February 1, 2016

See you in the next life? Cognitive foundations of reincarnation beliefs

Human reincarnation: Same person, different body, another life. From established theological doctrines to local folk beliefs, the idea that deceased individuals may be “reborn” into the body of another can be found all over the world (White, In press). Since the writings of philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, establishing personal identity has primarily focused on memory. The interplay between memories and what constitutes a person’s identity plays an interesting role in reincarnation beliefs. For example, when juxtaposed alongside theologies that teach that the individual undergoes mental or physical changes in the process of rebirth, how can this same individual be identified in the new life if they have undergone changes (White, 2015)? In this podcast, Dr. Claire White brings the tools of cognitive science of religion (CSR) to bear on this question and several others surrounding reincarnation beliefs.  

Dr. White begins  by discussing the ongoing research at her laboratory at California State University, Northridge. She goes on to introduce the topic of reincarnation, noting that only recently has CSR paid much attention to these types of beliefs. While conceptual scaffolding surrounding the idea of reincarnation can vary widely from culture to culture, Dr. White draws on some of her recent research pointing out that many similarities exist in how individuals reason about and discern the pre-rebirth identities of the reincarnated. In closing, Dr. White shares some preliminary insights gathered from her ethnography of “past-life groups” in the western United States. Interested in why some individuals may be attracted to these groups, she suggests the groups may function as a form of psychotherapy and self-actualization for those attending.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion and Memory, and Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, small dinosaur figurines, poppy seeds, and more.

Many thanks to NAASR for facilitating the recording of this interview.


  • White, C. (2015). Establishing Personal Identity in Reincarnation: Minds and Bodies Reconsidered. Journal Of Cognition And Culture, 15(3-4), 402-429. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/15685373-12342158
  • White, C. (In press). The Cognitive Foundations of Reincarnation. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.


5 replies to “See you in the next life? Cognitive foundations of reincarnation beliefs

  1. Claire White

    Whose concept is it anyway? The importance of empirical research in the study of religion

    First, I would like to thank Mitch, Brianna and Jed for taking the time to both listen, and respond, to the interview featuring my work on reincarnation. Mitch highlights one of the key implications of my research, that CSR research has minimized the role of the physical body in people’s concepts of individuals in the afterlife. As I have demonstrated, in certain contexts, including when the afterlife is, in fact, this life, and when people are looking for reliable evidence that the deceased are amongst us, the importance of bodily features as continuing and indicating continued identity is heightened.

    Brianna also includes another reason why ideas about reincarnation are so prevalent and cognitively appealing, namely, that they alleviate the fear of death by offering a continued existence in this life. This is, as she points out, an example of Terror Management Theory. While the fear of death may well play a role in explaining some of the motivations for accepting life after death as a possibility, I am interested in the question of how it would explain the prevalence of reincarnation beliefs specifically. For instance, in karmic traditions reincarnation does not necessarily equate to a better existence, but a lesser existence (e.g., being reborn as a discontent animal as a result of wrongful deeds in this life). It may be that any existence is more emotionally satisfying than no existence, and I think this is an interesting question indeed and worthy of further treatment.

    I would like to focus the rest of my discussion on Jed Forman’s response to my interview. Forman points to what he perceives as problems in my research on reincarnation which, he claims, invalidates my research findings. The general gist of Forman’s problems with my research is that I am not well enough acquainted with Buddhist notions of rebirth and have actually demonstrated a convergence between theological ideas about rebirth and folk assumptions. Forman further suggests that these weaknesses reflect the state of cognitive science of religion (CSR) research in general, which can be overcome by engaging with religious studies scholars. I wholeheartedly agree that there is a mutual benefit for cognitive science of religion scholars and religious studies specialists to collaborate, indeed, my own position is in a religious studies department. Yet Forman’s response to my interview demonstrates more of a misunderstanding of my work, and of CSR more generally, by negating the role of the human mind in the active process of conceptualizing religious ideas. This neglect was one of the very reasons that fuelled the emergence of CSR in the first instance (see White, in press a), and so I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify this using my own research as an example.

    First, let me articulate clearly what I mean by “theological incorrectness”. Theological incorrectness refers to a divergence between (a) how people reason about concepts in ways that are compatible with culturally accepted theological discourse and (b) how they unwittingly distort these concepts to fit intuitive expectations (see De Cruz, 2014, for an excellent treatment of this issue). Forman’s definition is incomplete. Technically, theological incorrectness does not refer to “a divergence between the reasoning of the participant and the formal theological reasoning of the tradition to which they belong”. The contrast is crucially between discrepancies in how people reason, often in different contexts, not between a system and a person, because systems cannot reason.

    Second, I will outline briefly what my research has shown. I have conducted research on how people reason about continued identity in reincarnation using (1) information about rebirth contained in existing ethnographic databases of cultures across the globe (White, in press b), (2) experiments with participants in the US (mixed religious affiliations/ideas about the fate of the individual after biological death) and South India (Jains) (White, in press d; White, 2015), and (3) surveys with US spiritual seekers (White, Kelly & Nichols, 2015).

