Saturday, October 2, 2010


Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
© 2005 Mary Roach
311 pages

Having so thoroughly enjoyed Stiff last week, I visited the library this past Wednesday with the intent of reading more by the same author. I've walked by this book hundreds of times and even contemplated it a time or two: though I've never been interested in afterlives, tales of ghosts have fascinated me my entire life. I used to read books of 'real' ghost stories as a kid, and every time I pass by a certain building rumored to be haunted on campus, I linger to see if some trick of the light causes me to see a phantom in the window, watching me as he, the old profiteer, searches for his buried treasure*.

Mary Roach is simply curious about the subject of the afterlife, and approaches it not with hopeful credulity or intent-to-debunk. She is more a skeptic than a believer, doing Occam's razor proud and referring more than once to what is now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and its flagship magazine The Skeptical Inquirer. The book begins in New Delhi, where Roach tags along with a man who evaluates the claims of those who remember their past lives as specific individuals.  Her methods of research go beyond reading and interviews; as in Stiff, she prefers the direct approach, enrolling herself in a class for would-be mediums and practicing cold reading .(The secret, as she finds out, is make broad statements and rely on clues from the person's speech and dress to make more specific statements based on their environment.) She briefly considers taking a drug to induce a near-death experience, but doesn't like the idea of people watching her eyes roll backwards in her head while she has a seizure.

Because Roach's approach is scientific, she avoids simply telling ghost stories and focuses on cases where scientific apparatuses and terminology were used by those who attempted to find the soul or otherwise gain information about the afterlife. Some cases seem as though they would be far removed from science -- particularly the 19th century phenomenon of spiritualism -- but Roach reminds the reader that stories of communicating to the dead through devices surfaced in the same period that people were being asked to accept electricity and telephone conversation.

Spook is fun, replete with odd stories in the human search for finding out what might lie beyond death and supplemented by Roach's wit and hilarious devil-may-care forwardness. I don't think it will give the hopeful-but-unconvinced anything to truly hope for, although some approaches gave me something to think about.  Roach almost seems to want to believe in the survival of our consciousness, but can find nothing to base that hope on.  Some near-death experiences -- people recounting having floated above their bodies and "saw" things while they were unconscious --  were interesting, but I have great faith in the human brain's ability to misbehave and so, like Roach,  require studies that eliminate odd occurrence common in anecdotes.

* He buried his savings in his peach orchard at the advance of the Federal army in 1865, the story goes, and continues to search for it 'til this day. Unfortunately for him, the peach orchard is long gone, replaced by a pretty building that used to be our library.

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