Giving Up the Ghost (Stories)

Which way does Occam’s Razor cut? Scientific American has posted an online article, misleadingly titled “Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased“. The author discusses how bereaved people often experience ‘contact’ with the recently dead, which they say is quite obviously a hallucination:

Mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common, to the point where feeling the presence of the deceased is the norm rather than the exception. One study, by the researcher Agneta Grimby at the University of Goteborg, found that over 80 percent of elderly people experience hallucinations associated with their dead partner one month after bereavement, as if their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved’s passing. As a marker of how vivid such visions can seem, almost a third of the people reported that they spoke in response to their experiences. In other words, these weren’t just peripheral illusions: they could evoke the very essence of the deceased.

…We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the “ghost” while the reality is, in many ways, more profound. Our perception is so tuned to their presence that when they are not there to fill that gap, we unconsciously try to mold the world into what we have lived with for so long and so badly long for. Even reality is no match for our love.

The article does not mention at all any of the evidence which suggests that these ‘hallucinations’ may be something more, such as ‘crisis apparitions’ (where the experiencer is not actually aware of the death, and therefore also not subject to the stress of grief), veridical hallucinations and so-called ‘Peak in Darien’ experiences. One of the earliest comprehensive reports on the above can be found in Phantasms of the Living (Volume 1 and Volume 2), a publication of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) more than 120 years ago. In the more recent Irreducible Mind, Kelly et al note that…

Although no subsequent study of veridical hallucinations has approached those of the early SPR in scope or thoroughness of investigation, such experiences have continued to be reported (see, e.g., Dale, White, & Murphy, 1962; Green, 1960; Stevenson, 1970, 1995; S.H. Wright, 1999). An ongoing study at our research unit in the University of Virginia over the past several years has identified more than 200 cases of dreams, telepathic impressions, or hallucinations occurring at the time of some crisis (usually death) occurring to a person at a distance.

They go on to point out that “apparitions of people that the percipient already knows to be dead have been reported in all times and cultures… Although most such cases cannot be attributed to anything other than subjectively generated imagery, some cases do suggest a more objective origin, including collective hallucinations of a deceased person; cases in which veridical information unknown to the percipient was conveyed by the apparition; and cases in which the apparition was later recognized by the percipient in a photograph of someone he or she had not known in life.”

Previously on TDG:

Editor
  1. Darklore
    In Darklore vol. 1 there’s a very good essay titled ‘The Beatifical Vision’ —my deepest apologies to the author for not recalling his name, I’m at the office right now and not having my copy at hand—in which a good case is presented to counter the argument that deathbed visions are nothing more than hallucinations. Some of these are that:

    *The visions are restricted to death persons known by the patient, whereas an ordinary hallucination would have a mix of death and living people in it.

    *The patient is aware of their surroundings and their state of condition, whereas a hallucination would involve a spatial confusion, and a confusion of their own persona.

    *The visions sometimes involve people that are NOT known to be dead by the patient at the moment of the experience.

    *Some patients that have suffered Alzheimer or a degeneration of their memory, show an incredible recovery of their mental faculties, being able to recognize their family members and spouses. This goes against the perception that death means the desintegration of the personality.

    Anyway it’s a wonderful read. One of my favorite essays in Darklore.

    It made me think that even though we are fortunate to live in an age where there are medical advances that border in the miraculous, we have nonetheless lost something when transferring the death bed location of people from the familiar surroundings of the home, to the impersonal sterility of the modern hospital. Death used to be more intimate, with family members coming to pay their respects and say good-bye; now our fear of death has made us hide our terminal patients behind a wall of machines and tubes.

    —–
    It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
    It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

    Red Pill Junkie

    1. My man Michael
      [quote=red pill junkie]In Darklore vol. 1 there’s a very good essay titled ‘The Beatifical Vision’ —my deepest apologies to the author for not recalling his name, I’m at the office right now and not having my copy at hand—in which a good case is presented to counter the argument that deathbed visions are nothing more than hallucinations.[/quote]

      That would be Michael Grosso (who was also a Sub Rosa columnist). Good call RPJ, Michael is hugely undervalued – he’s been researching these topics for decades and is extremely knowledgable and objective. I probably should have referenced him in the original story.

      Here’s an interview I did with him a while back:

      Experiencing the World of Michael Grosso.

      You know what kind of guy Michael is? When I asked how he wanted to be paid his Darklore 1 royalties, he asked that I put the money back into the anthology.

      [quote]It made me think that even though we are fortunate to live in an age where there are medical advances that border in the miraculous, we have nonetheless lost something when transferring the death bed location of people from the familiar surroundings of the home, to the impersonal sterility of the modern hospital. Death used to be more intimate, with family members coming to pay their respects and say good-bye; now our fear of death has made us hide our terminal patients behind a wall of machines and tubes.[/quote]

      Again, that’s something that Michael has written about at length – we even posted a guest essay from him here on TDG some time ago titled “A Good Death“.

      Kind regards,
      Greg
      ——————————————-
      You monkeys only think you’re running things

  2. There are also instances of
    There are also instances of veridical and multiple witness death-bed visions. If the dying and those attending the dying see the same spirits or if they see spirits of those who are not yet know to be dead, that cannot be explained as hallucinations. Why should those grieving for the dead be assumed to be always hallucinating?

