an updated version of her Ph.D. dissertation submitted to Bangalore University in 1978. It surveys 45 new cases and also reports the results of 137 responses to a questionnaire about belief in reincarnation. Although the style, tone, and goals of her investigations closely resemble those of her mentor and occasional collaborator, Ian Stevenson, Pasricha's research has some obvious and immediate advantages over Stevenson's. Perhaps most notably, Pasricha enjoyed the advantages of investigating cases in her native country. Unlike Stevenson, she had an intimate familiarity with northern Indian language and dialects, as well as local customs and traditions. She could also interview subjects on relatively short notice without having to travel great distances, and it was relatively easy for her to schedule follow-up interviews.

Pasricha's results are summarized in a large and very useful series of tables, which illustrate, not only the principal features of the cases she investigated, but also the similarities and differences between her results and those of Stevenson (the similarities greatly outweigh the differences). In part because her data resemble Stevenson's in numerous and apparently crucial respects, and in part because cross-cultural studies reveal many regularities in the data, Pasricha argues plausibly that the reincarnation experience is a genuine and relatively stable phenomenon that cannot be explained away by cultural expectation or fraud. The more interesting and pressing questions, she feels, concern the proper interpretation of the cases, once their authenticity is granted.

Not surprisingly, Pasricha's book displays many of the same virtues and limitations found in the work of Stevenson. Pasricha is quite right to insist that questions of interpretation now take precedence over questions of authenticity, and her investigations, like Stevenson's, should do much to dispel concerns over the reliability of the data. Indeed, she considers quite carefully and sensibly--and then rejects--fantasy and fraud as explanations of the evidence as a whole. (However, I am inclined to question Pasricha's claim that she was "quite well acquainted" with families she had interviewed as few as two times, so that she could adequately judge whether the subject's and the previous personality's families were engaged in a conspiracy.) Of course, the more interesting question--and probably the matter of greatest concern to the parapsychologist--is how the reincarnation hypothesis fares against rival paranormal hypotheses. At this point, the issues become quite abstract, thorny, and convoluted; and regrettably, Pasricha's treatment of them is disappointing. It is not surprising, however, that the flaws in her discussion are very similar to those I have complained about in connection with Stevenson's work.(1)

In particular, there are two principal paranormal hypotheses which rival that of reincarnation, and Pasricha does justice to neither of them. These are (a) psi among the living, perhaps facilitated by dissociation, and (b) possession. As far as the first is concerned, Pasricha fails to appreciate the force of the so-called "super-psi" hypothesis (or what Eisenbud sometimes calls the ranging psi hypothesis), especially when used in connection with depth-psychological investigations of subjects. But then, Pasricha, like Stevenson, apparently made little or no attempt to look beyond those surface features of cases that are relevant to establishing their authenticity. Moreover, apart from some brief remarks about hypnosis and hypnotic age regression early in the book, Pasricha offers no discussion at all of dissociative phenomena, the numerous and striking parallels between multiple personality disorder and reincarnation cases, and several centuries' worth of evidence suggesting that dissociative states are psi-conducive. Pasricha also fails to take into account cases of prodigies and savantism when evaluating the apparently anomalous abilities of subjects. Moreover, although early in the book she quite properly acknowledges the relevance of hypnosis and studies in age regression to the evidence for reincarnation, she does not return to that topic later on when considering rivals to the reincarnation hypothesis.

