Click here to support the Daily Grail for as little as $US1 per month on Patreon

A Weight Upon My Soul

Is there such a thing as the human soul – and if so, is it something substantial that can be weighed? Pondering that question, Dr Duncan MacDougall set out to find the answer at the beginning of the 20th century, in a series of experiments that would have no chance of passing ethical boards in the modern day. MacDougall weighed six different patients in the process of dying from tuberculosis on an industrial sized scale. His surprising result: that, at the time of death, the scales measured (on average) 21 grams lighter.

A recent article on the Fortean Times website (“Soul Catcher“, by Paul Chambers, originally from Fortean Times #262) outlines the story of Dr Duncan MacDougall, and ends with the summation that the experimental results are largely worthless:

MacDougall’s correspondence reveals a man with an unswerving belief in the existence of a human soul. At every turn he sought to justify his results in these terms, dismissing or ignoring any evidence to the contrary. It is, for example, possible that he ignored the results of the sixth patient because, in his own words, “there was no loss of weight” measured at the time of death. MacDougall explained in a letter that the negative result was probably due to the patient having been on the scales for only a few minutes, which caused him to doubt “whether I had the beam accurately balanced before death”. This seems like an afterthought used to explain an inconvenient result and one wonders what his react­ion would have been should the result have been favourable.

This is hardly a shocking conclusion – MacDougall’s methods have come under regular criticism since his anomalous results were published. Explanations have ranged from lack of control of moisture loss to air convection and vibrations from breathing and heart palpitations.

Coincidentally though, the recently-released Spring 2010 issue of the Journal of Scientific Exploration (24:1) has an article from Masayoshi Ishida rebutting a number of the claimed refutations of MacDougall’s experiment. Here’s the abstract:

A critical review was conducted on criticisms expressed in books and on websites of Duncan MacDougall’s weight measurement experiment upon the death of terminally ill patients; theoretical simulations of MacDougall’s experiment using a modern weighting system with load cells and thermohydraulic analysis were employed. The following conclusions were obtained: (1) the uncontrolled escape of moisture from bodies due to insensible perspiration has practically no effect on the conclusion of his experiment that there had been anomalous losses in the weight of his patients upon death; (2) the speculated effect of convection air currents on MacDougall’s balance scales does not exist; (3) vibrational disturbances caused by cardiac and breathing activities, which disappear after the death of the patients, have practically no effect if the change in weight upon death is in the tens of grams rather than a few grams; and (4) the speculative tricky role of buoyant force of air on the body can be denied. Therefore, all the cases of his experiment do remain as pioneering cases published in a scientific journal. Theoretical implications of his experimental result and future perspectives of the experimental approach to this subject are discussed.

I do have to say that I think Ishida shoots his article in the foot somewhat by including some discussion of channeled information from ‘Seth’ in the final section on the experimental approach. While it does relate to the subject matter (whether correct or not), this mention means that no orthodox scientist is likely to take the rest of the article seriously.

To read the full article (plus plenty of others on anomalistic science) in JSE, join the Society for Scientific Exploration.

  1. Seth
    While you are undoubtedly correct in saying that orthodox scientists would be inclined to dismiss the whole article upon the mention of channelled material from Seth, I have a feeling that orthodox scientists would have dismissed it long before they arrived at that paragraph.

    I’m more concerned about the fear that “we” – those of us who like to think of ourselves as open-minded – are often quick to dismiss such material because, it seems, we wish to appear suitably critical in our thinking. Are we afraid of what “they” might think of us if we should appear to give credence to channelled material? Are we afraid of handing the enemy the ammunition with which to shoot us down?

    I happen to think that the Seth material is of high quality when compared to most other channelled information. I remain somewhat sceptical of its provenance, however. I am inclined to think that “Seth” was more likely to be a personality created by the medium (Jane Roberts) in order to deliver the material while in trance. Indeed, I believe that she herself had such suspicions from time to time. Nevertheless, the material itself is impressive and it is hard to see how someone with no history of research in either philosophy or science could produce such a large body of work which has impressed so many readers including prominent and well qualified scientists.

    Let us not fall into the same trap as the debunkers by creating taboo’s.


    1. the biggest FEAR……
      …of scientists, skeptics and debunkers is that channelling my be true.

      I would love to see a one on one with Randi and Hicks. Now that would be special………………I know where I would put my money!

    2. I think some of it just
      I think some of it just stretches the bounds of our personal sphere’s. I wonder if it is possible to sum up some idea of representing our consciousnesses as sphere’s (metaphorically) (sort of like minimal free energy configurations, but minimal free ideas), and that they try and hold themselves as such. It takes a lot of effort to hold your consciousness in any other configuration.

