Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book 155: Spook

"If you do a web search on the initials EVP, you'll find dozens of sites with hundreds of audio files of these recordings. Though some sound like clearly articulated words or whispers, many are garbled and echoey and mechanical-sounding. It's hard to imagine them coming from dead souls without significantly altering one's image of the hereafter. Heaven is supposed to have clouds and white cloth and other excellent sound-absorbing materials. The heaven of these voices sounds like an airship hangar. They're very odd."

Dates read: June 24-27, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I think I've mentioned this before, but if I ever want to send myself into existential-crisis-land, I start wondering what exactly happens when we die. I get the biological piece, but what about the "me" part? Where does it go? Is there a soul, or am I just the sum of various electrical and chemical reactions in my brain? Of all the many thousands of years that there have been and will be humans on this planet, do I really only get to see these decades that I'm allotted in this life? Or is there another life where I get to see how it all plays out?

I've given myself anxiety just writing about it! Much like me, Mary Roach is a skeptic about life after death, and so decided to turn her science-oriented eye towards the various theories out there about what happens when we're gone. In Spook, she travels to India to meet people who claim to be reincarnated, she meets mediums and goes to a class to learn how to channel the dead herself, she goes to England to see Cambridge's preserved sample of what was alleged to be "ectoplasm", and she looks at the so-called research behind the popular theory that people lose 21 grams of weight at death when the soul departs the body.

In every instance, she's confronted with the gulf between what the heart wants to believe and what the scientifically-validated research says is real. Hindus frequently claim to know someone who is reincarnated, but their belief system encompasses this and reincarnations usually seem to occur in close proximity (i.e. the person who is now dead and their "new" body are usually within less than 100 miles of each other). On the other hand, the motives that one might suspect behind a dubious claim, like the desire for financial support, aren't usually present. There are frequent reports, in the United States, of people who have had near-death experiences feeling like they're floating away from their body and can see it recede below them as they go towards the light. But only in a very, very few of them did they report seeing anything that they wouldn't have been able to see from within their body before. Every attempt to replicate the 21 grams experiment has failed, including several of that researcher's own.

Much like A.J. Jacobs in last week's post, Mary Roach manages the tricky art of tone-setting for a work exploring an issue that tends to elicit strong and often irrational feelings. It comes clearly through that, like most of the audience that would be inclined to pick up this book, she's primarily fact-oriented but in her heart, hopes she'll find something there. The idea that when our bodies die, the person that we are inside that body just stops along with us is a harsh one, and the fact that virtually every belief system includes some sort of continued life demonstrates that people really don't want to believe it. The way she structures the book, too, into short chapters focusing on one theory each, helps keep it moving along and away from getting bogged down into tiny intricacies. In a subject area that can be heavy, this helps keep it light.

I will say that this might not be the book for the deeply reverent. Roach refuses to hold back from having a sense of humor about any of it and some may think she treats the sacred too cavalierly. But for anyone who has questions and wants a peek into what science tells us about the various and sundry ways that the dead have been said to interact with the living, this is a witty, enjoyable read.

Tell me, blog you let yourself go down the rabbit hole on this issue or do you manage to not think about it (if the latter, please tell me your secret in the comments)?

One year ago, I was reading: A Vast Conspiracy

Two years ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Three years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology