Around 30% of world cultures endorse reincarnation and 20% of contemporary Americans think that reincarnation is plausible. This paper addresses the question of why belief in reincarnation is so pervasive across geographically disparate contexts. While social scientists have provided compelling explanations of the particularistic aspects of reincarnation, less is known about the psychological foundations of such beliefs. In this paper, I review research in the cognitive science of religion to propose that selected panhuman cognitive tendencies contribute to the cross-cultural success of basic ideas in reincarnation. Together, this research suggests that extraordinary convictions, including those associated with postmortem survival, are underpinned by some of the same processes that govern mundane social cognition.
In many places around the globe, biological birth does not mark a person’s entrance into the world, but rather, their return to it from a previous life in another bodily form.1 Cross-cultural studies (that minimize the impact of close historical connection or contact), have recorded the presence of reincarnation beliefs in around 30% of world cultures, including Melanesia, South Asia, North America, Australia and Europe and their prominence in West Africa, India, and Northwestern North America (e.g., see Matlock, 1993; Obeyesekere, 2002; Somersan, 1981). In places where reincarnation is not the dominant worldview, some people have deep-seated convictions that they existed before their current lifetime (e.g. Bender, 2007; Gallup, 2005; Haraldsson, 2006). For instance, in Southern California people participate in groups to meditate to gain glimpses of their past life. These insights typically take the form of detailed recollections of traumatic life events, such as being separated from loved ones or drowning. Such first-person material regularly features in mainstream news outlets, high-profile television shows and bestselling books (e.g., Alexander, 2012; Burpo & Vincent, 2010; Leininger, Leininger & Gross, 2009; Miller, 2010; Weiss, 1988; Winfrey, 2013). Commercial success reveals that past life narratives routinely attracts considerable interest and media attention, and around 20 percent of Americans believe that reincarnation is plausible (see Haraldsson, 2006; Walter, 2001; White, Kelly, & Nichols, 2015).
This paper concerns the question of why the belief in reincarnation is cross-culturally recurrent in geographically disparate regions, especially given the seemingly endless alternative formations of postmortem survival that one can imagine. At first, this seems like an impossible question to answer because of the number of ideas and behaviors that can be subsumed under the category of reincarnation are seemingly endless. Indeed, it is difficult to underestimate the diversity of forms that reincarnation beliefs and practices take around the globe. In Indic societies, for example, rebirth is inextricably linked to a system that determines the nature and place of rebirth based on one’s previous actions (i.e., Karma). In these contexts, laypeople are largely unconcerned with tracking their identity in previous lives but are concerned with adherence to ethical standards to ensure upward social mobility in the next life (Mahalingam, 2003). In addition, the ethically elite are concerned with escaping the seemingly endless cycle of rebirth; for them, rebirth in any form simply means the endurance of continued suffering (Obeyesekere, 2002). In short, reincarnation is not something to be desired but to be escaped. Reincarnation in small-scale indigenous societies, such as West Africa, provides a striking contrast. Here, systems of morality are unrelated to ideas about reincarnation, and ordinary people are preoccupied with establishing the past-life identity of others because their decisions have huge social consequences: they determine the distribution of names, titles, property inheritance, wealth distribution, and even child-rearing practices (see Gottlieb, 2004; Kaplan, 2000). In modern Western contexts, by contrast, people are not so much concerned with establishing the past life identity of others as they are for themselves, because of perceived insight that those lives provide to the current self (Bender, 2007).
Given the dazzling array of belief systems and practices surrounding reincarnation, one obvious approach to explain their transmissive success is by locating them in their historically situated socio-cultural contexts. For instance, consider reincarnation beliefs in contemporary America. First, some may readily accept ideas about reincarnation because they occur within the background of disenchantment with the conventional Judeo-Christian canon. Second, particular ideas about reincarnation may well have a competitive advantage over others in such contexts because they are tailored to suit a quintessentially modern, eclectic brand of New Age spirituality and religious individualism that has become immensely popular in the West (e.g., see Albanese 2006; Bender, 2007; Dawson, 2006; Farias, Claridge, & Lalljee 2005; Fuller, 2001; White, Kelly & Nichols, 2015). Against a background of social anomie and a decline in traditional religious affiliation, these experiences provide people with a sense of continued and extended identity, and provide their current life with a sense of renewed purpose and meaning (Bender, 2007; Meyesburg & McNally, 2011; Roof, 2001). Explanations that take into consideration the multitude of historical and contextual factors provide scholars with much needed insight into how reincarnation beliefs operate within their particular socio-cultural-historical contexts, but they say less about why ideas about reincarnation persist across cultures more generally.
