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Investigating the outer fringes
on 18 August 2007
Mary Roach spent a year investigating the outer fringes of psychic phenomena and has written up her findings in Six Feet Over - a book full of healthy scepticism but also honest investigation. She seems to be a generous and open-minded investigator who does not belittle the enthusiasts she meets and writes entertainingly of what she finds.
Starting with "reincarnated children" Mary Roach travels to India to meet children who are allegedly reincarnations of (mostly)deceased relatives and neighbours - how unlike the western past lives people who always seem to claim to be reincarnations of more glamorous subjects of the Mahatma Gandhi, King Nefertiti ilk. Because the surrounding culture is accepting of the childrens' claims, the children are not usually subject to even the most gentle questioning of their claims, and Roach finds that a little gentle interrogation of witnesses and the children themselves, soon makes the stories fall apart.
Roach then goes on to look at the history of psychic claims, beginning with the search for the "soul" - where does it reside, what happens when it "leaves the body", where does it go? These were hot questions for early scientists of the 18th and 19th century and Roach describes their attempts to find the soul and track its progress from conception to death. The experiments seem highly amusing to us, but Roach reminds us to see them in the context of the days when electricity and radio waves were just being discovered and seemed quite miraculous. She then discovers researchers in the present day who are still on the quest for the soul (in the Univeristy of Arizona for example).
Subsequent chapters look at ectoplasm (hilariously funny accounts of early "mediums" attempts to secrete cheesecloth in their bodily cavities and extract if during seances), ghost-hunting, near-death experiences. A very interesting chapter looks at those who try to capture messages from the beyond on tape-recorders and other devices. We met some of the same people a few years ago in Justine Picardie's "If the Spirit Leads You", and it is good to hear that they are still going strong (if somewhat nuttily).
I think I need hardly say that Mary Roach fails to turn up any evidence at all for a single psychic phenomena. These things seem to depend on belief, and disappear like the morning mist when anything approaching serious investigation takes place. The book is a good read. Its probably well-trodden ground, but Roach's non-judgemental and humorous approach is a welcome relief from the more cynical psychic investigators who delight in implying that their subjects are escapees from the mad-house.