    Death Bed Visions by William Barrett
    http://www.survivalafterdeath.org.uk/books/barrett/dbv/contents.htm

    1. Me too!
      I had to look it up in the dictionary. Result was “veracious, truthful; corresponding to the facts or real things; especially of various psychical phenomena, as dreams, hallucinations, mediumistic messages etc.”

      Still not sure I understand!

      Regards, Kathrinn

  3. Fenwicks’ book
    The article’s another illustration of how academia ring fences itself against anything that might challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the author concludes: ‘And there, our knowledge ends. Despite the fact that hallucinations are one of the most common reactions to loss, they have barely been investigated and we know little more about them.’

    A good place to start would be for science to listen to what people say about their experiences. I’m currently reading The Art of Dying by Peter Fenwick and Elizabeth Fenwick (2008), which gathers a large number of so-called ‘hallucinations’ relating to death – deathbed visions and coincidences, which are abundant, and also some smaller but intriguing categories, like the visions relatives and hospital staff occasionally have of a ‘mist’ leaving the body of the dying. It’s something science has yet to get to grips with – but it will. (I plan to review the book on Paranormalia, hopefully some time this month.)

    1. Are You Sure?
      Robert: “It’s something science has yet to get to grips with – but it will.”

      This is a very optimistic remark, Robert.

      Is it possible that what we presently call science shall never come to grips with this?

      This wouldn’t surprise me, nor would the arrival of the end of science as we know it.

      I do wonder just what humanity will call a discipline that does succeed.

      Regards

      Bill I.
      RealityTest

  4. Something has gone missing
    I seem to recall reading somewhere that a person’s body weighs 2 lb. less after death than before – so what is it that weighs 2 lb. and where has it gone?

    Regards, Kathrinn

    1. 21 grams
      In the early 1900s, Duncan MacDougall weighed dying patients, thinking that if a soul departs the body, then it can be measured. The results varied, and the 21 grams figure was from one patient who died of tuberculosis if I remember right. MacDougall published his conclusions in the American Journal of Medicine.

      Disturbingly, MacDougall used dogs in the experiment as well, and there’s some suspicion that he euthanased them. He recorded that there was no noticeable change in weight after the dogs died. This conforms to MacDougall’s Christian conviction that animals don’t have souls, only people do. This religious bias makes the experiments very dubious if you ask me.

      But despite his bias, McDougall was measuring something — whether the skeptics like it or not, MacDougall found there was a noticeable difference in a recently deceased person’s weight compared to when they were alive, and the results were published in a peer-reviewed, respected journal.

      I haven’t read MacDougall’s report or much else of the story. The results were published and they showed something, but whether it’s the soul or faulty weighing equipment, who knows. All I know is that ’21 grams’ is a figure perpetuated by pop culture and urban legend, a figure used by pseudoskeptics to paint anyone who gives the mystery of life & death serious thought as pseudoscientific quacks. The experiments need to be repeated to be disproved or verified.

      I doubt we’ll see the Mythbusters attempt this one though.

      1. water
        My weight changes by as much as 2 kilograms over the course of a week. I’m pretty sure almost all of this is water.

        Think about it – you drink 2 pints of beer, that’s about 1 kilogram or so. 21 grams is easily within the measurement error of these things.

        —-
        It is not how fast you go
        it is when you get there.

        1. Weight of air
          I agree Earthling, but MacDougall makes it clear in the American Journal of Medicine that he takes all of this into account. So I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “the 21 grams could be anything”, even though I believe it really could be anything.

          1. Sources of error
            Having spent the better part of my career trying to ‘weigh’ things that are not cooperative, I would consider this to be a challenging task. First off, the resolution implied is on the order of 1:10,000. That is much harder that one might think. Second, this was done before modern transducers and electronics, so it would probably have been some sort of balance beam (like the scales of justice). They can be quite precise, but are sensitive to motion, air currents, etc. It is possible that breathing may have produced acceleration forces that would degrade measurements of this scale. Something as simple as a dog laying on its side vs. a person on their back could affect the result.

            From a personal perspective, I would dismiss the result because it extremely unlikely that a soul would weigh anything remotely like 21g. It might have an energetic component that is worth researching, but it is much more likely any physical aspect would be on more of an atomic level.

            I will add this to my towering stack of things to look into once retired.

            Cheers,
            X_O

          2. I agree
            If one is going to determine if someone weighs less immediately after death one would need to set up a experiment to do just this and not just once but repeat it to get enough data points to come to a conclusion. In addition this experiment must be reproducible by others to confirm the findings.

            Has this ever been done under controlled conditions?

            No?

            Well there you go…

            BUSTED! 🙂

            Cheers

          3. We can’t
            MacDougall can’t take all of this into account. Not in the sense of not being allowed to do it, but in the sense that it is not possible. It doesn’t matter where this was published.

            There are other, more well known examples of this. Millikan’s experiment that came up with the charge of an electron. Gregor Mendel’s pea-counting experiment that lead to the modern genetic concept.

            The simple fact is that these people cheated, and only reported the part of their experiments that agreed with their conclusions.

            —-
            It is not how fast you go
            it is when you get there.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.