21 Grams


This is an absolutely fascinating theory. I did see the movie of the same name, but I believe that the origins of the legend are even more interesting.

From Snopes.com:

Claim: A physician once placed dying patients upon a scale in order to measure the weight of the human soul.

Status: True.

Origins: Most of those of a religious bent believe in life everlasting for the faithful, a continuation of the life force that reaches far beyond the limitations of mortal flesh. In such belief systems, death is not an end but a transformation: though people shed their corporeal selves at the moment of demise, that Scale which made them unique beings lives on to rejoin the Creator. We call this intrinsic personness “the soul,” an entity described in the dictionary as “The immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.”

Yet as much as we believe in the concept of “soul,” this life spark remains strictly an article of faith. As central as it is to our perception of ourselves, it can’t be seen or heard or smelled or touched or tasted, a state of affairs that leaves some of us uneasy. Without the soul, dead is dead. But if it could be proved to exist, a great deal of anxiety over what happens to us when we die would be vanquished.

Enter Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, Massachusetts. The doctor postulated the soul was material and therefore had mass, ergo a measurable drop in the weight of the deceased would be noted at the moment this essence parted ways with the physical remains. The belief that human beings are possessed of souls which depart their bodies after death and that these souls have detectable physical presences were around well before the 20th century, but claims that souls have measurable mass which falls within a specific range of weights can be traced to experiments conducted by Dr. MacDougall in 1907.

Dr. MacDougall, seeking to determine “if the psychic functions continue to exist as a separate individuality or personality after the death of brain and body,” constructed a special bed in his office “arranged on a light framework built upon very delicately balanced platform beam scales” sensitive to two-tenths of an ounce. He undertook to measure 6 terminally ill patients immediately before and after their deaths. His results?

“[S]uddenly coincident with death . . . the loss was ascertained to be three-fourths of an ounce.”

Dr. MacDougall admitted in his journal article that his experiments would have to repeated many times with similar results before any conclusions could be drawn from them. Nonetheless, MacDougall believed he was onto something — four years later the New York Times reported in a front-page story that he had moved on to experiments which he hoped would allow him to take pictures of the soul: Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, who has experimented much in the observation of death, in an interview published here to-day expressed doubt that the experiments with X rays about to be made at the University of Pennsylvania will be successful in picturing the human soul, because the X ray is in reality a shadow picture. He admits, however, that at the moment of death the soul substance might become so agitated as to reduce the obstruction that the bone of the skull offers ordinarily to the Roentgen ray and might therefore be shown on the plate as a lighter spot on the dark shadow of the bone.

MacDougall seems not to have made any more experimental breakthroughs regarding the measurement of the human soul after 1911 (at least, none considered remarkable enough to have been reported in the pages of the New York Times), and he passed away in 1920. Nonetheless, his legacy lives on in the oft-expressed maxim that the human soul weighs 21 grams. (At the moment of death, MacDougall’s first test subject decreased in weight by three-fourths of an ounce, which is 21.3 grams.)

What to make of all this? MacDougall’s results were flawed because the methodology used to harvest them was suspect, the sample size far too small, and the ability to measure changes in weight imprecise. For this reason, credence should not be given to the idea his experiments proved something, let alone that they measured the weight of the soul as 21 grams. His postulations on this topic are a curiousity, but nothing more.

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