MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Past life regression therapy (PLRT) is, according to one practitioner, a therapeutic technique for accessing and re-experiencing your past lives directly.  A branch of hypnotherapy, past life regression therapy has grown over the last 50 years to be an important addition to the healing arts. This website also informs us that:

Past life regression is an amazing, full-sensory experience.  You might experience the memory as a vivid movie, or see only vague flashes of images that prompt the narrative.  You might hear gunshots or explosions on a battlefield, or music at a dance.  It is possible to recall smells too:  smoke from a fire, leather from a saddle, or the sweat of a dirty body.

As the story unfolds, you feel real emotions appropriate to the story.  You may cry when you re-experience deep sadness at the death of a beloved child, feel despair in the pit of your stomach as you witness a massacre, or elation at a long-awaited homecoming from war.  And just as you can recall strong emotions, you feel the pain of an arrow piercing your body as you are dying, or the heaviness of a load you’re carrying on your back.  These physical sensations and emotions are very real in the moment, but pass quickly as you move through the past life story and death.

PLRT is used by some clinicians for anxiety disorders, mood disorders, gender dysphoria, and other conditions. One survey suggested that 22% of European cancer patients use PLRT as a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) to treat their illness. Some proponents argue that, since the exploration of the event/memory is actually helping the client resolve the challenge, the overall process can have immense therapeutic benefit, provided it is done responsibly and effectively.

So, it is effective because it is effective??? Such assurances make my alarm bells ring loud and clear. And I am not alone. It has been argued that PLRT is unethical:

  • First, it is not evidence-based. Past life regression is based on the reincarnation hypothesis, but this hypothesis is not supported by evidence, and in fact, it faces some insurmountable conceptual problems. If patients are not fully informed about these problems, they cannot provide informed consent, and hence, the principle of autonomy is violated.
  • Second, past life regression therapy has the great risk of implanting false memories in patients, and thus, causing significant harm. This is a violation of the principle of non-malfeasance, which is surely the most important principle in medical ethics.

I was unable to find convincing evidence that PLRT is effective. Furthermore, PLRT is by no means cheap; a typical session lasts two hours and costs $350. This suggests that PLRT is

  • unproven,
  • expensive,
  • and unsafe.

In other words, it is not a therapeutic option that I would recommend to anyone for any condition.

3 Responses to Past life regression therapy? No, thanks!

  • I think this shows the connect between SCAM and religion /faith /belief again- can readily appreciate the harms here though

  • Is it reasonable to suggest that there is some overlap, in psychology terms, with the suddenly-popular phenomenon some years ago, of “recovered memories”, which generally turned out to be “false memories”? https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/july-2017/false-memories-childhood-abuse#:~:text=According%20to%20this%20account%2C%20genuine%20abuse%20is%20rarely,childhood%20events%20are%20easily%20created%20in%20the%20laboratory.

    An anecdote has come to mind, given by popular TV conjuror Paul Daniels years ago. I forget if it was in a written article, or on TV. Daniels recounted how had visited an old country church somewhere in England. As he went through the ‘Lych Gate’ (roofed gateway to a churchyard), he had an extremely strong feeling of déja vu, which he found very disconcerting. Later, in disussing this feeling with family members, it emerged that in fact he HAD already seen the place, because the family had visited there when he was an infant. So it was a real memory. (Quite what this has to do with ‘past life regression’ I am not sure, except that Daniels had seen the church in his current life, albeit at an early stage of it, and not in a ‘past life’).

  • People could be helped by past-life regression therapy in ways that aren’t quantifiable. Like this person, who tried PLRT without coming to believe he had actually remembered a past life (whatever it would mean to “actually” remember such a thing):

    the hardest shot to my gut was that I actually learned something that was hard for me to swallow. The vision of past/possibly-made-up-me was a lot like me-me. The same flaws that hindered my life “back then” live on in the present. … My visions were vivid, but I’m unsure if that was the power of my own mind groping and grasping for answers or if it was truly the remnants of a true past life. … I did not heal any deep wounds, but I definitely found out more about myself than I ever intended. And I have to think I am now better for it. … If I am still kind of a prick, I am perhaps less so.

    Similarly, a lot of people who have NDEs say the experience transformed them and was very helpful to them – which doesn’t mean they were “actually” outside their body, or “actually” talking to dead people. And those benefits may not be quantifiable either.

    PLRT could also harm someone though, by encouraging them to live in a fantasy world, or making them more liable to embrace false beliefs in the future. Similarly, a religious conversion helps a lot of people get over a drug addiction, etc. – but it comes with a price.

    We humans are very liable to fantasy, and that’s a very important part of being human. But it’s also very important to know what in our experience is fantasy and what is reality.

    A past-life regression therapist wouldn’t necessarily try to convince their clients to take their past-life fantasies as a kind of reality – but most likely that’s what most of them do.

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