5 Failed Attempts To Scientifically Prove The Afterlife
Despite what a whole bunch of ghost-hunting reality shows would have you believe, usually the simplest explanation is the right one. Spooky noises? Probably infrasound. Hearing clanking chains and moaning in the middle of the night? Maybe you have a neighbor into BDSM. Patrick Swayze erotically making a pot with you? You're just having that dream again. Still, there are cases cited by true believers as solid evidence that the soul and the afterlife exist. Do they hold up under examination? Let's find out!
The Pam Reynolds Out Of Body Experience
Imagine you're about to have brain surgery. They knock you out, then suddenly you're watching them cut open your skull. Even weirder, you're watching from outside your body, like a video game that suddenly cut from a first-person to a third-person point of view. You're dreaming, right? But here's the thing: When you wake up later, you realize in your "dream," you saw key details that turned out to be right. This is all exactly what supposedly happened to Pam Reynolds in 1991.
After Reynolds suffered an aneurysm, surgeons had to drain all the blood from her brain while reducing its activity to the point where she was, scientifically speaking, mostly dead. She says she then watched the operation unfold, and that she remembers details that she couldn't have known, such as the type of saw used and conversations her surgical team were having. She even remembers that the surgeons were listening to "Hotel California."
If you talk to a believer in out-of-body experiences, this is the case they'll cite as evidence. The BBC even made a documentary about near-death experiences that directly references it. Unfortunately, the most likely explanation is less supernatural but more alarming: anesthesia awareness.
According to studies, about one in every 1,000 surgical patients wake up to some degree under anesthesia, experiencing some form of awareness while their surgeons are digging around inside them. In Reynolds' case, she had trouble remembering her surgery after a certain point, and it turns out that point was the moment her brain was shut down. Everything else could've easily been a case of overhearing sounds during anesthesia awareness, and her brain filling in the details later. As for remembering specific things (like the saw), it's not like those tools only existed in that room. Hearing the noise it made would have let her mentally picture it if she'd seen similar gadgets anywhere else (on TV, at the dentist, etc).
Then there was apparently some encouragement on the part of the staff. In Pam's own words, "I thought maybe it was my imagination and I had a dream, but they told me that this was not the case and what I saw really happened ... They kept telling me that it was not a hallucination."
We're not casting aspersions on the surgical staff here, but hypothetically, if we were surgeons and one of our patients told us they remembered details of the surgery, we'd try to tell them it was an out-of-body experience too. Letting them think they've just experienced evidence of the soul is a hell of a lot better than saying, "Oh yeah, sometimes our anesthesia doesn't work at all and the patient is helpless to do anything about it. Tell your friends!"
The Infamous "21 Grams" Experiment
OK, so if near-death anecdotes aren't evidence, could we try something more quantifiable? Well, Duncan MacDougall figured that if the soul was real, then we should be able to detect it leaving the body at the moment of death. And if we can't see or hear it, then dammit, we should be able to weigh it!
Thus, more than a century ago, MacDougall had a special bed constructed in his office designed to weigh its occupants with accuracy to within "two-tenths of an ounce." Now all he needed was for people to die upon those beds! No, he didn't just snatch up some vagrants and murder them; that was questionable behavior even in the early 1900s. He arranged for six people with terminal illnesses to lie on his bed-scale. Details are sketchy about how he managed to convince them to spend their last moments having their souls weighed, but going down in history as the first human to prove the existence of the afterlife would probably be pretty sweet.
From these experiments, MacDougall famously deduced that the soul weighs about "21 grams." And this was enough evidence for many people to believe that souls both exist and have weight. How else could you explain a body getting lighter in the moment it expires? His results even made The New York Times in 1907:
It even became the title of a Sean Penn movie. Except even MacDougall himself was skeptical. In his own words, "I am aware that a large number of experiments would require to be made before the matter can be proved beyond any possibility of error." He also only managed to note a conclusive loss in weight in two out of the six patients. Also, it's actually not easy to pinpoint the precise moment of death, unless the person died in, say, an explosion. MacDougall tried to explain this away by saying that the souls of people with "a sluggish temperament" take longer to leave the body. Makes sense!
Other physicians at the time did offer some less interesting explanations for the weight discrepancy. Augustus P. Clarke pointed out that at the moment of death, the lungs stop cooling the blood, which causes the body's temperature to rise and the skin to sweat a little. But how much difference could a little sweat make? According to Clarke, about 21 grams or so.
The two men argued back and forth for many years before MacDougall's death in 1920 (it's unknown if anyone tried to weigh his soul after he died, or if they found it sluggish). It should be noted that after his human experiments, he allegedly went on to murder 15 dogs so he could weigh their ghosts. Or maybe he was performing an experiment on himself to see what happens to the souls of dog murderers.
Jim Tucker's Past Lives Experiments
Already you're seeing the problem. There's a whole lot of ridiculous methodology here masquerading as science. It's almost as if they're favoring one conclusion over another, regardless of their results. That brings us to the 2008 "past life" studies from Jim Tucker. If you run into anyone claiming there is now scientific proof of reincarnation, there's a good chance this is what they're referring to.
Jim Tucker is a psychiatrist who compiled some claims from children who believed they had memories of past lives. And some of their claims check out, particularly the testimony of a kid referred to as "Sam Taylor." He was born 18 months after his grandfather passed away, but according to the study:
He eventually told details of his grandfather's life that his parents felt certain he could not have learned through normal means, such as the fact that his grandfather's sister had been murdered and that his grandmother had used a food processor to make milkshakes for his grandfather every day at the end of his life.
Outlets like the British tabloid The Express took this at face value as proof that reincarnation is REAL. And if a tabloid uses all caps, then you know it's serious. But before we start panicking about grandpa trying to hitch a ride in our sprightly young bodies, it's worth pointing out that the human brain generates fake memories like this all the time.
