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The Science of Death

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The Science of Death


The Science of Death

The Science of Death

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Is the end of life really The End? Though conventional scientific wisdom says so, that hasn't stopped researchers around the world from trying to quantify the soul, explore near-death experiences, and other research into what might come next. Mary Roach, author of the book Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife talks about her findings.


My next guest spent her childhood questioning the Bible stories her mother told her, figuring that the walls of Jericho fell because of a well-timed earthquake and that Jesus walked on water thanks to an offshore atoll just below the surface.

So it's no surprise that she grew up to be skeptical of the idea of life after death, whether it's the soul's passage to heaven, reincarnation into another being, or the channeling of departed loved one's messages through a medium.

And in her most recent book, Spook, Mary Roach puts these beliefs about the afterlife to the test, seeking out those who are searching for scientific proof of, among other things, things like the soul or reincarnation or near-death out-of-body experiences, the dead communicating with the living. Where is the scientific proof for that?

Well, Mary Roach went and looked for the scientific proof. And we're going to talk with her about what science has to say about the afterlife and whether the search for proof has changed her belief.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. As I say, Mary Roach is the author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, just out in paperback from Norton. And her previous book is Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

She joins us today from Oakland, California. Welcome to the program.

Ms. MARY ROACH (Author, Spook): Thank you so much.

FLATOW: What was your belief about the afterlife before you got into this?

Ms. ROACH: Well, I had a hard time buying that it was going to be one of the classic cloud scenes with the gates and all that because it just didn't seem - it didn't seem logical. I guess I had a sense that it would pretty much be lights out, that's it, the billion year nap, that sort of thing. It was kind of depressing. But that's pretty much what - if I had to put my money on it, that's kind of what I thought. But I was still holding out hope.

FLATOW: And you went out and actually tried to find scientists who were looking to prove one way or the other whether these things exist?

Ms. ROACH: I did. I got interested in this when I was working on Stiff. I came across this physician from around the turn of the last century, Duncan MacDougall, who is the man behind 21 grams. In other words, he's a soul weigher.

He was this ordinary rather conservative physician who got this idea in his head that if you put someone onto a scale, onto a bed on top of a scale and you had them there as they died and you watched the needle, the needle - you know, if the needle went down a little bit as they died, the moment they died, well, by golly, that might mean the soul was departing the body.

And I just loved - I mean, it's not a terribly precise experiment, but it's - I just loved that can-do spirit. You know, we can take science. We can take the scientific method. And we can apply it to something, you know, as ethereal as a soul.

So I wanted to find out more about him. And he has his own chapter. Well, actually he shares it with three or four other soul weighers, some of them actually contemporary. Still trying to pin it down that way.

FLATOW: One of my favorite chapters in your book is how you try to investigate the out-of-body experience or people who were near-death, the near-death experiencing looking down on themselves.

Ms. ROACH: Yes.

FLATOW: And you find a doctor with TV monitors on a ceiling.

Ms. ROACH: Yeah, that's actually going on now at the University of Virginia. And it's a collaboration between the psychology department and, believe it or not, the cardiology department.

There's this lab where they put defibrillators into patients' chests. And in order to test the defibrillators you need to essentially flatline the patients and then have the defibrillator kick-start their heart. So that's a good group of people to use for a near-death experience study.

So in this operating room where they do this, you know, intentional flat lining of patients, rendering them clinically dead just momentarily, there's a computer taped up on the very highest monitor. It's a laptop computer. And it's flat open so that the only way you could see the image that's on it is if you were a disembodied consciousness hovering up there, or possibly a janitor changing a light bulb. I don't know.

FLATOW: Wait. Just hold that thought, Mary, because we're going to keep our -hold that thought with bated breath because we're going to have to take a break. We'll come back and you can tell us the rest of what happened in that story and your book, Spook.

So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour with Mary Roach, author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. It's out in paperback from Norton. And you may remember her former book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, published also by Norton.

Coming to close to Halloween, talking about life after death and the scientists that actually are out there investigating these life after death experiences. And before we talk more about it, Mary was telling me about this one experiment that a scientist was conducting with out-of-body experience where - pickup this story, where there were monitors on the ceiling.

