Non-Mystical Explanation for Past Life Memory?
August 11, 2022 11:30 AM   Subscribe

I meditate frequently, and sometimes with friends. A few weeks ago two of us had a startling experience that a woo person might call a "shared past life regression." What are some explanations for this that don't rely on religious ideas?
posted by lloquat to Science & Nature (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I am assuming you just need something that "sounds" plausible?

Or do you really need something scientific?

Perhaps... meditation taps into some bits of self that science do not yet fully understand, and one of the suspect abilities is to become attuned to other consciousness around us. Much like the Heisenberg principle, the person cannot be purely an observer, and the tuning became a communal experience with the other consciousnesses in the area, both affected by and affecting everyone else.
posted by kschang at 11:43 AM on August 11, 2022

Best answer: Imagination and actual memory. Check out the Bridey Murphy story.
posted by SPrintF at 11:43 AM on August 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Maybe nothing to see here? If you tally up all your interactions with one other person, over whatever time-frame, that didn't throw up anything extra-ordinary, then you might put the parallel story down to coincidence, and move on. Richard Feynman has a story of how he felt in his bones that something dreadful had happened to his mother. But when he girded himself to call home, she was preparing dinner as usual.
Best story about shared experience on another plane is Kipling's The Brushwood Boy.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:01 PM on August 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

As a set of theories, quantum entanglement/"spooky action at a distance" rely on principles and assumptions that, extrapolated out, could possibly explain a range of spooky shared or connected experiences across space and time, and across space-time itself.
posted by desert exile at 12:06 PM on August 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm curious about scientific research that can account for the unusual features of the experience. The workings of the brain, how two humans can unconsciously influence each other.
posted by lloquat at 12:17 PM on August 11, 2022

Best answer: One plausible explanation is that micro-reactions were shared from person to person; if one person's emotion/reaction/presence is mirrored by another person's emotion/reaction/presence (even unknowingly) that feeling may become reinforced in both parties and eventually solidified into a thought or idea that absolutely feels "shared."

I think of kids' sleepover "sceances" and Ouija boards as mild examples of this kind of shared experience. On the other end of this spectrum are, of course, Mass psychogenic illness.
posted by nkknkk at 12:22 PM on August 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think it might be helpful to go into more detail about what were "the unusual features of the experience," or what specifically you mean by '(shared) past life memory'?
posted by ook at 12:35 PM on August 11, 2022 [11 favorites]

Agree. What are the odds that two people alive now, have past lives that were shared?
posted by Windopaene at 12:40 PM on August 11, 2022

Not sure how stringent you need it to be but the Heartmath institute has a bit of research that might be relevant.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:41 PM on August 11, 2022

Also found a college that actually lists some existing research on the phenomenon of claimed past lives. Kink to a bibliography including clinical studies at the bottom of this page.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:47 PM on August 11, 2022

Before we can speculate I think we really need more detail about the "regression" you both experienced, how your experiences overlapped, etc. If you experienced visions of being street merchants in ancient Rome, for example, I'd ask if you're both history buffs with a particular interest in ancient Rome, if you both recently watched movies or read books set in ancient Rome, if you both have experience in retail or go to street markets a lot, etc.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:24 PM on August 11, 2022

Response by poster: Okay, sure. This took place over the phone. My friend and I began by breathing together. Perhaps 'lightly altered state' is better than 'meditation' to describe our goal, as we don't always have a strong focal point like a mantra, body scan or loving-kindness feeling? The aim is simply to let our minds roam creatively, visualize however we can, feel our feelings, and note the sensations of our bodies. Once we begin we don't talk except to nudge each other back on track if we start to surface too soon or get emotionally flooded. Afterward we compare notes. "What did you see, what did you feel." Sometimes it's dreamlike, sometimes we end up working through emotional blocks à la IFS therapy. It's nice to do it together so there's a safe container.

This time was really different. I went to a deep emotional place very quickly that felt familiar but also strange, as if it didn't quite belong to me. Simultaneously it seemed like I was feeling my friend's feelings as an overlay on top of mine! Suddenly I was thrust into what felt like a memory of a different time and place. I was in a woman's body that was not my own, hiding behind a mudbrick pillar in a building in a bustling city in a desert land. I watched my friend- in a man's body- run out from a doorway and get attacked by people who felt like shared enemies. When the attackers left, I went to comfort my friend as they lay dying. I also stripped a hidden item from their robes. I felt sick with grief and rage, and I felt the death throes of my friend as if they were my own.

