What Does The Soul Weigh? Kind of a Heavy Subject!

In the aftermath of the flurry of articles I’ve read recently, which point out the problems we researchers have with the vast mountains of information available through the internet, it seems particularly apt that I should happen upon the conspiratorial and incredible story of the weight of the human soul today.

Regular readers are aware of my growing obsession with the mind-body question.  That is, do humans have souls?  A question that first reared its head in ancient Greece, with the great philosophising of Heraclitus (c. 475 BCE).  Despite the passionate assertions of a great many people, this question remains unanswered.

Outside of the sometimes highly satisfying philosophical ideas associated with this question, it seems the only way to answer this question with any certainty is through scientific investigation.  Much of that has taken place in the last few decades, from Penrose & Hammeroff’s Orch-OR theory of the quantum soul, to Ervin Laszlo’s Akashic Field Theory, to Parnia’s research through the AWARE Project, there’s no shortage of ideas to read about.

One particularly intriguing feather in the cap of those who claim success in this area of study is the work that’s been done to weigh the human soul.  This idea featured prominently in Dan Brown’s book The Lost Symbol, which I quite enjoyed even though it’s not his best work.  In the book, Brown described work that had been done by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, though in the book he gives all the credit to the female protagonist working alone and on behalf of the Smithsonian Institute’s top secret research division.  He describes a highly scientific and technologically advanced apparatus used to dynamically measure the weight of people as they died.  He gave no detail regarding the results, however.

As everyone knows, fiction is fiction, and Dan Brown is famous for weaving what appears to be truth into his stories, ultimately fooling a great number of people into believing it’s all based on fact.  In this case, as with others, it was not.

I found this concept, that is, that the soul could be weighed, to be of great interest to me personally and so I looked into it.  It turns out there is a basis in truth here…sort of.

In 1901 Dr. Duncan McDougall, a physician from Haverhill, Massachusetts, undertook an inspired experiment to determine how much the soul weighed by measuring the body-weight of 6 patients prior to and following death.  He found, as the story goes, that the soul weighs 21 grams.  This result is an averaging of the body-weight difference between patients from a few moments after death.

His experiments, which he also conducted on dogs and apparently found an agreement between species, were eventually discovered and reported through the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, and the journal American Medicine, as well as The New York Times.

The problem is, that there were problems.  His methodology was so sloppy that no one could replicate his results.  And, since this was the turn of the 20th century we’re talking about, the available technology was less than reliable.  It stands though, that McDougall tried, and had limited success, in exposing that there seems to be a difference between the weight of a body before death and after.  It’s an easy jump from there to believing the mind-body question answered, but it’s not.  Most of mainstream science regards his conclusions as false, or simply wrong.[1]

Dr. Mosso’s Soul Weighing Machine from 1884

This wasn’t the first such attempt either. Early Italian neuroscientist Dr. Angelo Mosso conducted a similar series of experiments in approximately 1884, with his ‘metal cradle’ or ‘machine to weigh the soul’.  Rather than measuring the difference between alive and dead weight, he believed he could measure an increase in the weight of the head of a subject, during cognitive effort.  His results were less than impressive, for various reasons.[2][3]

McDougall’s and Mosso’s experiments were not, however, what Dan Brown was talking about.  He most likely was referring to a German study conducted in 1988 by two scientists named Becker Mertens and Elke Fisher.  In their study, Mertens and Fisher weighed some 200 terminally ill patients and found, universally, a difference of 1/3000th of an ounce between life and death.  It seems the soul weighs roughly 0.01 grams.  Their results were published in the German science magazine Horizons, and these results are oft cited and held out as proof that the soul exists.

Now, there are some methodological problems here too; namely that air leaving the patients lungs could account for the weight difference, or some instantaneous decay event, possibly releasing gas held inside the patient’s cells.  These and other criticisms have been levelled at this and at McDougall’s results, but there’s an even bigger problem at play.

The whole thing is a hoax, Becker Mertens and Elke Fisher do not exist, nor does the magazine Horizons.[4]  No such research has been undertaken and the so-called evidence is entirely fabricated.[5]

“This type of miss information (sic) is a growing problem, especially for people overly reliant on the web for information. Such irresponsible fabrication does not serve the scientific community or the general public.”[6]

The above hoax, as I would dare to call it, has been retold and blogged about many times, as though the whole things is completely true.  Most notably by new age magazine New Dawn (special issue 15, page 70) and in a Weekly World News article.

As was highlighted perfectly in his New York Times article of October 25, 2013, Steven Schlozman M.D., warns of how easily things like this can get out of control, and how damaging they can be to not only our understanding of the issues involved, but also to our cultural and social evolution.  In his case, the culprit was harmless joke, in this case it may not have been meant in such a pithy tone.  With works like Brown’s Lost Symbol clouding the issue even further, is it any wonder the layman, the regular Joe (or Josephine) has trouble sorting out fact from fiction?



[1] Mikkelson, Barbara; Mikkelson, David P. (October 27, 2003). Soul Man – Snopes

[2] Sandrone S, Bacigaluppi M, Galloni MR, Cappa SF, Moro A, Catani M, Filippi M, Monti MM, Perani D, & Martino G (2013). Weighing brain activity with the balance: Angelo Mosso’s original manuscripts come to light. Brain PMID: 23687118

[4] The Tribal Scientist – New Horizons, old hoaxes: http://tribalscientist.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/new-horizons-old-hoaxes/

[5] Kennedy, Chad, PhD. Spiritual Evolution: How Science Redefines Our Existence(Authorhouse 2011) ISBN-10: 1467024147. Pg. 166.

[6] Kennedy, Chad, PhD. Spiritual Evolution: How Science Redefines Our Existence(Authorhouse 2011) ISBN-10: 1467024147. Pg. 166.

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