Life After Death from a Scientific Perspective

October is naturally the perfect time for creepy, scary, haunty reading, so I’m reviewing some ooky spooky supernatural, paranormal-themed titles throughout the month. Personally, I find nothing scarier than some of the true crime cases out there, so delving into the supernatural side of things feels more light-hearted than sinister and I love Halloween-time for that!

First up: Mary Roach’s Spook, truly a doubter’s dream.

I could not believe these [Biblical miracle] things had happened, because another god, the god who wore lab glasses and knew how to use a slide rule, wanted to know how, scientifically speaking, these things could be possible. Faith did not take, because science kept putting it on the spot. Did the horns make the walls fall, or did there happen to be an earthquake while the priests were trumpeting? Was it possible Jesus was making use of an offshore atoll, the tops of which sometimes lie just inches below the water’s surface? Was Lazarus a simple case of premature entombment? I wasn’t saying these things didn’t happen. I was just saying I’d feel better with some proof.

Mary Roach, inquisitive author of (very) popular science books humorously exploring the scientific logistics of things you may not have previously considered in detail (sex, space travel, cadavers), writes what might be the definitive account of supernatural debunking. Roach admits she’s something of an anomaly – an author who begins researching a book topic not as a specialist but a novice, albeit a curious one. Her naiveté allows for humorous moments as she researches, travels and confers with experts, and gets to the bottom of commonly held and historic beliefs revolving around that big question of life after death.

In search of science’s answers on the afterlife, or the soul’s survival after the body’s death, Roach travels to India to observe an alleged reincarnation case; gets to the bottom of ectoplasm, that spillover (literally) from the spiritualism craze; analyzes the “subtle bullying” of TV psychics while attending medium school, where those with clairvoyant tendencies can learn to commune with the “spit-its”; and recounts researchers’ experiments over time attempting to prove that souls live on in some form after earthly demise.

Roach employs sensibility, simply related but solid science, and plenty of humor to work through various elements of the supernatural, present and historic. Her description of sifting through the ectoplasm archives at Cambridge University is particularly delightful. As is a chapter on near-death experiences, where a professor affixed a computer to an operating room ceiling in case any souls gone wandering during defibrillator insertion, when patients clinically die, are able to later report back and verify the images it displays, only visible from this ceiling viewpoint. The lengths gone to to obtain proof are invariably entertaining.

This chapter was also enlightening because it’s something I knew nothing about, biologically-speaking, and the similarities in anecdotes always gave me pause and lent the possibility of NDEs (lots of paranormal lingo here) more credibility in my mind. The conclusions Roach, parsing others’ research, comes to make so much sense, while still leaving the door open to something possibly inexplicable. Maybe.

Roach is a skeptic but open-minded, willing to believe if evidence exists. That goes against the classic argument insisting on faith, whether in religion or anything similarly mystical and intangible. It was undoubtedly the best way to approach this project. (Unlike a book I read last year where a journalist used her job’s cache to automatically equal credibility while remaining gullible meeting with psychics and mediums.)

Many interesting explanatory points are raised throughout, one of which has always kept me listening to ghost stories: we believe stories told by people we trust. “The closer you are to the teller of a ghost story, the more likely you are to believe that the ghost in the story was a ghost, and not a raccoon or a temporal lobe seizure.” That’s what consistently brings me back to wondering about these topics and I was glad to see I wasn’t alone (as common sense as that trust bias seems now!)

Her writing is smart, fact-filled but accessible, and funny – a favorite moment was her description of an experiment involving a man wearing a sheet and walking like a ghost (arms outstretched) through a field in the UK as curious cows trailed behind him. I almost cried. Others were a little dad-jokey, but the tone worked overall.

In some chapters she encounters the societal elements linked with perpetuations of beliefs, reincarnation being the big one. The “timing of human ensoulment,” that is, when does the soul actually fuse with (get “installed” in, as she says) the physical body, highlighting the argument for personhood that’s dominated abortion debates, was another. Her coverage of the old experiments determining the soul’s weight (an alleged 21 grams) factored in here too thanks to the religious implications of a soul, and was surprisingly amusing.