Ms. ROACH: Sure. That was a very dramatic part. But yes, anyway, the monitor that's a computer, a laptop computer, was one of 12, I believe it's 12, images is randomly chosen to be displayed on this laptop computer. And it's facing the ceiling. In other words, the only way you could see the image is if you were hovering up there as people often report when they have the kind of near-death experience that includes an out-of-body experience.

So and then after they come out of the operating room, Dr. Greyson's the psychologist running the program, he just asks them a couple questions, essentially, do you remember anything of your time in the operating room?

Unfortunately one component of the anesthesia is it's something that makes you forget. So he's having difficulty. So far nobody has reported seeing the image on the computer, which is terribly disappointing for me because I was very excited about this study, though I realized recently that in my book I mentioned the images that appear on the computer.

So if one day somebody actually -

FLATOW: A frog, a butterfly.

Ms. ROACH: -says I saw a horse then someone else can come back and say, you just read Mary Roach's book. You did not see a horse.

FLATOW: You've wrecked all those studies going on.

Ms. ROACH: I did. I still -

FLATOW: That's what you'll be famous for, not your books but you wrecked all the - how did the scientists - are the scientists laughed at at these universities where they, you know, I'm doing the study -

Ms. ROACH: Yes. I think they are politely behind their backs laughed at at a place like the University of Virginia. In fact, the new president there has told Dr. Greyson that he doesn't want him talking about his paranormal work anymore.

So the fact that I'm here on NPR discussing this experiment, rather out there experiment going on at the University of Virginia is not at all what they want to have happen.

But yeah, it's very tough. It's - you don't go into this field these days without risking certain stain on your reputation, I guess.

FLATOW: Yeah. How do you explain some of these shows we've seen on TV where, you know, I think it's Crossing Over with John Edwards or people like that who are able to communicate with dead of relatives? But - and it seems to be so true, things they come up with, you know.

Ms. ROACH: Right. You know, I have not seen John Edwards's show in particular but I watched a television show, sort of an expose about a year ago. And I don't know which show it was but the way they were doing it was they have a line of people waiting to be in the studio audience. And in that line are a number of plants, people who work for the show.

And in the - you know, while they're just chatting on line and having what seems to be ordinary conversations they are revealing some things about themselves. And the plants are making a note of that and then sort of subtly mark the leg of the chair of a number of these people.

And that was - that was a technique that I heard about.


Ms. ROACH: But I know what - go ahead.

FLATOW: No. Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Ms. ROACH: I was going to say, if you're working with a large group of people and you start out, you know, I'm getting the letter C. Well, all right, there's going to be quite a number of people out there, you know, gray haired woman letter C. And someone's going to raise their hand. And you work from there.

It's much easier to do a mass group cold reading than it is a one on one. So in a sense it might be easier to do it that way.

FLATOW: And in fact you uncover a lot of the ruses used in séances, places like that, the slime and the ectoplasm.

Ms. ROACH: Ectoplasm is a personal favorite of mine, that chapter.


Ms. ROACH: Yeah, Ectoplasm - the heyday of séances and ectoplasms was around the 1920s. And it really was amazing to me - I should try to explain ectoplasm to people, which is not easy to do.

FLATOW: If you haven't seen Ghostbusters, forget about it.

Ms. ROACH: Yeah, exactly. Go rent Ghostbusters. Ectoplasm was supposedly spirit energy made physical. In other words, the medium would produce, kind of exude this stuff. And it's dark in the room, remember. And this stuff seems to be coming out of the person's mouth. It's sort of like a gauzy, filmy stuff.

And it was - they claimed it was - this was spirit energy that they were kind of channeling and it was a physical manifestation of the spiritual.

And amazingly enough, Scientific American devoted four issues, there was a four part series on one of these ectoplasm producing mediums. It was taken very, very seriously by the scientific community in the 1920s. The Sorbonne did an investigation of a woman named Eva C. It was kind of mind blowing because when you look at the photographs, it's just - you look at it and you say my God, that's just gauze. It's cheese cloth. Come on, guys.

But people fell for it because what you needed to understand how these women were doing it was you needed a magician. You needed - for example, Harry Houdini got involved in debunking one of the very famous mediums because no one else - they would search them. You know, they would search their clothing before the séance, actually did cavity searches. I mean, this was very thorough. And the mediums would still, they'd go in their cabinet, the curtain would open. Tada, there's the ectoplasm. They thought how are they doing it?