      If we really do define our own realities, and not simply how we perceive one larger than ourselves then I wonder what power we have? Can I not have a soul because I don’t want one? Or can I conjure up any type I choose, flitting between soul possibilities from one day to the next?

      Channelling is OK, but to many it is a little like cheating. It shouldn’t be perhaps. We all learn things we are told. Accepting from authority is a little different than being taught the reasoning behind why the authority has accepted something though – if you are willing to put in the time. It is only when the authority has no further rational than ‘I heard it on the grapevine’ that a wall is reached and new means of self experience are required for further trust.

      I dare say that if an alien whispered cosmic truths into my ear in a manner i could not comprehend, perhaps only mimicking or drawing some half understood version or using language unsuited to expressing the revelation then I would have problems with skeptics too.

      If I could build a fusion reactor from a microwave, a hose pipe and a small length of string then I’d be more convincing, but if all I can do is issue text and philosophy then I’d be less so.

      I like the idea of weighing the soul. Great test. Not sure what it means for quantum consciousness though. I’m sure it has interesting ramifications. I notice that it means that the size of the soul is dependant on bodyweight for a given animal. Obviously animals of less than 21g cannot have souls that big else they would have negative mass.

      I’m am given to the idea of weighing things in my garden apart from the animal cruelty issues and sympathy for the beetles.

      1. Or …
        [quote=daydreamer] Can I not have a soul because I don’t want one? Or can I conjure up any type I choose, flitting between soul possibilities from one day to the next?


        How about considering the question in reverse? What if you are your soul; the soul defines who/what you are? You might then ask if you can conjure up the kind of physical life you choose, the kind of body … or maybe you decide you no longer need a body.


        1. Very true, but we can scale
          Very true, but we can scale infinitely as well. Perhaps I am an energy being projecting a soul projecting a body and I can shed the body and the soul to transcend the dimension that a soul would trap me in. Bloomin eck, were down to trans-dimensional onion physics!

          I think it is worth thinking more about the soul having weight and how this must mean different animals have different ‘massed’ souls. Or at the very least it pulls the soul further from the classically spiritual and more into the material.

          If the human soul weighed exactly 21g independent of other variables then it would be interesting to see what theologians made of ideas of the soul imbuing the body prior to the body weighing 21g – i.e. while a foetus weighs less than 21g. Seems to me like we would have to be saying the soul entered the body after 12 weeks (or whenever), definitely not at conception.

          1. actually, the soul can enter
            at any time…….so I am led to believe.

            The heart is the seat of the soul. It is the first organ to develope and the last organ to function properly.

            So the soul has an option to enter at any time.

          2. Interesting idea, but i think
            Interesting idea, but i think it is possible to show that personality and everything we are continues after the heart stops for enough of a fraction of time to show that the brain should be the seat of the soul.

            E.g if your heart was to stop right now then you would have a second or two before passing out, in that time you will still have your human-ness.

            One of the possible technologies being studied is to use nanobots to oxygenate the blood. Apparently our red blood cells are a little inefficient. Anyway, it would mean that in the future a heart attack wouldn’t be something fatal, it would just be something you went to the hospital for. You’d turn up at reception and say ‘excuse me, but i think my heart has stopped’.

            Ooo, another good thought. You can put someone on bypass and stop the heart entirely – not showing much exactly except that it is not some type of gateway closed when it stops working to the traits typically associated with the soul.

            I think there is enough reason to think that so long as the blood is oxygenated then the soul can stay wherever it is. hypothetically you could remove the heart permanently and keep someone on bypass, then incinerate the heart, just to test how robust the ‘soul-heart-connection’ is and they should be fine (fine defined as alive). Might be a little unethical though 😉

            Perhaps you are thinking a little too big, maybe some sort of weird quantum effect is going on and oxygen is the seat of the soul.

          3. been tested
            This has been tested, with artificial hearts. There have been a few cases of patients without a living heart. Their awareness seemed unaffected.

            However, I will grant this – we don’t know if their soul stayed with them. If not, these people would be examples of living humans without a soul. How would we know? Test their weight for the missing 21 grams?

            The heart issue aside, I find it curious that these issues are supposedly not measurable in “this” world. And then it turns out to be 21 grams, and if someone disputes the measurement, people get upset.

          4. I know! Its wonderful how the
            I know! Its wonderful how the philosophy and theology can be played with to such extremes to suit any argument. One moment its invisible to investigation, the next it is in everything.

