Thursday, February 7, 2013   4:59 PM

Science, the Self, and Survival After Death: A Tribute to Ian Stevenson (1918-2007)

Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D.

One of the most interesting and important figures of modern parapsychology was Ian Stevenson, M.D., who passed away in 2007. He is well known for his studies of children claiming to remember previous lives, but his contribution is wider than that. This is the topic of the book commented on here, Science, the Self, and Survival After Death: Selected Writings of Ian Stevenson, edited by Dr. Emily Williams Kelly (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Dr. Emily Williams Kelly

Dr. Kelly, who worked with Dr. Stevenson for many years, and conducted research herself on many of the topics that appear in the book, is an Assistant Professor of Research in Psychiatric Medicine at the Division of Perceptual Studies, a research unit that is part of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. In this book Kelly has selected many articles representing Stevenson’s work.

Here is the table of contents of the book:

General Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
1. Some of My Journeys in Medicine: 1989

1: New Ideas in Science
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
2. Scientists with Half-Closed Minds: 1958
3. What Are the Irreducible Components of the Scientific Enterprise?: 1999

2: The Nature of Human Personality
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
4. Why Medicine is Not a Science: 1949
5. The End of Patient Abuse in Medical Care: 1985
6. Psychosomatic Medicine. Part I. What We Know about Illness and the Emotions: 1954
7. Bodily Changes Corresponding to Mental Images in the Person Affected: 1997
8. Bodily Changes Corresponding to Another Person’s Mental Images: 1997
9. Comments on the Psychological Effects of Mescaline and Allied Drugs: 1957
10. Can We Describe the Mind?: 1980

3: Psychical Research - Principles and Methods
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
11. Changing Fashions in the Study of Spontaneous Cases: 1987
12. Comments on Paper by Michael Scriven: 1962
13. Thoughts on the Decline of Major Paranormal Phenomena: 1990

4: Research on the Question of Survival After Death: Reviews
and Representative Case Reports
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
14. Sources of Evidence Supporting a Belief in Survival: 1969
15. Research into the Evidence of Man’s Survival After Death: 1977

a. Apparitions
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
16. Modern Apparitional Experiences: 1995

b. Deathbed Visions
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
17. Modern Apparitional Experiences: 1995

c. Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
18. Cardiac Arrest Remembered: 1971
19. Comments on “The Reality of Death Experiences: A Personal Perspective:” 1980
20. The Case of Linda McKnight: 1998

d. Mediumship: Drop-in Communicators
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
21. A Communicator of the “Drop-In” Type in Iceland: The Case of Gudni Magnusson: 1975

e. Cases of the Reincarnation Type
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
22. Reincarnation: Field Studies and Theoretical Issues: 1977
23. Some New Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. IV: The Case of Ampan Petcherat: 1973
24. Three New Cases of the Reincarnation Type in Sri Lanka with Written Records Made before Verification: 1988
f. Cases of the Reincarnation Type with Birthmarks and Birth Defects
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
25. Excerpt from Reincarnation and Biology: 1997
26. Birthmarks and Birth Defects Corresponding to Wounds in Deceased Persons: 1993
27. Case of Hanumant Saxena: 1997

g. Cases of Maternal Impressions
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
28. A New Look at Maternal Impressions: An Analysis of 50 Published Cases and Reports of Two Recent Examples: 1992
29. A Case of Severe Birth Defects Possibly Due to Cursing: 1989

h. Cases of the Possession Type
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
30. A Case of the Possession Type in India with Evidence of Paranormal Knowledge: 1989

i. Xenoglossy
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
31. A Case of Secondary Personality with Xenoglossy: 1979

5: Implications
Introduction (Emily Williams Kelly)
32. The Explanatory Value of the Idea of Reincarnation: 1977
33. Comments on “Is Outcome for Schizophrenia Better in Nonindustrial Societies? The Case of Sri Lanka”: 1979
34. The Significance of Survival for Our Present Life: 1969
35. Assumptions of Religion and Psychiatry: 1955

Conclusion: Toward a Tertium Quid (Emily Williams Kelly)

Appendix: Publications of Ian Stevenson

To understand the magnitude of Stevenson’s work the reader is encouraged to peruse the appendix in which a bibliography of books and articles are presented. Then he or she should proceed to read Kelly’s “General Introduction,” where she presents a broad picture of Stevenson’s work in which he focused “on large questions about the nature of human personality” (p. 1). In her view: “Too often in the modern era, scientists have neglected basic questions about the nature of consciousness and its place in the physical universe, whether because they have assumed such questions to be beyond the reach of science or because they have assumed that the fundamental relationship of consciousness and brain is already known” (p. 2). Stevenson challenged such views, showing that meaningful research could be done on the topic and that such research questioned our complacent assumptions about consciousness.

