We see dead people?

In a follow-up to her bestselling "Stiff," Mary Roach searches for proof of the afterlife -- and finds some startling (and scary) evidence.

Topics: Religion, Author Interviews, Science, Books,

We see dead people?

To be polite about it, Mary Roach has a rather eccentric sense of curiosity. When she was a columnist for Salon, the advent of Thanksgiving led her to investigate how much a human stomach could hold before it burst. That column, as well as one on a human crash-test dummy, inspired her first book, which looked at the odd ways science puts your donated remains to use (like seeing how much food it takes to burst a stomach). While “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” was climbing the bestseller lists (and even made a cameo on “Six Feet Under”), Roach started to wonder about what happened after death to that other part of us: the intangible, undonatable part — the consciousness, or the soul.

“Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife” is Roach’s answer to that question, or rather it’s her exhibit of the various conclusions reached by scientists trying to determine whether part of us lives after our bodies give out. There are no Ouija boards here (well, maybe a couple). Instead, Roach relies on a string of men in lab coats — the lucky ones armed with high-tech scales and sensors and sound equipment, the not-so-fortunate at least possessing a relentless set of questions and an unshakable conviction that the scientific method can suss out the truth on anything, even that which normally belongs to the realm of religion and mysticism.

Take, for example, Duncan Macdougall, a respected surgeon in turn-of-the-century Massachusetts. In 1901, he weighed consumptives on a giant scale, hoping to prove that they’d become lighter at the moment of death and that, therefore, the soul existed and had weight (that’s right: he concluded it to be 21 grams). Today, Dr. Kirti S. Rawat travels around India investigating cases of reincarnation, while Gary Schwartz, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, performs lab experiments with mediums.

As with “Stiff,” Roach brings to “Spook” a lightness and a sense of humor that, happily, smooth the morbid edges of the proceedings she describes: Before zooming in on Schwartz, she takes us on a hilarious romp through the history of mediumship and ectoplasm — the white stuff that emanated from a medium during a séance, often from her vagina, and that, disgustingly enough, was almost certainly rolled-up cheesecloth or bits of sheep lung. It also helps that Roach’s curiosity is boundless (evident in the abundant tangential footnotes) and she’s willing to declare, even to the experts she’s talking to, that she knows absolutely nothing about either this afterlife business or that science stuff. “My ignorance is not merely deep, it is broad; it is a vast ocean that takes in chemistry, physics, information theory, thermodynamics, all the many things a modern soul theorist must know,” she writes. This ignorance proves to be a wonderful asset when she sits down with a thermodynamics expert and wills him to can the wonky jargon and to simply explain, in lay terms, what his field has to say about the soul.

But the most refreshing thing about “Spook” is that Roach herself is a skeptic, guiding a skeptic’s tour. “This is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith,” she writes. What evidence she does come across, therefore, becomes all the more compelling. In Gary Schwartz’s laboratory, she talks to Allison DuBois, the medium on whose life the television series “Medium” is based. DuBois, supposedly communing with Roach’s dead mother, says a lot of vague and unlikely things, until she mentions an hourglass in connection with Roach’s brother — who, unbeknownst to DuBois, collects hourglasses. How can science explain that? I talked with Roach, 46, who lives in Oakland, Calif., by phone about wanting to believe in the soul, the difficulty of finding scientific proof, and the weird sexuality of séances. We even swapped a few ghost stories.

How did you choose the researchers and scientists you did for this book?

It was easy. Because the theme was people trying to prove that there’s evidence for an afterlife or a soul, I wasn’t just interested in investigations of near-death experience or religious theories of the afterlife, so it had to be somebody who was actively engaged in trying to get evidence. There are very few people engaged in this pursuit these days, so it was a scramble to even fill the book.

You start with an investigation on reincarnation. It’s the only non-Western research in the book, and the only belief integral to a religion. Did you look at other parts of the world?

I did. I so wanted to find someone doing research into, for example, a Muslim type of afterlife. I would have loved it if I could have found anyone out there in the world. In my opinion, a chapter based on a foreign country is always more interesting. So I wasn’t limiting it by choice: These were the only people I could find doing any research at all. Scotland has a couple; there’s someone in the Netherlands. I didn’t find anyone else in the Asian subcontinent; I didn’t find anyone in South America or Russia.

