Past life regression is a technique that uses hypnosis to recover what practitioners believe are memories of past lives or incarnations. Past-life regression is typically undertaken either in pursuit of a spiritual experience, or in a psychotherapeutic setting. Most advocates loosely adhere to beliefs about reincarnation, though religious traditions that incorporate reincarnation generally do not include the idea of repressed memories of past lives.
The technique used during past-life regression involves the subject answering a series of questions while hypnotized to reveal identity and events of alleged past lives, a method similar to that used in recovered memory therapy.
In the 2nd century BC, the Hindu scholar Patañjali, in his Yoga Sutras, discussed the idea of the soul becoming burdened with an accumulation of impressions as part of the karma from previous lives. Patañjali called the process of past-life regression prati-prasav (literally “reverse birthing”), and saw it as addressing current problems through memories of past lives. Some types of yoga continue to use prati-prasav as a practice.
In the religious mythology of China the deity Meng Po, also known as the “Lady of Forgetfulness”, prevents souls from remembering their past lives: she gives them a bittersweet drink that erases all memories before they climb the wheel of reincarnation.
“Jaati Smaran Gyaan” is a special type of knowledge which is going into past life memories, in Jainism. Jain Literature has beautiful examples and stories involving this concept.
In the modern era, it was the works of Madame Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, which brought it a new found popularity, especially in the West. French educator Allan Kardec also researched into past life regression in The Spirits Book and Heaven and Hell. Past life regression therapy has been developed since the 1950s by psychologists, psychiatrists and mediums. The belief gained credibility because some of the advocates possess legitimate credentials, though these credentials were in areas unrelated to religion, psychotherapy or other domains dealing with past lives and mental health. Interest in the phenomenon started due to American housewife Virginia Tighe reporting and recounting the alleged memories of a 19th-century Irish woman named Bridey Murphy; later investigation failed to support the existence of such a woman and the memories were attributed to Tighe’s childhood during which she spent time living next to an Irish immigrant with great similarity to the character she described.
Past life regression is widely rejected as a psychiatric treatment by clinical psychiatrists and psychologists. A 2006 survey found that a majority of a sample of doctoral level mental health professionals rated “Past Lives” therapy as “certainly discredited” as a treatment for mental or behavioral disorders.
In the West, past-life regression practitioners use hypnosis and suggestion to promote recall in their patients, using a series of questions designed to elicit statements and memories about the past life’s history and identity. Some practitioners also use bridging techniques from a client’s current-life problem to bring “past-life stories” to conscious awareness. Practitioners believe that unresolved issues from alleged past lives may be the cause of their patients’ problems. One technique for accessing memories from a past life is detailed in a study by Nicholas P. Spanos from Carleton University, Ontario, Canada. Subjects of a study were at first told that they would be undergoing a hypnosis, and afterwards told, “You are now in a different life, living in another life that you have lived before in another time. You are now reliving that other life that you lived once before in a different time.” Next, after the administer asks “What name can I call you by? I want you to look down and tell me what you are wearing. Describe everything you are wearing in detail. Where are you?” Afterwards, the subjects were to chronicle the information that they could remember after regression in a past life. Past life regression can be achieved in as little as 15 minutes, but to recall past a point of death, and into “soul memories”, it takes upwards of 45 minutes of trance induction. However, with psychotherapy clients who believe in past lives, irrespective of whether or not past lives exist, the use of past lives as a tool has been suggested.
A 1976 study found that 40% of hypnotizable subjects described new identities and used different names when given a suggestion to regress past their birth. In the 1990s a series of experiments undertaken by Nicholas Spanos examined the nature of past life memories. Descriptions of alleged past lives were found to be extremely elaborate, with vivid, detailed descriptions. This, however, is not indicative of the validity of this therapeutic method. Subjects who reported memories of past lives exhibited high hypnotizability, and patients demonstrated that the expectations conveyed by the experimenter were most important in determining the characteristics of the reported memories. The degree to which the memories were considered credible by the experimental subjects was correlated most significantly to the subjects’ beliefs about reincarnation and their expectation to remember a past life rather than hypnotizability. Spanos’ research leads him to the conclusion that past lives are not memories, but actually social constructions based on patients acting “as if” they were someone else, but with significant flaws that would not be expected of actual memories. To create these memories, Spanos’ subjects drew upon the expectations established by authority figures and information outside of the experiment such as television, novels, life experiences and their own desires. In sum, it is therefore suggested that past lives are likely false memories, implanted through the susceptibility of the hypnotic method.
Past life regression has been critiqued for being unethical on the premises that it lacks any evidence to support these claims, and that the act increases one’s susceptibility to false memories. Luis Cordón states that this can be problematic as it creates delusions under the guise of therapy. The memories are experienced as vivid as those based on events experienced in one’s life, impossible to differentiate from true memories of actual events, and accordingly any damage can be difficult to undo. As past life regression is rooted on the premise of reincarnation, many APA accredited organizations have begun to refute this as a therapeutic method on the basis of it being unethical. Additionally, the hypnotic methodology that underpins past life regression places the participant in a vulnerable position, susceptible to implantation of false memories. Research is needed to further understand the lack of validity of this method and to emphasize the potential harms that result of this therapeutic method being implemented in clinical practice.