What Are Noetic Sciences?
Consciousness matters. The questions are when, how, and why does it matter..
Posted May 10, 2011
Last year's bestselling book by Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol features the noetic sciences.
When I introduce myself as director of research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, also mentioned several times in the book, the invariable response is "That's great...um, what are noetic sciences?"
Here are a few definitions:
no•et•ic: From the Greek noēsis/ noētikos, meaning inner wisdom, direct knowing, or subjective understanding. As defined by the philosopher William James in 1902, noetic refers to "states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority..."
sci•ence: Systems of acquiring knowledge that use observation, experimentation, and replication to describe and explain natural phenomena
no•et•ic sci•ences: A multidisciplinary field that brings objective scientific tools and techniques together with subjective inner knowing to study the full range of human experience. In other words, there are several ways we can know the world around us.
Science focuses on external observation and is grounded in objective evaluation, measurement, and experimentation. This is useful in increasing objectivity and reducing bias and inaccuracy as we interpret what we observe.
But another way of knowing is subjective -- or internal -- including gut feelings, intuition, hunches -- the way you know you love your children, for example, or experiences you have that cannot be explained or proven, but feel absolutely real nonetheless. This way of knowing is what we call noetic.
From a purely materialist, mechanistic perspective, all subjective -- noetic -- experience arises from physical matter, and consciousness is simply a byproduct of brain and body processes. The noetic sciences focus on bringing a scientific lens to the study of subjective experience, and to ways that consciousness may influence the physical world.
Consciousness has been defined in many ways. On one level, consciousness is simply awareness -- how people perceive, interpret, and direct their attention and intention toward their environment. Collective consciousness is how a group (an institution, a society, a species) perceives, attends to, and makes meaning of the world. In some formulations, consciousness goes beyond awareness and includes everything we perceive and experience, even at the subconscious level. In its largest, most universal sense, consciousness has been referred to as a "milieu of potential," the shared ground of being from which all experiences and phenomena arise and eventually return.
The essential hypothesis underlying the noetic sciences is that consciousness matters. The questions are when, how, and why does it matter?
What Is the Institute of Noetic Sciences? From its inception in 1973, the Institute of Noetic Sciences has explored the big questions: Who are we? What are our potentials, and how can we achieve those potentials? What leads to personal and societal healing and transformation? Our work rests on the notion that limitations in human consciousness and in our understanding of it underlie many of the most pressing problems that face us as a global society (violence, inequity, misuse of resources), and that gaining a more complete understanding of the nature of consciousness will reduce suffering and enhance quality of life for all.
Our mission is to "advance the science of consciousness and human experience to serve individual and collective transformation." Therefore, our research focuses on the fundamental nature of consciousness, its interaction with the physical world, and how the human experience of consciousness can dramatically transform. We conduct basic science and laboratory research on interconnectedness, mind-matter interactions, social science investigations of transformational experiences and practices and their impact on individual and collective wellness, and clinical and applied studies testing the real-world effectiveness of consciousness-based interventions. We also advance the study of consciousness by training young scientists through our internship program, stimulating innovative new work through our awards and small grants programs, and facilitating strategic collaborations and invitational meetings among scientists to accelerate development of new, crossdisciplinary studies. We synthesize bodies of knowledge, such as the science of meditation or the role of consciousness in healing, disseminate these summaries, and use what we've learned to identify next steps. We then communicate what we've learned in peer-reviewed scientific journals and scholarly meetings as well as to the general public, and we translate our findings into educational products and curricula for targeted audiences.
"The idea of universal consciousness is no ethereal New Age concept, it's hard core scientific reality, and harnessing it has the potential to transform our world," says the fictional Dr. Katherine Solomon in The Lost Symbol. She continues, "I promise...if we as humans can grasp this one simple truth...the world will change overnight." In the non-fictional world, while proof of a universal consciousness may not be a "hard core scientific reality" yet, a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that in a variety of settings and in many different ways, consciousness does matter, and that there may be some ontological reality to subjective experiences of interconnectedness. Noetic experiences are real, they influence our health, our behaviors, and our lives, and they provide important clues about who and what we are and what we may be capable of. So real life noetic scientists are dedicated to their rigorous exploration, and to the potential that it holds for human evolution.