Weights & Measures
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Above is a 1920 obituary from The New York Times for Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who as you can see was best remembered by a particular experiment he did attempting to weigh the human soul. I heard his story on a recent episode of Radiolab, and it caught my attention because I had just read about another scientific study involving weight — an attempt to test how physical weight effects the way we think.

ScienceBlogs writer Ed Yong sums up the study, where volunteers hold either a heavy or a lighter clipboard while executing four different tasks. The last task was to weigh in on a controversial subway being built at the time:

In all cases, the volunteers agreed more with the strong arguments but especially so if they held the heavier clipboards. This group were also more confident in their opinions and were more likely to be clearly in favour of the subway or against it, rather than dawdling on the fence.

With similar results from the other two tasks, the conclusion is that holding the heavier clipboard caused individuals to “think of situations as more important and they invest more mental effort in dealing with abstract issues.”

Yong identifies a few similar studies that all seem to share the common attribute: they display what most would consider a purely metaphorical relationship (clean = moral, warm = sociable, etc.) as a psychological reality. If we accept these conclusions to be true, then it seems like a case of science catching up with the arts — the metaphors poets and other artists have been using for years suddenly seem a little more relevant, right?

Then again, this line of research could also go the way of Dr. MacDougall’s attempt to weigh the soul — as a clever, interesting, but ultimately unconvincing page in the book of scientific history. What do you think?

(image courtesy of The New York Times)

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