Possibly most amusing was her profile of the sleight of hand (and other body parts) of medium/ectoplasm producer Helen Duncan in a chapter about spiritualism’s grossest side effect:

She had nine children, who hung from her hems and scaled her bulk like small mountaineers. One biographer described the youngest child atop her lap, dandling the flesh that hung down from her massive upper arms. Her séances were high drama. She tended to swoon and fall off her chair and occasionally wet herself in the frenzy of spiritual possession. She once emerged from the séance cabinet naked under a floor-length “ectoplasmic veil.”

It has so many good stories in general: like why scientific literature contains the measurement unit “meows per second”, and why the University of Virginia has a research lab on the survival of consciousness after death (Xerox is involved.) I wished there was a bit more about ghosts, as I’m drawn to either proof or disproval of ghost stories like a magnet. But for explanations of haunting stories, there’s Ghostland.

While attending medium school, Roach sensibly observes, “Of course, a seminar like this self-selects for those prone to embracing New Age beliefs,” which makes her proof-seeking perspective appreciated. It’s why I’ve had a problem with other books on the topic, aside from the aforementioned Ghostland – it seems the writers drawn to these topics self select as believers, and the research or scientific evidence against the juicier, spookier story ends up neglected or explained away in favor of believing.

I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science. Certainly most things can—including the vast majority of what people ascribe to fate, ghosts, ESP, Jupiter rising—but not all.

If you want to cement a belief in the otherworldly, this isn’t the book to get there. To understand the evidential flip side of popular myths and beliefs, it’s a great study and great fun.

Roach admits it’s more fun to visit the cemetery with believers, but for those with the nagging need to see the receiptsSpook is your best bet.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
by Mary Roach
2005 by W.W. Norton
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36 thoughts on “Life After Death from a Scientific Perspective

  1. Wow this sounds fascinating. I’m curious about Ghostland as well, but I’m hesitant to think too much about ghosts sometimes. I intellectually don’t believe in ghosts but deep down in my heart of hearts I totally am always half-expecting to find out they exist and also there’s one lurking around the next corner, haha. Thanks for introducing me to both these books! I’m off to google “meows per second” haha

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    1. You’re welcome, they’re both great reads so I’m very glad to recommend them! And I feel similarly, I don’t logically believe in them but I’m easily unnerved by it all. I really liked Ghostland for how thoroughly the author explored the history and social context that contributed to some well known ghost stories. Understanding the why of their origin helps explain why the stories have such sticking power. It was much more intellectual than scary but very entertaining!

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    1. SO delightful! I haven’t read anything else by her, actually…I know her books are overwhelmingly popular but this was the only topic she’s covered that caught my interest. I’ve heard that it’s usually not people’s favorite of her books either, and that Stiff is better but I’m a little bit squeamish and not sure if I can stomach it. You go first and let me know what to expect! 🙂

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      1. Will do! I’m a bit squeamish as well but I used to be absolutely obsessed with the show Six Feet Under and it piqued my interest in the subject! I didn’t know anything about Roach though and I did expect she was an expert in the field, so that’s rather interesting to hear that she’s a novice with a penchant for researching, that’s quite impressive!

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      2. I was obsessed with it too!! Such a great show! It sometimes put me in a weird head space to be thinking about death so often but was worth it. I hadn’t thought about that in connection to Stiff, maybe it’s manageable after all 😂
        And I know, I was also surprised that she wasn’t a scientist by trade considering the subjects she writes about. But she’s a journalist and a very thorough researcher. I was impressed with that, she self deprecates a bit but she has a great ability to distill the information she’s gathered for a lay reader.

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      3. Ohh that makes me so happy, I’m still always telling people to watch that show! I remember in one episode David’s niece (I think?) gave him a copy of Stiff as a present and I’ve wanted to read it since then. It’s probably weird that I loved that show so much when I am so easily freaked out by death, but there was just something about it that made it so worth it even when I was squirming. And the series finale still makes me sob like no other fictional thing ever has.

        That’s so interesting, and I definitely have no problem reading a book by a journalist rather than an expert. I can’t imagine being confident enough in my own research abilities to publish a book like that, but that’s cool that she’s done it with so many different topics!

