It is our pleasure to welcome Neuroscientist Mona Sobhani, PhD, author of Proof of Spiritual Phenomena: A Neuroscientist’s Discovery of the Ineffable Mysteries of the Universe, as our featured author this month. Mona’s book documents her life-changing investigation that morphed her outlook from a ‘die-hard materialist to an open-minded, spiritual seeker’. Her book deeply delves into psychology, quantum physics, neuroscience, philosophy, and esoteric literature, exploring the relationship between anomalous phenomena, the transcendence of space and time, and spirituality. In her article here, Mona gives the reader insights into the transformative journey she has been on and calls the materialist paradigm into question. Mona argues that the mysteries of the human experience go far beyond what the present scientific materialist paradigm can comprehend and that it is time to move beyond this approach if we want to engage in a meaningful way with the inexplicable Universe we inhabit.
Interact with Mona on our AoM Forum here.
I really didn’t want to write a book about spirituality or unexplained phenomena (or what I now call the transpersonal). In fact, I had a lot of trouble sitting down to write the book—a book that would irrevocably change my life. At first, I thought to myself that I could just quietly and privately accept all that I had learned. I thought I could accept both that I had profoundly changed personally and that my view of the world had changed. But the more I learned and thought about what I learned, the more that became impossible.
And here’s the reason: At the beginning of this journey, I would have been the least likely person to tell this story. I was vehemently opposed to religion and spirituality because science was my religion. I lived and breathed the wonders of the human brain as a neuroscientist. Then a series of life events led me down a path of investigation that transformed me from an aggressively anti-religious, anti-spiritual, strictly scientific materialist (i.e., believing only matter and energy make up the world) and agnostic neuroscientist into a neuroscientist who believes the interaction between mind and matter are more complicated than we currently understand, and that we are probably all connected through a broader consciousness. I am now someone who is open to the idea of past lives and karma, believes weird things happen all the time that our scientific framework can’t explain, and generally finds herself saying things straight out of ancient spiritual texts—and not because I needed comfort, but because that’s where the evidence led me. I followed an invisible thread of evidence into the marvelous world of mystery and mysticism, and with the book, Proof of Spiritual Phenomena: A Neuroscientist’s Discovery of the Ineffable Mysteries of the Universe, I hope to inspire others to do the same.
While that all sounds nice now, the road to the ‘new me’ was brutal. It began with a personal existential crisis. Although by all accounts, I should’ve been happy, instead, I was experiencing an all-encompassing sense of unfulfillment. When everything loses meaning for a person, one rarely races to the science section of a bookstore to find comfort. No, not science. We turn to art, fiction, spirituality, music, or any other number of things that can hold us in our pain. And although I was a scientific materialist, rationalist, and physicalist, I was no different. Science, my religion and one true love suddenly felt very cold. This precise moment, when my outer shell cracked under the strain of life’s suffering, is the moment true curiosity rushed in.
I began to wonder: Does fate or destiny exist? Is the future predetermined, or can it be changed? What is the meaning of life? Mainstream science, and the Western worldview more broadly, posit that the Universe is a dead and meaningless place. But is it? I had long subscribed to this worldview, but during my existential crisis, it suddenly wasn’t working for me. In fact, the cruelty of this worldview dawned on me for the first time.
So, finding no acceptable answers from science, I turned toward a tool that had, partly, brought me to this crisis: coffee ground divination. Divination is a practice that is a part of my Persian cultural heritage, and even though it is dismissed as pure nonsense in Western culture, I came to find through my familial heritage that it truly does work. My mom’s prediction of two personal life events via coffee grounds is what threw me into existential questioning because if the future can be foretold, what does that tell us about the nature of the Universe? Divination was just the beginning. Grasping my way out of crisis by seeking answers, I launched a two-year exploration into the mysteries of our Universe.
The journey started out with playfully getting intuitive readings to glean a basic understanding of divination. Through exploring divination, or the intuitive arts, I learned about a spiritual framework that included soul lessons and reincarnation. At first, I ignored the spiritual framework because I wasn’t interested in spirituality – like, at all. Although I was willing to entertain the idea that a broader understanding of physics could explain divination, my academic training would not allow me to open to the idea of a non-physical component to the Universe.
Then, this spiritual framework kept synchronistically descending into my awareness through various sources over the span of a few months. In fact, there’s a cute story of how comedienne Chelsea Handler inadvertently plays a role in my spiritual awakening, but I’ll save that for another time. Suddenly curious for the first time in my life about spirituality, I buried myself in books on past life regression, metaphysics, and psychic phenomena – all things I believed to be utterly absurd.
It was a long road of discovery (hence why I wrote a book), but let me drop a few key discoveries that began to pry open my mind.
First, there had been hundreds of scientific studies proving the reality of psychic (intuitive) phenomena, including from secret government research programs – so much so that a review had recently been published in a peer-reviewed journal.1 So, there was good scientific research to back up personal experience that intuitive readings can be accurate.
