'Spook', Searching for Proof of an Afterlife Mary Roach has a knack for bringing the dead to life. In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, she chronicled the strange careers of the dead. In Spook, she explores the world of life after death.
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'Spook', Searching for Proof of an Afterlife

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'Spook', Searching for Proof of an Afterlife

'Spook', Searching for Proof of an Afterlife

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan.

Journalist Mary Roach has a knack for bringing the dead to life. In "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," she chronicled the strange careers of the dead. In her latest book, she goes beyond the corporeal and enters the world of life after death. Although we often think of soul spirits and ghosts as topics we thrash out in churches or haunted houses, science has also struggled with these questions for many years. And in her new book, "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife," Roach searched for scientific evidence of what happens after we die and whether there is proof of an afterlife.

This hour, she'll join us to talk about her search, which took her to places as disparate as rural India and the hallowed halls of Cambridge University. Do you have a poltergeist rattling your floorboards? An aunt who claims contact with the dead? Are you a skeptic or a believer? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington: (800) 989-8255. You can reach us at (800) 989-TALK or send us an e-mail to totn@npr.org.

Later in the program, a conversation about the actress Hattie McDaniel. But first, Mary Roach joins me from Berkeley, California.


Ms. MARY ROACH (Author, "Spook"): Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Well, you know, both your books have dealt with the dead in some way or another. First cadavers, now you've moved on to life after death. Is this some kind of morbid fascination?

Ms. ROACH: I seem to be in something of a rut, don't I? I guarantee you the next book will have nothing to do with any kind of dead people. You heard it here first.

NEARY: I don't believe you, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Now you say in your introduction, this is a book for people who would like to believe in a soul and in an afterlife, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith and I gather from your book that you always had some trouble accepting matters of the spirit purely on faith.

Ms. ROACH: That's right. I am one of those people. My mother tried very hard to make me believe in the descriptions of heaven and everything in the Bible and, you know, I tried to buy it but, you know, I would look at the pictures and, you know, and the Trumpets of Jericho and the walls falling and I'd think, but wasn't--what if there was just an earthquake when they were trumpeting? It could have been coincidence. You know, I always--you know, I wanted science to step in and give me some solid footing.

NEARY: So is that ultimately what motivated you to research this book, this quest for evidence of the ineffable?

Ms. ROACH: No. Actually, it grew out of "Stiff," my first book. There was a--I have a brief mention in there of a gentleman named Dr. Duncan MacDougall and he was just an ordinary physician and surgeon in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in the late 1800s. And he--but he had a hobby--a very peculiar hobby. He decided he wanted to see if he could prove that the soul had substance and prove that the soul existed and he actually--I just love that American `can-do' spirit. He thought, `You know, I'm going to prove this.' And he took some tuberculosis patients that he'd been working with at a consumptives home and he built this scale. It was actually--he built a cot, he installed it on a large silk scale and subsequently installed some of these patients and waited for the supreme moment, as he called it, and looked at the--there were three or four doctors and they were all standing around the bed scale; one of them, you know, watching for signs of death, the other one looking at the scale. And he, lo and behold, in the first case saw a three-quarters-of-an-ounce drop.

Anyway, that--this was what got me interested, this whole idea that you could take medicine or science and use it to pin down something as imponderable and ephemeral as the human soul. I just love that, that people have tried to do that. It's really more a book about the human spirit than it is about spirits.

NEARY: Yeah. Science has searched for the soul in a lot of odd places. What are some of the other scientific search for the souls that you chronicle?

Ms. ROACH: Sure. You--well, there were, early on, physically searching for the soul as though it were perhaps, you know, something like the spleen or the appendix. There were anatomists who were, you know, sort of poking around in the human body. Part of this came from--there's a mention in the "Midrash," which is a collection of writings--rabbinical writings on the Torah and there was something called the luz--L-U-Z--I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing it right--but that was supposed to be this indestructible bone. And over the years I think about six or seven bones have been nominated as the luz, you know. So something in the vertebrae, the wormian bones, the little sesamoid bones in the toes and they were--there was actually a study mentioned--not a study, per se, but someone fetched a luz and took an anvil and smashed it and put it in a fire and burnt it and went through all these shenanigans and lo and behold the luz survived. But later on, Vesalius, who is, you know, the father of anatomy, the guy who actually got in there and figured out how the human body works and what all the parts do, he spent an afternoon with a lot of these bones and declared them all quite destructible, alas.

NEARY: Well, what is the term `ensoulment' mean?

