A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is it possible to recall past lives through hypnosis?

June 21, 1985

Dear Cecil:

Six years ago I witnessed a public demonstration of hypnotism during which, among other things, the hypnotist "regressed" a volunteer from the the audience. This volunteer, whom I knew and who clearly was not an associate of the hypnotist, gave a rather startling and chilling description of a past life she said she had lived. While under hypnosis the volunteer spoke differently than normal, exhibited different handwriting, and gave quite detailed information about her supposed past life. What's the scoop, Cecil? How much research has been done on this? Assuming that we haven't discovered proof of reincarnation, what's the psychological explanation for why people would concoct such elaborate lies under hypnosis? Or is the secret to your near-omniscience that you are the Kwisatz Haderach?

Cecil replies:

The secret to my omniscience is hard work, perseverance, and the World Almanac, John, but this is not particularly relevant to the business at hand. I know of no reputable authority who believes that people under hypnosis are recalling actual past incarnations. The consensus is that the subjects who do so are highly suggestible souls who manufacture their previous "lives" out of bits and pieces of their own past in order to please the hypnotist.

The most notorious example of this is the case of Bridey Murphy, which burst upon the scene in 1956 with the publication of a book by hypnotist Morey Bernstein called The Search for Bridey Murphy. In it Bernstein tells the tale of one Virginia Tighe (she was given the pseudonym Ruth Simmons in the book), a young housewife from Pueblo, Colorado whom Bernstein had found to be unusually susceptible to hypnosis. During an attempt to "regress" the patient back to her childhood, a common hypnotic technique, Bernstein decided to go for the gusto and asked Mrs. Tighe to "go back" until she found herself "in some other scene, in some other place, in some other time." The agreeable Mrs. Tighe thereupon began describing herself as a child scratching the paint off her metal bed as revenge for being spanked. As she spoke, her voice started to assume an Irish brogue, and when Bernstein asked her her name, she said "Friday [later clarified as 'Bridey'] Murphy."

In subsequent sessions, "Bridey" claimed she had been born in 1798, the daughter of Kathleen and Duncan Murphy. The family lived outside of Cork, in Ireland; her father was a barrister. Though a Protestant, at 20 she married a Catholic named Brian MacCarthy, also a barrister. They moved to Belfast, where they remained until Bridey's death at the age of 66 following a fall downstairs. Various clues convinced hypnotist Bernstein that Bridey's story was authentic: she used several genuine bits of Irish dialect, she claimed to have patronized a grocer named Carrigan, who had actually had a shop near the neighborhood where she supposedly lived; and so on.

Unfortunately, it wasn't long before skeptics began raising doubts. A Life magazine investigation found that few of the checkable details in Mrs. Tighe's story could be verified. Worse, a fellow named Wally White, who said he was a childhood friend of Mrs. Tighe's, said that when she was very young she was in the habit of speaking in an Irish brogue. He also said she was known to have scratched the paint off her bed on one occasion. Next it was learned that metal beds hadn't been introduced into Ireland until the mid-nineteenth century, when Bridey would have been middle-aged. The final blow was the discovery that one of Mrs. Tighe's neighbors in her childhood days was named Bridey Murphy Corkell. Having thus been pretty well discredited, Mrs. Tighe and her associates sank once again into obscurity.

Some researchers doubt that hyphosis can really make you regress to your own childhood, much less to that of some earlier avatar. What's really happening, they feel, is that the subjects imaginatively reconstruct their childhoods from memories that hypnosis has helped them recall. Trance states being necessarily subjective, the truth may well be unknowable.

Morey Bernstein takes umbrage

Dear Cecil:

Someone was good enough to send me your piece of bovine excrement (a euphemism for plain old bullshit) on Bridey Murphy.

Straight Dope, eh? Dopey, yes. Straight? Like a corkscrew. How the hell could you be such an idiot (or so badly informed)?

