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Photo by Adam Ewing
The EEG cap designed by Ross Dunseath of the Westphal Neuroimaging Laboratory enables extra-sensory studies at U.Va.
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Dr. Bruce Greyson, director of DOPS at U.Va.
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Dr. Jim Tucker specializes in research of reincarnation cases.
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Tucker researched the case of a 4-year-old boy who claimed to be a Hollywood agent in a previous life.
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Photo by Adam Ewing
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Photo by Adam Ewing
The Shielded Room, an experimental chamber used by the Division of Perceptual Studies
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Photo by Adam Ewing
Ross Dunseath demonstrates the EEG and FMRI instruments that monitor research subjects in the Shielded Room.
Dr. Jim Tucker admits that he encounters things in his daily research that he just can’t explain.
Take, for example, the case of James Leininger, a boy from Lafayette, Louisiana, fascinated with airplanes, who began having nightmares when he was 2 years old. “Airplane crash on fire,” James would cry out, an atypical comment for his age. Over the coming months, he would inform his parents, Bruce and Andrea, that he’d been a pilot, also named James, who flew planes off a boat and his plane had been shot down. When Bruce asked him who shot his plane, the boy, a bit exasperated, said, “the Japanese.” A few weeks later, he revealed that he had flown a Corsair plane, and remembered the name of the boat: “Natoma.” Shown a map, the youngster pointed to the waters surrounding Iwo Jima and stated that this was where he died. He added that “Jack Larsen” was there.
James’ father, a conservative Christian who struggled with the idea of reincarnation, was a little spooked. He did some research and discovered that there was indeed a USS Natoma Bay involved at the battle of Iwo Jima, and one of its Corsair pilots was lost in the mission, a man named James Huston. In the violence of the larger war, the crash was a nondescript event not widely reported or remembered.
“Huston’s plane had crashed in exactly the way it had been described by the boy,” says Tucker, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS). “It got hit in the engine, burst into flames, crashed in the water and quickly sank. The pilot of the plane next to his was named Jack Larsen.”
Tucker has been on a bit of a media tour — NPR, The Atlantic Weekly, local radio — touting this and other compelling and campfire-worthy stories of reported reincarnation as if they were rare dinosaur bones or unearthed scrolls. James’ tale is also a key chapter in Tucker’s new book, Return to Life, the second he’s written on the past-life studies he conducts at DOPS. (The Leiningers have their own book on their story, Soul Survivor.) The child psychologist interviewed James, his parents and their relatives; investigated their claims; and conducted a long-running forensics investigation of the timeline of events — when did James talk, when did the father start investigating, how consistent and detailed were all of their statements over time?
Tucker’s “a-ha!” moment, as he writes in his book, was that James and his parents had been interviewed about his claims for a TV show before the details of Huston’s demise were brought to light.
"Part of studying the case is assessing the trustworthiness of the people telling us the stories,” he says. “But we’re also looking for verification beyond what the parents tell us. We don’t take anything on faith if we don’t have to.” From background checks to interviews with other witnesses, Tucker claims to relish digging into the hard details. “This is not a matter of trying to prove something that is part of our belief system. All of us try to be careful. We’re built to be skeptical. That’s the approach we take. A case like James Leininger — to some extent, that has sort of been the tipping point for me, because that one is hard to refute.”
Tucker keeps watch over a collection of filing cabinets of reincarnation case studies at DOPS’ office on the east side of Charlottesville. The accounts may not always be as rich as James’ story, but the stories contained here are fascinating, freakish and — when they can be verified and tested by Tucker and DOPS — unexplainable.
Being a U.S. case, the Leininger story is relatively rare. Most documented accounts of past-life experiences come out of Buddhist cultures, where belief in reincarnation is strong. “India is where people go because the kids are more easily found,” Tucker says in his native Carolina drawl. “But cases have been found wherever anyone has looked, all the continents except for Antarctica. Even here in Virginia. We recently investigated a case in Mechanicsville where a young boy spoke of having a past life. But it’s harder to find and document cases in the U.S. We have to wait for people to contact us.”
Like, for example, the conservative Oklahoma couple whose 5-year-old son, Ryan, was convinced he had lived in Hollywood, providing details of meeting stars like Marilyn Monroe and feeling genuinely lonely for his “other life.” One day, when he was 4, his mom checked out a big Hollywood picture book from the library and they perused it together. “Hey Mama, that’s George,” he said, pointing to a caption-less photo that featured actor George Raft. “We did a picture together,” he told his mom. Then Ryan pointed to the man standing next to Raft and jumped up and down. “That guy’s me. I found me.” The man Ryan was describing was a longtime talent agent, and the facts of his life matched eerily well with the boy’s memories.
The idea of departing souls entering new bodies is a well-worn concept, of course. Throughout the ages, dramatists and poets ranging from Shakespeare to Edgar Allan Poe to Gene Roddenberry have milked reincarnation for its time-traveling ironies, while learned men from Plato to Charles Darwin to Carl Sagan have pondered the cosmic possibilities. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, major academic institutions were regularly conducting parapsychology studies of past lives, along with mind reading and spiritual manifestations — one of the most famous programs was at Duke University, first administered by Dr. Joseph Rhine in the 1930s.
The Rhine Institute continues its work in Durham, North Carolina, but it is no longer a part of Duke, having separated in the mid-1960s. And few respected major universities consider serious study of the paranormala legitimate enterprise. “There are plenty of people in medicine and science today who think it’s a complete waste of time,” Tucker admits.
Little wonder that research on the subject is largely confined to a stamping ground of UFO journals, cable TV spook-outs and the screaming Internet. But for 47 years, Thomas Jefferson’s university has had a fully functioning parapsychology research unit operating under its jurisdiction, one that studies and tests not only reincarnation cases but also ESP, deathbed apparitions, mediums and otherworldly things normally found on the Syfy Network late at night.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and every case blows my mind,” Dr. Bruce Greyson, the director of DOPS, tells me. “But the ones that stick with you are the ones that are totally inexplicable.”
Greyson’s specialty is looking into near-death experiences — for example, when an unconscious patient who was briefly pronounced dead can recount in intricate detail what was happening in the emergency room. His office, cluttered with papers and reports (it looks like a ’70s TV cop show), has another huge filing cabinet, this one stocked with more than 1,000 near-death cases. “They fill out questionnaires for me,” the former editor of The Journal of Near-Death Experiences says of his interviewees. “Some of them have been doing it for more than 30 years. We also have the subjects’ psychological tests, their attitudes, beliefs, personality types, values, the effects of the experience — we’ve got tons of data now.”
The lab is partly responsible for introducing near-death experiences into popular culture. In 1975, Raymond Moody, then a psychiatric resident at DOPS, wrote an early book on them called Life After Life that became a bestseller. “Moody coined the term,” Greyson says. “Before that they were called ‘deathbed visions.’ We have a collection of cases that were collected here even before we knew what they were, and recent cases that we can compare them to.”
Greyson, a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences, says that what happens after the experience says much about a story’s authenticity. “People almost always come back universally with altered attitudes, beliefs, values; they become much less materialistic, more loving and altruistic, more calm. They value life more. Most importantly, they are not afraid of dying, they are willing to take risks. They may end a relationship, change careers. …We have lots of people who were in competitive business careers and chucked it all to go into teaching.”
Nearly everyone goes through what Greyson calls “the tunnel.” “They describe going through a tunnel to get from this realm to another realm,” he explains. “In the cultures where there aren’t tunnels, they don’t talk about that. They talk about falling down a well, or going to a cave. One fellow, a truck driver, said he was sucked into a long tailpipe.”
Couldn’t these just be vivid hallucinations? Dreams caused by trauma?
“If they are,” he says with a grin, “they are unlike any other dreams I’ve ever heard of. I’ve talked to people many decades after their experience, and they still describe it crystal-clear. Try to remember a dream you had 20 years ago or even last night. You don’t change your life because of a dream.”
Dr. Ian Stevenson, the founder of DOPS, told his staff that he would try to communicate with them from the next world when he died. He hasn’t made contact yet. But if there is any one spirit lingering in the hallways of the Division of Perceptual Studies, it is that of its originator, whose presence is still omnipresent and felt daily.
When I visit the lab’s Ian Stevenson Memorial Library, crammed with rare paranormal books and manuscripts, I meet Sarah Gradecki, a medical student and summer volunteer, hunkered over a table strewn with papers. She’s logging some of Stevenson’s former case studies into a computer database. “My interest has definitely been piqued,” she says of the research. “But all of the best ones have been coded at this point.”
The prolific Stevenson, who passed away in 2007, gave the impression of a proper Englishman, but he was actually born in Canada. His Scottish father was Ottawa’s chief correspondent for The Times in the United Kingdom, so he was genetically inclined toward an interviewer’s role, probing and querying.
“At times he could come across as the most typical staid academician you’d ever want to meet,” Jim Tucker says of Stevenson. “He often wore a three-piece suit, and he tended to talk and write in a very precise way. Meanwhile, he was uncovering the wildest things. But his approach was always careful and methodical, he just happened to be looking in an area that wasn’t considered respectable.”
Stevenson was the U.Va. School of Medicine’s respected chairman of psychiatry when he tossed away a mainstream medical career to devote himself full time to what Greyson says was “his hobby” — studying cases of children reporting past lives. His belief was that memories were most vivid in the very young. “I cannot emphasize too strongly that a child who is going to remember a previous life has only about three years in which he will talk about it,” the professor told Omni Magazine in a rare 1988 interview. “Before the age of 2 or 3, he lacks the ability. After 5, too much else will be happening in his life, and he will begin to forget.”
Thanks to a large bequest to U.Va. from the man who invented the Xerox machine, Chester Carlson (channeling the wishes of his wife, Dorris), the Division of Perceptual Studies was established in 1967, with Stevenson installed as its director. “At first, the university wasn’t happy with taking the money,” recounts Greyson. “So Ian said, ‘I’ll take it to another university,’ and they changed their minds.”
With the funds, Stevenson took multiple trips around the world to India, Africa and the Far and Near East, documenting past-life cases and producing 14 books of findings. These include Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, as well as his magnum opus, Reincarnation and Biology. To his admirers, Stevenson was a research pioneer who showed the interconnection of birthmarks and injuries moving from one body to the next, documenting an unusual number of past-life accounts involving sudden death.
“Violent death is a factor in our cases,” Stevenson told Omni. “Almost 75 percent of our children appear to recall the way they died, and if death was violent, they remember it in vivid detail.”
Reaction to this from the mainstream medical and academic communities was uneasy. In a special 1977 issue of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases devoted to Stevenson’s work, Dr. Harold Lief wrote, “Either he is making a colossal mistake, or he will be known as the Galileo of the twentieth century.”
Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine and a Scientific American columnist, believes that Stevenson’s credentials gave him a veneer of respectability not enjoyed by others in the paranormal field. “He had the academic background, so he’s not on the same level as quackery or amateurism as the other reincarnation-ists.”
It’s still bunk, the skeptic maintains. “From the stuff I’ve read by Stevenson, he was collecting stories by people. But that’s all they were, stories. And there’s no way to corroborate the stories themselves to prove they represent something real. For example, he couldn’t control for people exaggerating or misremembering or filling in with their own memories.”
“It was a lot more than collecting stories,” answers Greyson, who first worked with Stevenson in 1976 when he joined the U.Va faculty as an assistant professor of psychiatry. “Ian would go track down the village the child referred to, sometimes several kilometers away in an area with few roads or railroads and he would verify many of the facts that the child mentioned. He would sometimes take the child to that village and have the child guide him around, identifying people and places he’d never seen before in this life.”
Stevenson earned acclaim for his research during his unorthodox career. The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded in 1975 that his work was “difficult to explain on any assumption other than reincarnation.”
“He was respected, in a similar way Dr. Greyson and I have earned respect for our clinical work,” says Tucker, who was the medical director for U.Va’s Child Psychiatric Clinic for nearly a decade. “People who know of our work, they may think it’s goofy that we have this interest, but they realize that we’re reasonable and responsible.”
DOPS has also been self-sustaining. Taxpayers and/or the university do not fund the lab. It runs on private donations and large endowments like those bestowed by Chester Carlson and Priscilla Bonner and Margerie Bonner Lowry, two sisters who were once silent-movie stars. Priscilla married a plastic surgeon, E. Bertrand Woolfan, who became rich working on Hollywood faces. Margerie wed author Malcolm Lowry (who died in 1958), and, having no heirs, gave generously to the lab.
“There’s no other unit like ours,” Greyson says. “And it’s unique to have a division set up like ours. Jim Tucker and I are the only paid professors here. We have a receptionist, a research assistant and we have people who are on the faculty of the University but don’t get paid, and folks who have retired from other positions and volunteer their time.”
Greyson and Tucker recognize that their research cuts against certain religious beliefs. “I suspect that some people know about us but don’t email us,” Tucker says. “We do get conservative Christians who are quite opposed to it. One woman said she felt like she was committing a sin just by buying a book on reincarnation. But she just couldn’t ignore what her daughter was saying to her [about past-life memories].”
“We’re not just doing this to chase ghost stories,” says assistant professor Emily Kelly, who, in addition to her academic work, has been a longtime volunteer researcher at DOPS. “We want to make people understand the larger issues that we’re dealing with, and to look at the bigger picture, which is that of the relationship between consciousness and the brain. Does the brain cause the mind, or are they simply correlated and it’s not a causal connection? That’s a huge question.”
Over the years, Kelly has concentrated on documenting deathbed apparitions — instances where the newly deceased are seen by others — and verifying the claims of psychic mediums. “One of the big problems with mediums is that they are usually working with the person sitting right there talking to them, and they are getting a lot of feedback,” she explains, “so one of the ways we devised was to have a proxy sit with them, someone else.”