Ms. ROACH: Ensoulment would be the moment that the soul enters the zygote or the fetus, whatever phase you decided that it does so. That's what it means. When does the soul enter the physical person. And there's obviously...

NEARY: And science has looked at that as well?

Ms. ROACH: Yes, there--well, in this case there's a lot of argument, obviously, today about ensoulment because, of course, it's relevant to the whole abortion and right-to-life debate. There was a theory or I read a book called "When Did I Begin?" by Norman Ford, who is a Salesian Catholic priest. And he had an interesting take on this. He said that it had to happen after 14 days because up until 14 days, you can have identical twinning. The zygote could become essentially two people. And, you know, you can't very well split a soul like a sub sandwich. You know, `OK, you take this half and I take this.' So his--he felt that that would--that made more sense biologically rather than at the moment of conception.

NEARY: Hmm. When you first began this book, where did you start your investigation?

Ms. ROACH: The first trip that I took was to rural India. I spent a week on the road with a Dr. Kirti Rawat who researches reincarnation. And the way that he does it, he goes to small villages in India where there are rumors that there is a child--a quite young child and when the child first starts talking, the child will make reference to things or people that don't seem to correspond to the life that he is living now. And this is very quickly thought to be a case of, you know, reincarnation because people in rural India do take it quite seriously.

This man, Dr. Rawat, likes to come into villages, talk to the parents of the child, get specifically--you know, write down what did the child say. You know, what did he say and, you know, who have you spoken to people in other villages, do you think that you have a candidate for who the child used to be. And then he will go to the previous family--it gets complicated--the previous--that's even an abbreviation, PP--the previous personality. And he'll go talk to the family of the dead person, who is now supposedly reincarnated, and he'll compare notes and he'll try to corroborate stories and see if there are a lot of discrepancies, are these things that the child is saying very specific or could they apply to a child in any rural Indian village, etc?

So I spent a week on the road with Dr. Rawat...

NEARY: And did you see anything that really surprised you or that perhaps--that surprised you?

Ms. ROACH: Well, we were investigating one particular case. It's very--these cases, it's very laborious; a lot of traveling. The roads are horrible. You would get stuck in the mud. I mean, we really didn't get beyond the one case. This particular case, Dr. Rawat, and I would agree, felt was pretty weak in that the things people were saying kept shifting. I mean, I think that there's a lot of enthusiasm among the families. It's exciting to think that, you know, there might be--your child might be a reincarnation of someone else. They actually enjoy this because it kind of brings two families together.

I was present at the time that the little boy met his past-life father. In other words, the man who had lost his son in an accident was now meeting this little boy that he believed was his son reincarnated. And suddenly it didn't matter to anybody, to me, to anyone, whether or not this was scientifically true. What mattered is that this man was tremendously comforted by this little boy and to know that his son was living on in this boy, plus the families were--it was like an excuse for a party. You know, the mother and the--the wife and the past-life mother and--I mean, all of these--it was like an extended-extended family and it was a great excuse for a party. And it seemed that everyone's lives were the richer and that Dr. Rawat and I were these kind of peculiar onlookers who insisted on asking all these questions.

NEARY: Did it make science seem irrelevant to you or...

Ms. ROACH: It--a little bit. I felt--not irrelevant, because I think that science is--it's so important and I am very frustrated by the general lack of critical thinking that exists in the realm of the paranormal. But in this case, I certainly wouldn't want to go in and sit people down and tell them and instruct them that `You're wrong to think what you think, there's no evidence and here's the reasons why your story doesn't hold up.' That clearly made no sense.

NEARY: Now Dr. Rawat is Hindu. Of course, reincarnation is part of Hindu doctrine. What did he tell you about reincarnation?

Ms. ROACH: Well, Dr. Rawat--the first thing--one of the things I said to him is, as a Hindu, you know, you clearly believe in reincarnation. Do you find that you can remain unbiased and neutral? And he said that because he was from this culture and also he--in his family there is supposedly a story--you know, a case of reincarnation. He said that it made him all the more careful and critical. And I tried to accept that. But then I, you know, tried to put myself in the position of saying, `Well, I'm going to'--you know, if somebody challenged evolution, say, and I was going to be sort of looking into it, I would find it difficult to set aside my belief in evolution and start from a, you know, clean slate. So I think it is a little difficult for him. He--you know, I think deep down he would love to find really solid evidence for reincarnation.

NEARY: And is that his life quest?

