The "past lives" craze: Yes, we can see into the past
But not in the way we think.
Thanks to TikTok and YouTube, dabbling with the supernatural has become trendy. Using a YouTube video to induce a state of hypnosis, social media influencers are emerging from their alleged hypnotic state with wild claims. Some say they discovered they "let the Trojan Horse in" during a battle in ancient Greece; others say their past lives were more recent, and that they died on 9/11 or caused the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Apparently, discovering your "past lives" is the latest way of going viral - and as a middle school parent, I know going viral is the goal.
But is it real? If there's nothing to this craze, why are so many people falling for it?
Let's be clear: I do not believe in past lives. Through my interest in genetics and genealogy, however, I have learned one potential reason so many people believe they've had them. Thanks to the pioneering field of epigenetics - the study of inherited changes in gene expression - there is growing evidence that memories, especially traumatic or emotionally charged memories, can alter a person's DNA. The altered DNA is then passed on to the person's children, grandchildren, and so on. Some researchers believe that "inherited memories" manifest as unexplained phobias and personality quirks. For instance, if your great-grandmother saw a friend drown as a child, you might end up with an overblown fear of swimming. Other researchers take the "inherited memory" theory even further, speculating we can actually see snippets of our ancestors' memories - especially when we're asleep.
Have you ever had an intense dream that seemed to clearly take place in the past? Epigenetics researchers who believe in inherited memories would tell you it's not your own "past life" you're seeing, but one of your ancestor's. This is especially true if the memory involves a life-or-death experience, or an experience that could be critical to the survival of future generations.
These snippets are generally not useful at all unless you know about your genetic background and history and can identify the scene. As a person with "exceptional ability" in this area - which involves tapping into certain brain regions that allow you to reconstruct events from memory, which is what it means to "narrate" a story - I can tell you even the clearest inherited memory scenes are corrupted and confusing. I already told my Viking story, but here's another example.
When I was writing my Titanic novel in my 20s, I had a dream one night that I was sleeping downstairs in what looked like an old-fashioned hotel or saloon. There are a bunch of people around me, and we can see a body of water through the windows on each side. Two teenage girls who I'm close with - probably cousins or good friends - briefly wake me up, telling me something is going on outside and I should look. They don't seem scared at first; they're whispering and giggling, so I go back to sleep. When I wake up, I hear someone come to the top of the stairs and yell something, which causes everyone to panic and run. Some guy I'm with pushes me under a bench until the room clears out, saying I'll get trampled and we should wait and walk up the stairs, instead of following the crowd. I grudgingly agree but decide to let him do the talking; whoever is at the top of the stairs, I know they won't listen to me.
The next thing I see is a big, black wall of smoke and fire. Then nothing. The next thing I know, I'm hanging onto a railing, looking down at the water. I know I'm supposed to hang on. But suddenly, I hear a loud pop, and the whole structure starts going upward at a 90-degree angle. I sort of knew this was coming, but it's happening way faster than I expected. I know I won't necessarily die if I jump into the water now, but if I keep going higher and higher, I will. So, as soon as I see my little black boots start freefalling in the air, I basically think "alright, eff this" and jump. As soon as I do, I'm enormously relieved. I know this will be the jump that sets me free.
The last snippet I saw is a group of people laying around on the floor in a hotel or saloon, but in a nicer private room. They're clearly very intoxicated on something, and I keep thinking they're like "canaries in a coal mine," and their giggly drunk behavior and inability to stand up is a sign they are dying and need to snap out of it and leave the room. But they won't, so I just leave.
This really freaked me out. It looked like a horror movie version of Titanic, and I assumed that was what I was dreaming about. Sometimes when I write intense scenes in my novels, I'll dream about them on and off for weeks. Still, I started to wonder if I had a very dark mind.
It turns out I didn't have to be worried about me. "Past life memories" are not your life. It's one of your ancestors' lives. I found out a few years later that my third great-grandmother Bridget was a beautiful but somewhat troubled woman who came from an abusive family and immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, as a young person. After a series of personal traumas, including giving birth to a son of unknown paternity who died three days later, she allegedly tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Cuyahoga River. This all happened on Whiskey Island, about fifteen miles from where I grew up, in Cleveland, Ohio. The story was that she got in a fight with a man she was involved with and made a defiant display of climbing onto a drawbridge and refusing to come down. Her future husband (and my third great-grandfather William) apparently got into a struggle with her trying to get her to change her mind and come off the bridge. Her brother Seán, who had apparently roped Bridget into some sort of incestuous relationship for a while, claimed Will pushed her off; others say they both merely fell in. (I think there was a lot of alcohol involved in this whole scene, and possibly some other drug like opium.) Either way, I think I know why Will might have pushed her: because he could swim and she could not. He held onto her as they jumped, pulling her out of the river after they hit the water. I included a very condensed version of this true story in my novel about my ancestors, Lake Erie Monsters, and I'll be sharing the whole story in my next novel.
I hope all the people participating in the "Past Life Challenge" can find that kind of clarity, but it will take work. The catch hypnosis is that you can't go in already knowing what you think you'll see. If you do, any results you get can probably be attributed to the power of imagination. Best to go to sleep, and let the experience happen naturally.