Another way to say it is that little kids have vivid imaginations and love attention. This, incidentally, is why as recently as the '90s, we were unjustly prosecuting people for performing satanic rituals based on the testimony of supposed child victims. You might be asking why a child would lie about seeing daycare staff sacrificing animals, but you already have your answer if you've ever talked to a child before.
In this case, little Sam (just one and a half years old when he made his first comment about his grandfather) saw how the adults reacted and kept telling the stories. As for the supposedly accurate details, which is more likely, from a scientific point of view?
A) The child overheard details about his grandfather's life from grownups' conversations, and then regurgitated this information back when prompted, then said it was from a past life because that's what got him attention?
B) Those memories were supernaturally implanted into an infant's brain from another plane of existence in which the dead dwell?
If you want to believe the less likely of the two (that is, the one that requires a whole lot of new assumptions about how reality works), it seems like you'd need a lot more data than the word of a toddler.
The Scole Experiment
In the late '90s, 15 paranormal investigators from the Society of Paranormal Research joined six mediums in the village of Scole, near Norfolk. They were there to take a scientific approach to the whole seance phenomenon: Run an experiment, record the data, report their conclusions. Hey, there's a reason The Scole Experiment: Scientific Evidence For Life After Death has almost perfect user reviews on Amazon. If you're looking for a level-headed, go-to source for evidence that seances work (as many out there are), here you go!
According to the report, the investigators watched the mediums go to work, and what they saw was striking. They witnessed strange lights in the darkness, the levitation of a table, and ghostly images appearing on film, and they even felt the touch of strange hands in the dark. Strong evidence, the investigators argue, that something was lurking in the shadows. Well, that something might have been a complete lack of scientific rigor and some handsy mediums.
Skeptics like Brian Dunning have pointed out the experiment was a near perfect example of confirmation bias. If the same level of evidence was offered to back up some other assertion they don't happen to be so personally invested in, they'd have known to reject it. In general, the problem with paranormal investigators is that they kind of need the paranormal to exist in order to keep having jobs.
So the mediums wore luminous wristbands that glowed in the dark to "prove" they were still sitting at the table when the spirits were supposedly visiting ... but slipping out of these wrist bands is one of the first tricks a budding medium learns. They specifically refused to let the investigators use night vision equipment, so they could've easily ditched their wristbands and started hoisting the table and randomly groping the investigators.
The strange lights the investigators saw could be explained by the mediums using laser pens to strike specifically placed crystals in the room -- something mediums have also been doing since the 1970s. But what about the strange images the investigators saw on the film? The mediums had been allegedly storing the film in a lock box, but it would've been easy to open up the box and replace the film while they were out of their seats firing lasers at crystals.
I realize I'm belaboring the point here. At the end of the day, the problem was that the experiment was performed at the home of two of the mediums in question, giving the subjects total control over the experiment and its parameters. The moment you agree to those conditions, you've pretty much already made your conclusion.
Houdini's Dying Experiment With Spirit Communication
After a life spent exposing the techniques used by spiritualists and mediums, Harry Houdini was worried they might exploit his death after the fact. Since mediums love to exploit death in all its forms, this was probably wise. So Houdini worked out a code with his wife Bess based on a mind-reading trick they used earlier in their careers. This code would serve as proof that any supposed message from the afterlife was in fact from her husband's ghost, and not a huckster doing a crude impersonation of his voice.
Every year after Harry's death, Bess held a seance to try to contact his spirit. For three years, nothing happened, then in 1929, a spirit-medium called Arthur Ford claimed to have received a message from Houdini's mother, of all people. This message contained the word "forgive" -- one of the words in the code Houdini had given to his wife.
This was enough evidence for Bess to hold a seance with Arthur Ford, whereupon by all accounts Harry's spirit sent a message using the entire code. Bess signed an official statement saying that Ford had managed to contact her husband. That seems pretty open-and-shut, and if it wasn't for those dastardly skeptics covering it up, we'd all be able to chat with Houdini whenever we liked. I mean, how else would this guy have known the secret code?
Well, other than the fact that the Houdinis' code was published in a biography a full year before Ford held his seance, and the word "forgive" had been published in an interview with Bess in 1927, in which she had revealed the importance of the word and how much her husband wanted to hear from his mother. But other than that ...
It should also be noted that Bess wasn't in the best of health when Ford contacted her, suffering from influenza and heavily medicating herself with alcohol. Oh, and apparently the "official statement" wasn't even signed in her own hand. According to her lawyer, "As to the alleged Ford message ... when Mrs. Houdini signed the paper to the effect that the message was genuine, she was confined to bed after a fall, had been taking drugs and was not in a position to know what she was doing."
But why would a spirit medium want to take advantage of a grief-stricken woman like this? Could it possibly have had anything to do with the $10,000 Bess was offering to any medium who could contact her husband? Who can say? It's also possible that Ford and his friends may have wanted to get the better of a high-profile man who'd spent his life showing them up. According to Ford, Houdini's supposed final message before his spirit vanished forever was:
Tell the whole world that Harry Houdini still lives and he will prove it a thousand times and more. In my life, I was perfectly honest and sincere in trying to disprove the survival of consciousness, and I resorted to tricks to prove my point for the simple reason that I did not believe communication was possible. I am now sincere in my desire to undo this mistake. Tell all those who lost faith because of my mistake to lay hold again of hope, and to live with the knowledge that life is continuous. That is my message to the world, through my wife and through this psychic medium.
It seems like a no-win situation for Ford in the long run. If he's right and the spirit world does exist, what would he find there himself, if not a pissed-off Houdini waiting to beat his ass?
For more, check out 6 Most Eerily Convincing Ghost Videos On YouTube - The Spit Take:
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