Ms. ROACH: It is. He said to me, `Like a drunkard to his bottles, I am to my cases.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: We're talking today with Mary Roach. She is the author of the new book, "Spook." And we're going to continue our conversation after a short break. We invite you to join. The number is 1 (800) 989-8255.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan.

How much does the soul weigh? We're talking about the particulars of the soul this hour, how science has measured it and its relative permanence. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. Or send us an e-mail to totn@npr.org.

Mary Roach is with us. She's joined us from Berkeley, California, and she's the author of the new book, "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife."

Mary, let me ask you about that title, "Spook." You were saying earlier this is--we were talking about the soul, reincarnation. These are religious, spiritual beliefs. "Spook" is a kind of irreverent title that makes people think more of house hauntings and ghosts.

Ms. ROACH: Mm-hmm. I think "Spook" was chosen for the same reason "Stiff" was chosen for my book about cadavers. We simply wanted to suggest a playful tone and the mood of the book. In other words--well, in fact, Norton, at one point, had urged me call the book `The Soul,' which was just way too ponderous for any...

NEARY: You thought it would end up on religious shelves, I guess, you're saying.

Ms. ROACH: Yeah. It was just--it wasn't a good fit. We wanted just something a little more energetic and fun. And there are some spooks in the book, of course, but it was more a decision that had to do with making the book sound as playful as it is, in fact.

NEARY: But to be serious, really, the book really is about the intersection of religion and science in many ways.

Ms. ROACH: Yes, it is. Yes, absolutely. Yeah. And I think--that intersection, right there, is one of the most interesting--there was a man I talked to at the university--Duke University, who had a pet project and that he wanted to--like Duncan MacDougall, he was interested in quantifying consciousness, the soul consciousness, the spirit, what have you. And he had actually come up with a device--he hasn't built it; he's trying to get funding--that it would be a box where you have an organism and the organism would die in the box and there would be very sophisticated energy sensors around the box and a picogram-sensitive scale. I won't go into the details of it, but he has a very tidy plan of how to go about this project. And he, at one point, contacted the Catholic Church, he told me, because he thought that they would be interested in funding this project because, you know, they would certainly be interested in knowing that their--you know, is there such a thing as a soul that exits the body and can we prove that?

And he said that he--not only did he not get any funding, he got the sense that they--you know, they tried very hard to talk him out of this. They felt that he was playing around with--playing with fire, essentially. That a schism would opened up that could not be closed, that a--you know, they talked about a window opening that shouldn't be and a divide being crossed that can't be crossed and they were made very uncomfortable by this and tried to convince him to shelve his project and also to convert.

NEARY: Hmm. Well, let's take some calls now. We've got a call from Michael who is in Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yeah. How are you doing today?

NEARY: Good. Go ahead.

MICHAEL: Oh, good. A great show. Thank you. I guess my take on it is from a science point. There's so much complexity on this planet, the way life was created and even going beyond that, the solar system, the other planets, you know, the galaxies, the universe. And it's just so amazing and complex and just for myself, to me it's so complex and amazing that for me there has to be something after a physical death. It's just too complex and amazing that when we die, you know, this neuronet of a brain shuts down and that's it. I don't know how many other people feel like that, but it just--there's too much complexity and amazement of life out there and energy and things we're just beginning to learn about, you know, our planet, our solar system and the galaxy. And we learn things every year. And I guess for my take, you know, to me that's proof that there is something beyond--I don't know what it is.

NEARY: Hmm. Mary?

Ms. ROACH: I would say that your feeling is shared probably by the majority of people, and that is something that I have an intuitive sense of. I don't necessarily feel that it's proved or that I have in my head the answer and I feel like this is--that there is something more. But even working on my last book, "Stiff," when I was confronted with a cadaver, there was a very strong sense that something had left. This is some--this was the remains, something left behind and something or somebody had checked out. And it's just almost a visceral feeling that you have and it--you know, for me, though, I then want to follow up and--you know, I so trust in science that they--eventually, they will figure it out. We will have the answer and that's, you know, just my upbringing, I guess, but I still want to take it that next step. But I certainly share your feeling that it's--there must be mysteries that we have not solved and may never solve.

MICHAEL: Yeah. And if I may, what do you think about the electronic voice phenomenon? What's your take on that? And if you don't mind, I'll take this off the air then.

NEARY: Thanks so much for your call, Michael.

MICHAEL: Thank you so much. Take care.

