Mary Roach is the author of Stiff – the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. After writing about what happens to the human body after the person dies, it seems appropriate to write a book about what happens to the human soul after the body dies. Spook – Science Tackles the Afterlife was written in 2005.
In my opinion, the best way to read Spook is to set aside whatever religious ideas you may have about the afterlife. Go into this book with an open mind and you will definitely learn something about human nature.
This is not the book for people who have strong religious beliefs about the afterlife and who are looking for something that confirms what their religion tells them. It is the book for people who wonder what science can tell us about the soul, where it lives, and where it might go.
In Spook, Mary Roach asks plenty of interesting questions, and follows up by finding out what science had to say regarding the afterlife. She does not provide the reader with a definitive answer about what, exactly, one should expect from the afterlife. Readers are free to take in whatever they find to be thought-provoking.
The very first chapter delves into reincarnation. Mary Roach traveled through India with Dr. Kurti S, Rawat, director of the International Centre for Survival. He seeks out children who claim to have been reincarnated and gathers up as much information as he can from the child and the child’s family. Mary Roach appears to have experienced culture shock while in India, and I found her observations to be fascinating.
There are parts of India where people believe in reincarnation. As such, when a very young child starts talking about people that the child’s parents do not know – the assumption is that reincarnation has occurred. The parents will ask the child questions, in an effort to learn more about who they were in a past life. In the United States, claims of reincarnation are very rare.
The process Dr. Rawat uses goes like this: he learns of a child who claims to have been reincarnated. He travels to where that child lives and interviews the child and their family members. Dr. Rawat writes down all the details and studies it later.
The best data comes from parents who immediately started writing down what the child told them about his or her former self, the names of that person’s loved ones, and the manner in which the person died. For some reason, people who have been reincarnated tend to have died a quick, unexpected, and very violent death.
In short, the best outcome is when the child’s family, and the living relatives of the person who has been reincarnated into the child, meet and become like extended family. The worst outcome is when a scammer picks a target (usually someone rich), learns about their deceased relative, and coaches the child to pretend to be that person.
Part of Spook includes details about a variety of ideas regarding where in the human body the soul “lives”. The specific part of the body that was believed to house the soul changed over time. Potential parts have included: sperm, ova, the pineal gland, the nerves (and/or the nervous system), a bone on the end of the spine called the luz, the coccyx, and one of the four chambers of the brain.
A controversial study (which had many ethical issues) was done in an effort to find out how much the soul weighs. It was done in 1854 at a Consumptives Home, a charity that cared for people who were slowly dying of tuberculosis.
A surgeon and physician named Duncan Macdougall placed a bed on a large, industrial, scale. A person who appeared to be about to die of consumption was placed on the bed. Macdougall, and other doctors, watched and waited for the person to die.
At that moment, they checked the scale to see if the total weight had changed. The scale often showed that the person (and the bed they were lying on) weighed a tiny bit less immediately after the person died. The study was controversial for many reasons, the biggest of which was the question of whether a person who was about to die of consumption could truly give consent to being in the study.
Despite this, other doctors attempted to replicate the study (using animals instead of people). The animals were not dying of consumption. They were euthanized after being placed on the industrial scale. The results of these studies contradicted each other and were inconclusive.
From here, things move away from the realm of science (wonky and questionable as it was) and into the realm of seances (which were run by women who intended to scam people). I found this part of the book to be extremely entertaining, and I’ll leave you to read it for yourself. In short, seances became a popular thing for people to experience. Many people came to the seance already believing that they would encounter a spirit. They were easy marks.
Another interesting thing I learned from Spook is that people have been using whatever the most modern technology was at the time to attempt to record the voices of spirits (or ghosts). Some of the earliest recordings were of mediums who claimed to be channeling a spirit – who had a lot of things to say.
Sometimes, people heard crackles over the radio and interpreted them to be voices from the beyond. It often turned out to be the person’s imagination – with the exception of a situation where the people lived really close to where the radio waves were being transmitted. Those people were actually hearing radio transmissions from local stations that were somehow picked up by things like – for example – their oven.
More recently, people began using tape recorders to capture the voices of the spirits. I presume people have started using there smartphones for this purpose. The common theme here is that people have a tendency to want to believe that the newest, hottest, piece of technology that can record something is definitely going to pick up the voices of spirits.
Spook is a truly bizarre book that mixes scientific study (such as it was) with religion and the cultural beliefs of a population in a specific location at different points in history. When it comes to the afterlife, these concepts blend together and influence not only what a person believes about the human soul, but also what the afterlife is like.
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