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Many years ago, I read an article that has stayed with me about a doctor who tried to determine if the soul had weight. Over the years, I have seen that same story retold in various contexts: religious, scientific and New Age pseudoscientific.

You may have seen a film  21 Grams whose title refers to the early 20th-century research of physician Dr. Duncan MacDougall. He attempted to show scientific proof of the existence of the immortal human soul by recording a loss of body weight immediately following death. His hypothesis was that if any small amount of weight was lost at the moment after death, it was due to the departure of the soul.

MacDougall only had six patients in his experiment and the result he selected from one of them was that there was a loss of “three-fourths of an ounce.” That was, to him, the “weight of the soul” and it has since been popularized through the film and online as “21 grams.”

Though MacDougall’s results were published in the peer-reviewed journal American Medicine, his experiment has met with mostly criticism as sloppy research or even pseudoscience.

First off, MacDougall assumed that any weight loss was an indication of the soul, which is not the territory of science. When I first read about this experiment, my own thought was that since energy cannot be created or destroyed and since the living body does create and hold an electrical charge that can be measured, where does that charge go after death?

Talking about this with a friend, he suggested (only part jokingly) that the energy leaves the body at death and joins “The Force” (as in Star Wars) and becomes part of a larger energy field.  I found later that he is not alone in his belief in The Force as a kind of global soul or energy field that can be tapped by all of us – if we know how. In the Star Wars series, The Force is used for both good and evil, but it is never explained as being the soul. Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul” connecting all living organisms on planet Earth.

I have done further reading over the years about all this and asked a few real scientists that I taught with at NJIT and it seems like a reasonable answer to my question and my friends answer is that the electrical charge gets grounded.

Our bodies generate electricity and that allows your nervous system to send signals to your brain and control the rhythm of your heartbeat, the movement of blood around your body and more.

The Earth also carries an enormous negative charge and our bodies connect with the Earth’s energy. Without getting too New Age, when you put your bare feet on the ground, you absorb large amounts of negative electrons (those are the good ones) through the soles of your feet. This effect maintains your body at the same negatively charged electrical potential as the Earth. This simple process is called “grounding” or “earthing,” and it is viewed as an antioxidant effect.

Dr. MacDougall was pretty careful for his time. He recorded patient’s exact time of death, total time on the bed, used the most precise scales available, recorded any changes in weight that occurred at the moment of death. He thought about other explanations for weight loss (bodily fluids like sweat and urine, and gases like oxygen and nitrogen) and factored that into his calculations.

The only modern experiments I have ever come across about finding the soul or the energy were using a kind of photography that could see energy fields and attempted to see the energy leaving the body. Those were inconclusive. I just recently found that MacDougall did another experiment in 1911 attempting to photograph the soul when it left a body.

He said (and it was reported in The New York Times then, that doing a dozen experiments, he photographed “a light resembling that of the interstellar ether” in or around patients’ skulls at the moments they died.

Science still has no interest in this line of soul research. I doubt that any research was done using a much larger sample size. There is even some controversy as to when the precise “moment” of death occurs. Is it cellular death, brain death, physical death or heart death?

Maybe the soul, if it exists, has no physical form that can be measured.

Dan Brown even references MacDougall’s experiments in his novel The Lost Symbol. A scientist character placed a dying man in an air-tight capsule, fitted with very sensitive micro weight detectors, and after his death showed a difference in weight “though microscopic, is quite measurable.” The novel’s experiment has some of the same flaws as MacDougall’s experiment.

But wouldn’t it be comforting to prove that we each have a souls that lives on after we die?

We have been considering this idea of a soul for a very long time. Religious, philosophical and mythological traditions often view the soul (perhaps by a different name) as  essence of a living being and it can be mortal or immortal.

In Judeo-Christianity, only human beings have immortal souls. Thomas Aquinas attributed soul/anima to all organisms but argued that only human souls are immortal. Hinduism and Jainism hold that all biological organisms – your pets and the flea on your dog – have souls. Aristotle also believed that. In some philosophies (animism), even non-biological entities – rivers and mountains – have souls.

Science still isn’t interested. I have read that functional neuroimaging has mapped every function once associated with the soul to specific regions and structures of the brain.

Physicists have mapped the connections between subatomic particles and need no spiritual explanations. But they have also said that dark matter makes up more than 80 percent of the universe’s mass, but we haven’t actually seen a single atom of it. That requires at least some non-religious faith.

I agree with Hamlet that still “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

We all want to know “the secret.” The big one. The secret of life.  I would never would expect to find it in a book or film.

But there is a book called The Secret that claims to be able to help “in every aspect of your life—money, health, relationships, happiness, and in every interaction you have in the world.”

Wow. That is quite a claim. But wait, there is more.

“By applying the knowledge of The Secret, they bring to light compelling stories of eradicating disease, acquiring massive wealth, overcoming obstacles, and achieving what many would regard as impossible.”

I had heard of the book. It was  a followup to a documentary by the same name in 2006. The book has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 46 languages. It has attracted fans, critics, controversy and parodies.

It re-entered my consciousness via a new podcast called By the Book. The program is self-described as a half reality show, half self-help podcast. Jolenta Greenberg and her skeptical friend Kristen Meinzer (who was on my favorite movie podcast, Movie Date)  choose a self-help book and (try) to follow its precepts for a few weeks and then report back to listeners.

They tried The Secret. Was it life changing?

The Secret presents a concept titled “law of attraction.” This law posits that feelings and thoughts can attract events, feelings, and experiences. That includes things in your house and the workings of the cosmos.

There is an implication that people in positions of power have known this secret and have kept it hidden from the public.

Some of the self-help things Jolenta and Kristen tried are things I have heard from other self-help books and even tried and written about here.

Four of those things to do:

1. Make a daily affirmation. This is the practice of positive thinking and self-empowerment. “A positive mental attitude supported by affirmations will achieve success in anything.” This is a real carefully formatted statement that you write down and repeat to yourself. It is in the present tense, positive, personal and specific. ” I am strong and today I will ask for and get that raise at work.”

2. Keep a gratitude journal. The idea is to write down at least one, if not a list, of positive events at the close of a day and why the events made them happy. Others and even some studies have found benefits from a gratitude journal.

3. According the law of attraction, one way to attract money into your life is to write yourself a check for an amount of money you wish to receive and imagine yourself receiving that amount. There is a lot of visualizing and imagining the things you want in life in The Secret.

4. Create a vision board of the things you want: places you want to go to, things you want to acquire, people in your life, those you want to meet and people who inspire you.

Kristen and Jolenta made fun of the book, but in the end recommended it because a) it seems to help people  b) though it may not bring you everything you want, it may bring a more positive outlook to your life.

Where did this secret come from? It goes back way before the book to what is known as the New Thought philosophy. That is where the law of attraction comes from – a belief that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts a person brings positive or negative experiences into their life. You need to accept the idea that people and their thoughts are both made from “pure energy”, and that through the process of “like energy attracting like energy” a person can improve their own health, wealth and personal relationships.

The New Thought movement grew out of the teachings of Phineas Quimby who is described as a “philosopher, magnetizer and mesmerist.” In other words, he was a wanderer in the land of pseudoscience.

So, I am cynical about finding the secret of it all.  But like the podcasters, I can’t dismiss all the ideas. Give it a try. If it works for you, then you did find the secret.

I believe in the secret as explained by Mitch and Curly in the film City Slickers (which is too easily dismissed as just a comedy).  Here’s the secret in a 3 minute clip.

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