Ms. ROACH: The electronic voice phenomenon--he's referring to--there are groups of folks who take tape recorders out into places that are thought to be haunted and they turn them on and what often happens is--when you come back--there's been no sound, nothing that you would hear to your ear. When you play back the tape, you will sometimes hear things. Sometimes they sound like a voice, very--sometimes they sound like something that you can imagine sounds like a voice. They're very odd. I've heard quite a few of them. I read a book by somebody who was at the Cambridge parapsychology department who did a fellowship looking into the electronic voice phenomenon and it was his feeling that there were--there were a number of things going on. Sometimes a tape recorder can demodulate a radio signal, parts of the tape recorder. So you sometimes get little snippets of radio broadcasts in there, but that's not always what's going on.

And sometimes there'll be a sound that, you know, something in the room or in the environment that you don't remember that you hear it and your brain can sort of turn it into words. There have been studies done where you play a tape of essentially white noise and you say to someone, `We were trying to record a lecture and it got--you know, there's not much there to be heard, but can you try and hear whatever you can and help us.' And people will write down whole fragments and sentences.


Ms. ROACH: If you play people vowels, they will hear whole words, you know, nonsense vowels, they will write down words. So I think that's also part of what's going on, you know. It's--there's probably a lot of different explanations. There are also weird--there's a phenomena called the ducting effect which--in which there's certain conditions in the ionosphere you can have a--walkie-talkie transmission, you know, a cab driver dispatch will sort of get carried up into the ionosphere and travel way farther than it normally would. This was explained to me by someone at Telefunken whom I called because someone said they had investigated EVP. Well, they had not, but this gentleman told me about some of these bizarre things that you have in the world of electronic engineering...

NEARY: Well, you were...

Ms. ROACH: ...that create--mm-hmm.

NEARY: You were electromagnetically haunted.

Ms. ROACH: I was indeed. I...

NEARY: Can you explain that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROACH: Yes. That was my experience in the haunt box. This was fascinating. This--up at the Laurentian University in Canada there's a professor, Michael Persinger, and he has been studying the effects of electromagnetic fields on the brain. And one of the things he's investigating is people tend to--certain kind of electromagnetic fields, if you, you know, put this helmet on their head and pass these fields through their brain, they will quite often report sort of sensing a presence. There are all kinds of subtle hallucinations that go on. And I, of course, wanted to--immediately got on a plane and went up there and went in the box myself and put on the helmet. And it was--you know, well, I won't spoil the whole chapter, but there were some interesting things.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call now. We're going to go to Daniel and he's calling from Mississippi, I think? Daniel?

DANIEL (Caller): Yes. Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead.

DANIEL: Yes. I'm a senior nursing student and I work in an intensive care unit. I had an experience this past summer. I was taking care of a old patient--he was an 89-year-old gentleman who had an aneurysm in his abdominal aorta, so he was in surgery. He was describing for me that during his surgery, he left his body. He saw himself looking at himself from the ceiling and then all of a sudden he was in this tunnel and saw the bright light and he described what he thought was--he was in heaven. And he said it was a beautiful place and then after a little while he was sent back into his body and he was--woke up from the surgery and he was--he explained to me his experience. And so it was--you know, there definitely is existence after life here on this Earth from what this patient was telling me.

NEARY: That, what you described, is what many people--almost exactly what some people have described of having experienced death, you know, in surgery or in an accident.

Ms. ROACH: Mm-hmm.

NEARY: The--Mary, do you--what do you know about that?

Ms. ROACH: Right. Yes, that is a--in fact, it's universal, those components of a near-death experience, the tunnel and the bright light and being sent back. But it's interesting, in some cultures there'll be a slightly--slight variation. There was a case in India where the person was told there was a clerical error and he had to come back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROACH: And the tunnel has been--there was a truck driver who described the tunnel as a tailpipe. Bruce Greyson gave me these examples. He's a researcher in the University of Virginia. It was--he said--I said to him, `Well, what's going on? They're so--there are all these variations. It's not quite the same.' And he said, `I think that people are experiencing this ineffable euphoric feeling and they don't have words for it. So they sort of substitute what they do have to work with, you know, in their vocabulary as a--to describe it.'

NEARY: Thank...

Ms. ROACH: And so sometimes you have sort of variations on it. But it's--really interesting...

NEARY: How much...

Ms. ROACH: Sorry. Go ahead.

NEARY: ...has science studied that phenomenon, the near-death experience, the fact that so many people describe it so similarly and what that means about the possibility of an afterlife?

Ms. ROACH: There are--there's a...

NEARY: And, Daniel....

Ms. ROACH: Yes.

NEARY: And I just want to thank Daniel. Thanks for your call, Daniel.


