The Truth is in the Coffee

How a neuroscientist liberated herself from the cult of logical positivism

Dr Mona Sobhani’s transpersonal enlightenment did not start with psychedelics. It started with coffee grounds.

Like many people who find themselves on spiritual journeys and contemplating consciousness, Dr Sobhani’s story began unintentionally. Hers resulted from a personal crisis involving a murder, and a prescient coffee ground reading.

Dr Sobhani characterizes herself before her journey started as “a typical materialist neuroscientist.”

Dr Sobhani studied molecular neuroscience as an undergrad. When she went to grad school, she wanted to focus more on personality. She attended the University of Southern California (USC) for her doctorate, convinced at the time behavioral patterns could be located in the brain. Like many in her field, she firmly subscribed to a kind of logical positivism which asserts that scientific knowledge is the only kind of factual knowledge and that all traditional metaphysical doctrines are to be rejected as meaningless. She believed it was possible to pinpoint the locus of psychopathic traits and their neural correlates – the place in the brain where neuroelectrical activity governing a particular behavioral trait or personality pattern actually takes place – through neuroimaging.

“By the time I left grad school, I was even more indoctrinated into materialist science. Any [contradictory] experience I’d had beforehand, I discounted. They teach you – they literally tell you ‘your brain is a coincidence detector. Your brain makes meaning out of everything.’”

She realized after doing countless imaging studies she knew nothing about the brain and even less about the mind. “I was super disenchanted by neuroimaging parading around like we know anything about the brain with such authority. It’s so disingenuous,” said Dr Sobhani. She didn’t feel comfortable pretending there was knowledge to be found through imaging where there was none. Discouraged, she decided on a post doctoral fellowship in law and neuroscience at Vanderbilt University. Eventually, she ended up back in Los Angeles at a digital health center, the USC Center for Body Computing at the Keck School of Medicine, to study translational neuroscience, applying neuroscience and technology to solve health problems.

“I really believed if we had continuous data measurements we could predict behavior and health and performance,” she said. She characterizes the job as part of her “normal professional career.” But the crack in her belief about the value of what she was doing had already begun to form. She’d noticed she’d lost her sense of purpose after her dissertation was done.

“I was seeking for something. But really I felt dead.” The new job was intense, but she’d decided “I was going to work so many hours I’d forget about how I had no soul anymore.”

Dr Sobhani still made time to go home to her parents’ on Sundays. Her family is Persian, from Iran. Her mother and her grandmother are skilled in the art of divination practiced in the Middle East: they read coffee grounds. By interpreting the patterns in the sludge left at the bottom of the cup after the muddy brew is drunk, they can predict the future. The cup is upturned and the sludge allowed to dry. Then the reading can begin. In Iran, her grandmother was legendary. Her mother read coffee grounds in the background at family parties. “I wasn’t into it. I always rolled my eyes,” Dr Sobhani said. “But my friends would come over and she would read their coffee and say ‘Your mom is amazing.’ I didn’t pay attention to it.” Over the six years she was in graduate school, she realized her mother was really good. “She was right more often than she was wrong.” Dr Sobhani couldn’t think about this too much because it was at odds with her other life. She compartmentalized the two realities.

In 2016 her mother began to see something disturbing in her cup. Every week she’d see the same thing, but she refused to divulge what it was, other than it involved a death of someone not too close, but someone Dr Sobhani knew well. Dr Sobhani went home for Thanksgiving for a few days. Every single cup of coffee yielded the same reading.

Five weeks later, one of her professors at USC was murdered by a student. Dr Sobhani still gets emotional. “It was upsetting. But what was worse was that she saw it weeks in advance.” She called her mother and asked what she’d seen. She’d divined an extremely violent death; and she’d never seen a reading quite like it before.

The experience – and the fact that her mother had foreseen the murder two months in advance – unmoored her. Although she’d had plenty of experience with her mother’s readings, and many if not most had come true, this experience was sui generis.

Determined her life go on, she shoved her looming existential crisis into the background. A few years later, when nothing had really changed, she decided a relationship would cure her malaise. Her mother predicted someone was coming, a good guy, and it would be a good relationship. When the young man in question appeared on the scene, Dr Sobhani had already decided he was going to be her life raft and rescue her from despair. But relationship tanked, the life raft sank, and Dr Sobhani felt as though she was drowning. She had come to take for granted the quality and reliability of her mother’s readings. Usually upbeat and bubbly, she now felt there was no reason to live. In her despair, she became obsessed with whether it’s possible to know the future, about how information moves and about fate and destiny and free will.

Some friends suggested she go to a psychic. First she dismissed the idea. Then one pointed out psychic readings were nothing different from what her mother did. Soon she was engaged in an informal experiment: even though they were often true, were the psychic readings true a sufficient percentage of the time to be statistically significant? The readings of her group of assorted friends all whom had different histories became her data set. Dr Sobhani was obsessed with quantifying the phenomenon the only way she knew how: through the lens of the scientific method she’d been marinated in.

“They weren’t right about everything – but they were right on multiple variables,” she said. What was going on? The way the psychics spoke about their readings, and how they knew what they knew was other-worldly. Soul groups. Soul lessons. Karmic relationships. Things she never thought about, and at any other time in her life she would have dismissed as ridiculous.

