Remembrance of Lives Past

Long a staple of many eastern cultures and religions, past life recall gained a following in Western countries through the influential books by Helena Blavatsky and her Theosophical society. Since hypnosis had gained certain respectability due to optimistic medical researchers studying human memory, exploring human reincarnation through hypnotic regression was a natural enough development.   During the 1950s, “past life regression therapy” using hypnosis to explore past lives of patients and resolving past-life issues to improve their lives in the present began attracting media attention. Although mainstream psychology never took the movement seriously, the fact that many true believers did was enough to stir up interest.

What finally launched past-life regression into the big time was the Bridey Murphy case of the 1950s. When amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein regressed a Colorado housewife named Virginia Tighe, her vivid memories of a previous life as a 19th century Irish immigrant named Bridey Murphy was convincing enough to inspire Bernstein’s bestselling book, The Search for Bridey Murphy. Despite numerous holes in Bridey’s story, and the lack of any evidence that “Bridey Murphy” ever existed, Bernstein continued to trumpet the story as proof of reincarnation. Although experts concluded that Bernstein’s use of leading questions had influenced Tighe’s recollections and that many details of the Bridey Murphy story stemmed from her own childhood, the case continues to be invoked by die-hard supporters of past life regression.

Which brings us to Arnall Bloxham

Born in 1881, Arnall Bloxham was a British hypnotherapist who developed a strong interest in reincarnation. Inspired by the Bridey Murphy case, Bloxham dedicated more than twenty years of his life to studying past life regression. Not only did he consider past life regression as a way of proving reincarnation, he also used it to treat anxiety problems in his patients. Beginning in the 1950s, Bloxham carried out past-life regression experiments on more than four hundred subjects. Assisted by his wife Dulcie, the sessions were painstakingly recorded on tapes which Bloxham would later play at various informal meetings with fellow believers in reincarnation. Dulcie Bloxham also wrote a book in 1958 titled Who Was Ann Ockenden in which she described the seven different lives recalled by one of her husband’s subjects.

Although the formal past-life regression sessions ended with the Dulcie’s death, Arnall Bloxham continued his practice as a hypnotherapist and even went on to serve as the president of the British Society of Hypnotherapists. Everything changed during the 1970s when British television producer Jeffrey Iverson took an interest in Bloxham’s work. After painstaking research, Iverson produced a television documentary which premiered on the BBC. Titled The Bloxham Tapes, the show presented actual hypnotic sessions with some of Bloxham’s patients and described Iverson’s attempts at verifying the past-life information that they provided.

Bloxham’s unquestioned star patient was a Welsh housewife who was only identified under the pseudonym of “Jane Evans”. While hypnotized, she recalled seven different lives including a Roman matron named Livonia (who happened to be married to the tutor of the future Emperor Constantine) and, most famously, a 12th century Jewish woman named Rebecca who lived in the English city of York.

Iverson took great care in verifying the extensive details that “Rebecca of York” provided of her life and the savage persecution that the Jews of her era often faced. She described hiding with one of her children in a crypt beneath a small church “near a big copper gate” before they were found and brutally murdered. Working with historians, Iverson was able to establish that “Rebecca’s” recall matched known historical accounts of Jewish persecution during that time period and also identified the church she described as St. Mary’s Church, near Coppergate in York. Even more astoundingly, an actual crypt was discovered beneath the church in 1975 which had been previously unknown.   Jeffrey Iverson published his findings in a 1976 book titled More Lives Than One? The book, along with the BBC broadcast, was presented as absolute proof of reincarnation.

Unfortunately for Bloxham and Iverson, later critics were far more skeptical.   As Ian Wilson pointed out in his 1982 book, Reincarnation? The Claims Investigated, all of the evidence that Bloxham and Iverson had presented could be explained by the phenomenon of cryptomnesia, i.e., forgotten memories returning without being recognized as such by the subject (a particular problem with hypnotic recall). As for their star case, Jane Evans and “Rebecca of York”, Wilson raised a rather obvious point: “Rebecca of York” was a fictional character. While the persecution of Jews in the 12th century was very real, Rebecca of York was a central figure in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel, Ivanhoe (give yourself a literary pat on the back if you spotted this too).     Many of the details “recalled” by Jane Evans matched points in Scott’s book (not to mention the 1952 movie of the same name featuring Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca). Several of Jane Evans’ other past lives also resembled fictional characters (the Roman matron Livonia strongly resembles a character in Louis de Wohl’s novel, The Living Wood).

But what about the previously undiscovered crypt under St. Mary’s Church? Since crypts are a common feature in many medieval church buildings, the presence of a previously unknown one is likely not that remarkable. As well, Jane Evans’ description was vague at best so it was mostly guesswork on Iverson’s part that St. Mary’s Church was the building that she identified. There was no evidence that St. Mary’s Church ever had a copper gate and the “Coppergate” in York referred to the name of the local road in York, not an actual gate (and “copper” may have been an Old English variation on “cooper” or barrelsmith rather than the metal). None of the other evidence that Iverson raised in the BBC documentary or his book stood up to careful scrutiny either.

Although the Bloxham Tapes are still cited as evidence for past-life recall by true believers, the case of Jane Evans, along with all other cases of past-life regression, are classic examples of cryptomnesia formed through hypnotic suggestion. A series of experiments in the 1990s by the psychologist Nicholas Spanos found that the amount of detail in past life recall was linked to the suggestibility of the person being hypnotized as well as the expectations conveyed by the hypnotist. In a book based on his research, Spanos concluded that past life recall was a social construction process formed by patients trying to comply with the hypnotist’s direction by creating memories based on their own life experiences, including material taken from novels or movies.   The amount of detail provided in these recalled past lives were usually determined by the hypnotist’s expectations as well as the patient’s own belief in reincarnation.

Along with past-life recall, Spanos extended his findings to “recovered memories” of recall and multiple personality disorder and suggested that suggestible people can form new memories and, at times, whole new identities based on what is expected of them. For that reason, the past two decades has seen numerous prosecutions of people accused of sexual crimes based on “recovered memory” testimony with lurid details of satanic abuse that seems just as fantastic as anything provided during past-life recall sessions. Despite the moral panics that these satanic abuse cases inspire (and the often expensive and lengthy criminal court cases that result from them), the lack of real evidence to support these fantastic claims highlight the very real danger of depending on hypnotic recall and suggestion to retrieve forgotten memories.

If Arnall Bloxham’s work with past-life recall proves anything, it’s that hypnotic regression is a notoriously unreliable method for retrieving any evidence of past lives. While there are still some hypnotherapists around that offer past-life regression to help patients deal with emotional problems, the principle of “let the buyer beware” still applies.