woman meditating and levitating
Image by mohamed Hassan

One month into the Covid-19 lockdown, after having adjusted to work­ing from home and the daily barrage of apocalyptic news, I sat down with my first Zoom interview. Dave Herman, Ph.D. is a neuroscience colleague, but also a master of statistics. I wanted to talk about statistics and how scientists love to dismiss things as mere meaningless coincidences. This was one of my favorite interviews: far-ranging, deeply insightful, boundless, but scien­tific.

The conversation with Dave spanned religion, spirits, “paranormal” activity, the scientific method, limitations of the human brain, quan­tum physics, philosophy, and the limitations of language. (Quick note: I absolutely despise the words “paranormal” and “supernatural” because I believe everything in this Universe—or all the universes if there are more than one—are normal and natural.)

It became clear pretty quickly in the conversation that Dave and I were on the same page in terms of admitting that humans do not know everything about the Universe and that things are being discovered daily. We also discussed—to the happiness of undergraduate me—that just because you label something, such as the “law of gravity,” that doesn’t explain how it works or why it exists.

A Good Scientist Asks Why

Dave launched our conversation, saying, “There are inexplicable things in the Universe. A bad scientist throws out or ignores an anomalous data point, but a good scientist asks why.” He told me that he was personally always interested in things such as ghosts, the afterlife and the great unknown—and this is exactly what I was looking for! I had known this person for years and did not know this about him!

Dave told me that he thought what I was looking for was peer review of a phenomenon that I experienced myself. He completely nailed it and I hadn’t realized, until he said it, that was what I was doing.

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What I took away from this conversation is that I’m not alone as a scientist in acknowledging that we do not yet have many of the answers to the Universe and that many mysteries remain to be explored. It reminded me how the meaning of science is not to be skeptical, but to be open, inquisitive, curious, and always striving for the best expla­nation of a phenomenon. Both Dave and I agreed that mainstream science is anything but that.

A good scientist will always admit that data informs theories of the world, but that we should always be open to new evidence. I was delighted to learn that Dave was interested in mysterious phenomena such as the afterlife and ghosts, because, same! In hindsight, who isn’t? He used neuroscience as a vehicle to explore his interest in philosophy, and that made me think about how scientists often turn to science to explore life’s mysteries and find some sense of control in an unpredictable world.

It amazed me how comfortable Dave was admitting that there are some things in life that were inexplicable and mysterious. This was an aha moment when I realized that I was uncomfortable with this notion, although I was not sure why. Maybe it was my own need for control? I felt encouraged by this interview and happy to know that others shared some of my views.

Dogma vs. Open-Mindedness

As much fun as Dave and I had bashing the often closed-minded world of mainstream science, a few clarifications need to be made. What Dave and I were riffing on was the dogmatic behavior and closed-mindedness of certain institutions and practicing scientists who allege that scientific materialism is the only possible model of the Universe. The scientific method – which is simply a method of using measure­ments and theories to understand our Universe – is a very valuable and reliable tool that provides quantifiable, empirical evidence.

The scientific method is not inextricably linked to scientific materialism and we can use it to explore other models of the Universe. I believe that the scientific method is the best method (although definitely not the only method) we have for understanding the world that surrounds us and our experience within it.

So, to clarify, I am for the scientific method and against closed-minded allegiance to any one model. In relation to my personal journey, I’m grateful that I was forced to think through these distinctions as I sometimes began to feel like my dismay with the scientific establishment was traitorous, or even dangerous. But then again, a good scientist should ask why!

Why Don’t They Teach Us About The Mind?

I next interviewed another longtime neuroscientist colleague and friend. She preferred to not be named, so let’s call her Daphne. I had a vague memory that this colleague was into Buddhism, but I wasn’t sure. We certainly had not discussed it together before.

We started off by dis­cussing the limitations of science and the multiple assumptions that go into any scientific experiment. She said that society’s assumptions that intuitive predictions are impossible are based on our assumptions about how time works, but that our assumptions could easily be wrong. We also turned to a discussion of language and how words and concepts, although helpful with many things, can be a hindrance when words do not exist that accurately capture ineffable concepts, such as spiritual experiences.

Turning to the field we know best, neuroscience, we delved into what we do - and do not - learn in graduate school, taking a particularly long pause to appreciate the fact that not much is taught or known about the mind. People are often surprised to learn that we are not experts in psychology. In fact, the focus is much more on how the brain integrates incoming sensory information into a representation of the external world, makes predictions, and coordinate behavior.

Even as I’m writing this, I am again amazed at the gulf between psychology and neuroscience. It seems common sense that we would integrate these fields, but in fact, neuroscience tries to keep an arm’s length from psychology. In the last couple of decades we have had pioneering neuroscience research­ers begin to tie together these fields, and cognitive neuroscience is where we can see this marriage.

More generally, it really is wondrous how lit­tle regard and respect the field of science has bestowed upon the inner life of humans. Daphne and I were just amazed at how little progress humankind had made on understanding the mind.

Premonitions and Visions

About halfway through our conversation, she began telling me about her own mother who claimed that she would receive premoni­tions and visions of upcoming events—such as correctly predicting a heart attack in her own boss!—and how she was typically, eerily cor­rect about the predictions and had very few misses.

Once that memory doorway was opened, a flood of other memories and stories began pour­ing out of my friend about her mother’s spiritual practices and beliefs, and even her own experiences. I got really, really excited at this point in the conversation. First of all, I was excited to hear that I was not the only one who had this in their family; but I also enjoyed watching my friend recollect these memo­ries with sheer joy, memories which she clearly had not previously paid much heed.

