Old Souls

image of the book cover for Old Souls by Tom Shroder

Old Souls : Compelling Evidence From Children Who Remember Past Lives
by Tom Shroder. isbn13: 9780684851921

A prominent psychiatrist with a “no nonsense” reputation stumbles across a cure for a patient with an intractable phobia. Putting her under hypnosis he asks her to keep going gradually further and further back into her past. He then asks her to go all of the way back to the event that gave her the phobia. To his shock, she goes “back” to before her birth, thousands of years, to an alleged former life in ancient Egypt where she remembers experiencing a particularly harsh manner of death. Upon awakening she is suddenly free of her phobia, after having had that freedom elude her for years during therapy.

The psychiatrist writes a popular book about that experience and skeptical Washington Post reporter Tom Shroder is sent to write an article about it.

Shroder does find a psychiatrist with a hitherto well deserved reputation for being a down to Earth clinician, but he isn’t satisfied with the psychiatrist’s interpretation of the case. Asking around, Shroder finds that a number of other prominent psychiatrists have stumbled across this phenomenon using hypnosis in their treatment. However, these other psychiatrists did not feel the need to believe that they had found evidence for reincarnation. It was enough that these experiences, whatever they were, helped their patients overcome their long held difficulties.

Shroder then found experts who investigated the reliability (or lack thereof ) of memories retrieved under hypnosis. The consensus of those professionals was that under hypnosis, the brain will do as it is told, even if it means manufacturing a reality to fit the request.

Through these experts Shroder learned of the existence of Dr. Ian Stevenson, a distinguished academic and a psychiatrist who had been traveling the globe for almost 30 years documenting cases of young children spontaneously remembering past lives — without the aide of hypnosis or anything else.

These cases typically involved young children between the ages of 2 – 5 years of age who had no exposure whatsoever to the place or people from which they claimed to come from. These children would often coax their parents to take them to visit these foreign locations. Upon arrival, the children would know their way around the strange city, recognize people they never met, recall shared experiences nobody else knew about with complete strangers and have emotionally charged “reunions” with these strangers. Financial gain, the seeking of fame or a fetish for romantic fantasies were not issues in these cases.

In these cases Dr. Stevenson would typically interview the people involved, compare the accounts of various witnesses for consistency, verify what he could through public records, catalog the details methodically and then move on. Thats it. No movies of the week, no talk show appearances and no best sellers. Just cataloging data without making conclusions for nearly 3,000 cases over the course of 30 years, all over the world.

This lack of sensationalism impressed Shroder enough to seek out the aging Dr. Stevenson and accompany him on the last fact finding tour abroad of his career. Shroder felt Dr. Stevenson’s different, down to Earth, neutral and data centered approach to reincarnation did not deserve to die in an academic obscurity. Shoder’s goal was to publish a book about it, so that at least people would know of its existence.

Aside from Nu Age style cover art pictured above, which is an anathema to what impressed Shroder and what Shroder wanted to show to the world, he succeeded.

I’m guessing the spooky cover art was a concession to the publisher who wanted to make sure that at least some copies of the book sold.

The bulk of the book is a travel log of Shroder’s trip to Lebanon and India with Dr. Stevenson where he follows up on cases he initially investigated decades ago, as well as investigating new cases.

Not all of the cases are as impressive in corroborated evidence as the summary of the book suggests. Rather than discouraging the reader, these accounts give the reader a sense of the frustrations Dr. Stevenson must have felt over the course of his 30 year career. Reaching the people involved in these cases was often an arduous task, only to yield information that Dr. Stevenson felt wasn’t worthy of including in his collection.

Some of the cases described in the book were strong and were flat out intriguing.

Shroder did an excellent job of describing the environments he traveled to and the people he interacted with. I found his account of the trip to Lebanon particularly interesting. I learned a lot about the country that I did not know before, including that a sect of Islam exists, called the “Druse” that believes in reincarnation. I never would have guessed.

More importantly, Shroder plays an excellent “man on the street” narrator of his account of his time with Dr. Stevenson. He asks the questions the reader would want to ask, he is skeptical the way many readers would want to be skeptical and he feels the hopes that many of the readers would feel.

Having gotten a visceral experience of Dr. Stevenson’s typical cases, instead of a stack of Dr. Stevenson’s dry academic reports, Shroder ends the book as he started it. As an agnostic about the reality of reincarnation.

Shroder didn’t believe that Dr. Stevenson’s cases could be explained away via normal means. However, as with the serious academic critics of Dr. Stevenson’s work, Shroder’s only choice was to choose either reincarnation or some other out of the ordinary explanation ( none the more plausible). Instead, Shroder chose not to choose. Deciding that some things are just not known.

I don’t think this book will turn anyone’s world upside down. It will, make the reader stop to take a look into the void of uncertainty, if only for a moment.

This book was well written, sober in tone and fascinating.

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2 thoughts on “Old Souls

  1. Thanks for your review.

    Would you say that the subtitle, “The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives,” is accurate? Does the book present scientific evidence or is it merely anecdotal?

    Regards,

    Will

  2. No, not evidence by strict scientific standards.

    The book does not present a comprehensive review of Dr. Stevenson’s 3,000 cases. There aren’t statistics presented such as the number of alleged facts per case, the number of confirmed facts per case or the median, mean or mode of these kind of metrics and other metrics over the entire body of his gathered data.

    The attitudes of both the reporter and Dr. Stevenson could best be described as analytical, objective and neutral.

    The book is not proof, but it isn’t a Nu Age romp either.

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