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Mary Roach


Science tackles the afterlife

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Is there an afterlife? Mary Roach sets out to discover the answer (a possible answer, anyway). It is quite difficult to find anything new to say on this subject, but Roach's approach is a little out of the usual, being based largely on her own first-hand explorations. The tone throughout is light-hearted, even facetious.

She starts with reincarnation, which has been studied in great depth by the psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, who investigated over 800 cases. Stevenson was already old when she wrote (and he has since died), so instead of talking to him she travelled to India to meet one of his students, Dr Kirti Rawat. She went with Rawat to witness the encounter between a young boy who claimed to remember a previous life and the family in which he had supposedly lived in his previous life, but she was not convinced by what she saw.

Various people have attempted to prove the existence of the soul by detecting a loss of weight at the moment of death. This seems an essentially absurd undertaking—an example of what Gilbert Ryle would call a category mistake—and although it affords Roach plenty of opportunities for jokes, which she takes full advantage of, I'm not sure that this material was really worth including.

In the early days of mediumship there was a fashion for materializing "ectoplasm", which in a number of cases was shown to be cheeseecloth extruded from various body orifices. Rather surprisingly, Cambridge University library has a sample of this substance, and Roach managed to get permission to examine it—a rather unpleasant experience. The smell was "manageable but detectable".

In more recent years there have been claims that the dead manifest themselves electronically, for example in tape recordings. People have claimed to hear messages in the background hiss when a radio is tuned between stations. It seems pretty clear that there are normal explanations for most of these phenomena and the remainder can usually be attributed to the natural tendency for the mind of the listener to make meaningful patterns out of random sounds. Once again, Roach draws a blank here.

Unwilling to neglect any possibility, Roach registers herself for a training weekend for mediums, but she proves to be a bad subject with no aptitude for the task. Her encounter with a "real" medium is also largely non-productive, although the woman does score a hit which shakes Roach's scepticism a little. She is asked about a metal hourglass—does her brother have one? As it happens, her brother collects hourglasses. It certainly seems unlikely that this could be mere coincidence. Had the medium perhaps been given a tip by someone? Of course, even if it was a paranormal event, it does not prove the existence of life after death; the explanation could have been "super-ESP".

The Chaffin Will case is remarkable because in 1925 a judge in a court of law accepted the validity of a will that had allegedly been discovered thanks to the intervention of a ghost. Roach visited Chaffin's descendants and paid a handwriting expert to examine the will, which still exists. The expert concluded that it was undoubtedly a forgery, although the appearance of the ghost, if it really happened as Chaffin described, remains unexplained.

Michael Persinger is a neuroscientist who believes that hauntings might be due to the effect of geomagnetic fields on susceptible people. He conducts experiments to verify the hypothesis and finds that it is possible to induce feelings of contact and other bizarre experiences in some individuals. Roach volunteered as a subject but nothing unusual happened.

For many people today the most persuasive evidence for postmortem survival comes from near-death experiences. Some patients, though by no means all, have such experiences while undergoing cardiac arrest or in other extreme situations, although exactly similar experiences can occur when there is no question of death. Roach interviews one of the best-known researchers in this field, Bruce Greyson, and asks him whether he thinks the reports provide evidence that we can exist outside our bodies. He is unwilling to commit himself either way, although other researchers she contacts are more positive.

At the end of her quest Roach is obviously sceptical, although, as usual, she expresses this with a joke.

Perhaps I should believe in a hereafter, in a consciousness that rips through the air like a Simpson rerun, simply because it's more appealing—more fun and more hopeful—than not believing. The debunkers are probably right, but they're no fun to visit a graveyard with. What the hell. I believe in ghosts.
There is of course far more to say on the subject than is covered here but this is an entertaining book and worth reading on that ground alone. But it should have had an index.
%T Spook
%S Science tackles the afterlife
%A Mary Roach
%I W.W.Norton and Company
%C New York and London
%D 2005
%G ISBN-10: 0-393-32912-7
%P 311pp
%K parapsychology
%O paperback edition

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