Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

Publisher: W. W. Norton (2005)

Blurb from
The best-selling author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers now trains her considerable wit and curiosity on the human soul. "What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that's that—the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my lap-top?" In an attempt to find out, Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die. She begins the journey in rural India with a reincarnation researcher and ends up in a University of Virginia operating room where cardiologists have installed equipment near the ceiling to study out-of-body near-death experiences. Along the way, she enrolls in an English medium school, gets electromagnetically haunted at a university in Ontario, and visits a Duke University professor with a plan to weigh the consciousness of a leech. Her historical wanderings unearth soul-seeking philosophers who rummaged through cadavers and calves' heads, a North Carolina lawsuit that established legal precedence for ghosts, and the last surviving sample of "ectoplasm" in a Cambridge University archive.
If Mary Roach ever makes it to my neck of the woods for a guest lecture, I am dropping whatever I am doing and attending. Her books (this is the 4th I've read) are full of interesting tidbits and humor. She uses footnotes a lot and for most books, footnotes are a source of boredom and sighs. But I look forward to her footnotes because it means another intriguing, sometimes disgusting, piece of info is coming up.

Spook was an investigation into what humans have done to prove the existence of the afterlife. Ever thought of weighing a person as they die to see if the soul, as it leaves, causes a predictable weight loss? But we don't only weigh the souls of humans; we curious creatures also attempted to weigh the souls of mice, dogs, sheep, lambs, and goats. How about taking a course in becoming a medium? Follow along with Roach as she takes a tour-bus to the Donner Party camp ground in order to record the whispered messages of ghosts.

Descartes wasn't only a mathematician and philosopher; he also collected and dissected cow heads looking for evidence of the soul. However, Herophilus was the first to dissect humans looking for that elusive thing. Ever heard the term 'luz' or soul bone? It is a bone that can not be destroyed and houses the soul.

She went to India to explore the culture of reincarnation and she posed a very good question: If the culture expects it (reincarnation, spiritual hauntings, whatever), then isn't more likely to 'occur' and be accepted? She visited with a variety of scientists, like those looking into the effects on humans by infrasounds (very low notes). Could such low notes cause that eerie, creepy, 'I'm being watched' sensation? What about electromagnetic energy? Roach allows a scientist to zap her head in order to find out if she is susceptible to mini-seizure spiritual experiences.

The info on historical mediums that channeled spirits and produced ectoplasm was fascinating and hysterical. Often the ectoplasm was found to be cheesecloth, which under poor lighting, magically appearing from some hidden orifice (perhaps the vagina) caused the paying customers to gasp and believe in the channeled spirit.

+++++: I learned all sorts of odd bits of trivia (hearing last to go when loosing consciousness, Edison electrocuted and elephant and filmed it, most humans gain their writing maturity mid-teens), info is presented in a fun and questioning way, the author isn't afraid to ask those awkward, embarrassing questions.

-: I think it would have been interesting to have added a little about the American fascination with being frightened by a spirit; example: the plethora of haunted houses, even at permanent amusement parks. But this definitely wasn't needed to enjoy the book. I would just have loved to see what the author could turn up on that topic.

1 comment:

  1. I got to read the first few chapters of this a few years ago while on a house-sitting gig, I knew I should have just asked to borrow the book afterwards, it sounds great, and it sounds like there is a lot more to it than just the opening chapters on cadavers at medical schools.