Reincarnation Expert Dr. Jim Tucker Talks ‘Spiritual’ Research in Scientific America

December 11, 2014 Updated: August 1, 2015

Dr. Jim Tucker learned from the best. His predecessor in reincarnation studies at the University of Virginia, Dr. Ian Stevenson (1918–2007), earned the respect of America’s scientific community for his sober analyses, even if he didn’t convince everyone reincarnation undoubtedly exists.

Though he was based in the United States, many of Dr. Stevenson’s subjects were in Asia. Dr. Tucker is bringing the research home to America, a move with as many benefits as challenges.

You won’t find a Buddhist on every corner here willing to talk about past lives—or, more to the point, willing to listen when his child seems to be talking about a past life.

That’s not to discount Dr. Stevenson’s work. He documented thousands cases of children who seemed to remember their past lives, and some “memories” were so precise that Stevenson could track down the purported past-life incarnations. He found coroner’s reports and other documents that confirmed the details the children gave of their past lives and deaths. These are called “solved” reincarnation cases.

But convincing Asian cases run the risk of being dismissed in America as psychological concoctions fostered within the prevalent belief system.

In the United States, if a child talks about his other mommy, his grandson, or the fire he died in, parents aren’t so quick to surmise that they could be memories from a past life.


The worry that a family may have influenced a child with probing questions or talk of past lives isn’t as prominent in the United States. “We don’t have to worry about the cultural factors that are potential contaminants in the Asian cases,” Dr. Tucker said.

On the other hand, when nobody is looking for past-life memories, they’re harder to find. But Dr. Tucker has managed to study strong cases in the United States, including some solved cases comparable to Dr. Stevenson’s in Asia.

Far from fostering talk of past lives, some American families Dr. Tucker has worked with have been dead-set against it. Only after convincing evidence emerged that the child was remembering a past life—evidence strong enough to convince skeptical parents—would Dr. Tucker hear from them.

For example, an evangelical Christian in Louisiana who was completely resistant to the idea of reincarnation was eventually convinced by the details his son gave of a past life.

When his son, James Leininger, was 2 years old, he began having horrific nightmares of crashing in a plane. The boy said he was shot down by the Japanese, that his plane took off from the Natoma ship, and that he had a friend named Jack Larson. He also identified the site where he crashed, Iwo Jima, from a photograph.

Iwo Jima is an island that the United States fought to capture in 1945. The Natoma was indeed involved in the Battle for Iwo Jima. One pilot died in the battle, and a pilot named Jack Larson was also on the Natoma.

Leininger started saying he was the third James. The pilot who died in the Battle for Iwo Jima was named James Huston Jr. That would make James Leininger the third James if he is the reincarnation of this pilot.

MORE: Child Remembers Past Life as WWII Pilot: ID’ed Vessel, Crash Site, Other Details

Dr. Tucker was raised Southern Baptist himself. When asked how his family feels about his research, he said, “I don’t completely know how they feel about it.” His mother is supportive, though he’s not sure she’s convinced reincarnation exists. His wife and children are supportive.

He’s also lucky to work with supportive colleagues at the University of Virginia. The university’s Division of Perceptual Studies brings together researchers who investigate near-death experiences, apparitions, death-bed visions, and other topics related to human consciousness.

“You never know who’s going to be open to it,” Dr. Tucker said. “It’s different to be sure, but I think that we approach it in a way that’s reasonable and that’s true to the overall scientific approach of curiosity, trying to learn about what’s going on without having any preconceived ideas.”

He also conducts more conventional research alongside his reincarnation studies. While the conventional methods of scientific investigation are able to measure phenomena with a reassuring certainty, Dr. Tucker said there are many important subjects that don’t necessarily lend themselves to conventional study. They should, however, still be explored.

The Benefits of Reincarnation Research

Reincarnation research can help some children who are having a hard time coping with past-life memories. Such children can sometimes even experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), caused by their visions of dying violently. Some have phobias related to these traumatic visions, and some simply talk about missing their old family members so much they become very agitated. In solved cases, children who have visited the families of their past-life incarnations have often resolved the issues that were upsetting them.


Dr. Tucker explained that sometimes it helps because the child’s memories have been validated, or because the child can see that the old family moved on and that life is in the past. Either way, children usually stop talking about their past lives around the age of 6 or 7.

Another way in which this research may help Americans, is that it confirms a belief in the afterlife. Dr. Tucker said that his research can hopefully help people treat each other better, though he says any kind of spiritual belief, whether in reincarnation or otherwise, can help in this regard.

Will Americans one day be as open to the idea of reincarnation as people in Eastern cultures? “I don’t necessarily see the American culture moving in that direction,” Dr. Tucker said. Roughly 20 percent of Americans believe reincarnation may exist, he said, and there’s no indication that belief is on the rise. But Americans may be more likely to believe in reincarnation after hearing examples within their own culture of children who seem to remember past lives, rather than examples from villages on the other side of the world. 

As for the multiple details that children give of their past lives that match up with real people who have died, Dr. Tucker said, “It defies logic that it would just be a coincidence.”

He gave the example of a woman in Lebanon who accurately gave 25 names of people from her past life along with descriptions of their relationships. In his book, “Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives,” Dr. Tucker gives many examples of children in the United States and abroad whose apparent recollections of previous lives have confirmed his belief in life after death. 

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