FLATOW: Yeah. That's what the amazing James Randi has been saying for years. Bring a magician, because we know what to look for.

Ms. ROACH: Yeah, exactly. But because some of these folks with Nobel Prizes and PhDs were fooled, and they spoke out saying look, we believe it's genuine, I mean, who's going to question somebody with a Nobel Prize. But in fact what you needed was a - yeah, you needed a magician to say aha, this is what they're doing.

FLATOW: What's also interesting, as you point out about the confluence of the age of electricity and the turn of the last century and the rise of all these séances and other kinds of parapsychology.

Ms. ROACH: Yeah. I was - I think that helps - for me, it made a little easier to understand how people could have accepted it. Because this was a period of time that was right after the invention of the wireless telegraph and, you know, electricity hadn't been around that long and the telephone. And people had had to accept, you know, this seeming witchery of voice flying through the ether across the country and coming out on the end of a receiver.

And I think that they thought well, you know, it's not such a big leap to imagine that a medium could be sort of acting as a receiver from the beyond. And even Thomas Edison actually tried to make a receiver - actually an amplifier to amplify these little, little, teeny, tiny voices of people who had died.

FLATOW: Yeah, you had some very famous scientists who in their later lives went on into the occult, you know. I think Alexander Graham Bell, people like that.

Ms. ROACH: Yeah. Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir Crooks, William James.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go to the phones.

Ms. ROACH: Yeah.

FLATOW: Mary in Cincinnati. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

MARY (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

MARY: Basically, I share the same skepticism and scientific approach as Mary does, and my question for her was - because I did, myself, a non-life-threatening scientific experiment of going through past life regression therapy, you know, to kind of give myself a first hand experience, and I wonder, Mary, if you, yourself, have done anything - not anything dangerous, but anything like past life regression therapy or anything like that that was a little more spiritual in nature that might give you some personal evidence?

Ms. ROACH: You know, I did two things, actually. First of all, I enrolled, like a fool, in medium school in London at this venerable old spiritualist college, and I took a weekend course, thinking maybe I just don't understand how it works. I failed.

FLATOW: Not a good medium, huh?

Ms. ROACH: Yeah, the chapter's called Soul in a Dunce Cap. The other thing I thought about doing but did not is in the chapter on near-death experience, there is a drug called ketamine, and people report that if you take this drug, you experience an ersatz near-death experience sometimes, depending on how you take it and how much you take. And I thought, you know, without knowing much about this drug, I though oh hey, that's an idea. I'll just try ketamine. And then I read a little bit more about it, and I decided that was probably a bad idea. But I did not have myself regressed. I am regressed enough.

FLATOW: There you go. Thanks, Mary, for calling.

Ms. ROACH: Thank you.

MARY: Thank you, thank you.

FLATOW: Have a great weekend. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Adam in Kansas City. Hi, Adam.

ADAM (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

Ms. ROACH: Hi Adam.

ADAM: Yeah. I just wondered if she had any comments on psychics helping police solve crimes, and I would think that if there was any truth to that, that there would be fairly good documentation to check up on that.

Ms. ROACH: You know, there is - if you go on the Web site - I personally didn't do any research on psychic detectives, but there's a really good article on that on the Web site of the CSICOP, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. That's a mouthful. Anyway, it's about -specifically, I think, about Allison DuBois, who is the medium upon whom the show Medium is based, and there is somebody who looks at her work and is not terribly impressed by it, I believe.

ADAM: Okay. I was just thinking that if this is one of your endeavors, that that might be a compelling area to check out. I was wondering why you wouldn't check that out, if it might be a good source to find something out.

Ms. ROACH: Well, I did spend some time in a lab where they had a few mediums coming in, but it wasn't specifically psychic detective work. I am a little bit more inclined toward the people trying to find proof or evidence in a laboratory setting, and the psychic detective work - I suppose if you had a case, yes, of somebody who had fingered - come up with the name of the murderer and the evidence, I mean, that would be pretty remarkable, but that's more of a psychic thing than a mediumship.

FLATOW: Right. You're into afterlife things.

Ms. ROACH: Yeah.

FLATOW: Did you ever find anybody in your research who, you know, and you followed people looking for ghosts in haunted houses who had any credible evidence or any real credible, you know, data?

