Chapter Ten: Reincarnation
Dominant in the cultures that developed in the Indus Valley, reincarnation today is a global, multi-religious belief. It is an important metaphysical principle of Hinduism and Buddhism. The basic belief is that all human beings have a supernatural soul, a personal identity that exists outside of the physical body. This soul is both immaterial and transferable. When people die, their soul in some way enters the body of an unborn child. When that person grows up, they are sometimes able to recall memories of the past lives that their soul inhabited.
So prevalent and compelling is the belief in reincarnation that Christianity and Islam have historically taken severe measures to renounce it as a heretical doctrine. The potential theological threat was very clear. If the human soul continued to exist from one body to the next in a continuous cycle, then the doctrines of a permanent heaven and hell, so essential to these monotheistic beliefs, are essentially nullified. The concept of an afterlife as pictured by Christians or Muslims would be difficult to maintain if reincarnation could be demonstrated to be a fact.
The Catholic Encyclopedia gives this explanation of the widespread acceptance of the idea:
"It was a tenet common to many systems of philosophic thought and religious belief widely separated from each other both geographically and historically... There is evidence that at one period or another it has flourished in almost every part of the world... This universality seems to mark it as one of those spontaneous beliefs by which man's nature responds to the deep and urgent problems of existence..." (Reincarnation in World Thought p136)
In the face of a belief at first sight so far-fetched and yet at the same time so widely diffused, we are led to anticipate some great general causes which have worked together to produce it. A few such causes may be mentioned: (1) The practically universal conviction that the soul is a real entity distinct from the body and that it survives death; (2) connected with this, there is the imperative moral demand for an equitable future retribution of rewards and punishments in accordance with good or ill conduct here. The doctrine of transmigration satisfies in some degree both these virtually instinctive faiths; (3) As mentioned [previously], it offers a plausible explanation of the phenomenon of heredity... The world thus seems to become, through and through, moral and human. Indeed, where the belief in a personal Providence is unfamiliar or but feebly grasped, some form of metempsychosis understood as a kind of ethical evolutionary process, is almost a necessary makeshift." (Reincarnation in World Thought p137)
This notion of absolute justice in the world presents some serious moral dilemmas for believers. If reincarnation is true, individuals who are born with physical problems are apparently being punished for immoral actions from a past life. According to this view, a child born with a birth defect, such as blindness, is being punished by God for specific crimes they committed in the past. It is no different than a criminal being punished for a specific crime performed during this life. This creates some serious moral problems of whether the unfortunate should be helped or not.
This concept of divine punishment has led in part to the caste system for India's largely Hindu population. The writings of Hinduism teach that each person deserves the social and economic conditions they inherit from their family. More to the point, each individual has historically been expected to accept their condition. To not do so would be a failure to accept divine justice. In a sense anyone who helps someone from a lower caste move up in status is no different that someone helping a criminal escape from jail. But it should be noted that since World War Two the now democratic Indian government has actively tried to eliminate much of the prejudice that the caste system has caused.
The Buddhist view of reincarnation has historically been a bit more forgiving. Each individual is seen as having every right to improve their social or economic station if they wish. But this is seen as missing the point. For a Buddhist, the very idea of economic or social value is an illusion. Buddhist attempt to remove themselves, ideally, from all physical distractions. Reincarnation is seen as a perpetual cycle in which each life is given a chance to build on the previous attempt to see the world as it really is. Life itself is viewed as a grand illusion that prevents the individual from mystically merging with Greater Reality. Reincarnation acts more to help the individual down the long road of enlightenment.
Although different in their moral ramifications, these opposing views of reincarnation share the basic feature of a belief in the cycle of a person's identity. Also shared is the notion of an afterlife world in which the souls wait for a suitable body to reincarnate in. Some believe that the soul may exist in the other world for hundreds of years.
Conscious life is believed to exist during an interim between one body and the next. Many believe that the individual actually chooses to some degree which new body he or she will inhabit. Consider this Hindu description of a meditative state:
"We want to take it all in, take in the tone, take in the thought, take in the feeling, take in the knowledge-take it all back to the source, back to the microcosm where you were living ten months before you were born in this physical world. You were there in the microcosm, fully aware, fully matured, working out your own spiritual destiny through helping those on this plane, awaiting another birth that would catapult you into an even greater evolution when you returned to the microcosm." (Loving Ganesha p 369)
Aldous Huxley explained reincarnation as follows:
"The eschatologists of the Orient affirm that there are certain posthumous conditions in which meritorious souls are capable of advancing from a heaven of happy personal survival to genuine immortality in union with the timeless, eternal Godhead. And, of course, there is also the possibility (indeed, for most individuals, the necessity) of returning to some form of embodied life, in which the advance towards complete beatification, or deliverance through enlightenment, can be continued..."
