For readers eager to convince themselves that David Mitchell doesn’t actually believe in the paranormal stuff he dabbles in as a novelist, there’s this quote by Hugo Lamb, a recurrent character in the Mitchellverse and narrator of one of The Bone Clocks’ most rollicking chapters:
“The paranormal is always, always a hoax.”
Whew. That’s got to be the voice of the author poking through there, right? How can such a gifted writer, who’s been earnestly called a genius by some critics, believe in that stuff? Obviously he doesn’t, because everyone knows that the paranormal doesn’t actually exist.
Or does it?
While talk of the paranormal and topics like reincarnation are usually relegated to conspiracy theory message boards and late-night broadcasts of Coast to Coast AM, there’s one academic institution dedicated to investigating paranormal claims and approaching them from a scientific standpoint: The University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies, or DOPS, which is part of the school’s department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences.
That’s a mouthful, and it conjures images of Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman in 1984’s Ghostbusters, using experiments in “parapsychology” to hit on attractive young undergraduates.
Fortunately, the scientists at DOPS take their work much more seriously:
“The Division’s main purpose, and the raison d’être for its foundation, is the scientific empirical investigation of phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness, and its relationship to matter, may be incomplete. Examples of such phenomena, sometimes called paranormal, include various types of extrasensory perception (such as telepathy), apparitions and deathbed visions (sometimes referred to as after-death communications or ADCs), poltergeists, experiences of persons who come close to death and survive (usually called near-death experiences or NDEs), out-of-body experiences (OBEs), and claimed memories of previous lives.
Despite widespread popular interest in paranormal phenomena, there is a paucity of careful scientific research into their occurrences and processes. Our researchers are dedicated to the use of scientific methodology in their investigation of a wide range of paranormal phenomena.”
As The Atlantic’s Jake Flanagin puts it, “DOPS is home to a small group of hardworking, impressively credentialed scientists with minds for stats and figures.”
So how does this relate to David Mitchell’s work as a novelist? While most paranormal claims can be easily debunked, and no one wants to lend any credibility to the likes of Theresa “Long Island Medium” Caputo, there’s one particular area of study that has stymied the scientists at DOPS — the phenomenon of children who have reported life experiences that aren’t their own, things they could not possibly have lived through, and familiarity with people they can’t have known.
Dr. Jim Tucker, a medical doctor and professor of psychiatry who works at DOPS, told The Atlantic that he’s intrigued by the “survival of personality after death,” something awfully close to reincarnation.
Most critics view Mitchell’s veer toward genre fiction as a somewhat recent phenomenon, starting with the suggestion that Marinus is immortal in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. But it actually goes back further than that, to Mitchell’s first book.
Ghostwritten is a title that has many meanings, and most of them have nothing to do with the supernatural. But one chapter features a sort of proto-atemporal, a “noncorpum” inhabiting the host bodies of human beings and jumping from host to host with physical contact, no matter how brief.
We meet the noncorpum in Mongolia, where it’s rummaging through its host’s memories like a cat burglar with peculiar tastes, looking for something very specific — the only memory it retained from its past life. That memory is a folk story, the kind of tales Mongolian mothers might have recited to their children as they put them to bed in their gers.
At DOPS, Tucker and his colleagues study children who retain powerful memories of supposed past lives. These aren’t kids who overheard their parents speaking about recently-dead relatives or neighbors — in the most interesting cases, they’re children who report clear, detailed memories that match up with the biological details of people who lived thousands of miles away and decades in the past.
Among them is James Leininger, who at two years old began experiencing vivid and terrible dreams about piloting a Navy jet over the Pacific, dodging Japanese artillery fire and flying wing with his buddy, Jack Larson. As James’ nightmares became worse and the family sought the help of a therapist, the child offered more details, naming the ship he took off from — the Natoma Bay — and recalling his final, fatal mission over Iwo Jima.
After James’ grandmother suggested the boy might be experiencing memories from a past life, his father Bruce began looking into military records — and what he found chilled him, according to ABC News. The Natoma Bay was a real ship, and Jack Larson was a real Naval officer and combat pilot. Other details matched up, and when Bruce looked further into the records, he discovered the Natoma Bay lost a single pilot over Iwo Jima — James M. Huston Jr., whose aircraft was shot down on March 3, 1945.
Little James’ nightmares centered around that fateful mission, and he told his parents he dreamed of flying a Corsair when the plane’s engine was hit, bursting into flames. The damaged aircraft dived into the waters of the Pacific and its pilot drowned.
Ralph Clarbour, a rear gunner on another aircraft from the Natoma Bay, later told Bruce Leininger he saw Huston’s plane go down.
“I would say he was hit head on, right in the middle of the engine,” Clarbour said, noting Larson was flying formation next to Huston when the latter pilot was shot down.
So how does a two-year-old boy who can’t read, living with parents who aren’t into aviation or military history, pinpoint details like that? Kids of the digital native generation pick up devices like iPads with extraordinary ease, but Huston wasn’t a well-known figure who could be looked up with a Google search, according to The Atlantic — it took Bruce Leininger more than three years to track down records involving Huston, Larson and the Natoma Bay.
Tucker and the boy’s parents also ruled out knowledge acquisition by osmosis. Huston was killed more than a half century before Leininger was born, and hailed from Pennsylvania, more than 1,000 miles from the Leininger family home in Louisiana.
“It seems absolutely impossible that he could have somehow gained this information as a 2-year-old through some sort of normal means,” Tucker said in a 2014 interview with NPR.
Tucker and the DOPS team have catalogued thousands of cases, collecting them in a database and looking for patterns in the data.
“The main effort is to document as carefully as possible what the child says and determine how well that matches with a deceased person,” Tucker told The Atlantic. “And in the strongest cases, those similarities can be quite compelling.”
At this point, Mitchell readers are probably thinking of Slade House’s last scene, in which Nora Grayer’s consciousness latches onto the soul of an infant instead of floating away over an unknowable rift in death. Likewise, Marinus — the atemporal do-gooder who shows up in Thousand Autumns and has central roles in The Bone Clocks and Slade House — muses over the random nature of reincarnation.
In the Mitchellverse, atemporals are subject to the genetic and national lottery every time they reincarnate.
“I’ve had four Chinese lives,” Marinus tells another character in The Bone Clocks. “My last was in the middle years of the Ming, the 1500s. I was a woman in Kunming then. An herbalist.”
Of course, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which is why news headlines aren’t trumpeting DOCS cases as proof of the supernatural. There’s also the fact that kids are much more perceptive than us adults give them credit for, and no matter how unlikely, it’s possible that some of these children were exposed to information that fueled elaborate past-life backstories, like little Tolkeins taking their first stab at world building. (In Leininger’s case, there are indications that the youngster had at least some of the ideas planted in his head, starting with a visit to an aviation museum and gaining steam through sessions with a therapist who admittedly believed in reincarnation before she dealt with the case.)
In the Mitchellverse, the mechanics of reincarnation — for all flavors of atemporals — are pretty well-established. But at DOPS, scientists try their best to rule out alternate explanations, which leaves a tantalizing possibility. To explain how this is happening to the children he studies, Tucker leans on Occam’s razor.
“The simplest explanation,” Tucker said, “is that they’re recalling a life they actually lived.”