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The Concept of the Virtual Self

by Dr Keith Hearne(more info)

listed in mind matters, originally published in issue 44 - September 1999

Dr Hearne's concept of the Virtual Self is that our outlook on life is coloured by thoughts and feelings from persons we consciously or unconsciously envisage we have been in real life or imagined previous lives.

Self image

Dr Hearne has developed the concept of the Virtual Self – a psychological self-image that includes present, childhood and seeming past life information. We become in life, he says, what we think we ought to be, based on such background material – which he thinks is genetically determined (the 'genego').

There are similarities with the physical body image that we also possess, and he refers to phantom limb pain. Frozen-in-time phenomena occur with both the physical body image and psychological virtual self.

It seems that we possess – at a central psychological level – a conscious and unconscious image of who and what we are. But that construct exists in the unconscious in a condition where there are no boundaries of time and space, so there is no clear distinction between one's recent memories, childhood memories and memories from seeming past or even future anticipated lives (real, imagined or both). All these informational elements can strongly influence the Self as a whole, acting to limit or enhance one's role.

In therapy, the object is often to make clear to the unconscious, the delineation of such groups of memories. It is a condition of modern living – but rather alien to our innate nature – to have a clear sense of what is current and 'real'.

When I wake in the morning, experiencing the daily miracle of returning awareness, a memory system – strongly stamped in – reminds me of who I am, my current life and so on, with much potentially accessible back-up information of childhood memories, etc. But like everyone else, I can under certain circumstances of induction produce descriptions of events from past lives. Now those events do not change. I can enter several seeming past lives, on different occasions, but the sequence remains consistent.

Are they purely fantasies – simply made-up stories – or are they true? In a sense it doesn't matter. Whatever the source, the material reflects what I, at a deep level, think might have happened to me – or did actually happen to me. Just as in art therapy, our productions are representations of our psychological state. We cannot help but portray our innermost self.

If I am constantly a victim, say, in such exercises, then the idea is present in my unconscious – especially if the events were traumatic – as strongly as a childhood observation or even memories of recent events. Whether the past lives are transferred into consciousness or not, the same 'story-lines' or 'memories' still exist within me, ready to surface. Certainly, our unconscious fully accepts the idea of reincarnation, regardless of any conscious biases. We are, then, what we think we deserve to be. That notion of course resonates with the ancient eastern insight of karma.

The virtual self appears to consist not only of the person we think we are now, but the people our unconscious believes we once were – like a sort of longitudinal group mind. There is a blurring of information, though, so it all seems to be a unitary set of experiences to the unconscious.

I think that we are actually born with a concept of who we are and of who we were and where we have been. I anticipate that genetic research will uncover that virtual psychological self – then perhaps termed the 'genego' (genetic ego) – that will tie in with the behaviours and thoughts of the individual and help to explain why people do what they do in life. Their reported past lives will be equally predictable. (Genetics to me being a mere organising process in a greater scheme of things in a mentalistic universe).

There are various other clues to such programmed behaviour, as with the cases of identical twins separated at birth, who go on to live remarkably similar lives.

Let's look more at the universally experienced phenomenon of recalling past lives. It's a concept that was always accepted (it was naturally embraced by the early Christians) until one man, the Emperor Justinian, forbade it to exist, for political purposes, in 553 AD. He jailed the Pope and did not allow the western Bishops to attend the 5th Ecumenical Council, where by 3 'votes' it was decided that we have only one life. The notion of reincarnation then became a punishable heresy. Proponents would burn in eternal hell fire.

There is some evidence for reincarnation, which is beginning to be researched. Professor Ian Stevenson has collected many cases where birth marks and defects in children who claim to be reincarnations of someone else who was injured or maimed before their death, correspond closely. His two-volume work Reincarnation Biology provides copious material including many autopsy photos and presents a statistical method of comparing wound positions.

Past-life regression therapy (like present-life regression therapy) would have to be invented if it didn't already exist. Patients sometimes quite spontaneously find themselves in some apparent previous scenario. A technique for dealing with that condition has to be in readiness. It would be foolish, unprofessional and counterproductive to ignore such arising situations.

As an example, a female patient aged fifty, in an altered state, was simply discussing an abortion she'd had in her twenties.

Superficially it was no problem, but she then began to sob. She had never grieved and blocked emotions were being released.

Suddenly, though, (by a process known as the 'affect-bridge') she found herself in a past life, where she was a priestess but had 'sinned' and had a baby. The baby was taken away and she was reliving the episode. The vivid images were a complete surprise to her and she excitedly described each scene.

She then gasped and said "It's the same baby!" She had gained a life-changing insight, comprehending that the same spirit had approached her twice. She then experienced great relief when she understood in her own way that her daughter (born a year after the abortion, and to whom she is particularly close) contains that same spirit. The results were powerful. Whereas the woman had been subject to great panic attacks, her whole attitude to life changed. Something significant had been resolved to the satisfaction of the woman's unconscious mind. All the images and insights came completely spontaneously to the woman. The symptoms left her and she was transformed.

I personally can accept that the event happened to her in a previous life. Based on my research into lucid dreams, precognition, psychology and therapy, I believe that we live in an informational, non-material, dream-like universe (despite appearances!), where absolutely anything is possible. Others might resort to an explanation concerning fantasy and imagination. But whatever, it was real to the patient. At a deep philosophical level, reality is a variable and is totally unique to the individual.