"Orthodox Christian doctrine does not admit the possibility, either in the posthumous state or in some other embodiment, of any further growth towards the ultimate perfection of a total union with the Godhead. But in the Hindu and Buddhist versions of the Perennial Philosophy the divine mercy is matched by the divine patience: both are infinite. For oriental theologians there is no eternal patience; there are only purgatories then an indefinite series of second chances to go forward toward not only man's, but the whole creation's final end-total reunion with the Ground of all being..."
"In the Vedanta cosmology there is. . . something in the nature of a soul that reincarnates in a gross or subtle body, or manifests itself in some incorporeal state. This soul is not the personality of the defunct, but rather the particularized I-consciousness out of which a personality arises. [This conception] is logically self-consistent and can be made to "save the appearances" -- in other words, to fit the odd and obscure facts of psychical research." (Reincarnation in World Thought p377)
Reincarnation also exists as a belief outside of Hinduism and Buddhism. British author E. G. Parrinder had this to say about reincarnation as a doctrine in Africa:
"In tropical Africa, belief in rebirth is deeply enrooted. The studies made by anthropologists and other serious writers in many different parts of Africe, especially in the last forty years, have revealed deep-seated beliefs in reincarnation held by many different African peoples... Reincarnation, to most African, is a good thing. It is a return to this sunlit world for a further period of invigorating life. There is little idea of an end to the number of incarnations, or a search for that as desirable... On the contrary, it is bad not to be reborn, and childlessness is a great curse because it blocks the channel of rebirth. Hence the great attention devoted to fertility and the continuing popularity of polygamy, for the ancestor is only reincarnated in his own family... It is a common practice for the diviner to be called in at the birth of a child to declare which ancestor is reincarnated, and family resemblances are explained as due to use of the same soul-stuff..." (Reincarnation in World Thought p173)
But many interesting differences about the doctrine can be found, even among closely related people. Take this example of which side of the family Australian Aborigines believe can reincarnate:
"In every tribe without exception there exists a firm belief in the reincarnation of ancestors. Emphasis must be laid on the fact that this belief is not confined to tribes such as the Arunta, Warramunga, Binbinga, Anula, and others, amongst whom descent is counted on the male line, but is found just as strongly developed in the Urabunna tribe, in which descent, both of class and totem, is strictly maternal." (Reincarnation in World Thought p176)
Reincarnation creates a view of God that is based on divine justice. During each person's life a moral scorecard is kept of each actions. God, or some cosmic force, tallies up these score cards and decides if each person will reincarnate at a higher or lower level in the next life. For example, humans are considered to be higher of the plane of existence than insects.
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama had this to say about the evidence for reincarnation:
"How do we know that there is an afterlife? According to Buddhism, although the nature of cause and effect may by different, they must have the same essential properties, they must have a definite connection. . . For example, the human body can be perceived-it has form and color-and therefore, its immediate source or cause must also have these qualities. But mind is formless, and hence its immediate source or cause must also be formless... Both mind and body begin in this life as son as conception occurs. The immediate source of a body is that of its parents. But physical matter cannot produce mind, or mind matter. The immediate source of a mind must, therefore, be a mind which existed before the conception took place; the mind must have a continuity from a previous mind. This we hold to prove the existence of a past life. It has been demonstrated by the accounts of adults and children who remember their past lives... On this basis, we can conclude that past life existed, and thence that future life will exist also..." (Reincarnation In World Thought p62)
British Biologist Sir Julian Huxley argued that the discovery of genetics disproved the doctrine of reincarnation:
"Egg and sperms carry the destiny of the generations. The egg realizes one chance combination out of an infinity of possibilities: and it is confronted with millions of pairs of sperms, each one actually different in the combination of cards which it holds. Then comes the final moment in the drama-the marriage of egg and sperm to produce the beginning of a large individual... Here too, it seems to be entirely a matter of chance which particular union of all the millions of possible unions shall be consummated. One might have produced a genius, another a moron... and so on... With a realization of all that this implies, we can banish from human thought a host of fears and superstitions. No basis now remains for any doctrine of metempsychosis." (Reincarnation in World Thought p422)
For many the idea of reincarnating is considered to be an unwelcome thing. British author Loran Hurnscot gives this interesting story of why a baby might cry:
