Image: Wikimedia

From Zombies to Telepathy: When Science Takes on the Supernatural

Five experiments that just went for it.

Oct 31 2015, 2:45pm

Image: Wikimedia

On the very first episode of The X-Files, Fox Mulder told newcomer Dana Scully that "When convention and science offer us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility?"

This sets the conceit for the entire series, but it also seems to be the philosophy that a certain class of scientists just want to believe.

Whether people realize it or not, science and "magic" are irrevocably linked. You can make an argument to Arthur C. Clarke's third law of science fiction, which states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Maybe it's a lack of knowledge that makes the supernatural seem plausible. But throughout the past few centuries, as scientific achievement expands, people still seek to prove the implausible, whether it's to discover what happens after death or to find the true extent of the human consciousness.

Without a sense of wonder for the unknown, certain scientific discoveries may not have occurred. We also may not have a number of historical experiments to reference that showed just how weird science could be.

Image: Soul Carried to Heaven by William Bouguereau

The weight of a soul

Duncan MacDougall's hypothesis was sound: if everything has mass, then the soul must also have mass.

If you believe in a concept of a soul, it makes sense. MacDougall sought to test this by weighing tuberculosis patients immediately before and after death. According to his papers, in the minute after passing, he found that their weight had dropped around an average of three-quarters of an ounce.

After measuring six subjects—a very small sample size for such a wide-ranging experiment—he concluded that the weight of the soul was "from one-half ounce to a full ounce departed from the body at the moment of expiration," according to his findings. This amounted to approximately 21 grams. Only a soul passing from the body after death could explain the sudden drop in weight. "There is no other way of accounting for it," he told the New York Times.

Image: Wellcome Images


Not many scientists have a legacy that sounds like a science fiction novel. Giovanni Aldini's work, however, sounds right out of the most famous science fiction story in history.

Aldini's work in "galvanism," which involves applying an electrical current to body parts, was put on display in January of 1803, where he reportedly brought the body of executed murderer George Forster back to life.

"On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened," wrote a reporter in the Newgate Calendar. The article went on to say that one of the men present was so shocked that he died shortly after he went home.

Of course, Forster was dead. He didn't come back to life. The article concluded that while Forster wasn't reanimated, the experiment could be used for further treatment in the stimulation of body parts. Galvanism is also used in that aforementioned novel: Frankenstein.

Franz Mesmer

The last name sound familiar? You might not recognize the name, but you'll notice its similarities with the term "mesmerize."

The word has its roots with this guy, physician Franz Mesmer, who in the late 18th century, was a believer in an invisible force that emitted from all bodies and could influence each other.

He called this pull between beings "animal magnetism." Illnesses were said to be caused by obstructions in the flow of this force.

Mesmer's techniques, which included using a magnet to effect this bodily force, became popular throughout Europe, although mostly for their entertainment properties. He was still a controversial figure to the point where even Louis XVI appointed a commission to prove Mesmer's theories as scientific fact. The group, which included Benjamin Franklin, debunked his claims, even though they also found that his treatments technically helped the patients that received them.

"Animal magentism" has been disproven, but Mesmer's theories were put to use in the 19th century thanks to surgeon James Braid, who coined what he called "rational mesmerism" or, as we call it now, "hypnosis." The procedure, which involved putting patients into trances, was adopted by Sigmund Freud and the rest is history.

Image: Mauro Sartori/Flickr


William James is considered one of the founding members of modern psychology, but he was also a believer in psychic abilities, especially after the results of studies that looked to test mind-reading.

In an essay he published in 1899, he stated that he was originally skeptical, but was convinced that the studies, done in France, Germany, and England, would "appear to make it unreasonable to doubt any longer the fact that occasionally a telepathic relation between one mind and another may exist."

In one instance, two subjects who were sitting in the same room were tasked with drawing a series of small diagrams. Without contact, they would see if they can transfer the thoughts between them.

According to James, out of the 33 drawings, there were 25 convincible reproductions. In some of the cases, it was found later that the subjects were silently communicating, but James said that many of the trials were "faultless."


These kinds of experiments aren't just products of past centuries. Some work into the unknown is still being done today. For example, studies have been done in the past 50 years into claims of reincarnation, specifically in children who claimed to be experiencing memories from a past life.

Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, who for years recorded instances of children who seemed to have these connections, didn't use his findings as conclusive evidence of the existence of reincarnation. He did investigate thousands of these claims by talking to subjects directly, instead of relying on hypnotic regression. His work was responsible for single-handedly creating "a new field of unorthodox science" starting in the 1960s, according to historian Andreas Sommer.

Sommer has catalogued a number of studies on reincarnation. Another noteworthy one is by Erlendur Haraldsson from the University of Iceland, who studied 30 pairs of children from a rural area of Lebanon, all of whom claimed they had a past life. It was found that subjects tended to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that could have been related to the violent death they experienced in a past life.


Considering that science has always been about uncovering mysteries of the unknown, it comes as no surprise that there are so many more studies that seem to cross over into the metaphysical. The Society for Scientific Exploration, for example, has been investigating instances of unexplained phenomena since 1982, and it is just one of many organizations that dedicate themselves to the unexplained.

It's not just a scientific pursuit either. With the limited X-Files miniseries set to premiere in 2016, the continued popularity of ghost hunting shows such as Ghost Hunters on Syfy, and the ever-growing list of programs that delve into the unexplained such as Finding Bigfoot, there will be no shortage of people testing the limits of what can be discovered.

It's just that some efforts are more believable than others.