    Scholars who have compared ideas about reincarnation cross-culturally concede that the basic idea includes the assumption that the physical body is replaced after death, including in karmic traditions (e.g., Obeyesekere, 2002; see my paper, White, in press a, for the full list of scholars). So, on the one hand, culturally endorsed ideas about reincarnation (as evidenced by ethnographic/historical research) include the basic idea that the physical body changes. Reasoning that the body changes through the process of reincarnation in these traditions is thus an example of “theologically correct” reasoning because they would reason “in ways that are compatible with culturally accepted theological discourse”. Indeed, participants who endorsed different beliefs about the afterlife (including extinction and reincarnation) in my own research overwhelmingly described reincarnation as a process of bodily change and many self-identified as belonging to reincarnationist traditions.

    When the participants in my research were asked to reason about how to identify a reincarnated person—in practice—and in a forced-reasoning task (and indeed when we look at cultural practices designed to establish or confirm the identity of reincarnated persons), they overwhelmingly privileged (1) similar physical marks between the deceased and living and (2) similar episodic memories between them as the most reliable evidence that the two are one and the same person, among alternatives. This provides an example of a discrepancy between what people say occurs in reincarnation (what my participants described) and how they reason in another context. It is thus an example of theologically incorrect reasoning, where there is a divergence between how the participant’s reasoned in explicit ways (consistent with the concept of reincarnation as accepted in surrounding culturally accepted theological discourse) and how they reasoned in a forced-choice scenario (or how people behave cross-culturally).

    Now I will turn to Forman’s criticisms of my comments on Buddhism. My studies did not focus on Buddhists especially. I used the example of Buddhism in the interview simply to illustrate how my findings could apply to other traditions. Specifically, if humans are predisposed to reason as though physicality and memory are reliable markers of continued identity over time, then it may well explain why people who endorse a concept of the self in reincarnation where memory does not continue in rebirth reason in ways which suggests that they assume it continues. Namely, the selection procedures for the Dalai Lama’s successor in Tibetan Buddhism. As I have argued elsewhere (White, Sousa & Berniunas, 2014) the process of selection involves a test of correctly identifying an object belonging to the Dalai Lama, and therefore people who accept this test as a means to determine the successor are likely to infer or assume that the person can remember this object, and that memories continue through successive lives.

    Forman claims that Buddhism endorses the idea of a non-permanent enduring self in this lifetime and the next. He then goes on to point to the cognitive science view of the self, which he claims is similar to the Buddhist view. Therefore, he concludes, because Buddhists doctrine (like cognitive scientists) has articulated how it is possible to have both a non-permanent enduring self and memory transfer within a lifetime, then there is no discrepancy between theology and (i.e., a non-permanent enduring self) memory continuity in rebirth in the reasoning of ordinary people. The analogy to the cognitive science view of self here is irrelevant, because I, like CSR scholars generally, am concerned more with how people reason in relation to ideas (be they scientific or religious) under certain conditions and contexts, than with the internal consistency of such ideas by the rules of abstract logic and devoid of ordinary human processing of such ideas everyday (see McCauley, 2011).

    Forman is claiming that Buddhists scriptures have reconciled the view of a non-permanent self with memory transfer in rebirth. I think this is an overly simplistic assertion that neglects a diverse view within different Buddhist traditions and across them (see Nicholson’s detailed and careful treatment of this, 2016). For instance, there are scriptural disagreements over whether people can remember past lives and who these people are (e.g., Premasiri, 1995). This aside, Forman agrees with my claim that laypersons in Buddhist traditions endorse a concept of the self where memory does not continue (there is also some evidence for this, see Berniunas, unpublished dissertation). He disagrees, however, with the assumption that therefore reasoning as though memory continues contradicts this assumption.

    Most importantly, Forman cannot say with any degree of certainty how Buddhists reason about the continuity of the self in relation to scriptures, and whether, and under what conditions, this is similar/different to corresponding theological dogma on the subject (which, as I have outlined, is critical to making claims about what is “counterintuitive”), or how these individuals would identify and/or reconcile such discrepancies in their reasoning (see for example Legare & Gelman’s work, 2008), because he has not asked them. There is a fundamental error here between reasoning that what one theological interpretation of dogma claims about a concept is also the accepted lay view, even as an explicitly articulated notion. This is not necessarily the case. For example, Haradlsson and Samararatne (1999) point out that in South Asia Buddhist laypersons look for memory continuity in children who are not Tuluks and thus would not, presumably, have the privileged knowledge of memory continuity according to locally accepted theological discourse. More carefully-tuned empirical research on how Buddhists reason under such contexts is needed. I (and CSR scholars) would welcome such research.

    On the other hand, this raises what I think is a crucial issue in the Cognitive Science of Religion literature when we discuss “theological correctness”, that is, exactly what theology are we referring to? Different traditions may adopt different versions of dogma that differ in key respects. CSR scholars have typically resolved this problem by understanding the participant’s explicitly articulated rendering of the concept in question and the cultural or religious reference frame to which they belong. This includes empirical research, and cannot be gleamed through scriptural interpretation alone. Again, this demonstrates the importance of continued research that engages systematically with people on the ground.