Next, the literature revealed that some pretty wild stuff can happen during altered states of consciousness,2–4 which are states other than ordinary consciousness that can be induced by various methods, such as hypnosis, psychedelics, deep relaxation, chanting, drumming, dancing, and more. Past-life regression is one of these methods, and although it is a therapeutic treatment rather than a rigorous method of scientific inquiry, I was astounded at the number of behavioral health practitioners who spontaneously stumbled upon this method in their practices and found it not only usefully healing for their patients, but also full of synchronicities, coincidences, transpersonal/paranormal phenomena, and remarkably similar descriptions of a behind-the-scenes spiritual reality.5–7
Although I’m quite the book nerd, reading books wasn’t enough. I decided to keep my skepticism in check, embrace curiosity and explore more. I started interviewing intuitives and mediums. I wanted to understand their experiences and how they described perceiving energy and the future. I interviewed my scientist colleagues to better understand their stance on spirituality and unexplained phenomena – and they all had personal stories! I then spoke with researchers of unexplained phenomena.
And that’s when my world was really turned upside down. The researchers filled my brain with incredible stories upon stories of improbable-yet-true events. A few casual interviews for my own edification snowballed into the most extraordinary conversations of my life. One person introduced me to the next, and so on until I found myself in the bewildering situation of speaking with high-level current and former government researchers about the connections between science, spirituality, consciousness, and the nature of reality.
The evidence was piling up (and I outline most of it in my book). But with each piece of evidence, I felt more and more unstable because my foundation of reality was being untethered. But here’s the thing. In science, you can’t just erase data that doesn’t fit your model. By the end of my research and interview journey, it would have been unscientific to ignore the facts. There was too much evidence that there was more to our reality than scientific materialism could explain.
While branching out into other fields of knowledge, such as physics and philosophy, I found that the scientific materialist/physicalist worldview — that posits everything in the Universe is composed of physical matter — that Western culture has adopted, and the scientific community uses to model the Universe, is simply one model of reality among many, many others. To uphold the scientific materialist worldview, though, we have to ignore a lot of data that we can’t explain. Which model accurately describes our reality is still up for debate, of course. But maybe consciousness is the fundamental building block of the Universe rather than matter? Or, there exists a non-physical component of the Universe? Or, the Universe is a conscious, intentional, and profoundly meaningful Cosmos? They’re all up for grabs.
A model of the Universe that includes a connection to a broader consciousness explains plenty more of human experience, in my opinion. What Western society considers “impossible,” is actually not only possible, but common, happens all the time to a majority of people, and is a fundamental part of the human experience. Believing that we are interwoven with the Cosmos and that there is no true distinction between mind and matter, outside and inside, or you and me has actually been the foundation of reality longer than it hasn’t.
But let me back up. It wasn’t as simple as it sounds. The sciences, and especially neuroscience, view humans and the human brain as gullible and fallible. The brain is not to be trusted. It is a trickster, contorting perceptions into unprovable beliefs. It is a coincidence detector, meaning it searches our environment for coincidences and attempts to make meaning out of what it perceives. We use humankind’s egregious past mistakes of relying on superstitions to guide lives as evidence that we shouldn’t rely on belief alone.
To be fair, neuroscience and psychology are filled with evidence that the human brain is not a perfect machine. We don’t see the world as it is. We see the world as we are. Your actual perception (i.e. the information from your senses that makes it into your awareness) is based on your past experiences, your beliefs, and the predictions of the future that your brain is making on a continuous basis. When it doesn’t have enough information to create a picture or narrative, it fills in the blanks with what it knows or believes. Our brains prioritize perceiving information that confirms what we already believe (i.e. confirmation bias), finding patterns that don’t really exist (i.e. apophenia), and tuning out irrelevant information (i.e. perceptual blindness). It’s not to be trusted!
So, scientists tend to view things like psychic readings as nonsense and coincidences as occurring by random chance. Any meaning that is derived from these experiences comes from the person’s brain. Time flows forward, science believes, so it’s not possible to know the future before it happens. These types of mystical things are looked down upon as irrational.
This deep training had an effect on me. I would read some evidence—and there was so much evidence to be read—and update my thinking but then read something else and change my mind. It took countless books, scientific studies, and conversations with colleagues and experts to update my beliefs. In short, it’s difficult to change your mind.
Ultimately, I became open to the idea that there might be more to the Cosmos through a combination of scientific evidence, personal experience, and the recognition that some things about the human experience simply can’t be measured or quantified.
For most of humanity’s history, the Cosmos were viewed as being imbued with meaning, and many cultures believed that a spiritual or mystical component exists in the Universe. This spiritual or mystical dimension can (allegedly) be accessed through altered states of consciousness, which can and do elicit absolutely remarkable synchronicities, veridical (or verifiably true) information via mysterious means, and spontaneous healing.