Kelly discusses Stevenson’s career, considering as well his medical work. In her view the central focus of his work was “the source of individual differences, both in character and in susceptibility to particular diseases” (p. 61). She writes about Stevenson’s intellectual development pointing out how he questioned established “knowledge” throughout his life such as purely physiological views of the nature of the mind. “Ian . . . recognized the aim of psychical research as being precisely his own: to apply the methods of science to the still unanswered question of the relationship of mind and brain . . . .” (p 4). In one of the first papers reprinted in the volume, “Scientists with Half-Closed Minds,” which was originally published in the November 1958 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Stevenson stated that the “data of parapsychology portent, I believe, a conceptual revolution which will make the Copernican revolution seem trivial by comparison” (p. 69).

In her introduction Kelly reminds us that Stevenson followed a “tertium quid,” or a third middle course avoiding polarized thinking in religion and science such as those who solely emphasized faith and reason. “Ian’s career . . . exemplifies a rejection of an ‘either-or’ approach to science and religion. For him . . . religion is not primarily the sectarian, often dogmatic cultural systems of faith that we see outwardly but more broadly the human sense of, and striving toward, something transcending individual finite existence. Similarly, science was for him not a metaphysical belief in the primacy of the physical world but a method of observation leading to publicly shared knowledge. For those who subscribe to a ‘tertium quid’ approach to science and religion, the methods of science can be applied to certain questions traditionally considered metaphysical or spiritual, particularly those related to the relationship between physical processes of the brain and the subjective experiences that we call mental” (p. 7).

Stevenson made a career—one may say he was on a scientific quest—in the discussion of and research into reincarnation cases, as well as with other phenomena such as apparitions, mediumship, near-death experiences, and xenoglossy. I say “discussion” because some of his papers were about the importance of the phenomena. But what made Stevenson such an important figure in modern parapsychology was his empirical research with new cases. While many others discussed (and still discuss) survival of bodily death based on old cases and research, Stevenson was actively investigating, bringing new evidence to the subject matter. The field needs more workers of Stevenson’s energy, drive and interests because currently very few individuals investigate psychic phenomena suggestive of survival of death and even fewer less do it systematically or with a sustained focus over long periods of time.

It is also important to see Stevenson as a critic of the experimental emphasis in modern parapsychology. Science, he believed, could be conducted via systematic examinations of cases, and was not the sole province of the laboratory. As he wrote in his 1987 paper “Changing Fashions in the Study of Spontaneous Cases” reprinted in this volume, experimental studies in parapsychology cannot describe the whole picture. Cases highlight so many features of psychic phenomena that are not easily introduced in the experimental context or that cannot be introduced or induced in the laboratory with anything like the way they are experienced in life, emotions being an example of this.

In my view Kelly has suceeded in her goal for Science, the Self, and Survival After Death. She has summarized the most important aspects of Stevenson’s thinking and empirical work, and in so doing has represented most of his body of work, not reducing it solely to reincarnation cases (admittedly his greatest and most detailed contribution). More importantly, in her comments throughout the book, Kelly has identified the ideas and driving concepts behind Stevenson’s work as well as its potential significance. In doing so she has not only justly given credit to a man who deserves our respect and admiration, but her comments and the compilation of materials are a reminder of the tradition of studies of the self to which Stevenson belongs, that is approaches pioneered by previous figures such as Frederic W.H. Myers and William James.

The book may be ordered from the publisher ( and from other places (such as

About Ian Stevenson

Alvarado, C.S. (2007). Ian Stevenson’s contributions to parapsychology: An appreciation. Online:

Alvarado, C.S., & Zingrone, N.L. (2008). Ian Stevenson and the modern study of spontaneous ESP experiences.Journal of Scientific Exploration, 22, 44-53.

Gauld, A. (2008). Reflections of the life and work of Ian Stevenson. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 22, 18-35.

Haraldsson, E. (2008). Ian Stevenson’s contributions to the study of mediumship. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 22, 64-72.

Matlock, J.G. (2011). Ian Stevenson’s Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 25, 789-820.

Tucker, J.B. (2008). Ian Stevenson and cases of the reincarnation type. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 22, 36-43.

Some of Stevenson’s Books

(1970). Telepathic Impressions: A Review and Report of 35 New Cases. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.

(1974). Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (second ed.). Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia).

(1975). Cases of the Reincarnation Type: Vol. 1: Ten Cases in India. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.

(1987). Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virgina. (Second edition, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Press, 2011).

(1997). Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects(2 vols.). Westport, CT: Praeger Scientific.

(2003). European Cases of the Reincarnation Type. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.


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