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Soul Has Weight, Physician Thinks
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Written by Brian Parsons on February 14, 2011, 01:57:40 PM

This is what a headline read of the New York Times on March 11, 1907. Dr. Duncan MacDougall from Haverhill, Massachusetts, had placed barely living subjects on a bed which constantly weighed them as they slipped into death. MacDougall felt that the soul was material and had mass, therefore it could be measured.New York Times headline

His first of six human subjects died and immediately lost three-fourths of an ounce, which is 21.3 grams. MacDougall’s experiments and findings were also published in the American Medicine journal as well as the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. This experiment has lead to the belief that the soul does indeed weigh 21 grams and that the body will drop weight upon death. The former statement is folklore and the latter is true, yet not from the departure of the life force.   

What about the other five bodies MacDougall experimented with? Two results were discarded due to the scale not being adjusted in time as the patient died quickly. Two showed an immediate loss in weight followed by more weight loss as time went by and one showed an immediate loss in weight with no further change. One showed a loss followed by gain and subsequent loss again. MacDougall’s results were questionable at best and a public debate ensued with other professionals through the New York Times and other articles.

‘The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life’The biggest scientific error was the basic methods used. MacDougall and his colleagues involved in the experiment had a difficult time in determining the exact moment of death. Obviously the sample size was not large enough to come up with a distinct number, the belief of 21 grams is based upon the folkloric belief that perpetuated after this experiment was deemed inaccurate by the scientific community- but others still believed it was real. The equipment used to weigh the subjects was precise, albeit unreliable. The subjects were placed on a bed which was affixed to a giant scale that could weigh the individual with an accuracy of within 5 grams. The scale required constant adjustment and the experiment needed constant observation of the body to determine loss due to sweat (no mention of gaseous loss, not sure why they did not use an enclosure) and other potential issues. Overall the experiment was a poor example of the scientific method from beginning, as MacDougall displayed scientific bias alone by already determining he knew what would happen, to end with the equipment issues and small sample size.

Dr. MacDougall did try other similar experiments with dogs and found no loss in weight at the time of death. This, he felt, gave credence to his experiments with humans as he thought dogs had no soul. He again made headlines in 1911 as he was experimenting with x-ray photography during the death process and MacDougall claimed to have seen the soul leaving the body when he observed “a strong ray of pure light”. He went on to perform other experiments in order to prove the soul existed and left the body at death, but he himself died in 1920.


Schneider, Reto U (2009). The Mad Science Book. New York. Fall River Press

The New York Times (March 11, 1907, Pg. 5). Soul Has Weight, Physician Thinks.


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Good article, Brian. I agree with your conclusion that the sample size was far too small, the methodolgy left a lot to be desired, and MacDougall was biased toward a specific conclusion. 


by Doug Kelley on February 15, 2011, 09:18:39 AM
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Brian's insights into the world of the paranormal.
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Brian Parsons (View Profile)

Brian D. Parsons is the Executive Director for ParaNexus. He is formerly the Director of the Ohio Paranormal Investigation Network (now a client/investigator help site) and has been investigating ghostly claims since 1996. He has also studied under the MUFON Field Investigator's Manual for the various aspects of UFO investigations and has been a freelance cryptid researcher and investigator studying various cases in Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

Brian has written five books, “Handbook for the Amateur Paranormal Investigator or Ghost Hunter: How to Become a Successful Paranormal Group” as well as a companion book, ““Betty’s Ghost: A Guide to Paranormal Investigation”, and "Handbook for the Amateur Paranormal Investigator II: The Art and Science of Paranormal Investigation" serve as his introductory books into ghost investigation. His fourth book, "The 'E4' Method: Breaking the Mold of Paranormal Investigation" is an overview of his new methodology into client-centered paranormal investigation. His fifth book, "Handbook for the Amateur Cryptozoologist", provides a balanced look at the subject of cryptozoology and offers basic guidance behind the subject. He is a regular contributor of paranormal news (known as the Paranromal News Insider) to the Grand Dark Conspiracy radio program and has been a guest on several occasions.

Brian holds a PhD from the Insititute of Metaphysical Humanistic Science and lives in Twinsburg, Ohio, with his wife Amy and their dog Sasha.

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