In the test, someone who wanted to contact a deceased relative or friend was solicited. That person would provide a photograph of the loved one, a neutral head shot, which Kelly would take to the medium. “We would record what the medium said, and then we would send the transcript along with fake transcripts and have the person rate them. We got very significant results, particularly with one particular medium, who did six readings, and the subjects picked his all six times.”
Much of the extra-sensory testing occurs in what is ominously referred to as the Shielded Room. The centerpiece of the DOPS laboratory area, this square vault is constructed to block extraneous electrical interference (“so no outside devices can be in play,” Greyson explains). It is outfitted with an easy chair and a whole lot of wires, plugs and things that go ping. What goes on here is as close to Ghostbusters as the Division of Perceptual Studies gets. The adjoining Ray Westphal Neuroimaging Laboratory assists in the collection and monitoring of extra-sensory data.
“We’ve had people tested here who claimed to be able to do things at will,” says Ross Dunseath, co-director of the Westphal lab, adding that the Shielded Room was specifically created for psychological data-gathering. “We’ve tested people who say they are able to leave their bodies and affect other things.” So far, while some experiments have fizzled out (and not all claims are taken seriously), they’ve detected no obvious hoaxsters.
Dunseath is holding a device that measures a person’s respiration, as he points out the room’s 128-channel EEG system. “We usually set the person here in this chair and present various stimuli, audio and visual.” There’s another room in the office, he says, across the hall and upstairs, where they test to see if people are “presumably transmitting. We see if there is telepathic communication between the two.”
He tells of one subject who had a near-death experience and began reporting psychic abilities. To test her, they set up an Egely Wheel, a so-called “vitality indicator” not influenced by heat, convection or electromagnetic energy. The wheel was put in a sealed plastic case to isolate it from air currents, and he says that the woman made the wheel rotate in trial after trial. “She would put her hand near it, and it would take 15 to 30 seconds before it started rotating. We did 10 trials of that. Every last one of those trials, it rotated.”
Dunseath still marvels. “I’d like to get her back in here.”
In today’s popular culture, the concepts studied at U.Va.’s singular paranormal research lab are as popular as ever — bestselling books (and movies) like Heaven Is for Real, which tells of a young boy’s near-death experience, are big at the box office. But serious study of unexplained phenomena is still largely delegated to the fringe. And, for the folks at the Division of Perceptual Studies, claiming to do serious scientific work, battling back naysayers can be a never-ending task.
Last year, in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology at New York University (and the author of the popular book Awakenings), said that near-death experiences have nothing to do with the afterlife. “A few seconds of altered consciousness as one emerges from coma would be enough,” he said, to give someone a lasting and unforgettable experience.
Shermer, from Skeptic magazine, stresses that just because something is unexplained “doesn’t mean that it’s paranormal or supernatural. People think that the unexplained means that they can fill in the gap with their imagination, but in science there are a lot of things we don’t understand. What do you do with those things? Nothing. They are just unsolved mysteries.” As for the work at DOPS, Shermer calls it “pseudo-science. It appears to be scientific but really isn’t. It’s kind of a post-hoc investigation, finding the patterns and filling in the blank spaces with things from the imagination.”
“I’m not totally closed to the fact that there may be something out there. Like ESP, for example,” says Scott O. Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University and a longtime contributor to Skeptical Inquirer. “But I still haven’t seen any research that is dependable or replicable. I guess the question is: Is this the best investment of time and money? There are people who have spent decades of their careers looking into [the paranormal], and they haven’t found anything.”
“There’s more to this world than the physical realm as we understand it,” Bruce Greyson maintains. “We don’t understand the physical realm very well. We are told now by physicists that 95 percent of matter in the universe is so-called ‘dark matter’ we can’t see, and we have no idea what the properties are, so maybe dark matter and energy are somehow involved in what we call ‘the spiritual world.’ Our critics like to say that you’ve been studying this for a hundred years, and there’s no answer yet. I could counter that there’s really been very little work done in this area. The total money spent on this has been less than a small percentage of one cancer study.”
Nearly 50 years after its founding, the greater U.Va. community seems split on the question of the Division of Perceptual Studies. A recent article on Jim Tucker’s work in the University of Virginia’s alumni magazine, Virginia, prompted a burst of online responses ranging from “this degrades the integrity of the University” and “what’s next: A Bigfoot institute?” to “[this] research is most important.”
“A lot of people wish we would go away,” Greyson says with a sigh. “But there are also people who think we are doing groundbreaking work here.”
“It was a very fair-minded article,” says Tucker. “Reincarnation is certainly a topic that generates interest and emotion, but it’s incredible how negative people are. I hope they don’t go through life that way.”
To learn more about research at the Division of Perpetual Studies, visit visitmedicine.virginia.edu.