As I get older I am increasingly drawn to wonder about metempsychosis – transmigration of the soul. There is, at odd moments, something vaguely comforting to think that as I draw my last, my essence zips away to somewhere better. The Orphics, after all, believed that the soul and the body were bound together by a rather uncomfortable agreement, the soul being divine, immortal and forever aspiring to freedom whereas the body holds it as a prisoner in chains. Upon death the soul is released only to be imprisoned once more as the cycle of birth begins again. On the other hand, I remember Hilary Mantel’s disconcerting observation in Beyond Black that spirits retain the characteristics of their owners and you wouldn’t want to get stuck with some obnoxious so-and-sos for eternity.
Greater minds than mine have pondered, generally from a philosophical standpoint, whether there is such a thing as a soul. I do not intend to discuss here the arguments for and against (you will be relieved to read) but I was attracted by the empirical approach adopted by an American physician, Dr Duncan MacDougall in 1901. He reasoned that the only way to conclusively demonstrate whether an entity had a soul was to weigh it immediately prior to death and then immediately after death.
His guinea pigs were six patients in a home for the elderly who were hours away from dying from tuberculosis. Each patient together with their bed was placed on an industrial sized scale which MacDougall claimed to be sensitive to within a fifth of an ounce. When they had taken their final breath, they were popped on the scales again. The first old codger who was subjected to this rather undignified experiment recorded a weight loss of 21 grams upon death, ergo this was the weight of the soul.
MacDougall also turned his attention to dogs – there are suggestions that he might have killed them during his experiments –weighing fifteen immediately before and after death. In each case there was no discernible variation in weight. Rather than casting doubts on his methodology, MacDougall concluded that dogs don’t have souls.
The New York Times ran a story on 11th March 1907, describing his experiments and findings, under the wonderful headline, “Soul has weight, doctor thinks”. The results were published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research the following month and were also reported in the journal, American Medicine.
MacDougall’s problems started as soon as these remarkable findings were published. A fellow physician, Augustus P Clarke commented that at the time of death, because the lungs are no longer cooling the blood, there is an increase in sweating which in itself could directly cause the loss of weight. Dogs, on the other hand, had no sweat glands and the body would not lose weight from excessive sweating at the point of death. This would explain why the mutts’ weight stayed stable.
Worse was to come. Another critic pointed out that MacDougall had been highly selective in his use of data. Only one old codger lost weight, one lost weight and then promptly put it back on, another two lost weight and then some time after death lost even more and two results could not be obtained because of technical difficulties. In other words, the 21 grams was the only reading out of six that supported MacDougall’s hypothesis and so the findings had no scientific merit.
MacDougall had the last laugh, though, as 21 grams has stuck in the popular psyche as the weight of a soul. But whether there is a soul is anybody’s guess?