This article was first published in volume 15 of the 'Skeptical Intelligencer', 2012, p1.
This issue of the Skeptical Intelligencer features a review of a book about past-life regression (Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian L. Weiss), the reviewer being award-winning medical journalist Jon Danzig.
Past-life regression, usually using hypnosis, is an example of what James Randi calls 'an unsinkable rubber duck': each time it puts in an appearance it is effectively discredited, only to re-emerge at a later time, often with much ballyhoo on the part of the media.
The earliest example of this use of hypnosis of which sceptics may be aware is the case of 'Bridey Murphy' in the 1950s in Colorado (The Search for Bridey Murphy by Morey Bernstein, 1956). Housewife Virginia Tighe was hypnotically regressed to before her birth and gave a vivid account of life as a 19th century Irishwoman born 'Bridey Murphy' who, at the age of 17, married a barrister called Sean Brian McCarthy and moved from Cork to Belfast. No evidence was found that this woman actually existed but Ms Tighe herself had Irish roots and an Irish immigrant named Bridie Murphy Corkell had lived across the street from her in her childhood. The most likely conclusion is that the 'past life' was a fantasy constructed by Ms Tighe, which incorporated material known to her in her existing life.
My earliest memory of encountering the subject of past-life regression is my reading about it in one of the Sunday newspapers (I think it was the People), around my early teens in the 1960s. The only thing I remember is that it was claimed that a woman was hypnotically regressed to a previous incarnation and started speaking perfect French, despite having never spoken the language in her existing life. This stuck in my mind (for many years I was inclined to believe everything I read in the papers) until my next encounter with the phenomenon, which was an account of 'the Bloxham tapes' in the 1970s. Hypnotherapist Arnall Bloxham, who practised in Wales, made over 400 recordings of past-life hypnotic regressions. The Sunday Times did a series about this and a programme appeared on BBC television produced by Jeffrey Iverson, who also wrote a best-selling paperback called More Lives than One? The Evidence of the Remarkable Bloxham Tapes (1976). I recall watching the BBC programme and reading both the Sunday Times articles and Iverson's book with great interest. And it is indeed an interesting phenomenon, one certainly worthy of research, if only because of the profound experiences that some subjects do have. However, by that stage, while still wanting to believe in the authenticity of past-life regression, I was becoming more wary of paranormal explanations, and more interested in accounts grounded in mainstream cognitive and social psychology. One consideration whose significance I did I did not fully grasp at the time was the fact that Mr Iverson reported on only a handful of cases from over 400 of Mr Bloxham's subjects whose regressions he recorded. These regressions were vivid, detailed and full of historical information. In contrast, in the book Mr Iverson mentions that the lives described by many of the remaining subjects were mundane and unremarkable. If we merely assume some random distribution amongst the attributes that contribute to 'a convincing case', then chance alone may play a significant role in the remarkableness of the small fraction of cases deliberately selected for having those attributes.
The late Nicholas Spanos, Professor of Psychology at Carlton University in Ottawa, reported that around 40% of hypnotically suggestible subjects could be induced to experience a 'previous life' (see Multiple Identities & False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective, Washington: American Psychological Association, 1996). Though often very vivid and elaborate, they are best described as constructed fantasies generated by the person's expectations and beliefs and those conveyed by the experimenter. It is likely, in my opinion, that extra credence is given to the authenticity of these fantasies by the commonly-held belief that past-lives arise because the person has been 'put into a trance state' that has some very unusual properties. It is in fact unnecessary to posit this special state of mind to explain or even elicit these supposed 'past lives'. Equipped with the requisite imaginative skills, beliefs and expectations, and with sufficient preparation to feel committed to the task in hand and become absorbed in their inner world, a person is likely to have the experience of 'reliving a past life' without any of the trappings usually accompanying hypnosis.