Why Do We Believe Photographs Capture Souls?
A Kentucky photograph appears to show a soul leaving a body. Why do our brains assign metaphysical meaning to blurs?
In July, a fatal motorcycle crash in Kentucky received more attention than usual when a random passerby snapped a photo. In his caption, Saul Vasquez directs your attention to an ominous shadow, which he believes to be the deceased’s soul leaving his body.
Although the motorcyclist didn’t die until reaching the hospital, the photo has been shared over 15,000 times. Facebook comments verify the belief that the blurry spot is, indeed, those missing 21 grams of ethereal spirit circulating above the living.
Capturing wily souls on film is as old as photography itself. In the middle of the 19th-century a Boston jeweler named William Mumler eyed a feminine ghost in his self-portrait. Initially he suspected it to be a double exposure; his friends convinced him otherwise. Mumler, excited by the potential windfall, closed down his jewelry shop to become the first ‘spirit photographer’.
Mumler raked it in until eagled-eyed customers noticed that the spirits looked remarkably like people who had previously sat for him. He avoided prosecution for fraud in court, though his reputation did not. Nevertheless a cottage industry was born; today’s incarnation is known as Kirlian photography.
Russian photographer Semyon Kirlian, a student of electricity, was influenced by Nikola Tesla. The great engineer and inventor had a passion for corona discharge photography, an electrical discharge that can be captured on film. Alongside his wife, Kirlian developed a photographic technique that promised to identify ones aura. This technique is still used today as evidence of the ethereal world.
The spirit world was in high demand during the early 20th century. Returning to Massachusetts, physician Duncan ‘Om’ MacDougall decided to weigh the bodies of the dying. He concluded the weight of the soul to be 21 grams (his term was “three-fourths of an ounce”). Sadly, when he later experimented on dogs, he found no meaningful mass loss—canines are apparently soul-less.
Another physician, Augustus P. Clarke, was not impressed. In 1907 he conducted his own research. Psychologist Richard Wiseman writes,
Clarke noted that at the time of death there is a sudden rise in body temperature due to the lungs no longer cooling the blood, and the subsequent rise in sweating could easily account for MacDougall’s missing 21 grams. Clarke also pointed out that dogs do not have sweat glands (thus the endless panting) and so it is not surprising that their weight did not undergo a rapid change when they died.
Humans are fascinated by things that don’t exist—Jesus in a grilled cheese; the Loch Ness monster; Yeti—often at the expense of what does. Seeing what isn’t there is not evidence of the spirit world, though it does offer insight into human vision and beliefs. One of the most famous examples was invented by neuroscientist VS Ramachandran with his work on amputees.
When someone loses a limb—let’s say an arm—they often ‘feel’ it after. This can be excruciating, and not only emotionally: patients claim a searing physical pain thanks to the brain continuing to fire its signals. Ramachandran developed a mirror box, which ‘showed’ the amputee their other arm, tricking their brain into believing the amputated arm still existed. In many cases the illusion works. When the person watches their mirrored arm move, the pain disappears.
Ramachandran notes that such findings offer us incredible insight into the inner workings of our brain. He also writes that it makes some uncomfortable, as it overturns long-held assumptions about the imagined being inside our being.
Take out of body experiences. Regardless of the soul’s ‘weight,’ many have witnessed their soul float away (or, more often, watch their body while on the ceiling). Nearly a decade ago one British researcher figured out how to recreate an out of body experience in the lab. Even though participants knew the experience was an illusion, their bodies acted as if it were real.
In some ways it is real, in that how we view reality dictates what we believe. Soul chasers criticize the ‘mechanical workings’ of researchers, but Ramachandran says they have it backwards. Nothing is more liberating than understanding how we work, which has the added benefit of knocking our gigantic egos down a peg.
Far from being humiliating, this idea is ennobling, I think. Science—cosmology, evolution and especially the brain sciences—is telling us that we have no privileged position in the universe and that our sense of having a private nonmaterial soul ‘watching the world’ is really an illusion … Once you realize that far from being a spectator, you are in fact part of the eternal ebb and flow of events in the cosmos, this realization is very liberating.
Ramachandran concludes that coming to terms with how our brains operate adds a much-needed sense of humility to our lives. When we stop tricking ourselves into contemplating what our ‘soul’ needs, we observe what our planet and communities actually need. The veil torn off, progress is possible. As it turns out, nine of out ten dogs agree.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch @derekberes.
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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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