There Is a Paranormal Activity Lab at the University of Virginia

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The market for stories of paranormal academe is a rich one. There’s Heidi Julavits’s widely acclaimed 2012 novel The Vanishers, which takes place at a New England college for aspiring Sylvia Brownes. And, of course, there’s Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters—Marvel’s take on Andover or Choate—where teachers read minds and students pass like ghosts through ivy-covered walls.

The Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine is decidedly less fantastic than either Julavits’s or Marvel’s creations, but it's nevertheless a fascinating place. Founded in 1967 by Dr. Ian Stevenson—originally as the Division of Personality Studies—its mission is “the scientific empirical investigation of phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness, and its relation to matter, may be incomplete.”

What sorts of “phenomena” qualify? Largely your typical catalog of Forteana: ESP, poltergeists, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, “claimed memories of past lives.” So yes: In 2014, there is a center for paranormal research at a totally legitimate (and respected) American institution of higher learning. But unlike the X-Mansion, or other fictional psy-schools, DOPS doesn’t employ any practicing psychics. The teachers can’t read minds, and the students don’t walk through walls. DOPS is home to a small group of hardworking, impressively credentialed scientists with minds for stats and figures.

Dr. Jim Tucker, a Bonner-Lowry Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, is one such scientist. With a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an M.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Dr. Tucker arrived in Charlottesville to complete his postgraduate training at UVA’s Health Services Center in 1986. After a few years running a private psychiatric practice (still in Charlottesville), Dr. Tucker returned to UVA to work under Dr. Stevenson and carry out research on the possibility of life after death.

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Tucker, who is a certified child psychiatrist, primarily works with children who’ve reported memories that are not their own—oftentimes linked to real-life individuals who lived decades in the past and thousands of miles away. To Tucker, these findings suggest the plausibility of “survival of personality after death”—something like a law of conservation of energy applied to human consciousness. Reincarnation, to the layperson.

“The main effort is to document as carefully as possible what the child says and determine how well that matches with a deceased person,” he told me. “And in the strongest cases, those similarities can be quite compelling.”

The cases Tucker refers to are indeed quite compelling. In an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin earlier this month, he talked about James Leininger, a Louisiana boy who reported memories of flying a fighter jet in World War II. At around age 2, James experienced terrible nightmares, almost nightly, of violent plane crashes. During the day, he relayed extremely vivid memories of this supposed Air Force career. He recalled the name of a real aircraft carrier stationed in the Pacific during World War II (“Natoma”). He claimed to have a friend on the boat named Jack Larsen. He had memory of being shot down by the Japanese and dying near Iwo Jima.

The USS Natoma Bay lost only one pilot at Iwo Jima, a man named James Huston, and he died in a crash that matched Leininger’s description almost exactly: “Hit in the engine, exploding into fire, crashing into the water and quickly sinking,” Tucker said. “And when that happened, the pilot of the plane next to his was Jack Larsen.”

Spooky, right? Surely little James was merely parroting information he had absorbed elsewhere. “Children’s brains are like sponges,” the saying goes, but Tucker’s findings suggest something more profound at work. For one thing, James Huston is simply not a well known person. A cursory Google search of his name reveals only press related to Leininger’s claims. It’s hard to say how Leininger or his parents could have possibly known anything about Huston before the nightmares began.

Huston’s story is so obscure that it took Leininger’s father three to four years to track down his information. James Huston was killed more than fifty years before James Leininger’s birth, and came from Pennsylvania—more than a thousand miles from the Leininger family home in Louisiana. What’s more, James Leininger was only two years old when he first reported memories of Huston’s fiery death.

“It seems absolutely impossible that he could have somehow gained this information as a 2-year-old through some sort of normal means,” Tucker told NPR.

DOPS-affiliated doctors and scientists have reviewed and analyzed thousands of cases like Leininger’s. Before his retirement in 2002 and later death in 2007, Dr. Ian Stevenson logged more than 2,500 cases, publishing his analyses in a number of scholarly texts from 1969 onward. Today, DOPS inputs findings and patient profiles into an electronic database from which analysts can discern patterns that might explain why certain individuals are susceptible to believing they possess memories from past lives. Tucker and his colleagues believe such information could explain a number of psychiatric conditions as well; among them phobias, philias, or certain personality traits that cannot otherwise be attributed to environment or heredity.

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There are, of course, those in the scientific community who are skeptical of the research carried out at DOPS and critical of the legacy of Dr. Stevenson. And there are those who are, perhaps rightly, suspicious of how DOPS has sustained itself financially through the years. Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography, bequeathed a million dollars to DOPS upon his death in 1968, presumably at the request of his wife, known for her avid interest in the paranormal.

Stevenson and his contemporaries have their legitimate allies too. Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, saw merit in the possibility of a physical realm derived from the non-physical (“consciousness”). In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, astrophysicist Carl Sagan, a known advocate of scientific skepticism, said that the phenomenon of children reporting “details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation” is an area of parapsychological research deserving of “serious study.”

Yet Stevenson is perhaps most respected not for his findings, but his methods. In a 1977 article published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, acclaimed American psychiatrist Harold Lief praised Stevenson’s overall approach to data collection.

“While I withhold final judgment on the content and conclusions of my friend’s study of telepathy, xenoglossy, and reincarnation, I am a ‘true believer’ in his methods of investigation. Stevenson’s writing and research reports are work of a man who is methodical and thorough in his data collection and clear and lucid in their analysis and presentation.”

“I’m happy to say [Stevenson’s work is] all complete and utter nonsense,” wrote Scientific American’s Jesse Bering, a research psychologist who pens the magazine’s behavioral science blog. “The trouble is, it’s not entirely apparent to me that it is. So why aren’t scientists taking Stevenson’s data more seriously?”

Bering claims current models for understanding brain function don’t allow for consideration of non-materialist data like those mined at DOPS. He asks: “But does our refusal to even look at his findings, let alone debate them, come down to our fear of being wrong?”

Stevenson’s most famous words have become somewhat of a rallying cry for paranormal enthusiasts the world over: “The wish not to believe can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.” But for Tucker, who is considered Stevenson’s protégé of sorts, delving into the paranormal has little to do with “believing” in anything at all.

“It’s certainly not to promote a belief or belief system,” he told me. “I didn’t come to [the field] with any sort of dogma.” He, like Harold Lief, was attracted to Stevenson’s methods.

“For me, I was interested in this effort for an analytic approach to studying survival of personality after death. The goal for me, personally, is to determine what evidence there is for the idea that some individuals can survive death.”

The information being collected at DOPS is certainly unusual. But overall, the organization functions no differently than your garden-variety scientific research outfit. If Dr. Jim Tucker is any indication, the groundwork of strict adherence to scientific method laid down by Dr. Stevenson is still firmly in place. And according to Tucker, the essential motivation of scientists at DOPS is the same as that at NASA, WHO, and other institutions devoted to scientific inquiry: “We’re just trying to find the truth.”

Jake Flanagin is a writer for The New York Times's Op-Talk.


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