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Days of Our Lives

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

September 7, 2011

Past-Life Regression Therapy

Past-life regression therapy was popularized in 1952 in Pueblo, Colorado, when Virginia Tighe was hypnotized by Morey Bernstein. In a trance, she revealed that she had experienced a former life as Bridey Murphy, a nineteenth-century Irishwoman. Under hypnosis, Tighe/Murphy sang Irish songs, told stories, and provided a remarkably detailed account about her childhood in Cork, her parents Duncan and Kathleen, her marriage to Sean Brian McCarthy, her move to Belfast, the accident that caused her death, and witnessing her own funeral.1

Here was seemingly amazing proof of the existence of past lives; Tighe revealed startlingly vivid information about her former life although she’d never been to Ireland. But one woman had—Bridie Murphy Corkell, an Irish immigrant who lived across the street from Tighe’s childhood home. Tighe was recounting someone else’s memories, embellished by her own imagination.

Fast forward sixty years, and past-life regression is still practiced—but is generally reduced to psychic fair readings where everyone was Marie Antoinette in a former life. However, there are still people who practice past-life regression as a form of therapy.

McHugh and Robbins at their lecture

A Day in the Life

I attended “Past Life Recall,” a presentation by “certified” past-life regression therapists Greg McHugh and Paula Robbins.

Have you ever wondered why you have deep-seated fears or strong feelings about periods in history, cultures, individual relationships, events or places to visit with no rational explanation whatsoever? Immobilizing fear of heights, sharp objects, closed in places, being alone or fire are common irrational fears that many deal with. Have you ever considered why you might have a powerful connection with an era, or certain historic objects? It’s possible these inexplicable and powerful phobias, addictions or attachments do have an explanation. Could it be you have a deep subconscious embedding of an experience of another life in another time or lifetimes? Deep within our DNA or cellular make-up it is likely we have a complete soul history and possibly embedding of all cosmic history.2

McHugh is a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist practicing in Denver, Colorado. He is the author of The New Regression Therapy: Healing the Wounds and Trauma of This Life and Past Lives with the Presence and Light of the Divine. McHugh teaches classes through his Golden Portal Institute, “created for the purpose of service to God and humankind and the teaching [of] the ancient mysteries through direct experience, healing, initiation, and teaching the tools of inner healing to ministers, teachers, healers and other healthcare practitioners.”3 His New Regression Therapy involves:

Facilitating regression to the causes of dysfunction patterns and reflected experience patterns in this and past lives.

Application of Divine Resources and Light to trauma events to return perception to that which is in accord with the Self or the True Being within.

Spirit Releasement: identification and use of protocols for the clearing of attached deceased human spirits and energies of other types of spirits.4

Robbins is certified through McHugh’s Golden Portal Institute. She operates Sunrise Hypnotherapy in Denver where she uses Cellular Release Therapy, Regression Work, Spiritual Guidance, Etheric Plane Communication and Energy Clearing. A believer in the law of attraction, she has produced a number of self-hypnosis/affirmation CDs with vague claims to “recharge your spirit” and “open your entire energy system and vibration to one of receiving and abundance.”5

The event was a conversation between the speakers and audience. McHugh and Robbins shared anecdotes about their experiences and patients but didn’t discuss any supportive research for their theories.


McHugh began by sharing his first experience of past-life regression. Placed in a trance, he suddenly heard drumming and somehow knew he was in Papua New Guinea. At the very same time, he was involved in an Apache Indian initiation ceremony. These experiences were “more vivid than regular perception.” Then he saw a future life, with a different family. Yet he was still in the present, and he realized these were his different lives being lived concurrently, “even my friends saw the Aborigines.” Robbins also claims she has had many past lives, including one in which she’d been burned at the stake for witchcraft.

In contradiction, McHugh and Robbins also spoke about the “interlife,” the life between our lives. They believe we have lives between our lives but yet all of our lives are lived concurrently; “Time is not linear. Lives are parallel. It all happens in the soul at the same time.” Robbins promotes hypnotherapy as a way to find one’s “path of true purpose” and to learn about the “soul’s history” and how the “soul’s history factors into today.”

McHugh and Robbins’s theories seem to incorporate religious elements, including beliefs from Buddhism and Hinduism, and there was also a lot of New Age speak and talk of god, angels, near death experiences, spirit guides, and an “oversoul.” There were even elements of Scientology in the belief that traumatic experiences (known as “engrams” in Dianetics) are somehow embedded in the psyche. The pair claimed that their past-life regression techniques take patients back to the cause of the dysfunction to heal the trauma.

By their theory, experiences in one life are carried into other lives. For example, “If you have musical talent in one life that impression goes onto the soul.” McHugh spoke of a client who is a mechanical engineer and wondered why he was so passionate about his profession. “I regressed him back to a life in the 1800s and showed him the buildings he had designed.” They claim that our past lives explain the careers, passions, and dislikes of our current lives; “If someone doesn’t like something about their lives, we can find out the cause.”