"My first genuine memory is about the Fall. There is darkness before and after it, but the memory itself is clear. A baby in a pram, in a late autumn garden, waking suddenly from sleep, at thirteen or fourteen months old. The fingerless infant-gloves tied rather too tightly round the wrists; the strap of the pram an uncomfortable restraint. And then the overwhelming, terrible discovery: "I'm in a body." I began to wail, to scream, to weep distractedly. In a few moments there were three women standing round the pram, comforting, speculating. "Something must have frightened her-but what?" "Could it have been an insect-sting? No, it's getting too late in the year for that." I sobbed in the helpless prison of before-one-can-talk, understanding telepathically, as it were, the gist of what they said. "It isn't that, it isn't that, it's not the sort of thing you think at all-it's that I've found out I'm locked up in a body, and its dreadful." ..." (Reincarnation in World Thought p378-379)
The ancient Greeks held to the idea that the dead drank from a magical river, causing them to forget their former lives. Plato relates this story of a man named Er who was able to remember his past lives by not drinking the water:
"It was a truly wonderful sight, he said, to watch how each soul selected its life-a sight at once melancholy, and ludicrous, and strange. The experience of their former life generally guided the choice... It so happened that the soul of Odysseus had drawn the last lot of all. When he came up to choose, the memory of his former sufferings had so abated his ambition that he went about a long time looking for a quite retired life, which with great trouble he discovered lying about, and thrown contemptuously aside by the others. As soon as he saw it, he chose it gladly, and said that he would have done the same if he had even drawn the first lot..."
"Now, when all the souls had chosen their lives... they all travelled into the plain of Forgetfulness... each, as he drinks, forgets everything. When they had gone to rest, and it was now midnight, there was a clap of thunder and an earthquake; and in a moment the souls were carried up to their birth, this way and that, like shooting stars. Er himself was prevented from drinking any of the water; but how, and by what road, he reached his body, he knew not: only he knew that he suddenly opened his eyes at dawn, and found himself laid out upon the funeral pyre." (Reincarnation in World Thought p200)
Lucretius made this argument against the importance of reincarnation if it really existed:
"Death to us is nothing, nor concern us in the least, since nature of mind is mortal evermore. . . Nor yet if time our scattered dust re-blend, and after death upbuild the flesh again, yea, and our light of life arise re-lit, can such new birth concern the self one whit, when once dark death has severed memory's chain. Naught reck we, then, our lives lived in the past, nor for their sorrows feel one pang of pain." (Reincarnation in World Thought p209)
Believers in reincarnation universally state that all people reincarnate, whether they are aware of it or not. But one of the most curious things about claims of reincarnation is how rare they appear to be. "Even in countries like India, where large segments of the population believe in reincarnation, only a handful of people claim to remember an earlier existence." (Reincarnation p 59) And when people do recall past lives, especially in the West, there is an overwhelming tendency for hundreds of people to claim to have been the same famous figure from history. Obviously these facts should cause even the most faithful believer to ask the tough question: Is there any verifiable evidence that proves reincarnation is true?
In a word, the answer is no. But it is important to note that there isn't anyway to disprove reincarnation either. The major argument put forth to support reincarnation is the phenomenon called past life recall. Believers assert that a specific personal experience will often trigger this condition, in which the individual remembers long forgotten memories. Many attempts to document some type of specific information that would have been inexplicable to the subject have been made. In should be noted, first of all, that reincarnation developed long before the age of science. Traditional belief in reincarnation did not historically require verifiable evidence to be believed. It was simply believed for the same reason that most ancient worldviews were believed -- because it was past down by the previous generation.
We will examine the claims of reincarnation based on two fields of evidence. The first will be the inability of believers to demonstrate any physical way in which reincarnation could actually occur. Secondly, in order to fully explain the phenomenon of past life recall we will need to make a short detour into the world of memory and the unconscious mind.
If reincarnation is true, how does it actually work? Remember that the basis of reincarnation is the belief in the existence of the supernatural soul as the container of a person's personal identity. As we saw in the chapter on Life After Death, there are many scientific arguments that caste doubt on this possibility. How could a dead brain be able to maintain memories when the physical cells that makeup those memories are physically destroyed? To date there is no evidence of any process that could maintain those past life memories.
