Back When I Was Older : Invisibilia As a parent, what do you do when your four-year-old starts telling you about memories that can't possibly be his? Memories that he says are from a past life?

Back When I Was Older

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This is NPR's INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel. And today, we have a new episode for our fall season. This one is from my co-host Hanna Rosin. Here's Hanna.


A friend of mine once told me a story about how when she was very little, she was sitting in the back seat of a car and an old song came on the radio, and she started singing it. Like, she knew all the words, which really freaked out her parents because they were pretty sure she'd never heard the song before, and they definitely couldn't remember her listening to the song enough times to memorize it from start to finish.


ROSIN: It's a weird thing when something pops into our brains and we have no idea how it got there, even weirder when it happens in a kid; and the weirdest maybe, when it's your kid because as a parent, you have this idea that most things in your little kid's head were put there by you.


VAN: We're talking about Grammy.


ROSIN: Which brings us to our story today about a 4-year-old boy named Van. According to Van's parents, who prefer to remain anonymous, this spring, Van started talking nonstop about memories that couldn't possibly be his own; like the time he told them he used to work at a hardware store, and he drove a pickup truck.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A white Chevy pickup truck...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He said - specifically said Chevy. And that was like...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't think he knows...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He has no idea what that is, like, at all.

ROSIN: Or the time they were walking out of pre-K and passed a skateboard.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, he just says like, hey, I used to ride one of those when I was a - or when I was older.

ROSIN: When I was older.


ROSIN: Now, if it were my kid, I probably would have paid zero attention because whatever; kids are super weird. But Van's mom found herself obsessing over these comments. And then one day, while she was doing some Googling, she came across an actual professor who studies little kids who say these kinds of weird things.

JIM TUCKER: We've studied over 2,500 cases.

ROSIN: This is Jim Tucker.

TUCKER: These are the ones from in North America. And then upstairs, we've got the ones from Asia and South America, Africa.

ROSIN: He's a child psychiatrist and a professor at the University of Virginia's Division of Perceptual Studies, a privately endowed research group that's part of the medical school.

Van's mom had read that Professor Tucker was trying to figure out if these kids were some kind of memory catchers. Like, they were picking up other people's thoughts - people they'd never met who were dead. And Tucker and his colleagues were taking this idea seriously. And so she started to wonder, is this what's going on with my son?


ROSIN: Now, Van's mom believes in metaphysical stuff, and so it made sense to her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know, the paranormal - like, I just - I find it all interesting and possible.

ROSIN: To me, it sounds like something I would watch on cable in a hotel room. But the question I really connected with was the one that came after that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It almost - it had me questioning, like, did it still make him our kid?

ROSIN: There've been lots of moments in 18 years of parenting where I've thought, is this person really mine? What do you do when someone you love, your kid, starts to feel like a stranger? It's a really bad feeling, so I can see how you might do anything to make it go away. For Van's mom, that meant reaching out to Professor Tucker.

VAN: Hello.

TUCKER: Hello. Can you hear me through that?

VAN: Yes.


SPIEGEL: After the break, we tag along with Professor Tucker as he attempts to coax out the stranger in Van on NPR's INVISIBILIA.


VAN: This one is dead.

ROSIN: We get our first glimpse of Van through the screen door as we approach the house.

VAN: She's moving.

ROSIN: He's 3-feet tall, shirtless and, unlike either of his parents, has bright red hair. He's hyper in the way that 4-year-olds are sometimes. He wants to show off his Spiderman outfit and this yellow bucket full of worms he's been collecting all day.

VAN: Oh, he's moving. Did you saw him move?

ROSIN: When Van settles down, Professor Tucker begins asking him questions. You see, Dr. Tucker doesn't just collect these kids' stories. He tries to check if the kids are recalling episodes from another person's actual life. And for that, he needs specifics, details that can be tallied up and cross-checked. Tucker was already somewhat familiar with Van's strange memories from emails his mom had sent, but he needed more details.

TUCKER: Tell me about OK-9 (ph). Can you tell me about that?

VAN: It could be far away.

TUCKER: Could be far away, yeah. Well, what do you remember about it?

VAN: Yeah.

ROSIN: But Van won't answer.

TUCKER: What do you know about OK-9?

VAN: I don't know.


ROSIN: After a few minutes, Van's parents send him to the neighbor's house to swim. It seems like they are the ones who really need to talk. They'd been living with this weird situation for a few months, and they had a lot to say.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We were at a birthday party yesterday. And, you know, I was talking to all of Van's - well, his friends' parents - and they're like, how's your summer going? And, like, I just - you know, I was thinking, oh, my, gosh, there's so much going on. Like, I just - you know, but then it was like, what can I actually tell them?

ROSIN: As I sat back and listened, waiting for the conversation to get weird, a more familiar picture emerged - two young parents who had a romantic vision of parenthood before Van was born. And then their actual child arrived.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think I asked the nurse, like, is it always going to be like this or something?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, yeah (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And she was like maybe, I don't know. It could be because he was crying and crying.

