Is Reincarnation Possible?

In a Netflix series, UVA’s Dr. Jim Tucker says he has thousands of reasons to believe.

(photo by Lincoln Barbour)

In a spine-tingling scene from the Netflix documentary series, Surviving Death, a small boy points to a photograph of a playground in Brooklyn, a place he’s never been.

“My mom took me there,” he says, with quiet certainty. “This mom?” asks Dr. Jim Tucker, who points to the boy’s mother, Erica, who is baffled by her son’s vivid recollections.

“No,” the child responds, “My old mom.”

He’s speaking of a past life, something logic tells us isn’t possible. But, as the series reveals, Dr. Jim Tucker, child psychiatrist and director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia, has reason to believe reincarnation might be real.

For 20 years, Dr. Tucker has been exploring children’s claims of lives lived before their own, and 2,200 cases later, he has a trove of evidence to back up the phenomenon.

This journey into parapsychology, as the study is called, began in the 1960s when another psychiatrist, Dr. Ian Stevenson, then-UVA’s chairman of the Department of Psychiatry, became fascinated with reincarnation research.

“He began traveling to study these children,” says Dr. Tucker, who completed his undergraduate degree at UVA before earning his medical degree at the University of North Carolina. He began his career in private practice, but when he heard about Dr. Stevenson’s work, he was intrigued. His wife’s fascination with the paranormal didn’t hurt either.

“When my wife and I got together, she was interested in things like reincarnation and psychic abilities and so forth. So, to be honest, being with her in that relationship kind of woke me up a little bit and made me open to exploring things that I hadn’t considered before,” says Dr. Tucker. He volunteered his services to Dr. Stevenson, who eventually invited Dr. Tucker to join him in looking at children’s claims of reincarnation. “I traveled to Thailand and Burma, where I studied cases with a colleague of ours from Australia,” says Dr. Tucker. That’s where he began to see patterns.

For instance, in the claims he’s studied, children as young as three could recall a prior life, and most of the people they profess to have been in those lives died within a few years of their birth.

“The average age is four and a half years,” says Dr. Tucker. For the most part, children claim to have once been relative contemporaries not, say, Roman soldiers or Celtic tribesmen.

That was the case with Atlas, who is featured in Surviving Death. He was five, coming home from school, when his mother Erica says he looked out the window of the car and said, “I miss when my mom took me to the playground.” Not the playground they went to, but another one, Atlas said, with another mom.

Not only did Atlas claim to have known another mother, he provided her last name: Washington, and his own prior name: Jaylen Robinson. Scarier still, Atlas told Erica, “When I was a child, someone killed me.” Confused and concerned, Atlas’ mother went searching for answers online.

That’s when she found a newspaper story that matched Atlas’ description precisely. A 2005 headline in the New York Times read: “Baby Sitter Is Charged With Murder of a 19-Month- Old Brooklyn Boy.” The boy’s mother’s name? Kareen Washington. Equally eerie, the deceased boy’s name was indeed Jaylen Robinson.

What’s more remarkable was Atlas’ response to a blind test. In the episode, Dr. Tucker shows the boy five pictures to see if he can identify real parts of the deceased Jaylen Robinson’s life. Holding up two images of women, Atlas quickly points to Kareen Washington. “That one,” he says, identifying his past mother.

He does the same with an image of a park near Robinson’s apartment and of the family’s home. Coincidence? Lucky guess? Dr. Tucker says it would be impossible for a parent to coach a child of Atlas’ age. His answers, he feels, are genuine.

For most children who claim a past life, the memories evaporate by the time they turn six or seven, says Dr. Tucker. There’s but a brief window in early development when the veil between life and death seems to be thinner. And he believes that’s worth exploring, especially as more parents reach out to him.

“We heard from 100 families last year, and this year we’ve already passed that,” he says. Of course, there are the naysayers. But Dr. Tucker isn’t bothered by them.

“Children certainly have tremendous imaginations. So the question to the stuff that they say is does it match somebody who actually lived and died? And if it does, and it’s their imagination, then in the detailed cases, that’s one heck of a coincidence,” says Dr. Tucker.

“I’m not trying to prove reincarnation,” he says, but an openness to the unknown? Maybe that’s not so far-fetched.

“We may get to the point where it becomes accepted that consciousness is separate from our physical being and can continue on,” says Dr. Tucker. “Although, I like to say that I’ll probably have to wait for my next lifetime for that to happen.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue.

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