Pasricha's remarks on paranormal counter-hypotheses are unsatisfying in other respects as well. For example, she considers several differences between cases of mediumship and cases of reincarnation to determine whether the latter differ only superficially from the former, and whether both should be understood in terms of psi among the living. However, Pasricha fails to discriminate accidental from essential features of mediumship. For example, there is no reason to think, as she suggests, that mediums or psychic individuals generally must rely on psychometric objects. In that case, however, it does not seem particularly revealing that subjects in reincarnation cases tend not to rely on such objects. Similarly, Pasricha makes much of the fact that mediums tend to tire after providing information at a sitting, whereas subjects in reincarnation cases do not. This need not indicate that the latter are not using ESP; it may indicate only that the psychology of the two processes differ. After all, mediums, unlike subjects in reincarnation cases, believe they are engaged in a psychic task and that they are making some kind of effort. (In fact, Pasricha even admits that mediums, but not her subjects, make a conscious effort.) Moreover, mediums place themselves in a potentially wearying context of expectation. Sitters hope and expect that they will receive certain kinds of important information concerning their loved ones. There is every reason to think, then, that mediumship would be more psychologically exhausting than other types of psychic functioning where not so much is at stake. To me, this is precisely the sort of obvious point that should be addressed in any satisfactory evaluation of the evidence for reincarnation. Pasricha's failure to consider it, I feel, is symptomatic of the level of psychological superficiality that characterizes nearly all studies of the evidence for survival.

Pasricha's discussion of the possession hypothesis also has a number of rather curious features. In particular, Pasricha makes several unsupported assumptions about the nature of possession, which she then relies on to rule out that hypothesis in favor of reincarnation. For example, she assumes that a possessing agent would not have any amnesia or other lapses of memory (compared to the mnemonic problems and deficiencies displayed by her subjects). Similarly, she assumes that discarnate possessing entities may transcend the ordinary vagaries of memory, and may not need to be reminded of anything (say, by a location), as subjects in reincarnation cases typically seem to require. She writes, "Their memories do not particularly become affected by visiting places or persons associated with them during their lifetime"; but she offers no defense of this striking claim. No references are cited; the only thing resembling an argument is the statement "It is sometimes said ... that discarnate spirits transcend all normal laws of memory and are capable of acquiring knowledge of all events and describing them with total accuracy". But who says this, and why should the claim be taken seriously? (For that matter, what are the "normal laws of memory?") Obviously, without detailed knowledge about the process of possession, how can one be certain what must be true of such cases, and in particular what sort of effect the process of possession might have on the agent?

Also, that instances of so-called "possession syndrome" (a type of psychopathology) differ from reincarnation cases does not show that the latter are not cases of genuine possession, as Pasricha suggests. For all we know, real possession may assume different forms, and it may differ profoundly from possession syndrome. If the possession hypothesis is to be ruled out in favor of reincarnation, it must be rejected in a far more subtle and sophisticated form than that entertained by the author.

Another odd feature of Pasricha's book is that, apart from references to Stevenson's and her own work in the 1980s, she makes no reference to any publication either in psychology or parapsychology after the 1970s, and only a few are as recent as that. Even when she cites the works of others, one finds some curious omissions. For example, her discussion of hypnotic age regression makes no reference to Orne's classic study.(2) Hence, considering also that Pasricha offers no discussion of prodigies, savantism, or dissociation generally, her book seems rather dated and limited in its command of the literature and relevant issues.

Hence, because of its theoretical shortcomings, Pasricha's book will be valued primarily as a supplement to the growing body of data on reincarnation cases. Falling squarely within the research tradition pioneered by Stevenson, it successfully strengthens the argument for regarding the best cases as authentic. However, partly as the result of Pasricha's success, that research tradition has perhaps lost most of its utility. I would suggest that the time has come to put questions of authenticity in the background, and to embark on more depth-psychological probing into reincarnation cases than Stevenson, Pasricha, and most others have attempted.

1 See, for example, S. E. Braude (1992), "Survival or Super-Psi?" Journal of Scientific Exploration, 6, 127-144; and S. E. Braude (1992), "Reply to Stevenson," Journal of Scientific Exploration, 6, 151-156.

2 M. T. Orne (1951), "The Mechanisms of Hypnotic Age Regression: An Experimental Study," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, 213-225.

STEPHEN E. BRAUDE Department of Philosophy University of Maryland County Baltimore, MD 21228-5398
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Author:Braude, Stephen E.
Publication:The Journal of Parapsychology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:1505
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