Do you know why that might be?

I think it has to do with the difficulty of getting funding. It’s hard enough in the United States for something perceived as fringy and nonessential. Dr. Rawat was self-funded. I actually covered his expenses when we traveled, which in India is not a terrific burden. Also, I think a lot of cultures don’t see this as something that’s in question. Western culture has such a thriving scientific community, and we turn to science for the answers to everything, even things that belong possibly in the realm of theology and religion. So possibly it seems preposterous to spend time and money in other cultures to see if there is an afterlife when most people kind of accept it.

And from your book I gather that even here it’s not exactly easy to get funding. You have a great quote from Gerry Nahum [a professor at Duke University School of Medicine who wants to try weighing the soul] saying, “People either think they already know the answer and don’t want any external validation, or they think it’s impossible to know the answer.” I would think that some theologians would consider this line of inquiry dangerous.

Gerry Nahum went to the Catholic Church at one point to try to get funding. And not only did they not give him any money, they discouraged him, saying he might “open a window that might not be closed after opening,” that he might cross into this dark schism. They really seemed to think he was mucking around where he shouldn’t be and that it was a dangerous endeavor.

You don’t seem like a very superstitious person, but there must have been times when you were tempted to give in to belief, or that all this thinking and reading about the paranormal got to you when, say, the floorboards creaked at 3 in the morning.

I have had times like that even before I started doing this work. There was this story in “Spook” — we took it out because it was not that gripping — but I used to live in a house that was supposedly haunted. And one time I came into the kitchen and there was in the middle of the table, in the morning, this little Valentine’s Day [candy] heart. You know, the ones that are printed. It said “No use” — which is kind of a downer for a Valentine’s Day message. And I thought that was weird because the bowl of hearts was in the other room. I asked my boyfriend at the time, and he didn’t know anything about it. I decided it was the lady who died in the house and who, according to the upstairs neighbors, would sometimes make the doors open and shut.

Later when I was working on “Spook,” I was going to include this story and I thought, “Duh, David put the heart on the table. Why did this not occur to me?” because we broke up a few months later. At the time I couldn’t entertain the thought that he put the heart on the table. And I loved thinking we had a ghost. The postscript is that I e-mailed David years later, when I was working on “Spook,” and he said he did not put the heart on the table. So it remains a mystery.

I bet you’re getting a lot of people challenging you with their own ghost stories.

Not challenging, just coming up to me and telling me about them. It’s begun to seem like everyone has either a ghost story, an out-of-body experience or some amazing session with a medium.

I have one for you: When I was 15 or 16, I spent a summer at a university in Gainesville, Georgia, and the girl’s dormitory was thought to be haunted by a ghost named Agnes, a former student who had died in one of the rooms. My roommate and I were bickering one night about who was going to get out of bed to turn off the overhead light, and suddenly the light went out. I got up to check, and the switch had actually been flipped.

Get out! Hmm. These stories all lead me to think, wow, is the afterlife hanging around and occasionally moving things, for eternity? I don’t know how much I’m looking forward to this!

One of my favorite arguments in the book comes from Norman Ford, author of “When Did I Begin?” who says that ensoulment — the moment the soul enters the body — has to happen at least 14 days after conception, because before then identical twinning is possible, and if the zygote were ensouled before it split, each twin would end up with only half a soul. You wisely skirt the political issues at stake, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the moment of ensoulment were to be discovered.

Well yeah, if it turned out to be two weeks, would we then have justification for guilt-free abortions? Would the religious right leave us alone for two weeks at least? His book was the best that I’d found, but I also liked that he was a Catholic priest, since that means no one can come down on me for dashing Catholic beliefs. But yes, originally I went a little into the abortion debate, but I eventually decided that it was A) off topic and B) not worth reading through the e-mails I was going to get.

Probably a good idea. I also wanted to ask you about the ectoplasm chapter. Did you ever discover why mediums tended to be women?