            I do wonder about how we would detect whether a person had a soul or not. Do I have one? Or you? Are we just simulacra while others get the full version. Are there versions? 1.0 for non-believers, 2.0 for christians, 2.5 for Hindus, 3.0 for new age. Is Deepak really on version 10.2? 🙂

            There have been so many attributes assigned to the soul throughout history; largely any human (apparent) non-physical ability – such as thought, will, desire etc (and not forgetting the emotions). The classical seems very much about a distinction between the ‘mind’ and body as a simple line to draw perhaps like the heavens and the earth in classical philosophy. Nowadays we know that the heavens and the earth or not divided, they are the same. I suspect the mind and body are as well, even with complications to modern material ideas such as NDE’s. Perhaps the hardest thing for both sides of the argument will be to see that both are right.

          5. another possibility
            when the body is alive it produces energy. When the body is dead, so the energy stops. This could be the difference in weight…

          6. physical and non-physical
            the heart as the seat of the soul is only a physical manifestation. Each organ in the body has an energy or non-physical component. Once the heart is complete the non-physical energy component is ready for the soul. Take a heart out of a body dosen’t take away the non-physical, which houses the soul, away. Even when the heart stops, there is enough of the other non-physical components to hold the heart energy component intact.
            That is to say that the full body has a full energy body as well. Lose a limb or have a stroke, all this damages the physical but not the non-physical.
            It’s only when all physical components are destroyed that the soul then has no energy field in which to hold it in place. So it is free to leave.

          7. Interesting. So we need to
            Interesting. So we need to hypothesise a full energy body alongside the other energy body (our physical body) in order to inject another energy entity.

            All good, but given that this is surely hypothetical why limit it so? Is this some sort of occams razor in metaphysics? Why not have two or three hidden energy bodies each capturing different elements of the soul. In fact why not transcend fully and jump to an infinite number of layers to the soul?

            That fun aside. Is there any reason to suspect this is what is going on? Surely a version of QM consciousness does not need that sort of thing if the consciousness were entangled in quantum nanotubes etc, or if spacetime binding were occurring during life and after death.

            How would we go about showing any of it compared to any other idea either of us could suggest.

            I do find myself wondering whether these ideas would be quite different if emotional reactions didn’t cause sensations in our chest. Admittedly the flight and fight response to adrenaline is pretty good. Faster heart rate in response to adrenaline as well as diversion of blood away from the internal organs and to the muscles in preparation for activity is a fantastic mechanism and one also fired by sexual activity and apparently misfiring prior to exams – though responding to any stress in this way can probably be evolutionarily beneficial as a rule of thumb, hence its existence in these now odd circumstances. I do wonder whether it is to blame for the metaphysics we see here though.

            What would have happened if we had evolved mechanistic systems such as the above that we felt in our legs or toes when we reacted to seeing someone we fancied, feeling threatened or driving a fast car. Would theologians (etc) have been tempted to stick the soul in the toes. I bet you they would have done. Perhaps we are being a bit simple following our stomachs (so to speak) in devising our metaphysics. (after all they have stuck the soul in the heart, a blood pump, seemingly just because our heart rate is variable depending on activity and predicted activity, which seems silly to me. I’d still stick it in the brain personally – the most complicated object we know of in the entire universe, not a blood pump)

          8. Pineal gland
            French philosopher Rene Descartes speculated that the soul was located in the pineal gland, which has been considered throughout many esoteric traditions as the “seat of the soul” —the third eye, etc.

            Dr. Rick Strassman, in his book DMT, The Spirit Molecule, made the hypothesis —which he hasn’t been able to prove yet, mind you—that the pineal gland was responsible for the endocrinous release of DMT during mystical experiences.

            So, is the pineal gland some sort of receptor, or antenna or a USB connection —to use a more modern term— to our soul in the body? I have no idea.

          9. why anywhere
            Man you need practice with the philosopher bit, you just don’t say
            I have no idea.
            No, you write at least 300 lines with no content, explaining how your lack of any idea is a wiser insight than other people’s lack of any idea. And how you have returned to the ancient lack of explanation and have thus improved upon it.

            What I have no idea about is why something from a completely different realm, such as the soul, would have to be tied to a particular piece of anatomy. I thusly dispute that the soul is tied to anything in the physical body, based on the same empirical evidence that available to pope Agapeptus II.

          10. 🙂 Very
            🙂 Very humorous.

            [quote]What I have no idea about is why something from a completely different realm, such as the soul, would have to be tied to a particular piece of anatomy. I thusly dispute that the soul is tied to anything in the physical body[/quote]

            Not bad, but a bit of a get out. I dispute that the essence of a volcano has anything to do with the physical volcano etc… Perhaps if those elements attributed to the soul were unaffected by the physical body (i.e strokes/degenerative diseases) then it would be easier to come to terms with the idea of ‘NO link’. Clearly there are links between physiology and typical soul traits. These links are surely better evidence of relationships than non-relationships.