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      4. It was really such an extraordinary show! I can’t remember that part about the book given as a gift but I can understand why it stuck with you. If it’s associated with that show it must be good 🙂

        It was exactly the same with me, I’m also freaked out and generally uncomfortable with death and anything examining it but it was so well done there somehow. Still some squirmy moments, but agreed, totally worth it!

        Her work is really interesting, from what I’ve read she just started writing about science but it wasn’t her background. And it ends up so thorough, documented and well written, it’s really impressive.

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    1. Thanks so much! This one was a great combination of being able to laugh and still learn a lot, I love that in a book too. It was my first experience reading her and I see why her books have so many fans…she has this kind of effortless, almost conversational style and yet it’s so information-packed and always entertaining. I’ve heard that Stiff is excellent too, I’m just not sure yet if I can stomach the subject matter! 😬

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  2. Love this review and keep meaning to get to more Mary Roach!! Her book Bonk 😉 was one of my must reads of the year (which I STILL haven’t got round to!) and I adored her book on death, Stiff. You’ve just inspired me to make sure I pick up some SOON. 🤗

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    1. That’s good to hear you liked Stiff so much, I’m still on the fence about reading it thanks to some squeamishness! Did it have any queasy moments? And I really see why her writing is so appealing, she makes science so easily readable, absorbable and fascinating!

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      1. It really is! I’m a scientist by day so I have a pretty strong stomach anyway but at no point do I remember it being too much or too shocking to read? Love seeing the amount of women writing so brilliantly about science/history nowadays! 💪🏻

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      2. Oh that’s so interesting that you’re a scientist! I’m not surprised that might strengthen your ability to stomach some of it. I think the issue for me is mostly having to think so much about death while reading it, and then especially if there’s too much gory biological info. I need to page through it and see, I guess.

        And agreed, I also love that it’s a genre that more and more women are getting noticed for…and deservedly so! When’s your book coming out? 😉

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  3. Great review! I’ve read a few Mary Roach books and even met her once (she’s one of the few authors that is just like you’d think from her books). Honestly out of all her books I’ve read Spook is my least favorite, so you should definitely check out some of the others based on how much you enjoyed this one! Roach is one of the few authors who does self-insertion well in general nonfiction. She just has this great combination of curiosity and practicality with an ability to ferret into a topic and pull out the most interesting and entertaining nuggets.

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    1. Thank you! That’s so wonderful that you got to meet her, she seems like she’d be so much fun and I love how smart and witty she is. And I agree, she really can pull such a great story out of some obscure topics, it was incredible.

      That’s the opinion I’ve heard repeatedly, that Spook is everyone’s least favorite, but I can’t motivate myself to pick up any of her others because I really have zero interest in every other topic she’s written about thus far. Will be keeping an eye on what she does later though!

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  4. This sounds fascinating!
    When i was a teen, i had a friend who believed in all kinds of ghosty things, and in turn i was somewhat convinced as well. My logical brain had an idea that these things are not true, but i think he just convinced me so much, i ended up reading a lot about the subject. None of the books were quite scientific tho 😀 So i should probably get my hands on this one.

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    1. That’s exactly the problem, mostly everything else I’ve read is decidedly unscientific so feels either too biased or just not necessarily accurate/worthwhile. And the author touches on what you mentioned here too, about people we trust being more convincing to us when they believe – I feel the same way and it’s why I always find myself drawn back to this subject! I definitely recommend this one, it was pretty satisfying in terms of logic, I think you’d like it 🙂

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  5. I really enjoyed this and I’m glad to hear you did too! In response to your question in the comments above, I’m pretty sure Stiff included some bits about trying to do a head transplant with monkeys that bothered me, since I have a hard time dealing with sad things happening to animals. Other than that, I think there are some descriptions of autopsies, decomposition, etc as you might expect, but the way it was handled was not gruesome or graphic enough to bother me.

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    1. Actually I think I read a review of yours of this one awhile back and it was the only one I’ve read that was really positive, everyone else qualifies this as their least favorite Mary Roach. But it was really the only topic she covers I had any interest in.

      Thanks for the details about Stiff, that’s really helpful, actually. It doesn’t sound much worse than the HBO Autopsy show and I survived that 🙂 but yikes, the monkey thing would upset me for the same reasons. That might have to be a skippable section.

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