Dr Sobhani admits her training as a skeptic and her reflexive doubt about anything outside of the scientific materialist realm ran very deep. Every book she read about psi phenomena or transpersonal experiences, or states of consciousness research would break some of the bonds that tied her to it. When she got up the next day, she was back where she started, convinced once again despite what she’d experienced, psychic and transpersonal experiences had to be hogwash. Then the process would begin again.

She writes1:

The scientific paradigm assumes that everything is made of matter and energy, contained within ordinary space and time, and can be measured experimentally and proved by logic or mathematics. In this scientific materialist paradigm, anything spiritual or that could be considered psi phenomenon cannot exist, which is why you see quick dismissal by the scientific establishment of such ideas.

But as a method, the inflexible, rigid demands of logical positivism have a way of failing. Take quantum physics as an example. She writes2:

We have seen these assumptions broken, spilling open a world of possibilities and questions. The findings about “the observer effect” in particular have caused a ripple in scientific and philosophical thinking because it threatens the idea from scientific materialism that the physical world would exist even if no one was around to observe it. Scientific materialism was already on shaky ground from a philosophical point of view because no one could ever experience reality outside consciousness. Think about it. At first, you might find yourself thinking, “Of course the Earth would still exist if humans did not exist” – but how can we know? We cannot verify it. It is an unprovable theory. Everything comes through our minds and our consciousness – it is the beginning, the limit, and the end.

Then quite by accident, Dr Sobhani came across the work of Yale and Columbia University trained psychiatrist Dr Brian Weiss, who had worked with patients in past life regression. Dr Sobhani was mesmerized by his descriptions of patients whose difficulties stemmed from unresolved feelings about events in lives other than the present in which they were living. “I would have thrown it out if not for his credentials,” she said. She started reading voraciously on the topic and exploring unconventional therapeutic modalities for her despair. Talking therapy simply had not helped.

Dr Sobhani found a therapist who did past life regression; and she did a version of Holotropic Breathwork online called Neurodynamic Breathwork, along with a few others.

Then she tried psychedelics, first mushrooms, then LSD.

“LSD was best day of my life,” said Dr Sobhani. The insights she received had been absent in the other kinds of healing work. She was no longer “dancing around issues.” She could clearly see problems. She grasped what was really going on for the first time in her life.

Dr Sobhani now finds the tacit assumption that brain equals mind as though there were a one-to-one correlation intolerable. It halts any discussion of the nature of consciousness, and destroys any argument these intangible phenomena exist anywhere but encased within the frangible dome of human gray matter. The slavish obsession in neuroscience with fMRI scans and the structure of the brain creates an intellectual barricade behind which logical positivists hide. Her annoyance with people who claim to be fascinated with the field is palpable. The worst is when they cheerily spout common neuroscience tropes like “I did this because of the brain activity in my frontal cortex and my amygdala.”

“What does that do for you? Does that mean you’re not responsible?” Dr Sobhani said. “Blaming your brain is not a good place for us to be. Look at the psyche, look at behavior patterns. What can we do to save the Earth? We can’t blame our brains or our biology. Get it?” The real issue, she said, is what you feel and what you’re going to do about it.

As for the scientific validation she’s sought, she has researched meta-analyses of thousands of scientific studies, many of which were results of experiments done on remote viewing under a program called “Stargate” funded by government agencies such as the CIA, NASA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. The huge trove of data reveal a statistically significant replication pattern. Dr Sobhani spoke to one of the physicists who worked on the project herself. “It would have to be one hell of a hoax to have yielded results like these,” she quotes him as saying. Plus, she’s now had several transpersonal experiences herself. That part is key.

Over the course of her exploration, Dr Sobhani’s belief about brain, mind, and consciousness has changed. She quotes computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup, who analogized the relationship between mind and brain as water and whirlpools:

“While they may look different from other parts of the stream, the whirlpools are made of nothing more than water… to say that brain generates mind is as absurd as to say that a whirlpool generates water!”3

Dr Sobhani writes4:

In his metaphor, the stream is the field of consciousness and humans are the whirlpools. Kastrup gives another analogy that might be helpful in understanding the concept. He uses individuals with “dissociative personality disorder” (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder, as an example. These individuals display multiple personalities with each personality having its own set of private inner experiences, even though they are all contained within one physical body. He suggests that “We may all be alters — dissociated personalities — of universal consciousness.

Dr Sobhani’s personal philosophy has come a long way from the scientific materialism she so fervently adhered to only a few years ago.

“I originally thought information comes into our brain and our minds from outside,” she said. But now she’s convinced there is something like a universal mind. All we have to do is learn to access it through altered states of consciousness.

Dr Sobhani’s book Proof of Spiritual Phenomena: A Neuroscientist’s Discovery of the Ineffable Mysteries of the Universe is scheduled for publication by Park Street Press/Inner Traditions in 2022.

1

Sobhani, Mona PhD. (forthcoming, 2022). Proof of Spiritual Phenomena: A Neuroscientist’s Discovery of the Ineffable Mysteries of the Universe. [Manuscript in preparation].

2

ibid

3

Kastrup, Bernardo. 2014. Why Materialism is Baloney: How True Skeptics Know There Is No Death and Fathom Answers to life, the Universe, and Everything. Iff Books.

4

Sobhani, Mona PhD. (forthcoming, 2022). Proof of Spiritual Phenomena: A Neuroscientist’s Discovery of the Ineffable Mysteries of the Universe. [Manuscript in preparation].