Straight Dope, old boy, I can tell you one thing for certain. You did not read the book, nor did you hear the recording of the original Bridey experiment. I am sending these to you, along with a number of clippings which would be of interest to anyone who is open-minded.

You are entirely correct, as Dr. Stevenson points out in the enclosed Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, that most of these [past life] experiments are utterly worthless. But you will note that he makes an exception in the case of Bridey Murphy.

I can understand mistakes of this nature being made by an ordinary horse's ass. But it is positively unforgivable from someone who calls himself The Straight Dope. Jeezus.

You will find that every single item that attacked Bridey was torn to shreds, while even the most recondite facts that Bridey gave forth during hypnosis were 100 percent correct — even though librarians and scholars at first disagreed. They finally admitted they were wrong.

Do you have that much gutz [sic], Straight Dope? Can you write another article, explaining that you did not have the Straight Dope?

Cecil replies:

No offense, Morey, but I didn't realize you were still alive, The Search for Bridey Murphy having originally appeared in 1956. Glad to see you're still getting around. And thanks for the book. It's a paperback edition that includes a new chapter rebutting your critics that wasn't in my hardbound version. I don't find the arguments very convincing, but readers may judge for themselves.

I should explain a few details first. The Search for Bridey Murphy appeared in January, 1956. In May and June, the Chicago American published an expose of Bridey that made it appear that many of the facts about her "past life" were simply things she had recollected from her childhood in Chicago. The expose, which was mentioned prominently in Life and other publications, pretty much popped the Bridey bubble as far as the general public was concerned. Mr. Bernstein has been struggling to restore Bridey's good name ever since. The new last chapter in his book, written by reporter William Barker, attempts to rebut the American stories point by point. Here's a rundown of the more interesting parts:

1. Expose: Bridey knew so much Irish lore because as a child she had lived with her aunt, Mrs. Marie Burns, who was "Irish as the lakes of Kilkenny" and told the girl many stories about Ireland.

Barker: Marie Burns was Scotch-Irish, was born in New York, and spent most of her life in Chicago. She did not have much interest in Ireland. She did not move in with Ruth's family until Ruth was 18, although the two women had known each other earlier. Ruth cannot recall being told any tales.

My comment: Barker's assertions, here as elsewhere, seem to be based primarily on statements by Ruth. There is no evidence that Barker spoke to Mrs. Burns.

2. Expose: Ruth had taken dancing and forensics lessons as a child that included Irish jigs and lengthy recitations in Irish dialect, including one called "Mr. Dooley of Archey Road."

Barker: The teacher, who had been contacted by another newspaper reporter, could remember little about Ruth or what pieces she had recited. She had never heard of "Mr. Dooley of Archey Road." Ruth cannot remember what she was taught, but she says the so-called "Irish jigs" included the Charleston.

My comment: Mr. Dooley of Archey Road was the creation of a well-known Chicago newspaper reporter named Finley Peter Dunne who wrote comic Irish dialect sketches around the turn of the century. Mr. Dooley was supposed to be a garrulous Irish saloonkeeper. Dunne achieved national prominence and his Mr. Dooley pieces were collected into a dozen books, many of which can be found to this day in branches of the Chicago public library. They are an excellent primer for persons wish to learn to speak Irish dialect. That said, I do not know of a piece specifically entitled "Mr. Dooley of Archey Road."

3. Expose: A Mrs. Bridie Murphy Corkell, an Irish immigrant, once lived across the street from Ruth and her family.

Barker: Ruth remembers Mrs. Corkell, but cannot remember having heard her first or maiden names. There are seven Bridget Murphys listed in a 1928-29 Chicago directory.

My comment: Barker is grasping at straws. Bridget Murphy may be a fairly common name, but Bridey (or Bridie) Murphy is not. The fact that it turns up in Ruth's past is a fatal blow to her credibility.