The Mahabarata give the following poetic account of what is believed to happen:
"Hear how a man... enters a womb. Within the womb of a woman, he obtains as the result of action a body good or bad... [The Soul] is the seed of all beings; by that all creatures exist. That soul, entering all the limbs of the foetus, part by part, and dwelling in the seat of the life-wind (i.e. the heart), supports them with the mind. Then the foetus, becoming possessed of consciousness, moves about its limbs. As liquefied iron being poured out assumes the form of the image, such you must know is the entrance of the soul into the foetus. As fire entering a ball of iron, heats it, such too, you must understand, is the manifestation of the soul in foetus. And as a blazing lamp shines in a house, even so does consciousness light up bodies. And whatever action he performs, whether good or bad, everything done in a former body must necessarily be enjoyed or suffered..." (Reincarnation In World Thought p42-43)
But this description bears little similarity with our modern understanding of the development of a sperm and egg to fertilized egg to embryo to fetus to newborn baby. The very fact that the process is described with metaphors exposes an obvious lack of physical understanding of how the process would actually work.
Secondly, how could the past life memories be transferred to the brain of an unborn child? Since the imprinting of memories would require physical alteration of the brain, how is this change carried out inside the protection of the mother's womb? Since the brain structures of neurons and synapses would have to be physically altered, there would have to be a detectable force doing the alterations. At present no such force or brain activity has ever been detected in a developing embryo or fetus.
And many believers in reincarnation assert that more than memories are being transmitted to the unborn child. Personality, character and in some cases physical characteristics are also said to be transferred. How are all these astonishing changes being made?
Without a causal agent to maintain and then transmit the memories and personality, belief in reincarnation is almost impossible for modern medical science to take seriously. But more problematic than that, reincarnation exposes its ancient worldview by its total ignorance to the facts of genetic transfer of physical and emotional traits. Birthmarks have specific genetic and developmental causes. These is no need to resort to undetectable forces to explain why individuals are the way they are.
How then are we to explain the stories of past life recollections? The anecdotal evidence for reincarnation is substantial. Volumes containing thousands of claims of past lives have been published the world over in recent years. Although most don't contain enough verifiable evidence to reliably confirm or refute the claims, occasionally an exceptional case does possess enough information to warrant a more detailed study.
Probably the first famous case of reincarnation in the western world was the case of Bridey Murphy. The investigation of this case demonstrates the vast gulf that separates the anecdotal claims of believers from the scientific investigations of skeptics. What made the case so appealing were the apparent details of the information. It seemed perfectly suited to allow the scientific method to examine and make a definitive conclusion.
In Pueblo, Colorado in 1952 a housewife named Virginia Tighe recovered under hypnosis an amazing series of past life memories. Talking in a distinct Irish accent she declared she was the reincarnation of a redheaded woman named Bridey Murphy who had lived in Cork, Ireland in the nineteenth century. She described having a husband named Sean Joseph Brian MacCarthy, a mother named Kathleen and an uncle name Plazz. She recalled in vivid detail the white frame house she had lived in and many details of her daily life. She even remembered having died by falling down the stairs!
Originally published by the Denver Post in 1954, the recovered past life memories became the subject of a best seller book, "The Search for Bridey Murphy," published in six different languages. Newspaper investigations were dispatched to Ireland to find historic confirmation of Bridey Murphy's existence. Records of the hypnosis sessions were even sold to the public to let people hear for themselves.
But when no one specifically matching Bridey Murphy turned up, skeptical reporters began to turn their investigation to Virginia Tighe. They discovered that when Virginia was a little girl she had lived across the street from an Irish woman named Mrs. Anthony Corkell. Virginia had apparently grown up listening to stories of Ireland that Mrs. Corkell had told her. Investigators could not help but notice the similarity between Corkell and the name of Bridey Murphey's town, Cork. But the general disbelief in the claims emerged when it was discovered that Mrs. Corkell's maiden name had actually been Bridie (spelled ie).
Further investigations revealed several suspicious similarities between the life of Virginia Tighe and Bridey Murphy. Virginia had actually grown up in a white house similar to the one she had described for her past life. Her sister had suffered a serious fall down a flight of stairs similar to Bridey's description of her own fatal fall. Both Virginia and Bridey had an Uncle called Plazz. Virginia's mother's name was Katherine while Bridey's mother was Kathleen. And the name of her past life husband? Virginia's husband's middle name was Brian, the same as Bridey's. One of Mrs. Corkells sons was named John, which in Gealic is Sean, the first name of Bridey's husband.