Another approach to the question of why the belief in reincarnation recurs across cultures is to explain its social function. Anthropologists have long explained reincarnation beliefs as a product of maintaining the status quo of the accepted social order. For example, in societies where every ancestor is thought to reincarnate as a newborn child, reincarnation affords a way for people to maintain equilibrium in social structure through the continuation of rules regarding names, kinship systems and territory; although the people who hold these aspects of identity changed at death, the system continued and remained constant though the process of rebirth (e.g., see Mauss, 1985; Obeyesekere, 2002). Social scientists continue to draw upon functionalist explanations of reincarnation in contemporary contexts where the social structure is also dependent, to some extent, upon reincarnation beliefs. For example, Mahalingam (2003) argues that in India, where the notion of karma is very much at the core, reincarnation serves to legitimize the uneven distribution of resources. Yet while functionalist explanations of reincarnation beliefs greatly enhance our understanding of their social consequences, they say little about the psychological processes that help give rise to them and thus miss out a crucial component of a convincing causal explanatory account.
In this paper, I adopt a cognitive approach to addressing the question of why the belief in reincarnation is cross-culturally recurrent. There are two key components of this approach. First, by not discounting — but rather — looking beyond the variation in local forms of reincarnation beliefs and practices, it is possible to determine similarities in basic ideas underpinning reincarnation. Indeed, based on cross-cultural comparisons, most scholars concede that reincarnation includes the basic assumption that after biological death the deceased person leaves his or her mortal body and returns to the human world in another human bodily form through rebirth (e.g., see Matlock, 1993; Obeyesekere, 2002; Somersan, 1981; Swanson, 1964; Rosenblatt, Walsh, & Jackson, 19762 ). In fact, based on a historical comparison between ideas about reincarnation across cultures, Obeyesekere (2002) famously claimed that the basic idea of developed more-or-less independently in different societies this basic form. Holding claims about the origins of reincarnation beliefs aside, it seems that ideas beyond the basic assumption that people can be reborn in another human bodily form can be seen as elaborations and additions to this basic concept.
The second key component of this cognitive approach is to draw upon what is known about human cognition to understand what makes the fundamental concept of reincarnation appealing to many humans. Over the past twenty-five years or so, the Cognitive Science of Religion (
A cognitive approach also helps to explain why some ideas about reincarnation — including what form this survival takes, and what constitutes evidence for this survival — enjoy widespread cultural success despite differences in the details of the belief system and even despite propositional beliefs about life after death. In what follows, I outline how research in the social cognitive sciences — including the my own research — can shed light on the popularity of reincarnation beliefs, which, although different in terms of the details, are underpinned by similar assumptions about postmortem survival.
The Psychological Foundations of Reincarnation Beliefs
Reincarnation, like many other concepts of the afterlife, entails the idea that the person survives his or her biological death. One potential cognitive mechanism proposed to facilitate the uptake of the idea that people survive death is based upon a simulation constraint: the inability to readily conceive of our own, and others’, death. This constraint refers to the inability to conceive of ourselves as “being” dead and unconscious, because we use mental states to simulate all experiences (e.g., see Bering, 2002; Bering, 20063 ). To be clear, this does not mean that you cannot imagine what life would be like after you are dead (e.g., your funeral, your children’s birthdays, etc.), but such a construal requires a first-person perceptive lens through which you envision these future events. This imaginative obstacle means that it is easier to represent your dead self, and correspondingly, dead others, as continuing to exist.
