Biology Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for biology researchers, academics, and students. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

An interesting tidbit floating around the internet these days is that Dr. Duncan MacDougall apparently weighed people shortly before and after death, and found an average of a 21 gram discrepancy, to which he attributed to be the soul departing. As we all know, this certainly can't be the right explanation.

Putting aside likely extreme bias and instrumental/experimental error, is there any bodily process at death that could potentially explain a small decrease in observed mass?

share|improve this question
up vote 13 down vote accepted gives a discussion of possible issues with the original experiment. Evaporation or bowel or body movements for instance. I think the biggest complaint about the experiment is that it has not been reproducible and that the original experiment was flawed. MacDougall only took six measurements and he threw two of them out in his original work. The Wikipedia link you give cites a paper where sheep were found to gain weight at least for a time after death. Dogs are found to have no weight change.

MacDougall and his contemporaries were inclined to interpret their results such that animals simply do not have souls, or have different sorts of souls. But if you look at an average of all experiments cited, it could also be said that the average weight loss up on death averages to zero. 3/4 of an ounce of a human being (or a sheep) over the course of something like a death is not an easy measurement. You can't give them a drink of water, you worry that they are breathing too much and losing water. Its not an easy experiment, at least for human beings where you can't control the circumstances of death so well.

In any case this really needs to be measured better. In 90 years it doesn't seem that there's been a real rush to do it.

I just stumbled across this blog post that talks about an effort to measure a change in blood flow to the brain when in intense mental activity popularized in the late 19th century. The investigator Mosso claimed he measured a difference, but the result is disputed today. It could not have been more than a few grams. In any case a description of how difficult this measurement can be.

share|improve this answer
Sheep souls are buoyant, I guess. This sort of thing is tricky to do, even today. I'd be amazed if his scale was even accurate to 21 grams over a 100 kilo human. – Resonating Aug 25 '13 at 8:13
I would too - especially after I had kids and tried to weigh them at their checkups :) – shigeta Aug 25 '13 at 18:02

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.