ROSIN: One week, six weeks, four months - the fussing didn't stop. Everything felt so chaotic. His mom quit her job as a social worker to stay home full-time. But even that wasn't enough. When Van was about 1, his dad left his job as a chef at a hip farm-to-table restaurant to get a 9 to 5.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, he was, like, a very intense infant. I remember all the doctors saying that. And they were like, well, it's the red hair or it's just his temperament.

ROSIN: They thought it's got to be a phase. But that's not how it worked out. As Van got older, life became an obstacle course designed to avoid triggering their toddler. The most random stuff could set him off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Randomly, he'll tell me not to take the highway when, like, we have to take the highway to go somewhere and - to the point where he gets really emotional and I have to have, like, Waze figure out some backwards way to get us to wherever we're going.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, sometimes in the car, he'll tell me, like, you're going too fast. You know, like...

ROSIN: Van's parents went on answering Tucker's questions for a while, but then the things they said started tipping us into the twilight zone.

Difficult toddler Van went away and was replaced by a young child with lots of unusual thoughts. Take bath time, for instance. Bath time used to be a chore - Van upset about this thing or that thing, bedtime looming. But now bath time became as mysterious as the open seas. Anything could happen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He was in the bathtub one time, and we had the Styrofoam letters. And he's like I'm just going to spell out my name, Brian Truss (ph).

ROSIN: Brian Truss, who, according to Van, had a whole other family.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, John (ph) was my brother. And I had a sister named Kiki (ph). And we had a cat named Clauden (ph).

ROSIN: From inside their son, who, by the way, couldn't even really write yet, this other human life emerged detail by detail. Van would be sitting by himself watching TV and suddenly the strange memory would pop out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, my dad's dead. That's what it was. And I was like, what? Like, dad is at work. What are you talking about? And he's like, no, no, my other dad. My other dad is dead. And he lived on OK-9. And, you know, he's like repeat after me, mom - OK-9.

ROSIN: OK-9, like, part of his old address or something. Maybe there's an Oklahoma State Highway 9.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Maybe I drove by the spot where - I don't know - where it happened. I don't know something like that. Like, it could have happened like that.

ROSIN: And Van didn't seemed to be only tapping into Brian Truss. Sometimes, it felt like he was able to tune into his own parents, spy on the thoughts going through their heads.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I was dozing off. He was next to me. And we were in our room. And it was like - you know when you're having sort of half awake, half sleep? Maybe the dream where you, like, fall off a cliff, and you wake up because you jump up. But this was really just not interesting. It was just me walking down our hallway. And I was walking down the hallway. And he was in front of me. And then when we got to the kitchen, I woke up. And he was asleep. And then the next morning when he woke up, he asked me where did you go last night? In my dream, we were in the kitchen together. And then you disappeared.


SPIEGEL: NPR's INVISIBILIA - we'll be back after the break.


ROSIN: Hey there, it's Hanna Rosin. Before we continue the show, we just want to shout out our friends over at Short Wave, NPR's new daily science podcast. They just launched. They're interested in all the cool stuff happening in the world around us. And they explore it every weekday, around 10 minutes at a time. So stick around after the show for a special sample of Short Wave.


SPIEGEL: Welcome back to NPR's INVISIBILIA. When we left off, Van's parents were recounting the curious things that their 4-year-old son says. It is a strange story. But the reason that we started looking into it in the first place is because here at INVISIBILIA, we've been interested in theories about consciousness for a very long time. And these memory catcher kids, like Van, are kind of a side door into that issue. Here's Hanna.

ROSIN: OK. So to back up, consciousness is just this awareness we have of ourselves every minute. And yet, no philosopher or scientist has ever managed to explain it. And there's this huge, unresolved debate about what it is and where it comes from.

Most scientists think it's a product of our brains and our bodies. But Tucker, the professor from UVA who's been following these memory catcher cases, he has an outlier view. He thinks that if the kids are really catching other people's memories, then it raises the possibility that consciousness sticks around after we die, that there are these stray bits of consciousness floating out there outside our bodies. That's a big if, but that's what he thinks.

TUCKER: I don't think we can map these on to just a materialistic understanding of reality where matter is all there is, and our brains produce our consciousness. And when the brain dies, the consciousness dies. I mean, these run counter to that.


ROSIN: So that's the reason we followed him down this path in the first place. But pretty quickly, we realized there was probably a simpler explanation for what was happening with Van. Because sometimes when we were talking with Van's parents, they would make even ordinary things sound weird. Like, they experienced every little thing Van did through the filter of his memory catching powers. And through his channeling of Brian Truss. Like, wrestling with Van's little brother; were these really the kind of moves you'd expect from a 4-year-old?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's, like, these really weirdly specific moves.

ROSIN: Everything became about Brian Truss. Did Van make a weird joke? Must be an OK-9 thing. Did he get lucky at the fair?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know, throwing the darts.

ROSIN: Must be because of Brian Truss.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He's never even held a dart before. I had to show him how to hold it. And then he was just like, oh, like this? And, like, threw it and, like, just popped this little, tiny balloon.


ROSIN: And let's be honest. Walking around a county fair with your kid is kind of fun. But walking around a county fair with your kid who has supernatural, tiny balloon-busting powers transferred across the time-space continuum, that is really fun.