There are additional cognitive biases that help to explain the readiness to entertain reincarnation as a possibility for loved-ones. In everyday contexts, out of sight does not mean out of mind. As Bering proposed (2006), our mental roosters are ill equipped to update the list of social players in our world, and for very good reasons — it would be cognitively taxing and evolutionarily maladaptive to do so. Our ability to represent others who are not physically present (i.e., offline social reasoning) also enables us to represent the dead as though they continue to exist. In addition, given the social investments that go into relationships, people do not easily represent absent others as removed from their social world. In fact, research has shown that grieving individuals sometimes represent the deceased as in the vicinity even when they have seen the corpse (White, Fessler & Gomez, 2017). As Boyer (2001) has argued, even dead bodies represent a contradiction in our thinking about persons. On the one hand, people understand that the physical body is inanimate, but on the other, they continue to represent the person as psychologically active — because we habitually track unobservable mental states for persons throughout our lifetime.
There is also a motivational appeal to the idea that we are immortal. This, of course, is the basic fear of death itself. Terror management theorists have long proposed that humans try to mitigate the fear of death through the endorsement of beliefs in immortality (Becker, 1973; Jong & Halberstadt, 2016; Pyszcynski & Solomon, 1986; Jonas & Fischer, 2006), and have provided evidence that mortality salience increases belief in the afterlife, largely independent of religious background (e.g., Jong, Halberstadt, & Bluemke, 2012). Some versions of this theory have proposed that ideas about the afterlife were purposefully created to fulfill the need to relieve anxiety about death and are thus just “wishful thinking” (Dawkins, 2006; Freud, 1961; see also Stephen Hawking’s interview, Sample, 2011). A more moderate, and nuanced account is that when coupled with cognitive biases that predispose humans to represent their continued existence, fear of annihilation drives the likelihood of endorsing ideas about the afterlife (see Nichols, 2004). Even though some Indic representations of reincarnation include the possibility of increased pain and suffering in the next lifetime, it may be easier — and more psychologically appealing — to accept the possibility of the self as existing and suffering than not existing at all. Such motivation also extends towards the ones we love. In fact, scholars have proposed that the fear of annihilation of loved-ones also explains reincarnation beliefs. For instance, Obeyesekere (1994) claims that practices designed to identify a reincarnated person by inspecting their appearance, personality etc. really serve to fulfill a desire to be reunited with deceased loved-ones. Here, again, while a simple Freudian wish fulfillment account seems too simplistic, another possibility is that when coupled with human cognitive proclivities to continue representing loved-ones as present and in the vicinity, reincarnation beliefs appear plausible.
Naturally following from the observation that in reincarnation people seem to survive their own death is the question of what, exactly, survives. The short response to this question is that like other afterlife beliefs, people are conceptualized as surviving mentally — just elsewhere, whether in a different body or a different realm (see also De Cruz, 2013; Hodge, 2011; Nichols, 2007). Conceptualizations of reincarnation reflect the widespread assumption that, as developmental psychologist Paul Bloom states, “we do not feel as if we are our bodies; we feel as if we occupy them” (2004: 191). Bloom’s claim is situated in a growing body of research in the social cognitive sciences, which suggests that ideas about past lives conform to intuitive assumptions about the constitution of identity for persons, often referred to as folk-dualism. Research indicates that humans are predisposed to represent persons as composed of multiple “substances”: material bodies and immaterial properties such as minds or “essences” (e.g., Bloom, 2004; Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl 1999). On the one hand, other organisms in our environment are tracked fundamentally as physical, bodily objects; on the other hand, they are also represented as mindful, psychological beings, guided in their behavior by unobservable mental states (e.g., beliefs, desires, intentions). There is a general scholarly consensus that people everywhere represent themselves and others as being constituted by non-physical properties, hereafter “minds” for convenience (e.g., Bloom, 2004; Corriveau, Pasquini, & Harris 2005; Richert & Harris, 2006; Roazzi, Nyhof, & Johnson, 2013).
