Flashbacks and Interpretation
Some believers in reincarnation say they’ve had so-called flashbacks of past lives, sometimes through the allegedly scientific process of past-life regressions, a kind of hypnosis.
The main difficulty here lies in the believer’s interpretation of their experience. What may seem like sure evidence of reincarnation to some might be explained differently by others.
Alternate interpretations of the flashback experience take two main forms–empirically vs. spiritually based.
Spiritually based alternatives to the theory of reincarnation of are three main types. Essentially, spiritually based hypotheses suggest that, instead of seeing a past life, a person is
- Intuitively connecting with another human being
- Sensing the presence and memories of a deceased person
- Being deceived by a demonic presence that mimics a deceased person
The philosopher C. D. Broad’s idea of the psychic factor develops the second of the above.
Essentially a Western retelling of the Buddhist idea of skandhas,¹ Broad believes that at death certain mental qualities, if not the total personality, exist for a time to eventually dissipate into nothingness. This is what he calls the psychic factor. If sufficiently clustered, these hopes, fears, dispositions, desires and memories attach themselves to another person.
Broad believes the psychic factor could also associate with an embryo, having a vital influence on human personality development.²
Genes and Social Conditioning
Another way to explain flashbacks from so-called past life regressions is becoming increasing visible. This has to do with DNA and the idea of ancestral imprinting. The idea is that certain ancestral memories are inherited through our genetic code.
To this day the precise neuropsychological mechanisms of memory remain unclear. Until memory is fully understood, it seems reasonable to ask whether certain memories are genetically transmitted.
The psychiatrist Carl G. Jung recognized this possibility:
Besides these collective deposits, which contain nothing specifically individual, the psyche may also inherit memory acquisitions of a definite individual stamp.³
An additional question is whether environmental stimuli could trigger the recall of genetically inherited memories.
Researchers generally agree that memory doesn’t work like a digital camera. Memory is almost always an imaginative reconstruction of past events. Accordingly, our interpretation of genetic memories would likely be colored by psychological factors and socially conditioned beliefs.
A Holistic Model
Life is often bigger than any single theory or explanation. And it’s tempting to try to combine several perspectives into a unified theory that would look at physiological, psychological, environmental and psi factors contributing to the belief in past lives.
For instance, could our genetic blueprint act as a filter that facilitates, colors or hinders an encounter with souls, spirits and other paranormal influences?
By way of analogy, our genetic code could have the same kind of effect as a stained glass window. Only certain paranormal influences and numinosities4 would be permitted to enter consciousness, just as only some colors of the spectrum pass through a stained glass window.
After these influences and numinosities have passed through the genetic filter, psychological traits and social conditioning would play a significant role in determining how one responds to them, both intellectually and emotionally.
In short, we usually try to make sense of unconventional experiences according to who we are and what we believe at a given moment. This depends, in large part, on our psychological makeup and worldview.
A holistic model does not rule out but embraces the possibility of spiritual influences acting on the psyche. But it does not assume these influences are evidence of past lives. Nor does it assume the influences are ethically good or conducive to mental health. Instead, external spirits or powers acting on the individual are seen as just that–they are not necessarily traces from ‘past lives’ nor authentic dimensions of the person experiencing them.
This is not a particularly new idea. In fact, some 2,000 years ago biblical writers earnestly warned fellow seekers about deceptive spiritual influences:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1).
What is new is our increased knowledge of physiological, psychological and social factors that might underpin and make a person vulnerable to spiritual and self deception.
¹ Buddhist belief posits five skandhas, or aggregates of attachment which together form the total personality. Impermanent and subject to change, they are said to be the source of all suffering.
² See John Hick, The Philosophy of Religion, second edition, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973: 114.
³ Carl Jung cited in Gerald S. Blum, Psychoanalytic Theories of Personality, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964: 24.
4 Numinosity is not a common word but it’s a good one. For its definition follow these links: http://epages.wordpress.com/2008/12/12/numinosity/ and http://earthpages.wordpress.com/2008/12/12/numinous/
Copyright © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.