Seeming past lives are also spontaneously accessed in, say, deep-tissue massage work. The client may start to sob for no apparent reason. Memories of childhood and apparent past lives can be 'trapped' in muscles. A simple form of words – "Recall a previous time you felt that way", can release a stream of vivid images on such occasions.

One potentially highly useful aspect of past life regression is to predict later illness in the current life. Often, illness and accidents that happen in this life correspond to analogous anniversary events in apparent past lives. Thus, a woman who developed a bad back (for no apparent cause) at the age of 27, regressed to a time in a previous life when a cart ran over her spine, breaking it, at the same age. It is a definite area for further research.

There is an analogy between my concept of the psychological virtual self and that of the physical body image that we have. Most people who undergo limb amputation, continue to 'feel' the lost limb. It could also be any other part of the body that has been removed – a breast, say, or a penis. This phantom limb phenomenon provides considerable insight into brain operation. We have a representation – or homunculus – in the brain of our body. When we strike a thumb with a hammer, the pain is not actually felt in the thumb, but in the body image in the brain.

It should be of no surprise, then, that pain can be experienced in non-existent limbs. The pain in a dysfunctioning limb or organ is often still felt even after the part's full removal.

Now, significantly, persons born without limbs can also experience phantom pain. This indicates that we possess a genetically determined body image. It is probably the case that we develop physically to conform to a predetermined body image shape, rather than just by uninfluenced physical development. In the same way, I suggest that we fulfil our predetermined psychological roles according to our virtual self image.

There is another link between body image and the virtual self. Both can produce situations where the individual becomes stuck or fixated as a result of a trauma.

Let us look firstly at bodily traumas. The pain of that last moment is retained by a sort of imprinting process. Melzack gives the story of a man who got a bad splinter in his finger. As he was driving to get medical attention, his car was involved in an accident which resulted in him losing that same arm. Subsequently he could constantly still feel the pain of the splinter in the phantom finger. The brain's information had not been moved on.

Interestingly, Ramachandran, working with phantom pain sufferers, discovered that the position of the limb seems to be stuck (in the body image) to the time of the trauma. He found that using a 'virtual reality box', having a mirror which could give to the sufferer a virtual picture of the missing limb, the 'stuck stage' could be progressed and the pain alleviated. I think that this is a major insight into the condition, and cannot reasonably be put down to, say, a placebo effect. It reveals profound internal processes and may be of great help in the understanding of, say, anorexics – who really see themselves as grossly overweight. Their body image is greatly distorted.

Now, the 'stuck' stage also happens with psychological traumas. A sort of psychological amputation occurs in response to severe mental shock. A part breaks away and can form a sub-personality fixated at the trauma and isolated from other updating information. The event gets frozen in time and continues to hurt the individual emotionally.

Much of the therapy that I do consists of telling the unconscious that it is alright now – the emotional pain is over. Taking the person forward.

This frozen-in-time scenario also exists in spirit releasing therapy.

In real therapy with real people, as distinct from theoretical therapy, clients sometimes behave as though someone is speaking through them. It is usually a seeming earthbound spirit which is fixated at the moment of death and has attached to a living person. The very ancient therapy of releasing the spirit to the light is extremely effective. Again, a therapy has to exist for such cases. To deny the phenomenon or ignore it because of practitioner bias is, in my opinion, tantamount to malpractice.

In summary, I think that we become in life what we think we ought to become, according to the innate status-image of the virtual self – which includes past life and even future life scenarios. I suspect that it is largely genetically determined (via the 'genego'). That notion reduces our free-will somewhat, but deliberate cognitive striving and self-development can probably overcome the innate programming.


Head, J. & Cranston, S. (Eds.) Reincarnation – the Phoenix Mystery. Julian Press, N.Y. USA
Lucas, W. (Ed) (1993) Regression Therapy – a Handbook for Professionals. Vols. 1 & 2. Deep Forest Press USA
Melzack, R. (1992) Phantom Limbs. Scientific American, 266 (April), pp 120-126
Ramachandran, V.S. et al. (1995) Touching the phantom limb. Nature, 377, pp 489-490
Stevenson, I. (1997) Reincarnation Biology. Vols. 1 & 2. Prager USA
Wall, P. & Melzack, R. (1994) Textbook of Pain. Churchill Livingstone
Weiss, B. (1988) Many Lives, Many Masters. Simon & Schuster USA
Woolger, R. (1987) Other Lives, Other Selves. Crucible Books.


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About Dr Keith Hearne

Dr Keith Hearne (BSc MSc PhD) is an internationally known psychologist who conducted the world's first research into 'lucid' dreams for his PhD and invented the 'dream machine'. He has published many scientific papers and articles and is the Principal of both the College of Past Life Regression Studies (Tel: 0181 372 3124) and the European College of Hypnotherapy (Tel: 0956 825503 or 07071 228497). He is the author of several books, including The Dream Machine and Visions of the Future. Recently he has co-authored, with David Melbourne, Dream Interpretation – the Secret and The Dream Oracle. homepages/dreamthemes

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