The cognitive science of religion has mounted evidence to suggest that these intuitive tendencies concerning the representation of persons also explain some of the cross-culturally recurrent features of supernatural agents, such as gods, ghosts, ancestors, and possessed spirits. Although we find many diverse examples of minds without bodies or minds inhabiting other bodies, one constant feature in popular portrayals of supernatural agents is that the individual agent has a mind and, therefore, intentionality (e.g., Astuti & Harris, 2008; Barrett, 1999; Bering, 2002; Bloom, 2004; Boyer, 2001; Cohen & Barrett, 2008; Guthrie, 1995). Likewise, the same intuitions — that people’s minds are represented as retaining their personal identity — may explain why reincarnation is so widely accepted. Returning to the simulation constraints theory of afterlife beliefs, Bering (and scholars since) have found that not all states are as difficult to represent as ceasing to exist after death. Specifically, even children find it easier to represent some biological needs and related psychological states — such as to eat and feeling hungry, as ceasing to exist than non-physically based states — such as remembering (Bering, 2002; Bering & Björklund, 2004; Cohen, Burdett, Knight, & Barrett, 2011; Bek & Lock 2011).
Being in a hypothetical conscious state without memories appears especially difficult to imagine. Indeed, research suggests that people regard memories, and certain kinds of memories in particular, as more likely to remain constant over physical transformations than any other psychological attributes. For example, in a series of experiments by Blok, Newman, and Rips (2005), participants reasoned that personal identity remains intact (e.g., the entity is “still Jim”) so long as the target’s (Jim’s) memories are preserved. This memory-identity effect panned out even when the individual was described as undergoing dramatic physical changes: from person to robot, robot to microchip, and then microchip inserted into a new robot. Furthermore, when it comes to reasoning about the perpetuity of the self, people tend to give special credence to episodic (or autobiographical) memories, such as remembering having had dinner the previous night (Tulving, 1972).
Research has shown that people in different traditions likewise assume that episodic memories survive reincarnation. White (2015a, 2016) conducted a series of studies with Jains in Southern India, who believe in reincarnation, and Americans who endorse stereotypical Judeo-Christian views of life after death. Despite major differences in their explicitly stated beliefs, when presented with a suite of memory-based cues, both sets of naive participants reasoned similarly upon being given a hypothetical reincarnation challenge for “matching” fictional living people with their deceased counterparts. Specifically, individuals intuitively privileged a shared episodic memory (memory of a specific biographical event) as evidence for reincarnation over various combinations of other types of memory (e.g., procedural) and physical features (e.g., physique).
In fact, memories of having lived before serve as verification cues for people around the world, often under very different circumstances. In places where every ancestor is thought to return to the human world, such as some cultures in West Africa, South Asia, and NorthWestern North America, newborn children are often examined for distinguishing mental recollections that correspond to characteristics of the deceased (e.g., Gottlieb, 2004; Matlock, 1993; Matlock & Mills, 1994; Obeyesekere, 2002; White, 2016). Ideas about the continuity of memory in reincarnation are also apparent in elaborate rituals in efforts to determine which Lamas have been reborn and who manifests these revered souls presently (e.g., see Edelmann & Bernet, 2007; Haraldsson, 2006; Haraldsson & Samararatne, 1999; Obeyesekere, 2002). The most well-known example of such a tradition is the search for the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, a formalized ritual that depends crucially upon a candidate child’s ability to distinguish amongst various objects those which belonged to the deceased Dalai Lama, thus inferring that the child remembers the object from his previous life and is the Dalai Lama reincarnated (e.g., White, Sousa, & Berniunas 2014).