Similarly, traumas leave “impressions.” If not healed, these traumas remain as destructive elements until they are healed in another life. For example, Robbins shared the story of a seven-year-old girl who would panic when her mother traveled on frequent business trips. During her first hypnotherapy session, it was uncovered that in a previous life the girl’s parents had died in an automobile accident. She was now harboring anxiety from this previous experience. Without explaining her curative techniques, Robbins claimed she “healed” the girl through hypnosis. When the mother announced her next trip, her daughter replied calmly, “Have a nice time, Mommy.”

McHugh and Robbins believe their therapy can treat a range of disorders and states through both face-to-face therapy and remote or “surrogate” healing. The conditions they claim to heal include anxiety and depression, although McHugh and Robbins seemed to deny the existence of mental illnesses, referring to these as “emotional disturbances” that are a product of negative experiences and “dark beings” from former lives.

Instead of recommending that such a patient seek a mental healthcare practitioner, they advocated regression to previous lives to address the core issue: “Only addressing this life will not create healing. It’s like pulling weeds; you need to get them from the roots.” They claim that when an issue is resolved in one life, it is resolved in every life. “Say you lived in the 1400s and you were healed now; you would be healed of everything between the 1400s up to now.”

McHugh and Robbins

Choose Your Own Adventure

According to McHugh and Robbins, our souls “choose our lives.” We choose our lives to learn, evolve, and heal the wounds of our past lives before we move into the next life. We also choose our parents, and our friends and family feature in our other lives. “My daughters in this life were my daughters in many of my other lives.” The therapists were asked, “How many lives do we have?” McHugh cited an example of a person who had lived 600 different lives; “I have a client who in ninety sessions has had ninety past lives. He keeps coming back to hear about his other lives.”

The past-life sessions I have had were more psychic readings than therapy; the practitioner entered into a trance and recounted my former lives. These included a life as a convict brought to Australia from England on the First Fleet and a life as an Australian Aboriginal who lived in the outback (compare with McHugh’s claim that he was an indigenous American). In contrast, past-life regressions involve the hypnosis of patients who retell stories from their imagination. Like the Bridey Murphy case, these are usually based on the second-hand experiences of the patient.

McHugh and Robbins proudly told tales of their own “former lives,” but they denied that the details and stories of the regressions are important; “only the feelings are important.” However, clients take away from their sessions the fantasies they relay to their therapists: stories of being burned at the stake, tribal ritual rites, or being Marie Antoinette in a former life.

Past-life regression is all about suggestion but when asked about it, the therapists rejected the need to guard against memory implantation. They denied using leading questions or suggestion with clients. Robbins stated that she instead asks “yes” or “no” questions, for example, “Did Uncle Harold molest you when you were five?” Of course, this is still the same thing. As human memory expert Elizabeth Loftus reports, “Individuals are being imprisoned on the ‘evidence’ provided by memories that come back in dreams and flashbacks—memories that did not exist until a person wandered into therapy and was asked point-blank, “Were you ever sexually abused as a child?”6

The Way We Weren’t

Past-life regression therapy, repressed memory therapy, hypnosis, guided visualization; trance writing, dream work, and other related pseudoscientific therapies are dangerous for their tendencies to create false memories. As demonstrated by Elizabeth Loftus and colleagues, repressed memory therapy has lead to the creation of false memories and confabulations of sexual molestation, satanic ritual abuse, and alien abductions.

Furthermore, past-life regression therapy fails to diagnose and treat real physical and psychological conditions. In one case, a woman was estranged from her abusive father.7 Under hypnosis, this patient relayed the story that she had formerly lived in medieval Britain. In that life, she was allegedly a falsely accused criminal and her father was a law enforcement officer who had slain her. This fantasy was presented as an explanation for her relationship difficulties with her father, completely dismissing the fact that she had grown up a victim of physical and sexual abuse. This experience intensified her anger and resentment toward her father to the point that she reported feelings of violence and a desire to seek revenge for her alleged “murder.” If past-life regression was a legitimate therapy, this would have been a case of malpractice.

There are many different modalities and schools of thought in hypnotherapy. In the end, past-life regression therapy comes down to the individual beliefs of the practitioner. McHugh, Robbins, and other past-life regression therapists are teaching their own personal beliefs, and their clients are being diagnosed and “treated” by their own fantasies.


1. Carroll, Robert. T. 2010. Bridey Murphy. The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Available at; accessed August 21, 2011.

2. Paranormal Research Forum. Available at; accessed August 20, 2011.

3.McHugh, Greg. Golden Portal Institute. Available at; accessed August 19, 2011.

4. McHugh, Greg. 2011. The New Regression Therapy (handout).

5. Robbins, Paula. 2011. Sunrise Hypnotherapy brochure.

6. Loftus, Elizabeth. 1995. Remembering dangerously. Skeptical Inquirer 19(2). Available at; accessed August 21, 2011.

7. Personal spoken correspondence on August 22, 2011.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]