Are we living life the second time around - or even the third or fourth, or more? A number of Americans believe they ARE . . . and while religion is a matter of faith, they're getting some support for their belief from surprising sources. Our Sunday Morning Cover Story is reported now by Susan Spencer of "48 Hours":
More than a thousand people gathered at a New York City conference center on a recent Sunday coming from around the world, in hopes of an out-of-this-world experience.
At up to $139 a ticket, they seemed confident that through hypnosis they'd uncover lost memories ... not just of this life, but of past lives as well.
"Be there, back there, before your birth ..."
Call them "Come as you were" events - reincarnation conventions, no longer considered completely off-the-wall, and growing in popularity.
"You can remember everything ..."
One woman said she had an experience on the Titanic. Another subject "regressed back to, I want to say, the mid-1800s, in England."
Another woman said, "I recognized that I was about to see Jesus deliver his Sermon on the Mount."
For Dr. Brian Weiss, a firm believer in reincarnation, such stories are all in a day's work ... hardly what you'd expect from a graduate of Yale's prestigious medical school.
But today he travels the globe, hypnotizing crowds of ordinary people to help them recall extraordinary things.
He says hypnosis induces a relaxed state and enhances concentration, making it easier for people to remember their past lives.
How doe she define reincarnation? "I define it as when we die physically, a part of us goes on," he told Spencer, "and that we have lessons to learn here. And that if you haven't learned all of these lessons, then that soul, that consciousness, that spirit comes back into a baby's body."
The concept of reincarnation goes back some 3,000 years to India and Greece. Although it's been largely rejected by Jewish and Christian traditions, Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero says it's alive and well in pop culture today - with Americans fascinated by the idea they've lived before.
"The skeptical part of me about the past life thing is that, just statistically, the odds are that in my past life, I was a Chinese peasant, right?" said Prothero. "But hardly anybody ever is a Chinese peasant. You know, everybody is Cleopatra or Mark Antony or Jesus, you know?"
A poll conducted for Sunday Morning shows about one in five Americans believes in reincarnation, and roughly one in ten remembers a past life.
Professor Prothero thinks they're reacting in part to the positive spin the West puts on it: "In the Indian tradition, classically reincarnation was undesirable. It wasn't something you wanted. I mean, the goal was to get out of this life. But in America we see reincarnation as this sort of great second opportunity. We say, 'I'm gonna be, you know, an accountant. In the next life I can be an astronaut!'"
Michael Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics' Society and publisher of Skeptic Magazine, is - no surprise - skeptical about reincarnation: "I don't think there's any chance that this is true.
"I think it's a complete construction of our brains - projecting ourselves into a future state that doesn't exist. It's a way of dealing with the anxiety of losing loved ones, and losing our own lives, and coming to grips with our own mortality."
But for psychiatrist Brian Weiss, reincarnation is more than a comforting thought. He studied Freud's theory that recovering childhood memories helps resolve present-day problems. Then, 30 years ago, he says he discovered that the same is true of memories even further back, from a past life.
It all started with a patient deathly afraid of water ...
"I told her when she was in this deep hypnotic state, go back to the time where your symptoms began, thinking she'd go back to early childhood," Dr. Weiss said. "But she went back nearly 4,000 years into an ancient Near Eastern lifetime - different body, different face, different hair, drowning in a flood or tidal wave, her baby being torn from her arms by the force of the water. And her symptoms started getting better from that moment on."
Since then, he's used what he calls "Past Life Regression Therapy" on some 4,000 people.
"If you have a fear of heights and you were thrown off a castle wall in the 12th century, and your fear disappears in one time or two times, this is a fabulous thing, because your life is changing," he said.
It's not the sort of change psychiatrist Jim Tucker of the University of Virginia can believe in.
"I do not trust hypnosis as a tool for any memories because it's so unreliable," Dr. Tucker said. "Sometimes, it's accurate, sometimes, it's wildly inaccurate. They're not intending to create fantasy, but that's what the mind can do under hypnosis."
But that's not to say that he doesn't believe in past lives. In fact, that's his specialty.
Dr. Tucker focuses on children - young children - who, he says, have volunteered information about past lives, no hypnosis involved.
Why focus on kids? "Well, because they're the ones that have the memories," he said.
Take the Colorado toddler who claimed to be his dead grandfather - a man he never knew. Dr. Tucker says the child recalled obscure details of his grandfather's life, even picked him out of class picture, saying, "That's me."
If that's not spooky enough for you, try this:
"Many of the children describe lives that ended violently or ended early," Dr. Tucker said. "Drownings, murders, motor vehicle accidents, suicides, snake bites."