There is an additional facet of episodic memory that explains why it is represented as continuing in reincarnation. In contrast to semantic memory, which involves general, factual knowledge that cannot be easily countenanced in terms of its acquisition, episodic memory involves autobiographical events that one can recall having personally experienced at a certain place and time (e.g., “I remember celebrating my 16th birthday at my mother’s house.”) Similar to aspects of the self that be derived from our own predictable behaviors (e.g., “I’m usually stubborn”), episodic memories also give shape to one’s core concept of the self. They feature a self-referential quality of retrieval (i.e., a sense of “mineness”), or the ability to mentally re-experience the event from a first-person perspective. This gives the individual a continued sense of ownership over the memory. Together, these qualities lend themselves to a sort of intuitive model, or default stance, of psychological continuity after death (Conway, 2005; Klein & Nichols, 2012). Recent research has shown that practitioners of New Age spirituality find their own memories as evidence that they existed at the time of encoding in a past life. White, Kelly & Nichols (2015) found that New Age spiritual seekers in the
It is not much of a stretch of the imagination to understand why people represent the episodic memories of others as continuing in reincarnation. One reason is that it is simply an extension of the tendency to represent memory as continuing for the self over time. Another reason is that it enables the continuation of established relationships. One only has to glance at the literature in cases of memory impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease, amnesia, or traumatic brain injury, to see the ambivalence expressed over the identity of the sufferer. People will often say that the sufferer both is, and is not, the same person they used to be (Orona, 1990; Ronch, 1996). All agree that the relationship with the person has changed and is negatively impacted, and many describe the heartbreak when they realize that a loved-one no-longer recalls shared times spent with them or even remembers who they are. Given the time invested in social relationships, it seems a natural default strategy to represent another person as existing with the ability to remember people important to them in previous lifetimes.
Both the difficulty to simulate the inexistence of mental states following death and the association between one’s memories and their personal continuity contribute towards an explanation of the ease with which people appear to represent and believe in reincarnation. Yet reincarnation also entails that the person occupies a new physical body after death, and this also deserves explanation. At a fundamental level, it builds on the assumptions of folk-dualism, that minds and bodies are represented as separate and independent, by assuming that the same mind can inhabit different bodies at different periods of time. This observation aligns with a major set of findings in the cognitive sciences showing that we perceive others as having an immutable personal identity that exists independently of their physical appearance. For example, young children judge a caterpillar that has become a butterfly, or a dog that has changed breed, as “the same individual” so long as their preferences are the same (e.g., Gutheil & Rosengren, 1996; Hall, Lee & Bélanger, 2001; Hickling & Gelman, 1995; Rosengren, Gelman, Kalish, & McCormick, 1991). Yet these ideas are also constrained by our everyday social experiences.
While the concept of reincarnation endorsed in popular survival narratives includes the assumption that the person can be reborn into another, completely different, body, when physical similarities are present between the deceased and the living, this is seen as constituting strong evidence for the phenomenon (e.g., see Stevenson, 1997; Tucker, 2005). Most often, but not exclusively, these marks correspond with wounds that would have been inflicted at the time of death in a previous life. Congenital abnormalities such as missing fingers, rare birthmarks, and skin irregularities such as discoloration, lesions, spots, or moles are said to betray the cause of death or other misfortunes from the individual’s previous life. For example, Stevenson reports the case of a child who was born with a pale, scar-like tissue approximately three centimeters wide and extending around her entire skull. In conjunction with this unusual physical defect, the girl claimed to recall the life of a man who had had major skull surgery shortly before his death. Stevenson viewed such cases of combined past-life memories and physical markings as the best objective evidence of reincarnation. In fact, he devoted a major tome to these so-called “reincarnation and biology” subtypes in which he meticulously documented over 200 such cases (Stevenson, 1997). Just like comparing the details of personal recollections to historical events, physical marks that correspond to those on the deceased (sometimes observable in autopsy photographs) are also taken as verification that some essential aspect of the individual (i.e., the “soul”) has returned to the human world through literal rebirth. Thus, when a person is reborn they are represented as possessing a bounded corporeal existence that shares some form of continuity with the person before death, and thus provides a convenient (and reliable) means of evidence that they are one and the same person.
The appeal of using physical similarities as key indicators of a past life can be partly understood in light of inherent cognitive biases concerning our folk knowledge of persons. Such features are convenient, unique, and easy to detect. In the natural world, too, Likewise, by comparing physical marks between the living and dead to ascertain the likelihood of reincarnation, whereby some essential and immortal aspect of the individual is envisioned as remaining the same from one life to the next, people are employing the same default empirical devices as those used in the everyday social world, even though reincarnation entails, in principle, transference of the soul to another form. Furthermore, as Hodge (2008, 2011a, 2011b, 2012, 2016) has argued, to imagine loved-ones in an afterlife usually includes that they engage in social activities, and these activities requires that they have at least some body parts (for related evidence see De Cruz, 2013 and Watson-Jones, Busch, Haris, & Legare, 2017). This is nowhere more apparent when the afterlife is the here-and-now.