This is not to say that Ruth was intentionally conning Bernstein. From the evidence of the book she was a suggestible sort, and he asked her many leading questions that clearly indicated what he wished to hear. For example, here is what he said to make her "regress" during the very first hypnosis session:

"... Be looking at yourself when you were one year old. Now go on even farther back. Oddly enough, you can go even farther back. I want you to keep on going back and back and back in your mind. And, surprising as it may seem, strange as it may seem, you will find that there are other scenes in your memory. There are other scenes from faraway lands and distant places in your memory. … Your mind will be going back, back, back, and back until it picks up a scene, until, oddly enough, you find yourself in some other scene, in some other place, in some other time, and when I talk to you again you will tell me about it. You will be able to talk to me about it and answer my questions. And now just rest and relax while these scenes come into your mind. … Now you're going to tell me, now you're going to tell me what scenes come into your mind. What did you see? What did you see?" Whereupon "Bridey" begins to speak.

These are not the words of a scientist who is dispassionately trying to determine whether people really have previous lives. On the contrary, they're the words of someone who is manipulating his subject into telling him a fairy tale.

There are, admittedly, certain details in Bridey's alleged 19th-century past that check out. The bit about the grocers, for instance. But there are many others that don't. Her attempts to speak a few "Irish" words, as Bernstein requested at one point, were not particularly successful.

Furthermore, in the words of one writer sympathetic to Bridey's cause, "No verification has yet been obtained that a barrister named Duncan Murphy and his wife Kathleen lived in Cork in 1798 and in that year had a daughter, Bridget Kathleen; nor that a Bridget Kathleen Murphy married in Cork a Catholic called Sean Brian McCarthy; nor that she died in 1864 in Belfast; nor that there was in Belfast in her days a St. Theresa's church; nor that it had a priest named John Joseph Gorman who, as Bridey states, performed a second marriage ceremony there."

It may be true, as Bridey proponents point out, that no vital statistics were kept in Ireland prior to 1864. The fact remains that the evidence for Bridey's authenticity consists almost entirely of trivia. If you want anyone besides the New Age crowd to take this stuff seriously, Morey, you're going to have to better than that.

More umbrage

Dear Cecil:

I am writing in reference to your column on past life hypnotic regressions. You stated you "know of no reputable authority who believes that people under hypnosis are recalling actual past incarnations." Well, listen up, Cecil, because I am about to name some names.

In addition to the American Society of Psychical Research and Duke University there is an organization in Riverside, California called the Association for Past Life Research and Therapy, of which I am a member. The latter organization is composed of physicians, dentists (myself included), psychologists, social workers, etc. We all believe in the accuracy of a properly conducted hypnotic past life regression.

I also qualify as a reputable authority. In addition to my dental degree and four state licenses, I have an M.S. in Counseling Psychology and am a member of the American Psychological Association, as well as many other psychotherapy and dental organizations. Furthermore, I have been a past life regression expert for over ten years, have conducted over 16,000 past life regressions through hypnosis, and am the author of Past Lives — Future Lives, published by Newcastle Publishing Co. I have been interviewed by Time, the Washington Post, Associated Press, Copley News Service, CBS-TV, etc., and have had articles on past life regressions published in professional journals.

Cecil, the next time you take a potshot at something, do your research well.

Cecil replies:

Like I said, doc, no reputable authority believes in past-lives regression. Not to be insulting, but the fact that you are a dentist, belong to professional organizations, and have managed to get yourself interviewed by talk show hosts and newspaper reporters doesn't give you scientific standing. On the contrary, as you know, mainstream scientists have deprecated your work. Paul Kurtz, a philosophy professor and chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, says you are "typical of the current craze for the paranormal — astrology, tarot cards, past lives — that is sweeping the country. It can be very dangerous, because he is practicing psychotherapy based on untested conjecture. It sounds as if he's abandoned his scientific credentials."

By the way, you might try to avoid getting yourself quoted in any more articles featuring Shirley MacLaine. "MacLaine," quoth Time, "says her beheading [by Louis XV] cured her stage fright." 'Nuff said.

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