No, and actually there are quite a few male mediums. There were the Schneider brothers, there was [Daniel Dunglas] Home, there’s the guy who’s featured at the Met now in the exhibit on occult photography. Where they stored their ectoplasm I’m not sure. Rudi Schneider would ejaculate during his séances, but I don’t think he tried to pass it off as ectoplasm, the semen that is. But why were there so many women? Some of the scientists who got really involved in it, there was sort of a weird thing between them and the mediums. There was some weird sexual thing going on. Plus all of the vaginal inspections. There was some Victorian repressed sexuality coming into play.

Some of the trickiest, most successful mediums were men. Home — I don’t think they ever figured out some of the things he did. He really stumped the experts. Supposedly he went out a window and came in the window below. He was either an amazing magician or some kind of legitimate ghost, I don’t know what the heck. He was a bizarre case. But he didn’t mess with ectoplasm so I didn’t cover him.

The ectoplasm emanating from the vaginal canal is such an odd sexual streak in this story, because talk of spirituality and the afterlife tends to be so sexless.

And humorless. Séances started in the Victorian era. Some of the descriptions of these mediums when they would go into trances, it was this kind of ecstatic, orgasmic — they would be moaning and twitching around in their chairs — it was incredibly sexual stuff. And you see photographs of these men in a séance circle intently staring at these women who are writhing and moaning.

But then you have a University of Arizona researcher questioning spirits through mediums and finding a general agreement that there’s no sex in the afterlife.

Yeah, it didn’t seem to me like a nonstop party.

Also, as you note in the book, the dead tend to tell these mediums very dull, mundane things — if mediums were faking, why wouldn’t they be more creative?

That’s a good question. Lots of the reports that come through mediums, if you have a medium who does not have a gift and is just plying the trade, are vague. “I see a woman with gray hair,” “I see a cat in the window,” “I see a ring on someone’s finger.” They’re never answering the question, “Hey, what are you doing up there? What’s it like?” They’re never getting at that. And I think it’s a huge failing in the world of mediumship. [Laughs.] That thing Allison DuBois said about my brother was very specific and kind of amazing. But it led me to think, OK so this is my mother coming through to me. Why are we talking about my brother’s hourglass collection? Why would this be what she chooses to communicate? It was so frustrating. If this were some message from my dead mother, it sure is a trivial and non-sequiturial thing to throw at me!

That was such a moving scene in the book. You had been so skeptical, and then there was this very personal moment you couldn’t explain away. I wonder how you feel about it now, since a little more time has passed.

I say in the book that I was startled and impressed. But there were so many other things she said that were vague or didn’t fit my mother at all. So I was trying to reconcile the two and the best I could come up with is that if mediums are tuned some ways that others aren’t, it’s almost sort of like a radio receiver, and most of the time you’re just getting static, but every now and then something would come through. If that were the case, it would be frustrating to convince someone, because so much of what you’re getting is wrong, but every now and then you’d hit a home run. So some people focus on the home run and some people focus on the things that were wrong. I could almost imagine that scenario being real.

Later in the book you posit that, “if paranormal insights occur rarely, and largely outside of voluntary control, then perhaps it makes sense to focus on isolated moments” and research that’s qualitative as opposed to quantitative. If psychic ability is such a rare thing and outside of voluntary control, can science really say anything about it at all?

Exactly. It’s very frustrating to research it. There is a study at Duke University of the out-of-body experience guy [Stuart Harary], and he was supposed to travel outside his body and go into this other room, and there were people in there who were supposed to sense his presence. Already it’s a maddeningly bizarre experimental setup. But what happened is the official sensors didn’t get it right any more than chance, but other people who were just hanging around, they were dead on accurate [about sensing Harary's presence when he claimed to have left his body]. They kept getting it right, but they weren’t the ones whose data mattered. So I can just imagine the experimenter going, “Oh shit, why didn’t we have those two in there? What do I do now?”

What I take to be the conclusion of your book is that there really is no way to prove or disprove this, and what it ultimately comes down to is belief. For all the scientific explanations available on a phenomenon, as you write, “For those who believe in an afterlife, the most straightforward explanation for hearing your dead dad is that you’re hearing your dead dad’s spirit.”