    All of the above criticisms apply to Forman’s claims about my research on how ordinary folk reason about the continuity of physical traits in reincarnation. Claims that Eastern traditions do not reason about mind-body dualism are a common objection to CSR research and yet other research has shown that when subject to careful ethnographic and empirical treatment, people can and do reason in terms of mind-body dualism in non-western traditions (see Astuti 2001; Slingerland, 2011). If my own participants (Jains) were not able to reason in terms of mind-body dualism, then they would have found the questions preposterous, yet they reasoned with ease and little complaint. To say that karma features in how Jains reason about rebirth does not render my findings about memory and physicality as continuing after death moot. Rather, it points to the fact that my findings do not represent the complexity of karmic theories of rebirth or the salience of factors other than those that I have given to the participants to consider. Yet they are not supposed to, and nor do I claim anywhere that they do.

    Finally, the claim that the similarities in how Jains and US participants reason about reincarnation can be explained away simply by a “shared Indian notion of reincarnation” does not take into account the question of why these ideas are recurrent across the world (White, in press b), or even in such traditions in the first place. Thus, it denies any role for human cognition in actively contributing to the rise of certain ideas common to reincarnationist traditions. Here is, again, an example of cultural relativism at its finest (see Lawson & McCauley, 1990; Sperber, 1996, for related arguments).


    Astuti, R. (2001). Are We all Natural Dualists? A Cognitive Developmental Approach*. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 7(3), 429-447.

    De Cruz, H. (2014). Cognitive science of religion and the study of theological concepts. Topoi, 33(2), 487-497.

    Lawson, E. Thomas & Robert N. McCauley (1990). Rethinking religion: Connecting cognition and culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Legare, C. H., & Gelman, S. A. (2008). Bewitchment, biology, or both: The co‐existence of natural and supernatural explanatory frameworks across development. Cognitive Science, 32(4), 607-642.

    McCauley, R. N. (2011). Why Religion is Natural and Science is not. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Nicholson, H. (2016). The Spirit of Contradiction in Christianity and Buddhism. NY: Oxford University Press.

    Obeyesekere, G. (2002). Imagining karma: Ethical transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek rebirth. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.

    Premasiri, P. D. (1995). The Theravada Buddhist doctrine of survival after death. In S. J.,

    Kaplan, (Eds.), Concepts of Transmigration: Perspectives on Reincarnation, (pp. 133-188). New York, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

    Slingerland, E., & Chudek, M. (2011). The prevalence of mind–body dualism in early China. Cognitive science, 35(5), 997-1007.

    Sperber, Dan (1996). Explaining culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

    White, C. (In press, a). Religion and Theories of Cognition: Claire White Replies to Respondents. In Hughes, A. (Ed.) Theory in a Time of Excess: The Case of the Academic Study of Religion. Sheffield: Equiniox.

    White, C. (In press, b). The Cognitive Foundations of Reincarnation. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.

    White, C., Sousa, P., & Prochownik, K. (In press, c). Explaining the Success of Karmic Religions. Brain and Behavioral Sciences.

    White, C. (In press, d). Cross-cultural Similarities in Reasoning about Personal Continuity in Reincarnation: Evidence from South India. Religion, Brain and Behavior.

    White, C. (2015). Establishing Personal Identity in Reincarnation: Minds and Bodies Reconsidered. The Journal of Cognition and Culture. 15, 402-429.

    White, C., Kelly, B., & Nichols, S. (2015). Remembering Past Lives: Intuitions about Memory and Personal Identity in Reincarnation. In Cruz, H. & Nichols, R. (Eds.) The Cognitive Science of Religion and its Philosophical Implications. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

    White, C., Sousa, P., & Berniunas, R. (2014). Psychological Essentialism in Selecting the 14th Dalai Lama: An Alternative Account. The Journal of Cognition and Culture, 14, 1-2, 157-158.


    1. Post Author Christopher Cotter

      Dear Claire,

      Thanks so much for this thorough response. It is great to see one of our interviewees engaging so thoughtfully with our respondents – indeed, this was the first interview ever to attract three responses on the RSP site, and we are delighted that the ensuing dialogue is continuing further. Given the lengths you have gone to, I will consult with my fellow editors about potentially publishing this response more formally, if you would be interested?

      In the meantime thanks again – for this and for a great interview. It was great to hear another Northern Irish twang on our podcast.




      1. Jed Forman

        A big thank you to Dr. White for taking the time to write such a thorough response! Chris, I’d like to offer a response to Dr. White’s response as well. I think Dr. White construes my response as critical of CSR in general. Rather than championing insular, cultural relativism (which was emphatically not my intention), I think reiterating the points I raised in light of Dr. White’s response will only help sharpen the CSR methodology and help its project.

  2. Claire White

    Chris – on “Given the lengths you have gone to, I will consult with my fellow editors about potentially publishing this response more formally, if you would be interested?’ apologies for the public announcement/reply. Happy for my response on here – but to publish anything or continue the dialogue further would be beyond my current time constraints, best Claire White


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