When I surfaced from this state, I compared notes with my friend. They had the same experience, but from the dying man's perspective, with my feelings as an overlay! Our descriptions of each other's bodies, the attackers, the hidden item, our surmised relationship and motives, and our perspective of the cityscape were disturbingly similar. We did not prompt each other into this visualization and we have never imagined anything like this before. We also did not speak during the experience itself! I do not think my friend was consciously echoing me after the fact, as both of us held details back to see if the other confirmed them first.

We tried looking up features of our clothing, hairstyles, the buildings, etc. They seemed Mesopotamian in origin, perhaps Bronze Age. While I'm sure we have both encountered historic objects from this era over the course of our lives, it's not an interest for either of us.

In daily life I have near-total aphantasia across all senses, and a fairly weak autobiographical memory. I almost never remember real memories in first person perspective. It's only in altered states that I have flickers of visualization. This was.. truly bizarre.
posted by lloquat at 1:38 PM on August 11, 2022 [6 favorites]

Lying would be one explanation (not saying AT ALL that’s the case here, just by way of answering the question of what are the alternate explanations.)
posted by kapers at 2:29 PM on August 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Memories and time relate in very funny ways.

Have you ever been in an accident where time seems to slow down and you go through a million things in your head in just a second or two? There have been some nice studies (which I'd wished I'd bookmarked) showing you actually have all those thoughts after the accident is over but because of the situation you are organizing them in your brain as simultaneous events. (There's actually a whole host of stuff experiments like this, in which the human brain can reverse the order of thing and even perceiving wholly specious cause/effect explanations for what's going on)

It's certainly plausible to me that in some cases you're getting the the memories form simultaneously as you discuss them, but your brain is deciding that the memories must have predated the conversation. It's a hypothesis of course--I haven't seen any specific experiments on meditation like this.
posted by mark k at 3:24 PM on August 11, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Sounds like an amazing experience, and sometimes our attempts to understand amazing experiences have the effect of deflating them and crushing their wonderousness. Sort of like when a magician shows you the secret of some illusion that you were astonished by. What was amazing becomes flat and stupid.

So one option is to just be grateful that you and your friend had this amazing experience!

If you want to be skeptical, you could certainly look into the "demand/suggestion" characteristics that operate when mind readers do cold readings. Participants will agree to and accept statements that may not be entirely true because the performer, who is high status, wants them to agree and we want to be seen in a good light. So it's possible that your friend or you slightly modified your vision, only focusing on the points of agreement and ignoring or minimizing differences.

The Jungian concepts of the archetypes and the collective unconscious mentioned above are also available for you to look into. Basically, the idea is that there are culturally specific images and stories, but there are also images and stories that seem to be found across cultures, in separate mythologies. Joseph Campbell wrote many books about these things, such as the Hero archetype which manifests in stories about a person who undergoes lots of hardships and then triumphs over the obstacles. If you investigate this approach, perhaps a Jungian would interpret that the two of you were open to, and tapped into archetypal imagery at the same moment?
posted by jasper411 at 3:50 PM on August 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It seems to me the simplest explanation is that the two of you were invested in your shared emotional experience and constructed a story together out of ambiguous visualizations. I don’t think that explanation diminishes your experience in any way because you felt an intense, unusual bond for a moment. If you want to dig deeper, read some books about neuroscience and memory, which is often weirder than we assume.
posted by Comet Bug at 4:00 PM on August 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not woo enough to be like, "Oh, my God, you both totally regressed to your past lives," but I'm just woo enough to say, "Dude, that's freaking eerie."

It is possible your friend is lying, or (as jasper411 suggested) the two of you were focusing on every point of agreement and ignoring some major ways that your experiences didn't overlap. I don't know a lot about how meditation works, but perhaps your friend went into kind of a hypnotic state during meditation and they were still somewhat suggestible afterwards, and your description was so vivid that they became convinced that they'd lived through it too.

Is there any book, movie, video game, etc., that you've both enjoyed that featured a scenario like this? It may be that as you described your vision based on an intense scene from a movie you saw when you were a kid, it stirred up your friend's faint memories of that same scene. Childhood memories can be both frighteningly vivid and confusingly vague; I have a vivid memory of seeing a guy in an alley turn into a werewolf when I was very small. I have no idea what I really saw, but I think it's safe to assume that it was just something from a movie or a dream and it didn't happen in real life!

This totally sounds like the first act of a 1970s supernatural thriller where you both continue experimenting with recalling your past lives and then one dark night you come out of it and instead of your friend on the phone you hear the distant sounds of an ancient city... and then the line goes dead.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:20 PM on August 11, 2022 [6 favorites]

Are you both remembering a movie?