NEARY: Thanks.

Ms. ROACH: There's a tremendous amount of research on it. There are whole journals dedicated to near-death experience. The study--there are two studies that I was fascinated by because--me in my quest for proof, the answer. There was one study where--they talked to a--they had a group of people who felt that they had left their body and they had observed their operation or their cardiac resuscitation from above and this researcher had them describe, in as much detail as possible, `What did you see?' And then he actually--and this was different. He got a control group--he got a group of people who had been in cardiac emergency units who had been in emergency rooms and were familiar with the crash cart, the defibrillator, etc., and he said to the control group, `OK, tell me in as much detail as you can, what would you expect to see if you came in here and you were having a heart attack?'

And then he compared the descriptions of the medical goings-on between the people who claimed to have been up on the ceiling, seeing it, and the people who were just trying to imagine what they would see, from memory. Because that's often a criticism lobbied at the near-death experiencer, that, `Well, you--you know, you have been here before. You kind of worked that into a dream and you sort of patched it together and this is why you're able to describe it.' But this was the amazing thing, in 23 out of 25 of the controlled subjects, there were huge gaffs. I mean, defibrillators were hooked up to suction cups and air tanks, people were being whacked on the back instead of the front. I mean, it was like chimpanzees had been let loose...

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROACH: ...in the emergency room. But the reports, the descriptions of people who had been, you know, on the operating table or in the emergency room, were astoundingly accurate.

NEARY: Interesting.

Ms. ROACH: That was, I think, the study that really struck me the most.

NEARY: I'm talking with Mary Roach. She's the author of the new book "Spook: The Science Tackles the Afterlife." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Steve now in Jackson, Michigan. Hi, Steve.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. First off, I really appreciate that you chose the title "Spook," because having a sense of humor about the adventure of life and the mysteries--I think that's so important. And I was just really glad to see that. I haven't read your book, but it comes across that there's a tone of, you know, optimism, whether you figure anything out that, you know--enjoying the journey.

That aside, you know, I've heard a lot of these questions so many different times where people say, `Do you believe in life after death?' And I--my response is, I don't accept the premise of the question. I've never experienced death. I don't know that death is a reality. It's like, you know, there's--something occurs that we're unable to relate to, and so we put a definition on it and assume we know what it is. It's kind of like, you know, if you're asking me, `At what point do you think this flat world stops?' And then we're going to use the measurement, we're going to use our here-and-now capacity to observe a certain very limited portion of infinite reality, and based on what we observe, we're going to decide we've figured it out.

So I think it's great trying to, you know, learn more and know more. I think we always will know exactly what we need to know. But I just--I'm always perplexed--and the response I get from people when I--they think I'm being, you know, a wise guy, but I'm like, `Well, you know, no one's really proven death to me.' I know that something occurs and I'm no longer in a position to communicate with someone that I communicated with before, or maybe in the same way...

NEARY: All right, Steve. I'm going to ask...


NEARY: ...Mary to respond.

STEVE: Sure.

NEARY: And go ahead, Mary. Ms. ROACH: Yes. That is--that is exactly the sentiment of a researcher at the University of Arizona, Gary Schwartz, who works on all--he runs the Human Energy Systems Laboratory. I'm probably getting it slightly wrong. But we were driving along the road when I came to visit him, and I said, `Well, what are you working on now?' And he said, `Oh, I'm finishing up--I'm doing a manuscript for'--I forget which journal it was, but the topic was: The Death Hypothesis. So nobody's proved it yet.

NEARY: Well, Mary, what did you decide in the end? I mean, can science prove there is an afterlife? Is it really a question for science, when all is said and done, or is it a question of faith?

Ms. ROACH: Well, I have--I think--I still have faith. I have faith in science. Actually, I think that--well, I do agree with Steve that this is just such a--it's going to take awhile for us to pin this down. And, you know, Mary Roach with my BA in psychology, I haven't solved the 4,000-year-old mystery, but I--one of the things I--quantum physics--I wish I could understand it, because I have the sense that the answer is there if I could only wrap my head around it.

NEARY: You're going to have to go back to college and get a higher degree...

Ms. ROACH: Yes.

NEARY: ...for that, Mary.

Ms. ROACH: Yeah.

NEARY: In the meantime, keep writing all those books that we all love to read so much.

Ms. ROACH: Thank you.

NEARY: Mary Roach is the author of the new book, "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife." Thanks so much. It was fun to talk with you, Mary.

Ms. ROACH: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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