At the end of the conversation, I asked her what she believed with regard to spirituality. She said that she used to be an atheist, but that she would not label herself in that way now. While she wasn’t sure what she believed in, she did say that she believes in trusting your gut or intu­ition because the times that she did not do that, things did not go well for her.

She also said that, in terms of spiritual practices, she has found Buddhism to perfectly nail the nature of the human mind and what causes suffering in life. Beyond that, she said, she did not believe that anybody knows the answers to these mysteries, but there was awe in wondering about where life comes from. She too, like Dave, was fascinated by the mysteries of existence, albeit through a Buddhist lens, while I was more frustrated. 

This was the third conversation with a neuroscientist that left me feeling like I was not alone and that perhaps scientists were more open-minded than we gave them credit for. Then again, I reminded myself, these conversations were in private and I could not be sure any of us would be comfortable taking them public.

The consensus so far was: we do not know everything about the Universe and it is arrogant to presume that we could know everything. I felt justified, or at least not completely insane, to entertain the idea that there could be a spiritual nature to the Universe that we haven’t yet been able to measure.

Some Things Are Just A Mystery

As I was debating who to interview next, one of my former disserta­tion committee chairs and neuroscience mentor, Laura Baker, Ph.D., emailed me out of the blue. Right when I saw her email in my inbox, I decided to briefly describe to her the project I was doing and ask if she would be interested in having a discussion around it. She agreed and we set up a meeting.

I was rather uneasy about this interview because this was different from the ones I had done so far. This person is someone older than myself who had mentored me in my career and for whom I have great respect. She is one of the most brilliant scientists I know. I was worried that once I disclosed my story and began asking ques­tions, she would be upset that I was wasting her time.

Worries plagued me that she would think that all my graduate training was for nothing since now I appeared to believe in intuitives. She was definitely going to think I had lost my mind. But I genuinely wanted to know how sci­entists thought about these topics, and that included well-established, serious scientists—so I told myself to be brave and just do it.

We had a two-hour-long, warm discussion during which I was blown away. I was so glad that I asked her to discuss these topics with me! She started off by reading me a quote: “Sometimes it’s okay to accept that something is just a mystery.” [Laura attributed this quote to Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy.]

She told me her personal story of how her relationship with reli­gion and spirituality had evolved over the years and she now considered herself more spiritual than not. Spirituality provides her comfort. Like my colleague Daphne, she viewed spiritual education to be studying how the mind works, by going inside yourself and finding new ways of thinking or seeing yourself or the world. To her, the mind is a machine, and the ego is directing it, but it does not have to be that way. You could turn the mind around and watch the ego, instead.

It occurred to me in that moment that I was coming to understand that many scien­tists are comfortable discussing their spirituality as it relates to view­ing the mind and its operations, rather than, say, spirits. This could be because it best matches our understanding of the world. It is also, for some reason, the most acceptable form of spirituality to admit to in mainstream culture.

Laura was amused that I had such a difficult time wrapping my head around the fact that spirituality could exist alongside science. She pointed out that, while many empirical scientists are atheists, many others have spiritual practices and are interested in questions such as, “What is the soul?” and “What is consciousness?”

This conversation really brought together all the previous ones. The thing that stuck with me the most was the point Laura made about it being okay to just accept things as mysteries. This notion had never occurred to me, so I just kind of sat with it for a week or so. Looking back over my notes, I realized that all the scientist colleagues I had interviewed had said variations of the same thing, but I hadn’t really heard it until Laura said it.

Looking for Permission to Believe

I was looking for permission to believe in phenomena that science hadn’t yet come to understand the mechanisms behind. But what if there are phenomena in the Universe that we cannot understand? Those are the mysteries.

Why did I feel uncomfortable with this idea, though? I believed there must be some underlying truth to reality and that if we could find a scientific basis for it, we could bring society up to speed and we would all finally understand. Suddenly, there was this option of not doing that. Maybe sometimes all we need is the experience, not the mechanism.

Copyright 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Printed with permission of Park Street Press,
an imprint of Inner Traditions Intl.

Article Source:

BOOK: Proof of Spiritual Phenomena

Proof of Spiritual Phenomena: A Neuroscientist's Discovery of the Ineffable Mysteries of the Universe
by Mona Sobhani

book cover of Proof of Spiritual Phenomena by Mona SobhaniNeuroscientist Mona Sobhani, Ph.D., details her transformation from diehard materialist to open-minded spiritual seeker and shares the extensive research she discovered on past lives, karma, and the complex interactions of mind and matter. Providing a deep dive into the literature of psychology, quantum physics, neuroscience, philosophy, and esoteric texts, she also explores the relationship between psi phenomena, the transcendence of space and time, and spirituality.

Culminating with the author’s serious reckoning with one of the foundational principles of neuroscience--scientific materialism-- this illuminating book shows that the mysteries of human experience go far beyond what the present scientific paradigm can comprehend and leaves open the possibility of a participatory, meaningful Universe.

For more info and/or to order this book, click here. Also available as an Audiobook and as a Kindle edition.

About the Author

photo of Mona Sobhani, Ph.D.,Mona Sobhani, Ph.D., is a cognitive neuroscientist. A former research scientist, she holds a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Southern California and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University with the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project. She was also a scholar with the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics.

Mona's work has been featured in the New York Times, VOX, and other media outlets. 

Visit her website at MonaSobhaniPhD.com/