Childhood friends of Virginia described her as having a good imagination and being heavily involved in acting. Virginia, it was discovered, also had an Irish aunt whom she was extremely found of. Once this was made known, the source of Virginia's supposedly inexplicable information about Ireland became much more mundane.
The combined evidence makes it probable that Virginia had unknowingly confabulated the past life under the hypnosis experience. She drew details that she was familiar with to create a fictional character to act out to the hypnotheropist. No evidence ever came to light that she had recalled any information other than the stories from her Irish aunt, Irish neighbor, and an active imagination. [Fads and Fallacies In the Name of Science, p. 315-319]
What this famous reincarnation case revealed was how easily people could be misled into believing something to be true without having any confirming evidence, especially when it seemed to prove a deeply hoped for belief. Whenever claims are made that seem to support the ideas of divine intervention, life after death or reincarnation there seems to be a overriding desire to accept them without critical judgement.
This case also clearly demonstrates a phenomenon that seems to have been prevalent in human life since our beginnings. What we learn in life resides in the memories of our unconscious mind. Studies have shown that the unconscious mind actually receives all sensory information before the conscious mind does, causing a split second delay in processing. The brain acts like millions of parallel computers that filter specific information, all at the same time. The volumes of information we take in and consider at any given second is simply too vast for our conscious mind to comprehend. In effect, the only information we are conscious of is the specific information that the unconscious part of our brain has deemed necessary.
What we consciously perceive is subject to our minds selective preferences. People who are told that a tape playing only static contains an actual verbal message will imagine they can hear the message while people who weren't told what to hear won't. This odd ability to hear and see things that aren't real is a good example of the power of suggestion.
Hypnotism, which is often closely tied into claims of past life recalls, is a perfect situation for suggestion to play out in full, vivid detail. Psychologists have learned that they can easily lead subjects to create fictional stories with powerfully convincing emotional zeal. If there is a social pressure by the hypnotist or subject to believe that stories told under hypnosis are real, the information created by the subject can seem like an actual memory. (Scientific American, Nash July 2001, p53)
Actual information that had not passed into consciousness for decades can also be recalled under relaxing situations such as a hypnotic session. Languages that someone hasn't spoken since childhood can become suddenly revealed. Memories of childhood long forgotten can be remembered. But in addition to memories of actual events, a degree of confabulation can emerge. When we recall a memory, we aren't recalling a video-like detail of what actually happen. We remember an outline, a sort of frame of reference of some specific event. Details of our memories subtly change over time because of this. With each retelling, a story begins to include information that we couldn't remember but still included because it seemed to make sense. Over time some of our memories contain detailed information that never happened, even though we seemed to clearly remember that it did.
This type of memory confabulation is not intentional, it's just a natural part of how our memory is stored and recalled. What is important to remember is that we do more than just alter specific details of a story. We also sometimes forget the origin of the information we've learned. Speechwriters for Ronald Reagan demonstrated this phenomenon when Reagan recalled the patriotic words made by an American navy captain during the Korean War. But their speech was taken from a film, not from an actual event. It seems this detail had eluded the writers, much to their embarrassment.
When we combine the well proven phenomenon of unintentional confabulation with the occasional failure to remember where certain information came from, we have all the elements needed to create the apparent realism of past life recalls. Subjects motivated by a desire to validate their hopes of the continuation of consciousness after death create a story that seems as real as any real memory. There is no intentional fraud or dishonesty involved, it is simply a matter of how our minds work.
I think we can see these forces at work when we examine the extensive literature of past lives. Ian Stevenson's 1974 work Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation attempts to lay out as objectively as possible evidence that verifies past life recollections. These cases have convinced many people that reincarnation is the most plausible explanation for how some people seem to be able to know information about the past. (SI Fall 1994 p481-482) But skeptics are unmercifully critical of the procedures used to verify this type of information.
