The market for stories of paranormal academe is a rich one. There’s Heidi Julavits’s widely acclaimed 2012 novel The Vanishers, which takes place at a New England college for aspiring Sylvia Brownes. And, of course, there’s Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters—Marvel’s take on Andover or Choate—where teachers read minds and students pass like ghosts through ivy-covered walls.
The Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine is decidedly less fantastic than either Julavits’s or Marvel’s creations, but it's nevertheless a fascinating place. Founded in 1967 by Dr. Ian Stevenson—originally as the Division of Personality Studies—its mission 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 relation to matter, may be incomplete.”
What sorts of “phenomena” qualify? Largely your typical catalog of Forteana: ESP, poltergeists, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, “claimed memories of past lives.” So yes: In 2014, there is a center for paranormal research at a totally legitimate (and respected) American institution of higher learning. But unlike the X-Mansion, or other fictional psy-schools, DOPS doesn’t employ any practicing psychics. The teachers can’t read minds, and the students don’t walk through walls. DOPS is home to a small group of hardworking, impressively credentialed scientists with minds for stats and figures.
Dr. Jim Tucker, a Bonner-Lowry Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, is one such scientist. With a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an M.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Dr. Tucker arrived in Charlottesville to complete his postgraduate training at UVA’s Health Services Center in 1986. After a few years running a private psychiatric practice (still in Charlottesville), Dr. Tucker returned to UVA to work under Dr. Stevenson and carry out research on the possibility of life after death.
Tucker, who is a certified child psychiatrist, primarily works with children who’ve reported memories that are not their own—oftentimes linked to real-life individuals who lived decades in the past and thousands of miles away. To Tucker, these findings suggest the plausibility of “survival of personality after death”—something like a law of conservation of energy applied to human consciousness. Reincarnation, to the layperson.
“The main effort is to document as carefully as possible what the child says and determine how well that matches with a deceased person,” he told me. “And in the strongest cases, those similarities can be quite compelling.”
The cases Tucker refers to are indeed quite compelling. In an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin earlier this month, he talked about James Leininger, a Louisiana boy who reported memories of flying a fighter jet in World War II. At around age 2, James experienced terrible nightmares, almost nightly, of violent plane crashes. During the day, he relayed extremely vivid memories of this supposed Air Force career. He recalled the name of a real aircraft carrier stationed in the Pacific during World War II (“Natoma”). He claimed to have a friend on the boat named Jack Larsen. He had memory of being shot down by the Japanese and dying near Iwo Jima.
The USS Natoma Bay lost only one pilot at Iwo Jima, a man named James Huston, and he died in a crash that matched Leininger’s description almost exactly: “Hit in the engine, exploding into fire, crashing into the water and quickly sinking,” Tucker said. “And when that happened, the pilot of the plane next to his was Jack Larsen.”
Spooky, right? Surely little James was merely parroting information he had absorbed elsewhere. “Children’s brains are like sponges,” the saying goes, but Tucker’s findings suggest something more profound at work. For one thing, James Huston is simply not a well known person. A cursory Google search of his name reveals only press related to Leininger’s claims. It’s hard to say how Leininger or his parents could have possibly known anything about Huston before the nightmares began.
Huston’s story is so obscure that it took Leininger’s father three to four years to track down his information. James Huston was killed more than fifty years before James Leininger’s birth, and came from Pennsylvania—more than a thousand miles from the Leininger family home in Louisiana. What’s more, James Leininger was only two years old when he first reported memories of Huston’s fiery death.