            Your claim that the soul ‘comes’ from another realm is unjustified. I see no reason why it couldn’t come from here in the same way as everything else, baring in mind that everything else almost certainly did not come from ‘here’ (as in this universe) anyway. Perhaps all the energy currently expressing itself as matter comes from the same place as the soul is typically supposed to come from. Matter, even in an evolved biological state, need not be considered so different from the realm of the soul. Maybe this is why the two seem so entwined and so difficult to unentangle outside of the realm of ‘physical’ death. Perhaps you are erecting a wall that is not really there.

          11. alternative
            Ok, I can come up with an alternative, contradicting what I said earlier today. That’s good philosophical practice too, as well as being a popular sport among politicians and lawyers:

            The soul is matched to patterns of thought over time, in thought’s totality between conscious and unconscious. When there is no thought, or the thoughts patterns are not changing over time, there is no connection to a soul.

            That one leaves enough room for the soul being entirely of the physical body, or being only tenuously connected, or anywhere in between. And we can play with the concept of time again.

            Advantages of this model are that we can say, for example, that insects have no soul connection, since their thought patterns are constant. Mice have a small soul connection, humans a stronger one. Atheist materialists can say that the thought pattern is the soul, there is nothing else.

          12. excellent……
            …..thoughts there earthling. The funny thing is we could all be right and not know it, or wrong!

          13. I like it. I’ll not ask you
            I like it. I’ll not ask you to clear up any of the distinctions as it’s just a possibility.

            Imaginative possibilities are the easy side of the coin though. Limiting them and narrowing them down is the hard thing to do.

            Can you personally see much evidence of conjecture and opinion narrowing on whatever it is that is the reality of the soul?

            Just out of interest what do you all think of how paranormal possibilities affect how the evidences for one paranormal subject cross-relate to other subjects. For example if telepathy, and especially telepathy across time, we shown to be true then those evidences that require something like the possibility of a soul as an explanation disappear from the table. It sometimes seems to me that there is little conversation of how one paranormal subject might limit or remove others.

          14. very good
            [quote=red pill junkie]
            So, is the pineal gland some sort of receptor, or antenna or a USB connection —to use a more modern term— to our soul in the body? I have no idea.[/quote]

            Thats what I am lead to believe. An interesting side effect of fluoride is the shrinking of the pineal gland.

            Could this forced use of fluoride be on purpose to do this. All done covertly ofcause. In order to restrict our spiritual awareness?

          15. close I think
            [quote=daydreamer] Why not have two or three hidden energy bodies each capturing different elements of the soul. In fact why not transcend fully and jump to an infinite number of layers to the soul?


            Some cosmology teachings is exactly that.

          16. interestingly…
            in the not too distant past, the “Church” (i don’t like to blame everything on Catholics)did not have an absolute ban on abortion before “quickening” (the point where a woman feels the foetus move in her womb) which occurs somewhere between 12 and 15 weeks…and at some point many faiths believed the soul entered the body with the first breath…

      2. LOL

        Obviously animals of less than 21g cannot have souls that big else they would have negative mass.

        Personally, I would like to think my soul is made of something really cool or exotic like dark energy or unobtanium, but I love the way you propose new questions in order to look at these problems in a new light.

        PS: I lie. I know it’s made of Tequila. That is why it needs constant refueling 😛

  2. By the way, Greg ….
    Greg, I’m sorry if it appeared as though I was accusing you of being closed minded (or anything approaching that). Obviously, I know that you are not and I’ve read and agreed with your thoughts for many years now. It was just one of those occasions when an opportunity came up to say something that had been on my mind … and I took the opportunity.

    By the way, the SSE now have a free PDF magazine called “Edge Science” – download here:


    1. Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to, the…
      [quote=kamarling]Greg, I’m sorry if it appeared as though I was accusing you of being closed minded (or anything approaching that). [/quote]

      Not at all. I did actually debate whether to add that last line, being more personal commentary than anything. My point really was nothing to do with the validity of the Seth material – it was simply that the rest of the article is directed squarely at a scientific rebuttal of a number of claims, and then at the end the commentary about the Seth material is added in. I just know, from past experience, that will give orthodox scientists are reason to dismiss the article, despite the detailed refutations that make up the majority of it. On the other hand, if we don’t give a toss what orthodox scientists say about it, then I say fair enough…I’m all for discussion and exploration of these topics.

      [quote]By the way, the SSE now have a free PDF magazine called “Edge Science” – download here:

      Man, I had you pegged as a regular Daily Grail reader… ;P

      1. oops

        Man, I had you pegged as a regular Daily Grail reader… ;P


        Hang my head in shame 🙁

        Somehow I managed to miss all those links. I actually heard about the magazine in a recent Skeptiko podcast with Dr. Garret Moddel. Still, another mention can’t hurt.

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