Academia Embraces Spooky Studies
Translation? At two of America's best universities, professors and doctors are studying the existence of the soul, near-death experiences and reincarnation.
Sure, plenty of scientists throughout history tried to uncover the mystery of life after death, from Aristotle to Thomas Edison, who took time off from activities like electrocuting an elephant to contemplate a megaphone for the dead. But current-day afterlife research? At accredited institutions of higher learning? Who knew?
Science journalist Mary Roach, author of the new book Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, said that institutions are looking at the debate over the existence of the afterlife and declaring, "'We can study it, we can apply principles of peer-reviewed research, we can do it.' People say, 'Yes, we can figure it out.'"
Roach is a natural-born skeptic based in Oakland, California. She became interested in soul science while writing her best-selling 2003 book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, in which she briefly touched on the bizarre story of Dr. Duncan MacDougall, the New England doctor whose findings were immortalized in the title of the 2003 Benicio del Toro movie 21 Grams.
MacDougall assumed the soul has mass, and figured he could measure it by putting a dying consumption patient on a scale. At death, the weight of the soul would presumably leave the dearly departed's body; in one experiment on a dying man, 21 grams seemed to vanish, joining the patient's dignity in the ether somewhere.
Roach loved this turn-of-the-century example of "American can-do spirit," even though MacDougall's work was discredited and he's now known as a bit of a nutball. So Roach set out to chronicle the history of afterlife research and the related field of afterlife-research debunking. Among other things, she made forays into topics like "vaginally extruded" ectoplasm (don't ask) and how infrasound might explain ghostly visions.
Nowadays, the study of the afterlife is a fringe subject in academia, Roach said. "There's very little of it going on," she said. "It's hard to get funding for legitimate research these days, and you can imagine (the struggle for) something as seemingly frivolous as parapsychology."
Even so, your taxpayer dollars -- and a private grant or two -- are supporting paranormal studies. "There are people who think it's outrageous that money is being spent on such a stupid topic, and others that feel like it's an important question that medicine or psychology should address," Roach said.
At the University of Arizona, for example, researchers at the innocuously named Human Energy Systems Laboratory -- with a total annual budget of about $500,000 -- have been busy asking psychics to pose questions to dead people. One subject was Allison DuBois, who inspired the NBC show Medium. The center is also looking into topics like "energy healing" and "non-contact therapeutic touch."
"Our work is in three areas: The first is really controversial, the second is very controversial and the third is super controversial," said psychology professor Gary Schwartz, the center's director.
In that third category is Schwartz's new medium-by-e-mail project, which is now recruiting psychics. Researchers will talk to relatives of the dead and then e-mail questions about the deceased to mediums. According to Schwartz, the mediums won't know any details about the dead person other than his or her name. (Perhaps the world of the dead has its own handy 411 service?)
Researchers will then compare the medium's answers to those provided by the same medium to questions about another deceased person.
For example, a medium might get e-mailed questions from "Jim" about his dead wife "Abigail" and from "David" about his dead wife "Victoria." The questions, according to Schwartz, will be along the lines of, "What did Abigail look like?" and "What did Abigail die of?"
If Jim looks at the two sets of answers -- without knowing who's who -- and picks those about his wife, that will be a sign that the medium may be onto something, especially if similar experiments beat the odds.
The University of Virginia's Division of Personality Studies is another hotbed of afterlife inquiry. It's home to both near-death studies (why do people have visions on the operating table?) and a researcher who compiles reports of children who talk about their past lives.
Have these researchers actually found anything to suggest the existence of a soul or afterlife? Schwartz said his research with about 20 mediums proves that some do indeed have a connection to the dead, or at least a way to glean details about them.
"Some mediums get information, and it's not fraud, it's not cold reading, it's not through any conventional mechanisms," said Schwartz, who's written a new book tied to NBC's Medium.
Nonsense, scoffs über-debunker Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and a Scientific American columnist. He thinks paranormal studies are a failure.
"After a century and a quarter of serious scientific research without any reliable, consistent, repeatable positive results, what's the point of continuing to spend money, energy and research time on the subject?" he asked. "If they haven't found something by now, they're probably not going to."
After traveling from India to England in search of everything from ghost hunters to reincarnation trackers, Roach has her own thoughts on the matter of paranormal research. She was taken aback a couple times, especially during a personal encounter with DuBois, the Medium medium. And she's intrigued by near-death research that suggests there may actually be something to patient visions.
Despite those glimmers of something concrete, Roach reports being "profoundly disappointed" that paranormal research isn't more convincing. Still, "I'm more open to the possibility that we haven't figured it all out," she said. "Science doesn't necessarily have all the answers."
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