For example skeptic Leonard Angel examined the case of Imad Elawar and discovered many details that he feels invalidates Stevenson's attempt to prove reincarnation using a scientific standard. The case is noteworthy in part because Stevenson himself conducted many of the interviews with the boy in the case. According to Stevenson the boy's parents give the following account of his past life recollection:
"They believed that he was claiming to have been one Mahmoud Bouhamzy of Khriby who had a wife called Jamilah and who had been fatally injured by a truck after a quarrel with its driver." (SI Fall 1994p483)
Imad is said to have given many details about the village he had lived in during this prior life, such as it having garages, sheds, gardens and two wells. (SI Fall 1994 p483) Verification of this information began when Imad is said to have recognized from his past life memories a man visiting his town who actually lived in Khriby. Investigations revealed that a man who once lived in Khriby named Ibrahim Bouhamzy did in fact have several of the characteristics mentioned by Imad, such as a mistress named Jamilah (although not his wife) and owning a farm with a particular type of entrance. Although Imad seems to have been wrong in naming Mahmoud and not Ibrahim as his past life, interestingly enough Ibrahim did have an uncle named Mahmoud.
But Angel feels that the procedures used to verify the information fall short of those needed to really prove the case. First of all the "hits" match the life of Ibrahim, not the man that Imal specifically names. This is a fairly critical miss. Also Ibrahim did not die from a truck accident, as Imal seems to have clearly believed prior to attempts to verify the information. (SI Fall 1994 p484) Although many "hits" do seem impressive, they must be weighed in with the misses. Many of the hits are also very general in nature. Angel points out that:
"In general, then, how difficult would it be to find someone in any large village in that general vicinity who matched more or less as many features as Ibrahim Bouhamzy is said to have matched, given an equal amount of post-facto reinterpretation and latitude allowed?" (SI Fall 1994 p486)
So while a compelling case can be made from Imal's story, once all the misses and generalities are considered a nagging degree of doubt emerges. This inability of reincarnation researchers to come up better cases poses a severe obstacle to its acceptance in the scientific community.
Researchers in reincarnation are often not convinced that there is enough verifiable evidence to meet the requirements of scientific proof. Take these worlds by the renowned past-life researcher Ian Stevenson:
"The writer of a review of this kind has the privilege and perhaps the obligation of saying how he interprets the data. I will say, therefore, that I think reincarnation the most plausible hypothesis for understanding the cases in this series. This is not to say that I think they prove reincarnation either singly or together. Indeed, I am quite sure they do not. But for each of the alternative hypotheses I find objections or shortcomings which make them for me unsuitable explanations of all the cases, although they may apply to some. . . A large number of cases in which the recall of true memories is a plausible hypothesis should make that hypothesis worthy of attention. I think the number of cases in the present collection confers that respectability on the hypotheses, even though many of these cases may have particular aspects which make some other hypothesis more plausible in such cases. Expectations can harmfully influence perceptions. If we proceed in an investigation with the expectation of confirming a particular hypothesis, we may think we discover more evidence for it than we do. But the reverse type of misperception can also occur with equal harm. If we reject offhand, as most Westerners are inclined to do, they hypothesis of reincarnation, we may exclude form our investigations those conditions which could permit further relevant data to emerge." (Reincarnation in World Thought p433)
Stevenson also is forthright enough to admit:
"So far, most of the best evidence bearing on reincarnation has come from spontaneous cases. Relevant material does not often arise in the laboratory under circumstances where we can exert even moderate control. Some of the earliest and most thorough investigations of the evidence for reincarnation used hypnosis to regress subjects back in time to supposed "previous lives"... The "personalities" usually evoked during hypnotically-induced regressions to a "previous life" seem to comprise a mixture of... the subject's current personality, his expectations of what he thinks the hypnotist wants, his fantasies of what he thinks his previous life ought to have been, and also perhaps elements derived paranormally..." (Reincarnation in World Thought p434)
One interesting feature of the near death experience (NDE) is that it sometimes promotes an active interest in reincarnation in people who before hadn't believed in it. The cause of this seems to be the sensation that the person is outside of their physical body. As NDE researcher P.M.H. Atwater puts it: "Most come to recognize themselves as an immortal soul currently resident within material form so lessons can be learned while sojourning in the earthplane. They know they are not their body; it is a "jacket" they wear. The majority develop an interest in reincarnation, and some accept it as valid." (Near-Death Experience p 242)
The greatest hope of people who wish to prove reincarnation to the skeptical scientific community comes from cases in which in appears that past life recaller has described facts or details that they could not have possibly known. But, much like parapsychology, there is at present not a single airtight case to prove such a claim. Many past life researchers themselves admit that this is in fact true. This, of course, does not prove that reincarnation isn't possible. But it does leave us with the unavoidable conclusion that belief in reincarnation is a matter of faith.