Many cultures have intentionally used altered states of consciousness to tap into the transpersonal, such as to divine the future, speak with spirits, heal, or sway the probability of the future in a personally favorable direction. In fact, psychedelic plants have been used for psychic or transpersonal experiences across all five continents,8 including the Aztecs, who used psilocybin mushrooms to see into the future to prepare for war (Plants of the Gods, S3E6).
Western culture tends not to take these stories seriously as they conflict with the Western worldview, often derisively referring to the practices and cultures from which they originate as “primitive,” “magical thinking,” and “undeveloped.” However, it’s crucial to point out that these techniques have been applied for millennia, successfully. Rejecting these stories, labeling them as “anecdotes,” and hoping they slip away to drown in the depths of all other “impossible” evidence becomes a challenge, given the sheer volume. (Also, just as a side note, as a scientist, I can tell you that the most interesting research begins with anecdotes, so we shouldn’t be so quick to throw them away.) In any case, we can’t just brush things under the rug when they contradict our worldview. During altered states of consciousness, weird stuff that shouldn’t be happening (according to the Western worldview) – do happen. Why do we ignore this instead of trying to explain it?
More importantly, though, individuals who undergo altered states can come into direct personal experience with these transpersonal aspects of the Universe, causing them to change their personal beliefs.
These experiences (such as a psychedelic trip, a near-death experience, etc.) might include:9,10
– Experiences of deep or hidden meaning
– The living presence of all things
– Telepathic communication
– Entity and spirit encounter
– Leaving one’s body
– Death and rebirth
These transpersonal (or transformative or self-transcendent) experiences are often described as authoritatively true, “more real than real,” or “unusually compelling,” and they can result in fundamental changes to the person’s conception of reality, leaving behind enduring non-physicalist beliefs such as mind-body dualism (the idea that mind and body are two separate substances), reincarnation, communication with the dead, the existence of consciousness after death, and telepathy.11,12 These belief changes that arise from personal experience bear an astonishing resemblance to the beliefs of many cultures across the globe that have belief systems encompassing more than physical matter, such as believing in the afterlife,13 the existence of spirits and deities,14 and that mind is something non-physical.15 Western culture dismisses these belief systems as primitive rationalizations that have been passed down from culture to culture. But, research shows that these non-physicalist beliefs can spontaneously emerge after transformative and transcendent experiences in Westerners.11 So, it is likely that these belief changes are the result of factors other than cultural context or expectancy.
In other words, people who have had self-transcendent or transformative experiences are more likely to believe there is more to reality than just physical matter.
All of this evidence – and so much more – is what caused me to reconsider my scientific materialist worldview. Simply pointing to neural correlates as explanations of these deeply meaningful experiences is inadequate. Altered states of consciousness invite us to re-evaluate our relationship with what we deem real, important, and healing. What we deem spiritual. What we deem worthwhile.
The transpersonal, or the unexplained, is part of that reckoning. If we approach the transpersonal with curiosity rather than fear and arrogance, we might be able to hear what it’s trying to tell us. Whether you consider it “reality” or not, these explorations can help us question what we know, for the better.
Many people, including scientists (like me), turn to texts on spirituality, the history of world cultures, and various philosophies in an effort to make sense of their experiences because scientific materialism and physicalism can’t (yet) provide a reasonable story. Our scientific community tends to dismiss these events as anomalies, declare them as ‘not real’, or ignore them altogether, in spite of the fact that many scientists — not to mention the majority of humanity — have experienced these phenomena.
In fact, I recently hosted a Neuroscience & Spirituality Social at the largest neuroscience conference, thinking no one would attend. I was floored when 50+ scientists showed up. This is what we need: curious scientists who are unafraid to ask difficult questions about the nature of our reality that includes the intersection of science and spirituality. And it confirms that these are not anomalous experiences, but rather typical human experiences that we ignore and stigmatize — but why?
At the event I organized, we were told (repeatedly) that we were brave for organizing such an event. During my interview project, I learned that scientists and other experts will tell you what they truly think and believe when conversations are had in confidence, but come on! It is too disingenuous that we make one set of statements publicly and a whole different, more honest and open-minded set of statements in private cocktail hours. More scientists need to open their minds publicly. We need to take an honest look at data that doesn’t fit our current modern theories of reality because there is a lot of it. So writing my book was me taking a stand, publicly, and asking scientists to bridge the gap with other fields, especially the humanities, to put scientific materialism into the context of world history. We must confront the inadequacies of the Western worldview, and ultimately move past it. To be more inclusive of other worldviews is crucial and necessary as humanity faces the current-day multitude of world crises.
If we can’t even talk about these experiences for fear of being labeled crazy, then we can’t collaborate, theorize, or ever fully understand our reality. It’s time to de-stigmatize our shared and extremely normal experiences so that we might begin to understand them.
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