I had a crazy emotional dream once and it impacted me profoundly and a year later I watched a movie and realized I’d seen it before and my subconscious had co opted it whole sale, replacing me and my sister with the two main characters. Almost literally word for word, location, action, all of it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:35 PM on August 11, 2022 [9 favorites]

And… it was till an insanely profound dream by the way. Doesn’t change my feelings about it at all.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:36 PM on August 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

You might like this podcast segment
posted by slidell at 6:12 PM on August 11, 2022

Best answer: One thing is that however you explain it away, this can be a really cool and powerful kind of experience. It puts you in sync with another person in a powerful kind of way and it is worth remember that the stories we tell ourselves about how & why this is happening are really secondary to the experience itself. These things are not really easy to talk about and telling a story is a way of getting at what is really going on even if the story itself is perhaps not exactly "true" in the way we would wish.

Anyway, what this reminds me of is the way psychic readers and "cold readers" and suchlike work. This article gives a pretty good explanation of how it works, from the perspective of someone who was a psychic & astrologer.
It dawned on me that my readings were a co-creation – I would weave a story and, later, the customer’s memory would add new elements. I got to test this theory after a friend raved about a reading she’d had, full of astonishingly accurate predictions. She had a tape of the session, so I asked her to play it.
When you start telling a story about what happened - especially with an event that is pretty nebulous and hard to pin down - it is really easy for the two people to influence each other in ways they are both not consciously aware of at all, and their mutual telling of the story then shapes a "truth" that is more real and powerful to them than the "real" truth, whatever that is.

This can and does happen even when both sides of the discussion are not consciously deceiving the other, or trying to twist reality in any particular way. But it can really go to town when you have someone very, very experienced in twisting and bending reality on one end of the equation - like the astrologer/psychic in the linked article.

But even in normal, non-psychic human relations, this type of thing happens to us all the time, like literally every minute of every day, whenever we talk things over with another person (or, even with ourselves). Our memory and "story" about what happened to ourselves is always wildly and (to us!) surprisingly different from what happened "objectively" - whenever there happens to be evidence to show that objective reality.

(Most of the time there isn't - that's one reason our minds are able to get away with molding and twisting reality in this way on a routine basis.)

I would say you possibly experienced a very heightened version of this. It was a situation where your minds and emotions became entangled in a way that is hard to put into words, put you found a way to put it into words regardless.

Just like with the psychic's subject who was convinced of the predictions he had made, when he had in fact never made any such predictions: if you had an actual recording of this conversation, you might find quite a lot of ways - both subtle and not-so-subtle - in which you influenced each others thinking without either of you quite being aware at the time that it was happening.
posted by flug at 9:04 PM on August 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Not exactly an answer to what you’re asking, but when I read Phenomena by Annie Jacobsen I turned from being a very anti-woo person into someone who believes there *are* psychic effects in the world, but none powerful enough to be harnessed or relied upon.
posted by itesser at 9:21 PM on August 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

What a fun experience to have with someone you care about. I would suggest looking into brain waves, specifically Delta waves, as a possible explanation for the mechanism of your experience, though it won't necessarily negate the idea that it could be an actual "past life" memory or akashic record reading or something very woo sounding. This site has some interesting claims about delta waves, although you'll have to dig into the ones you find intriguing since they didn't list references.

I think that it's not all that woo to suggest that altered states help us tap into the subconscious and even the unconscious mind. And, we understand very little about consciousness from a material reductionist or Dawkinist perspective. Hypnosis has some interesting effects, as a consequence of altering brain waves and tapping into deeper levels of awareness. It's really not outside the realm of possibility that your consciousness holds information on deeper layers that doesn't fit into your regular life identity/experience.

Absence of evidence doesn't equal evidence of absence and all of that.
posted by crunchy potato at 6:45 AM on August 12, 2022

Best answer: I wonder if there was any chance one or the other of you made some small sounds or cried out or quietly said something that the other person picked up on, without either of you consciously noticing, that was just enough to get your visions onto the same page? Definitely a spooky and cool experience!
posted by rivenwanderer at 11:20 AM on August 12, 2022

someone who believes there *are* psychic effects in the world, but none powerful enough to be harnessed or relied upon.

My Psych 1 class essentially said "we are unable to replicate any results consistently."

You might want to look into the work of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. I also remember really liking Extraordinary Knowing (the story of dowsing for a stolen harp, wow), probably anything by Russell Targ.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:39 PM on August 12, 2022

Response by poster: Lots of great answers here, thank you all. You pointed me in some great directions. My awe for the mysteries of consciousness has only increased!
posted by lloquat at 12:52 PM on August 20, 2022

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