When You Bring Spirituality + the Transpersonal to a Neuroscience Conference
It’s time to de-stigmatize our shared experiences.
I explore science, spirituality, consciousness, the transpersonal, and more weird stuff in my book: Order here, or sold wherever books are sold.
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When a collaborator and I decided to organize and host a Neuroscience & Spirituality Social as a satellite event at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference (the conference for neuroscientists), we agreed that meeting even just one more scientist interested in the spiritual and mystical aspects of the Universe would be worth the effort.
It’s not that I’m pessimistic, but I truly thought few scientists would show up, especially since we advertised the gathering as being “for anyone who has ever had an experience — whether they classify it as ‘spiritual’ or not — that they cannot explain with our current understanding of science.” And definitely not at 7:00am on a Saturday.
Based on my estimate that we would have a total attendance of 3 (us the organizers and the one other person likely interested in these topics), I booked a small event room at one of the affiliated hotels, containing just 15 seats.
So, I was absolutely floored when 40+ scientists poured into the tiny room this past Saturday at our event. We had to keep asking the hotel for additional chairs because 15 wasn’t enough. Eventually, we had to rearrange all the tables so that everyone could fit into the room since attendees were literally spilling out the door. Many arrived at 7:00am (something I never would have done in graduate school) and stayed the entire three hours of the event!
Not only was I shocked at the number of attendees, but also at the wide range of career levels: graduate students, post-docs, senior researchers — all of it!
My collaborator and I started the event by discussing our own journeys and transpersonal experiences that have forced us to examine our beliefs and understanding of reality — which I have to admit was absolutely terrifying. (I write about my full journey in my book). I fully expected the attendees to get up and walk out once we finished speaking.
But, nope. Instead, we got something completely different and unexpected.
We got questions about their personal precognitive dreams.
Senior researchers spoke about the entire literature of reincarnation and psychic phenomena research that has been ignored.
We heard personal stories about the “impossible” things they have witnessed over their careers.
They discussed how dogmatic dedication can turn science into a religion and cult (the exact language I used in my book!).
We discussed it all: consciousness, meditation, psychedelics, psychic phenomena, reincarnation, altered states of consciousness, the limits of science, and so much more.
The attendees wanted practical steps forward for how science could expand its scope to include these human experiences. And they didn’t want the discussion to end that morning. They requested that we form a group (which we have; email me with your science background if you’re interested in joining firstname.lastname@example.org) and provide more resources where they could read about the transpersonal phenomena that they weren’t familiar with (which we are putting together now).
It's difficult to find words for not only my astonishment at the interest in these topics, but for my joy (and relief!!!) in realizing that I’m not alone.
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. There is such satisfaction and delight in finding a group of 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?
Science is the method we use to measure and describe our world, but scientific materialism is the worldview or philosophy — one of many possible philosophies, by the way — that the Western world has decided to subscribe to. This philosophy emphasizes that matter is the foundation of reality, while some of the other philosophies propose that something other than matter could be the foundation of reality (e.g. consciousness, which could be a type of energy we can’t yet measure).
In my opinion, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t be trained solely in science. We would also be trained in philosophy, comparative religion, and other fields (like psychology and psychiatry) so that we could place science (and the Western worldview) in the correct context: not as the final deliverer of Truth, but rather just one tool in the toolbox of understanding reality.
Since that is not currently the case, we scientists either need to educate ourselves in these other fields (as I suggest in my book), or collaborate with those in the humanities. Instead of lazily saying that the bigger questions are “outside our domain,” and should be relegated to philosophy, we should start to draw these fields together — which, incidentally, would bring us back to what “science” used to be: natural philosophy.
This is especially true for neuroscience. Society turns to neuroscience for answers and explanations for why we behave the way we do and how it is that we can be aware that we are aware. But the only thing neuroscience can provide (in its current state) is descriptions of physiological processes, such as indicating which parts of your brain light up when you do whatever you’re doing. Okay, but, describing which parts of the brain light up during a mystical experience (i.e. when the ego dies, you think you encounter “the Divine,” and finally see/understand reality) doesn’t explain why you would experience that instead of, say, nothing. The bigger questions require collaboration.
During the event, we were told (repeatedly) that we were brave for organizing such an event. The attendees were surprised — but excited! — to see the topic at the conference. Especially since, as one of them pointed out, there wasn’t a single talk on the topic of consciousness in the program. Since then, I have received many personal messages thanking us for organizing the social and expressing that they were excited to find others with whom they could share their personal experiences, the ones that our current scientific paradigm can’t explain.
What does this tell us? 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.