The Afterlife is a Place
As discussed previously, offline social reasoning enables humans to think about people who are not present in their immediate vicinity. We can easily imagine what a family member who we have not seen in many months, or even years, are doing at a given moment. This ability is also likely to be partly responsible for the tendency for people to think about a deceased loved-one doing something in another sphere of existence (Hodge 2008, 2011a, 2011b, 2012, 2016). It is not by accident that widespread afterlife beliefs represent the afterlife as a physical place (Moreman, 2008; Obayashi, 1992; Robben, 2017; Rosen, 2008). In the classic novel The Great Divorce (1946) C. S. Lewis’ captures the readers’ imaginations, and these expectations, perfectly. He describes the dead as journeying on a bus ride through various places, deciding where to get off, including a grey town (purgatory or hell) and a beautiful countryside (the foothills of heaven).
Of course, representations of the afterlife differ in the extent to which they are similar to our earthly existence, but they are always constrained by human imagination and cognitive processing abilities. For instance, consider posing an afterlife that has three dimensions — or levels that we perceive to be reality, such as height, width and depth. We can imagine that this would be fairly easy to imagine, since these dimensions surround our everyday experience of the world. Yet consider entertaining the idea of an afterlife that consists of five, six, or even seven dimensions, measured by abstract notions such as their position in the world since the beginning of time. These ideas would be more difficult to spread without additional support at the cultural level, because they are almost impossible to imagine. To be clear, the ease with which these ideas are represented and spread is unrelated to their truth value (consider string theory or evolution). In short, our imagination is not unbounded, but rather, constrained, and likewise, ideas about the afterlife that meet our intuitive expectations about the current world are more likely to be readily adopted (all else being equal). There is something inherently simple about the idea that people return to where they originated (this world) rather than leaving for another world. As one child innocently asked in a letter to God “instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?” (Hample & Marshall, 1991).
In addition, having the afterlife as the here-and-now also enables the possibility for continued social relationships with the dead. As discussed, anthropologists have documented the desire of people in reincarnationist traditions to find their deceased loved-ones by inspecting children for similarities as signs of reincarnation. There is a strong desire to identify their loved-ones and to ensure that they return amongst them, rather than to another clan or lineage. This process is beautifully captured in the documentary Unmistaken Child (2008), where a Tibetan monk spends years searching across disparate landscapes for the reincarnation of his beloved teacher and world-renowed lama Geshe Lama Konchog. Representing the afterlife as being on this planet, in this world, and during the same time period as other people’s current lifetimes, coupled with the possibility of reunification, is surely the easiest and attractive representation of the afterlife imaginable.
There is marked variation in reincarnation beliefs that may be explained by cultural differences. Yet, while cultural factors are necessary to explain the transmissive success of ideas about reincarnation in particular contexts, they are not sufficient. Nor are they able to account for the basic question of why reincarnation is such a pervasive idea across geographically disparate landscapes. These similarities must also be explained. In this paper, I have proposed a psychological account of the cross-cultural recurrence of reincarnation concepts. Ideas about reincarnation entail basic assumptions: namely, that the essential identity and aspects of an individual exists apart from the body, survives biological death, and is reborn in another human form in this world. These ideas about reincarnation are readily generated, remembered and communicated in part, because they meet cognitively optimal assumptions about what human survival entails and what constitutes evidence for it. Taking account of basic human tendencies to think about people in death and the afterlife, in addition to cultural and historical factors, can provide scholars with an enriched understanding of why reincarnation has become a widely endorsed concept, and how and why it is used to determine the features of social systems of tribal and world religions.
Thanks to Paul Parrett and Andrea Velasco for proof reading an earlier version of this manuscript.
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Reincarnation can be conceptualized more broadly, yet it is difficult to distinguish between these and animism. Most anthropologists have not made their definition of reincarnation explicit. Others have defined it broadly, and thus provide much higher rates of prevalence (see Eliade 1964; Mills 1988).