Dec. 2, 2008— -- I landed in a past life with sore feet. The first sensation was a pair of tight boots on my feet. Then I felt the tight breeches that made me sweat as I walked briskly through the streets of a grim English town.
Judging by my frock coat, luxurious mustache and splendid hat, this was the mid-1800s. I really felt myself sweat, I really felt uneasy as I imagined myself in a bedroom with a woman who was clearly not my wife. I really felt irritated as I was jostled in a dingy pub, trying to get a beer after a long day's work as an accountant.
I felt all of this while lying in a La-Z-Boy surrounded by scented candles and soothed by the mellifluous voice of David Wells, a medium who specializes in past life regression.
I am a full-time cynic. I am not spiritual. I am not religious. I am not "new age." Still, I felt myself giving in as David asked me to "imagine there is a rose bud on the top of your head."
I obeyed when he told me to "let it open up, opening up that energy center." I was not hypnotized, but I was very relaxed in what I can only describe as a trance. As it turns out, I was an uptight accountant named John Wigglesworth with a downtrodden wife named Mazie.
My final memory of John was feeling a door slam into my head. The blow killed me. And pushing that door murderously was my wife Mazie and her lover.
When David brought me back to reality, I felt embarrassed, bewildered and curious. John's life looked to me like a pastiche of an L.S. Lowry painting, a Jane Austen novel and a PBS costume drama. Throw in some sex and murder from the true crime books I love, and there you have it -- my past life.
"What seemed to be happening is crypto-amnesia, hidden memory," said Chris French, a professor who studies the psychology of paranormal belief.
"You take in an awful lot of information," French explained after I told him about my trance-induced recollections. "Sometimes you forget the source of the information, and when it comes bubbling back up in these sort of contexts, you might genuinely think this is a past life memory."
French does not believe in reincarnation, but 25 percent of adult Americans do. Entire religions believe in it. And Jenny Cockell certainly believes in it.
Cockell is an English woman who believes she has lived as a Neolithic hunter, a servant in 16th century France, the daughter of a Samurai in Japan and as a housewife called Mary in early 20th century Ireland.
"I could remember the children," she told me as we chatted at her kitchen table in her quaint cottage. "I knew what sort of ages the children were, and I knew that I had died and left the children behind."
Cockell decided she had to find the children. She drew a plan of the village she remembered living in and a sketch of the local church.
Then, on a map of Ireland, she felt inexplicably drawn to a village called Malahide. The plan and the sketch matched. She found the woman she once was, Mary Sutton, and after some dogged research, she found Mary's children.
Cockell and the children met in 1994 and visited the house where they lived.
"I had to be absolutely certain I had found the right people," Cockell said. Her visceral memories convinced her. The feeling she got when she met the children convinced her.
"And what's more," she said, "they are absolutely certain that I remembered their mother's life."
French was not convinced.
"In Jenny Cockell's case, one of the biggest worries there is that she pretty much did all of her own research," he said.
The professor doesn't believe Cockell is lying, just that she may be deluded into the belief that snippets of information floating through her mind are from a past life. What compounds a delusion, French said, is the desire to believe.
"There's a phenomenon called confirmation bias," he told me. "We find it much easier to believe in things -- we don't need the evidence to be that great -- if we really, really want to believe in them in the first place."
And why would anyone want to believe?
"Like any other form of belief in life after death, it actually helps us to cope with the idea of dying," French offered as a possible explanation.
Dying isn't so scary if we know we're going to come back, if we know we're going to see our loved ones again in another life.
I don't want to believe in reincarnation. Or am I just scared of marrying the murderous Mazie once again?