Right, that seems like a simple explanation. But if you don’t buy that a spirit can communicate with a memory, with a brain, then it seems to you incredibly far-fetched how this blob of energy transmits thoughts into your head, or even has thoughts.

And again, I’m thinking in terms of contemporary politics, in this case the debate over evolution. It seems like that’s an example of a fundamental difference between faith-based and science-based people that cannot be bridged.

I think that people come down on one side or the other of the debate, and it doesn’t really matter what you throw at them. If that University of Virginia study [in which a researcher set a laptop near the ceiling so that if patients claimed to have an out-of-body experience, he could ask them what image was on the screen], if somebody did see an image on that computer on the ceiling, I don’t think you would change the mind of any skeptic out there. I think they would come up with a reason why the study is flawed. People are devoted to their convictions. And the only thing that changes a person’s mind is personal experience, or your best friend’s personal experience. I just don’t think any of these studies are going to change people’s minds.

I’m on your side in the need for proof to believe, and you had some statistics in your book that there’s something around 5 percent of us in this country; everyone else is on one side or the other.

I know, which doesn’t bode well for my book sales. Having alienated everyone on either side, Mary Roach tries to sell her book to the five people out there! I think everyone who tries to write about this thinks they’re an unbiased, neutral observer. I tend to think of myself as the only person standing here in the middle, but Gary Schwartz thinks of himself that way, and everyone I spoke to thinks of themselves that way. But if someone has a Ph.D. and a background in quantum mechanics, I’ll listen to them. I take them more seriously than someone who doesn’t have a degree. So that’s a bias of sorts.

Something else that struck a chord with me: When you’re at Arthur Findlay College doing a three-day course in mediumship, you write, “There are moments, listening to the conversations going on around me, when I feel I am going to lose my mind. Earlier today, I heard someone say the words, ‘I felt at one with the divine source of creation.’” I have the same problem with spiritual talk. Do you think it would be easier to believe if the language of belief were more sophisticated?

Yes! I am so put off by the way people write first-person experiential pieces about trips to the afterlife, or angels. The way that they write about it makes them sound so naive. Sometimes when I’m talking about this book I’ll have to use a term like “energy field,” and I feel really embarrassed. I’m much more comfortable with the language of quantum mechanics. Negentropy, I don’t even understand what that is, but I’m comfortable saying “negentropy” and I’m not comfortable saying “energy fields.” It’s very much tied up with language.

Which is one of the reasons why I found Gerry Nahum’s research so fascinating, because he was talking about proving the existence of the soul using the first law of thermodynamics.

Yeah, and if energy is neither created nor destroyed, what he’s saying makes perfect sense, that this energy should persist. But whether or not it should persist as a being that can fly around the room and communicate with you, that’s something else entirely. What would it be like to be that energy? That’s the question nobody can really answer. But it just seemed sort of evident when he talked about it that the energy of your consciousness is going to persist. It has to. I wish I had a background in quantum mechanics, because I think that if one day we do have an answer that’s where it will come from.

And yet, oddly, the linchpin of your investigation is an insight into belief. At the beginning of the book, you’re in India and watching a father hold a boy who he believes is the reincarnation of his dead son, and you write, “If believing it eases the grief he feels, then this is what matters.”

I think probably most people have at the same time a healthy skepticism for reincarnation, or mediumship, but would really love for it to be true and are comfortable buying into some of it because it serves them in some way or another — either it’s entertaining or it’s nice to know that your mom or dad is still around. I think it’s possible to believe and disbelieve at the same time. I definitely think it’s possible to apply critical thinking and be skeptical and at the same time ignore critical thinking and believe in a ghost in your house. No one can study love in the laboratory, or even human memory — OK, we understand the parts of the brain connected with memory, but to me the fact that you can even call up an image from 10 years ago, and, boom, there it is in front of your eyes, in your head, that’ll never be fully explained to me. Or dreams — even though we have an explanation, it seems like a bizarre mystery.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

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