And so I wondered, could it be possible that Van's parents were leaning so hard into these weird memories just to distract themselves from dealing with a difficult toddler? I asked them, and they definitely had that thought themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I remember thinking like, oh, my God, is this all that I'm going to want to talk to Van about now? Like, am I going to think about this every time I talk to him? Like, that's not fair to him.

ROSIN: Tuning into their son like he was a voice from the cosmos got in the way of tuning into their actual son, the 4-year-old.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Because I, you know, just wanted to, like, keep asking him questions. I wanted to know more. And so I was just, you know, trying to space it out and be like, all right. We'll only ask him at night, or we'll only ask him when we're on a car ride.

ROSIN: And why do you think it occupied you like that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Because it's the craziest thing to think about - like, this kid that I know came out of my body, that I know, you know, we conceived together, like, could have been somebody else that lived who knows where, who knows when. It almost - it had me questioning, like, did it still make him our kid?


ROSIN: And then one day, Van said something that brought them back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I saw you guys, and I chose you.

ROSIN: Of course, Van being Van, he didn't just keep it brief and general like that. He told them exactly how it happened. It's some sort of pick-your-parent pop-up shop.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He was like, oh, it was a black store. There was a bunch of kids there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's where he said, all my brothers and sisters, and he's like, there was a thousand of them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And it was just black. And then I saw you guys, and I chose you.


ROSIN: Ever since Van was born, his dad had a little seed of alienation from his son - first, the endless fussing and then the difficult toddler phase. But when Van told them about the parents store, all those doubts melted away. And everything - the new job, the million thankless tasks of being a parent, all fell into place. It's like how some parents feel at their baby's first smile. He is mine, I am his - his dad finally felt that completely.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He was like, that's the right fit for me, that's the right fit for them. And like, it - everything kind of matches up. I can't imagine the kid - like, I can't imagine him being any other way. Like, I can't imagine him with any other name, can't imagine him with any other hair color. He's like a perfect mix of us.

VAN: Spider-Man crash.

ROSIN: Hi, Spider-Man.

After a while, Van came back from swimming, and we drifted into the playroom, which was scattered with toy trucks. Van's mom took out a box with a map of Oklahoma State Highway 9, which actually is a road in Oklahoma.

Yeah, you'd need a better map to see it...


ROSIN: ...Because there's probably a million little, teeny towns though. Who knows? Did you look online?

I wanted to make Van look at the map. I wanted to manufacture an eerie moment to catch on tape. But after a few minutes, his mom had already forgotten about it. And Van had moved on. He was busy climbing on his dad's back, looking at turtles on YouTube.

VAN: Snapping turtles.

ROSIN: It occurred to me that whether or not Professor Tucker finds evidence of a Brian Truss who once lived in Oklahoma, his visit had already served a useful purpose. He could take on the obsession in all its literal details, and mom and dad could get back to raising Van.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is going to sound really cliche. But, like, I want Van to have as good of a life now so that he'll remember it in his next life - kind of thing. So it's maybe - kind of be more - like I said, more present with him now to be like, oh, this is it. Like, this is what we have right now.


ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Hanna Rosin, and Alix Spiegel. Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf, and our executive producer is Cara Tallow. This episode was produced by Daveed Goodhertz (ph), Kia Miakka Natisse and Abby Wendle. INVISIBILIA is also produced by Yowei Shaw. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom We also had help from Oliver Wang, Alec Stutson, fact-checking by Jamison Pfeifer. Our technical director is Andy Huether, and our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. Special thanks to Mark Memmott, Michael Ratner, Emily Bogle, Carmel Wroth, Jeff Kripal (ph), Ed Kelly, Duncan Tyler and Amar Dharamsey; music for this episode provided by Jonathan Barlow, additional music from Blue Dot Sessions.

MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: Let me introduce you to Kareen Chen MacLachlan. She's a social worker who's smoked for decades.


SOFIA: She's tried to quit a lot - like, 20 or 30 times - but nothing ever stuck. And then, she heard about this clinical trial using something a little unusual to treat smoking addiction. Psilocybin - the thing in magic mushrooms that makes you trip. And that's how a grandma from Baltimore ended up on a couch at Johns Hopkins University high out of her mind.


KAREEN CHEN MACLACHLAN: I took the pill about quarter to nine, I think. And then about a half hour to 40 minutes, things started floating. You know, and I said, things are starting to look kind of strange. So I closed my eyes at that point, and then I pretty much kept my eyes closed until the very end. But the biggest part - and I even get nervous when I talk about it now - is how scary the whole experience was. The overwhelming feeling I had was fear. I saw monsters. I saw aliens. I had these big, grey, puffy clouds that kept sinking in from the ceiling, and I thought I was going to suffocate. And I spent most of my time crying, sobbing - not talking a whole lot because apparently, what everyone goes through is pretty much in your head.

SOFIA: So did Kareen's trip work? And what's the science behind a psilocybin trip anyways? Listen to Short Wave to find out. Just hit that little subscribe button wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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