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What Makes People Think They've Been Reincarnated?

And why are their past lives always so boring?
(Photo: otisarchives2/Flickr)

(Photo: otisarchives2/Flickr)

Bridey Murphy was born on December 20, 1798, in Cork, Ireland. Unlike most houses in Ireland, which were then made with brick or stone, Murphy said she grew up in one made of wood, called “The Meadows.” Her father was a lawyer—a barrister, rather—and so was the man she married at the age of 17. She died in 1864, at the age of 65, from a fall.

Hers was a normal enough story for a woman who lived in Ireland at the turn of the 18th century, except for one thing: It was first told in 1952 by a Midwestern woman named Virginia Tighe, who claimed to be Bridey Murphy’s reincarnation.

It began with a businessman named Morey Bernstein, who’d taken to hypnotism as something of a hobby, first gaining an interest after he watched a friend perform it as a party trick in the 1940s. Bernstein began researching the subject, and practiced performing it on his friends. Soon enough Bernstein met Virginia “Ginnie” Tighe, 27 years old at the time, and realized he had in her an ideal subject. Despite being something of a skeptic—she never claimed the things she said while under hypnosis were facts, instead only going so far as to say she wanted to believe them—Tighe took well to hypnosis. She was so well able to recall vivid memories of her early life that Bernstein asked if he could try to take her back even further, to before she was born. Tighe complied.

One young man claimed that he had been Julius Caesar. When asked to situate himself in history, he said it was the year 50 A.D., and he was currently the emperor of Rome. Of course, Julius Caesar died in the year 44. And he was never crowned emperor.

It was over their next several hypnosis sessions, which Bernstein recorded, that the story of Bridey Murphy unfurled. These recordings became the basis for a book Bernstein published later that year called The Search for Bridey Murphy. The book became a cultural sensation, lasting 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and inspiring faddish “come as you were” parties. (Get it?) Hypnotism-as-parlor trick took off, much of it focused on what would come to be called “past life regression.” In 1956, a movie adaption of The Search for Bridey Murphy was released; you can find the full film on YouTube.

By the time the movie came out, a genuine search for Bridey Murphy had already been carried out. Fact checking on the book had been haphazard and incomplete—only after it became a bestseller was any real scrutiny applied to the claims made by Tighe. A team of reporters and investigators went to Ireland in search of confirmation of Tighe’s story, but any similarities they turned up were negligible, or just off—there was a place called “The Meadows,” but it wasn’t where she said it’d be, and it wasn’t made of wood. She had some of the geography down pretty well, but the chronology was all wrong. There was indeed a church named St. Theresa, but it hadn’t been built until 1911, 47 years after Murphy was to have died. There was no substantial evidence found of the life of Bridey Murphy as told by Ginnie Tighe.

What investigators did find, though, was that Tighe had grown up across the street from an Irish immigrant named Bridie Murphy Corkell.

EVEN IN OUR TALES of past lives, human beings are incredibly predictable and frequently dull. This, to me, is the single most disappointing takeaway from studies on past life regression. In 1991, researchers at Carleton University in Canada published a study called “Secondary Identity Enactments During Past-Life Regression: A Sociocognitive Perspective” that evaluated several possible contributing factors for the development of a “past life identity.” Among them were psychopathology (which proved irrelevant; many if not most of those who produced past-life memories were completely sane), the power of hypnotist suggestion (in which subjects are found to incorporate details suggested by hypnotists seamlessly into their past lives), and the effects of their pre-existing beliefs about reincarnation.

What’s more interesting, to me, than why subjects reported past life identities, though, is what they said when they did it.

Of the 110 subjects hypnotized in the study, 35 reported a past life identity. Researchers found that these 35 people described past lives that shared a number of narrative themes: These subjects, all Canadian, unanimously recalled having Anglicized names in their previous lives, most of them common. Over three-quarters of them said they’d lived in the 19th or 20th century; all but one said they’d lived in a North American or Western European country. In other words, the past lives of the study’s subjects hewed very closely to times and places their present selves were familiar with.

Still, when told under hypnosis, seemingly spontaneously, the resulting accounts of past lives can appear too rich to be invention. And they’re not, completely: The stories told during past life regressions are often vivid and compelling and realistic because versions of them did happen, to someone. It’s just that the person they happened to should be able to get stuff right.

While most participants reported being fairly average in their former lives, one young man claimed that he had been Julius Caesar. When asked to situate himself in history, he said it was the year 50 A.D., and he was currently the emperor of Rome. Of course, Julius Caesar died in the year 44. And he was never crowned emperor.

After the experiment, the researchers asked the young man what subjects he was currently studying in school. It turned out he was taking a history class about Caesar. I am guessing he didn’t get an A.

IS ALL IT TAKES to convince oneself of a former life just a little hypnotist encouragement and a fondness for a certain historical figure or period in time?

I’d like to consider myself impervious to the power of suggestion, but that seems self-evidently untrue. Last week I got into a Twitter conversation with a pair of astrologers (as you do), and we ended up bonding over our shared status as Sagittarians. Somehow it came up that because we were Sagittarians, we were cosmically ordained to have a special fondness for horses. This inclination manifested in them in the form of childhood equestrian lessons, and in me in a lifelong obsession with Colonial America.

I told the astrologers that as a little girl, all I’d ever wanted was to be a colonial-era girl wearing a petticoat and riding a horse through a field somewhere. (Kind of like Felicity, the American Girl doll I grew up playing with.) They replied: “With your Libra in south node, you probably once were one in a past life!” I don’t even know what my south node is, or what it means to have Libra in it. But let me tell you, I was thrilled.