Ms. ROACH: I think the best - the most intriguing and the hardest to dismiss is some of the studies in the realm of near-death experience, and I'll try to explain one to you.

I was trying to find studies, things that took this out of the realm of anecdote, because near-death experiences, there's a tremendous number of, you know, people's stories and of anecdotes about it. But to actually set up a controlled experiment was more what I was interested in.

There was one done by Michael Sabin, who's a cardiologist, and he got a group of people who'd had an out-of-body, near-death experience where they had seen themselves being resuscitated down below, and he had these people write down in as much detail as they could, what did you see exactly. And then he got a control group, and that was patients who had been in a resuscitation, they had been in emergency rooms, seen a crash cart, seen defibrillator paddles. You know, they knew what everything looked like. And he said to them okay, describe in as much detail as you can what it would look like if you were being resuscitated.

And then he looked at the two groups' descriptions, and the people who'd had the near-death experience who claim to have been watching didn't make medical errors and were surprisingly detailed. I mean, it was - I read a bunch of transcripts of those reports, and you know, they would - like, there would be a man saying well, then there was a machine - you know, the needle came up, not all at once. It was on, you know, and then he named another type of meter -but, you know, it partially is part way up and it came back down, then it came back up. I mean, the level of detail is amazing.

Meanwhile, the control group, you know, you had suction cups attached to defibrillators, people being pounded on the back instead of the front. I mean, it was like chimpanzees were running the emergency room.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. We're talking with Mary Roach, author of Spook, on TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday from NPR News.

You pose an interesting question at the end of your book. Has my year among the evidence gatherers left me believing in anything I didn't believe in a year ago? Well, has it?

Ms. ROACH: Oh, Ira, you're asking me to give away the end of the book.

FLATOW: Sorry. You can circumlocate it, as they say.

Ms. ROACH: No, you know, I will say what - I think I ended up - because I posed the same question to Bruce Greyson, who is the guy at the University of Virginia who does a lot of the near-death experience work. And I said, well, are you - do you believe? Do you - you know, seriously. Are you convinced that somebody's consciousness can actually kind of function independent of their body? I mean, do you believe that?

And he said, well, what I believe is in the possibility of something that we haven't figured out yet. And that's, you know - and I would say you could describe me that way. I think - and my little, brief confused foray into quantum mechanics made me believe that there may be things we just haven't figured out.

FLATOW: Right. So there can be spooky action at a distance. There could be anything.

Ms. ROACH: Yeah, exactly.

FLATOW: And of course, there's not a lot of federal grant money going into studying these things.

Ms. ROACH: No, no. It's kind of amazing anyone is still doing this work. And the reason the University of Virginia is doing it, interestingly, they got a huge grant from Chester Carlson, the inventor of the Xerox machine, left this huge - he bequeathed - they wouldn't tell me how many millions, but enough to have kept them going for quite some time. And specifically, the money is earmarked for research into the survival of the personality at death. So they have funding.

FLATOW: Well, if you know the history of Chester Carlson, you know what a terrible, difficult time he had in life.

Ms. ROACH: He what?

FLATOW: He had such a terrible time convincing anybody of the need to have a Xerox machine, so you know why he had such a tough life. And he left some money over for other people. So where do you go from here? Do you have anything that you want to follow up on in your book, or another book in mind on the same sort of subject?

Ms. ROACH: I have another book that I'm working on. I'm kind of turning a corner. I'm leaving dead people behind. Enough with the dead people. But it's more bodies in laboratories, but it's sex research.

FLATOW: Sex research. You want a real bestseller now. You can combine dead bodies and sex -

Ms. ROACH: That's not why I'm doing it.

FLATOW: You don't want combine - go there with the dead bodies and sex research.

Ms. ROACH: No, no.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us, and good luck to you, and have a - are you doing anything special on Halloween?

Ms. ROACH: I'm doing a reading in the Haight-Ashbury, and I'm trying to figure out - I may dress up as ectoplasm, but I feel it may be too messy.

FLATOW: You have to keep replenishing it then.

Ms. ROACH: Yes.

FLATOW: Well, Mary Roach will be dripping through Haight-Ashbury. So have a happy Halloween and thank you for joining us.

Ms. ROACH: Thank you so much, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Mary Roach, author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Out in paperback now from Norton, and you'll remember her last book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

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