“Big Data for the Soul.” An article about SoulPulse in the New Yorker

The New Yorker magazine has a feature length article on SoulPulse this week.

On April 10, 1901, Duncan Macdougall, a physician in Haverhill, Massachusetts, completed an experiment designed to measure the human soul, the first of six he would complete in his lifetime. Using an industrial scale designed for weighing silk, accurate to one-fifth of an ounce, Macdougall weighed a male tuberculosis patient before and immediately after he died. It took three hours and forty minutes for the man to expire, and at the moment of his death he lost three-fourths of an ounce. This, by Macdougall’s calculations, was the weight of the human soul.

According to Mary Roach’s book “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” Macdougall didn’t publish his findings until 1907, when his research appeared in both the Journal of the American Society for Physical Research and American Medicine. In March of that year, the Times ran a story called “Soul Has Weight, Physician Thinks.” Perhaps because he wasn’t able to find additional human subjects, Macdougall performed the rest of his research on dogs, which he determined had no souls because their weights did not change after death.

Last January, John Ortberg, a senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, and Bradley Wright, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, released a simpler way of measuring a soul: SoulPulse, a technology project that captures real-time data on the spirituality of Americans…. Link to the article

First Report: Variation in Spiritual Awareness

We start with a simple plot of spiritual awareness scores across all the daily surveys. The study has generated 19,716 observations of this variable, and it is scored from 1 “not much” to 100 “very much.” Figure 1 plots a histogram of these observations.

Spiritual Awareness, Participants 1 to 1500

The striking feature of Figure 1 is just how much variation there is across observations. Sometimes people rated their spiritual awareness at that moment as “1”, other times “100”, and every point in-between. This variation raises the interesting question of why people’s spiritual awareness varies so much over time.

There are some distinct patterns in this variation. The median score is “70,” suggesting that this predominately (90%) Christian sample experience relatively high levels of spiritual awareness day in and day out. Also, many observations were clustered at the ends of the scale, with almost 20% of the observations scoring 95 or higher and 6% rating five or lower. This clustering suggests that for some people, spiritual awareness can be an all-or-nothing nothing proposition. (The spike at “50” is a measurement artifact that we corrected partway through the study).

To better understand how individual people vary in their spiritual awareness, we present data for three separate participants. Each is a woman in her 50s, who is married, but they demonstrate very different patterns of spiritual awareness.


Participant #904 is a white woman who lives in California. She has a master’s degree. She’s married and has five or more kids. She is a Baptist, and she has no doubts that God exists.

She averages high levels of spiritual awareness, for half of her scores fall between 95 and 100. However, sometimes her scores dip down to the midrange of the scale.


Participant #1200 is African-American woman who lives in Florida. She is married, has two children, neither of whom lives at home. She earned an associate’s degree. She is a Presbyterian, and she has no doubts that God exists.

Her spiritual awareness varies widely. She’s always somewhat spiritually aware but never fully so. Her scores range from “26” to “86.”


Participant #1400 is a white woman who lives in New England. She has two children. She has a PhD. She identifies herself as Jewish. She sometimes believes in God.

Her spiritual awareness scores are uniformly low. All but one are at “4” or below, and that one exception is only “9.” It’s possible that for each survey she swiped the slider bar all the way to the left for this question—intending to register “not much” each time.

Upcoming: The First Report

The following five posts are from the first report on SoulPulse’s findings. The results are based on the first 1,500 participants. This report focuses on one of the central measures in the study: spiritual awareness. In the daily surveys, participants are asked to rate themselves on the statement “I am aware of God at this moment”, with responses ranging from “not at all” to “very much.” (Participants who don’t believe in God are instructed to call to mind whatever they view as holy or sacred). This report describes day-to-day fluctuations in spiritual awareness.

An Introduction to SoulPulse

SoulPulse is an ongoing research study that combines smartphones and survey methodology to learn how people experience spirituality on a moment-by-moment basis. Participants sign-up at SoulPulse.org (and we invite you to be one), and after an intake survey, they receive two short surveys a day for 14 days. These daily surveys are texted to them on their smartphones, and they answer questions about what they are experiencing at that moment in regards to their spirituality, circumstances, health, and emotions. At the end of two weeks, participants receive an interactive report that plots their spiritual experiences during the study. To date, over 1,700 people have signed up for SoulPulse, and the study will run for at least three more years. It is funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation as well as private donors. On this blog we will post interesting findings from the spiritual study in hopes that they inform and encourage your spiritual life.



“New ‘SoulPulse’ App Lets Users Monitor Their Spirituality in Real Time”

An article about SoulPulse in the Washington Post

The Washington Post has a nice article about SoulPulse today.

“Folks who have just knocked back two drinks say they’re really aware of God at that moment.

And good sleep enhances a sense of God, joy, peace and love.

Who knew?

Actually, about 160 people, so far, know such details about their spiritual lives. They were the first participants in SoulPulse, a newly launched ongoing study of spirituality in daily life.

It’s an “experiential” research survey inspired by pastor/author John Ortberg and conducted by a team led by Bradley Wright, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told.”

Twice a day for two weeks, participants receive questions asking about their experiences of spirituality, their emotions, activities and more at the moment the text messages arrive….” Link to full article