Does the soul really weigh 21 grams? This is the experiment that started the myth

Talking about the soul is almost the same thing as talking about death; neither of them has an explanation about what really happens, the only thing that can be said are mere assumptions that help us to make sense of life.

This fact is not questionable of course, everyone faces existence in different ways and the belief in the soul is one of them, however, to try to quantify it is to speak of big words. There is a supposedly scientific legend that the soul has a weight of 21 grams, which has been replicated decade after decade, but what is true in this?

Where did the idea of the weight of the soul come from?

The belief in the supposed soul’s weight began more than a century ago in Dorchester, a small town in Boston, USA. The town was the home of Duncan MacDougall, a renowned physician in the village. Just like the epiphany that came to Newton after observing an apple fall from a tree, Macdougall experienced something similar when a bee landed on his hat. The action immediately made him question whether we humans possess souls in the first place, and if they occupy a certain space in the mind, then they should register a certain weight.

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The physician began a series of investigations which he published in 1907 in the journal American Medicine and the American Society for Psychical Research. There he wrote:

“Since…the substance considered in our hypothesis is organically bound up with the body until death occurs, it seems to me most reasonable to think that it must be some form of gravitating matter and, therefore, capable of being detected at the moment of death by weighing a human body in the act of death.”

An unusual experiment

To clear up his genuine questioning, MacDougall teamed up with Dorchester’s Consumptives’ Home Hospital, which was a charity dedicated to treating patients with late-stage tuberculosis, a disease that at the time was incurable and fatal. The doctor explained in his article why he chose tuberculosis as a relevant disease for his experiments, he said that patients died in “great exhaustion” and without any movement.

He thought this would allow him to set up a kind of scale capable of supporting a stretcher and determine the patient’s weight before and after death.

His first case was a man who died on April 10, 1901. MacDougall recorded a drop on the scale of 21.2 grams, a figure that would go down in posterity and become the legend of the weight of the soul. However, the second patient’s data did not come close to that of the first one, who lost 14 grams before he stopped breathing.

The more records he obtained, the less a pattern emerged that would provide MacDougall with answers. The third patient showed an unexplained two-step loss by first losing 14 grams and a minute later, 28.3 grams more. The following cases could not even be said to show reliable data, as the scale failed.

But MacDougall continued with his questioning and repeated the process with 15 dogs, but found no weight loss, which indicates, in his opinion, that they do not have souls. Although it must also be said that the doctor himself accepted the lack of broader evidence required to establish a hypothesis, whether regarding the soul of humans or of dogs.

Today the question of whether the soul carries weight is still up in the air, no attempt has been made to replicate such experiments with humans because of the ethical implications it brings. Therefore, science cannot answer the question due to the great lack of evidence, perhaps the order of spirituality can only remain qualitative and not quantitative.

Story originally published in Ecoosfera