Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Six Patients’s Souls

By Viviana Gomez
On my early 20s I had just decided to study biochemistry. Long days of physiology, biology, physic caught me in those old buildings of the university with hundred of student listening to a professor with some aura of rock star performing in front of a current audience of nerds. I’ve never imagine that in my enlightenment mind I would be pushed to think in the paranormal thanks to those classes that found us more than one time at the edge of the knowledge of the science that planted the seeds that inspire my today research.
In one of those days in physiology's class, the study of the rigor mortis and the mechanims of how the biochemistry of muscles provoke that effect (long to explain now) showed us its relationship in some way with the energy loss at the moment of death, tempted the professor to add a weird comment about some experiment that measured weight loss at the moment of the death. But as he regretted what he had just said suggested to "focus in what we know and don’t get lost in this detail that science can’t explain yet". Just what I needed to hear to do the opposite.
In 1907, Dr. MacDougall, an early 20th century physician in Haverhill, Massachusetts, weighed six patients while they were in the process of dying from tuberculosis by placing the entire bed on an industrial sized scale which was apparently sensitive to grams. At the very moment of the death of the patient, he could measure a sudden loss of weight and concluded it should be the soul leaving the body.

A group of physicians were helping him in these experiments trying to obtain a good data that only could be gotten from four of the six patients, as follow, as I could find:

0.75 oz. = 21.3 g
0.5 oz. = 14.2 g (a few moments later the total loss was 1.5 oz.)
0.5 oz. = 14.2 g (a few moments later the total loss was 1.0 oz.)
0.375 oz. = 10.6 g (a moment later the weight seemed to come back and loss was measured at 0 oz.)

It seems that only the first one came out as the symbol of the weight of the soul on the popular culture that referred to the 21 grams of the soul.

Years later, I found myself far away from those academic days of biochemistry and scientific universe to be now involved in the entertainment business, but weird enough, researching for a TV show documentary series about the paranormal phenomena, and wondering if the physiology professor committed the imprudence of falling prey to their own beliefs, or if he knew something else that did not want to disclose at that time, and in either case he regretted his comments and suggested his sayings to be forgotten by his audience.

Skeptics actually, have destroyed the Dr. MacDougall's experiment and even Dr. MacDougall. The data was confused and cumbersome. The condition and enviroment of the experiment weren’t the best and he never repeated it again to confirm his data and conclusion. The loss of weight can be explain by many other factor,  as pointed by Dr. Augustus P. Clarke in a rebuttal also published in American Medicine, MacDougall failed to consider another obvious hypothesis: that the weight loss (assuming it was real) was due to evaporation caused by the sudden rise in body temperature that occurs when the blood circulation stops and the blood can no longer be air-cooled by the lungs. Why did MacDougall decide so quickly the weigh loss should be the soul? Most probably the own MacDougall’s belief, messed up with his scientist observation.

But nobody can't deny the fact of the experiment itself. It did happen and was recorded and published in the New York Time with the seriousness of the case, the fact that other doctors, who helped Dr. MacDougall, observed and recorded the sudden loss of weight. The measurement didn't implement in the best condition, but the six patients were measured in the same environment, scale and conditions and their relative loss were similar. And I can’t deny the fact that an academic professor from a class of physiology, now lost in time, refered for some reason to this experiment  challenging the boundaries between science and religion.

So, are you a skeptic or a believer?


·        Summary of MacDougall's research at http://www.Snopes.com
·        Full text Dr. Duncan MacDougall “Hypothesis Concerning Soul Substance, Together with Experimental Evidence of the Existence of Such Substance” , Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, May 1907
·        Original article, Full Text, as above, another source, easier to read formatting.
·        NYT archives of newspaper article from March 11th 1907
·        Related paper  by Lewiss E. Hollander, Jr. showing transient weight increase at time of death for sheep.
·        Weight fluctuations of memories upon erasure or writing, research website at  the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering , Texas A&M University
·        Further Digression - Soul Weight -Randall writes:-http://williamshakespeareexperience.blogspot.com/2009/03/further-digression-soul-weight.html
·        Does the soul weigh 21 grams? by Massimo Pigliucci- http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2007/03/does-soul-weigh-21-grams.html

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