RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about a controversial theory about living and dying and living again: reincarnation. It's long been a central tenet of certain spiritual traditions but it's not an experience that's been rigorously tested by many scientists. Enter Jim Tucker. He's a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia and he is doing exactly that - testing claims of reincarnation, especially those made by children. Dr. Tucker joins us from the Virginia Foundation to talk about the science behind this phenomenon. Thanks so much for being with us.
DR. JIM TUCKER: Thanks very much for having me.
MARTIN: When did you first begin to get interested in this, in the idea of reincarnation as a ripe subject for scientific inquiry?
TUCKER: Well, I got interested in it in the late '90s, but this work has actually been going on at the University of Virginia for 50 years. Over the decades, we've now study our 2,500 cases of children who report memories of past lives. And what we try to do is to determine exactly what they have said and what's happened and then see if it matches the life of somebody who lived and died before. Once I got involved, I began to focus on American cases. I have explained in this new book that I have out, and really some of the American ones are quite compelling.
MARTIN: Let's talk about a few of those. You mentioned your recent book. It's called "Return to Life." And you chronicle the stories of many children, including one that got a lot of national attention. It was the story of James Leininger. He was a boy who remembered being a World War II fighter pilot. Can you walk us through that case?
TUCKER: Sure. So, James is the son of a Christian couple in Louisiana. And when he was little, he loved his toy planes. But also around the time of his second birthday having horrific nightmares four or five times a week of being a plane crash. And then during the day, he talked about this plane crash and said that he had been a pilot and that he had flown off of a boat. And his dad asked him the name of it, and he said Natoma. And he said he had been shot down by the Japanese, that he had been killed at Iwo Jima and that he had a friend on the boat named Jack Larsen. Well, it turns out that there was an aircraft carrier called the USS Natoma Bay that was stationed in the Pacific during World War II. In fact, it was involved in Iwo Jima. And it lost one pilot there, a young man named James Huston. James Huston's plane crashed exactly the way that James Leininger had described - hit in the engine, exploding into fire, crashing into the water and quickly sinking. And when that happened, the pilot of the plane next to his was named Jack Larsen.
MARTIN: And how old was James when he was making these claims?
TUCKER: Well, it started when he was two - and a very young two.
MARTIN: That's amazing.
TUCKER: Like with most of these cases, it faded away by the time he was five or six or seven, which is typical. But it was certainly there quite strong for some time.
MARTIN: And how do you know that these kids aren't echoing things they have heard their parents talk about or making up stories, using their imaginations, articulating dreams they may have had?
TUCKER: Yeah. Well, certainly with the imagination part - if we had never been able to verify that what the child said matched somebody who died, then you could certainly just mark it down as being fantasy. But in cases like James', the previous person, James Huston, was so obscure - I mean, he was a pilot who was killed 50 years before and he was from Pennsylvania and James was in Louisiana - it seems absolutely impossible that he could have somehow gained this information as a 2-year-old through some sort of normal means. In fact, it took his dad a couple of years - well, really more than a couple of years, three or four years - to be able to track it all down and see that in fact that what James was saying all did fit for this pilot who was killed.
MARTIN: So, break down the science for me, because there will be a lot of people who hear this who think there's just no way.
TUCKER: Well, I think it's very difficult to just map these cases onto materialist understanding of reality. I mean, if physical matter, if the physical world is all there is, then I don't know how you can accept these cases and believe in them. But I think there are good reasons to think that consciousness could be considered a separate entity from physical reality. And in fact, some leading scientists in the past, like Max Planck, who's the father of quantum theory, said that he viewed consciousness as fundamental and that matter was derived from it. So, in that case, it would mean that consciousness would not necessarily be dependent on a physical brain in order to survive and could continue after the physical brain and after the body dies. In these cases, it seems, at least on the face of it, that a consciousness has then become attached to a new brain and has shown up as past life memories.
MARTIN: This may be a dumb question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: so, does that mean, does a consciousness need to inhabit a body?
TUCKER: Well, we don't know, of course. But in a case like James Leininger, I mean, there was 50 years between lives. Now, who's to say he didn't inhabit another body in the meantime. But my guess would be no. Now, in this world, it may need to be in a physical body in order to be expressed but it may well be that our brains are conduits for consciousness but it is actually being created somewhere else.
MARTIN: So, what are you trying to reveal or prove? What to you would constitute an important scientific development in this field?
TUCKER: Well, I don't know that I'm necessarily trying to prove anything, but I'm trying to sort of find out for myself what seems to be going on here. And I think these cases contribute to the body of evidence that consciousness, at least in certain circumstances, can survive the death of the body, that life after death isn't necessarily just a fantasy or something to be considered on faith, but that it can also be approached in an analytic way and the idea can be judged on its merits.
MARTIN: You were clearly interesting in this for a long time and it's what motivates your work, but I wonder, as you have evaluated so many cases over the years, how has that informed your own understanding of an afterlife and what happens when we die? Has that changed at all for you?
TUCKER: Well, I've certainly become more persuaded that there is more than just a physical reality. I do think it's quite likely that, if we do survive, that there's not just one experience that everyone has, that the afterlife may be as varied as life in this world.
MARTIN: That's Jim Tucker. He's a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and the author of "Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children who Remember Past Lives." Thank you so much for talking with us.
TUCKER: Thanks very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.