Revised October 6, 2018; May 18, 2020
1. A normal human being can remember some “significant events” even from the very early days of this life. And these memories are not just a “summary”, but we recall a significant event in detail. It is like playing back a videotape. We recall the whole scene with pictures sounds, the background, everything. Just recall some past events and one can verify that for oneself.
- There are many cases of “memories from past lives” reported mostly by children. But there are also accounts by some adults under hypnosis; see, “Evidence for Rebirth“.
- Now there is scientific evidence that our memory records are kept in minute detail somewhere and can be accessed at moment’s notice. Such “detailed records” are “namagotta” in Buddha Dhamma. See, “Namagotta, Bhava, Kamma Bīja, and Mano Loka (Mind Plane)” and “Memory Records- Critical Part of Five Aggregates.”
- However, an average human can recall only a small fraction of past events.
2. Strong evidence is beginning to emerge that there is indeed a “complete record” of one’s past (in this life) just like a videotape. These studies started with Jill Price, who contacted a team of scientists in the early 2000’s about her ability to recall anything from 1974 onwards. Here is a video of her with Diane Sawyer on an ABC News program:
3. Note that she says she can “see” what happened that day. It is not like she is recalling a “summary” or the gist of what happened. She can actually recall the whole episode in detail. Even the day and date come out effortlessly.
- A team of scientists has studied her for five years and published a paper providing their findings: A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering-Parker-2006
- She has written a book about her experience: “The Woman Who Can’t Forget”, by Jill Price (2009).
- Jill Price’s story led more people to come forward with their experiences, and ten more such individuals have been studied in detail recently: Behavioral and neuroantomical investigation-LePort-2012.
4. These individuals have “highly superior autobiographical memory” or HSAM. They are not any smarter than average people, according to those two papers above. The ability to recall their past much more extensively is a “puñña iddhi” or a special kamma vipāka in Buddha Dhamma. They can focus their minds on any date in the past and “watch” what happened. Then they can say what the weather was like, who they were with, whether any significant world event took place that day, etc.
- This phenomenon is also known as Hyperthymesia; see, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperthymesia. Several other cases of HSAM are mentioned here.
5. Scientists believe that our memories are “stored” in the brain, in the synapses between neurons. I firmly believe that they will be proven wrong. This research is still in infancy, but there has been an explosion of activity within the past 15 years.
- While it is true that synaptic wiring are responsible for habit formation (see, “How Habits are Formed and Broken – A Scientific View“), it is a stretch to assume that “video-like recordings” of all past events are somehow embedded in neural connections!
- It is true that people without HSAM do have false memories (or have no memories) of past incidents that were not significant for them. But their memories about significant/traumatic memories are astoundingly accurate.
6. There are a couple of key significant facts that come out of these studies on HSAM subjects:
- They can instantly access a “time slot” from many years back that is arbitrarily chosen by someone else. They “re-visit” that time slot and describe, in real-time, what took place with details.
- Since it has been confirmed in 11 subjects, it is not a “random event”.
- It is a stretch to assume that all such details for a period of over 20 years can be stored in biological membranes that regenerate undergo changes continuously.
- It is not a matter of being able to remember. Jill Price describes extensively that it is hard for her to remember any “learning material”; she was an average student.
- Rather, it is a matter of just having a brain that is “wired” to be able to access the “video recorder like” memory stream. It is not something one can develop by studying hard.
7. In Buddha Dhamma, the life of a sentient being is not restricted to the current life. As described in the previous post (“What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“), any given sentient being has been born an uncountable number of times, with no “traceable beginning”.
- And a record of each of those lives is kept intact in the “mind plane”, and can be accessed to different degrees by different people.
- And people who develop abhiññā powers via jhānās (need to get to at least the fourth jhāna) can develop Jill Price’s capabilities and more; they can go back hundreds to thousands to billions of years depending on the level achieved.
8. According to Buddha Dhamma, the brain is just like a computer that helps extract these memory records from the “mind plane”. The mechanism is similar to a television extracting a broadcast signal; I will write a post on this later.
- These memory records are called “namagotta” (pronounced “nāma goththa”) and they go back for eons and eons and even a Buddha cannot see a beginning; see, “Memory, Brain, Mind, Nama Loka, Kamma Bhava, Kamma Vipaka“.
- We can recall only bits and pieces even during this lifetime; this is because our minds are covered by the five hindrances (panca nivarana); see, “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances“.
- Ancient yogis who could get to the eighth jhāna could see all past lives in the present eon or kappa. But the Buddha could see numerous eons within a short time.
- This is why it is mostly children who can remember past lives. As they grow up their minds get “contaminated” more and more and these memories are lost. And those cases are different from the HSAM subjects.
- It appears that those individuals with HSAM have some of the capabilities of those who have developed abhiññā powers. Since those with HSAM have been reported to have somewhat different brain structures, it will be interesting to see whether those with abhiññā powers have similar brain structures as people with HSAM. I believe that it is a matter of the brain wiring to be able to “receive” more information from the “mind plane”.
9. Here is a video on the amazing accounts of a few people with memory capabilities.
Superhuman Geniuses (Extraordinary People Documentary):
- More than anything else, they confirm the fact that memories are held intact in the manō lōka or the “mind plane”; see, “The Amazing Mind – Critical Role of Nāmagotta (Memories)“.
- The brain is the interface between the base of the mind (hadaya vatthu) and manō lōka; see, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body“. It is just that a few people’s brains can do better in recalling those memories compared to others.
Next, “Buddhism without Rebirth and Nibbāna?“, ………