Friday, 15 February 2013

The Spiritual and Supernatural: Science or Speculation?

Mind, psyche, self. All of these terms identify the same general idea, a concept central to the field of cognitive science. Another name for this idea is soul. This term however is rarely used in scientific literature because of its associated religious connotations and the skepticism they invite. Nevertheless an abundance of theories and beliefs surround the idea of the soul, including the existence of spiritual energy or qi (), near-death and out-of-body experiences, past lives, an afterlife, and supernatural beings, including ghosts, demons, and angels.

While dismissed as issues of theology or anthropology in the past, some scientists have begun to investigate these phenomena. Consider, for example, the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS), an institute within the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavorial Sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

The DOPS’s primary function is “the scientific empirical investigation of phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness, and its relationship to matter, may be incomplete.” The scope of the DOPS includes the spiritual, but extends well beyond that to include the psychic and the so-called paranormal.

It is worth noting that the DOPS is not alone in its endeavors. In fact several other universities around the world have similar institutes for the study of “consciousness-related anomalies,” including Princeton University, the University of Arizona, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Amsterdam.

A well-known example of such a phenomenon is the story of Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon and former faculty member at the Harvard Medical School, who recounts his own near death experience in the book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Dr. Alexander’s experience is unique among near-death and out-of-body experiences because it not only occurred while his cortex was entirely shut down but also while he was under careful medical observation. In this case, Dr. Alexander suffered from a meningitis-induced coma for seven days. During this time, however, he not only maintained a coherent sense of self (something that should be impossible according to the current neuroscience), but also embarked on a transcendental journey through the universe and beyond. Ever since Dr. Alexander, who was not strongly religious or superstitious before his experience, has dedicated himself to investigating the true nature of consciousness.

As a third party, how does one react to such a story? Does Dr. Alexander provide a genuine proof of the afterlife? Or does he simply offer an interesting story? The answer almost certainly resides somewhere in the middle, but as such claims cannot be validated quantitatively it is up to the individual to decide how much is fact and how much as fiction. While there are those who believe, Dr. Alexander’s claims have not surprisingly provoked intense criticism from members of the academic and medical communities.

So, what is the truth? Are the spirit and soul as real as the mind and brain? Are they as scientifically relevant? What about heaven and hell? Ghosts? God? Right now no one can say—in fact we might never be able to say. Nevertheless, these questions have transitioned from the realms of religion and superstition to that of scientific enquiry. Whether or not this change is for the best, however, remains to be seen.

More information about the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Division of Perceptual Studies can be found here.

More information about Princeton University’s counterpart program, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) Lab, can be found here.

The original article by Eben Alexander published by Newsweek Magazine can be found here.

A critical response written by Sam Harris can be found here.

A response by Dr. Alexander to some of his critics, also published by Newsweek, can be found here.

A more technical version of Dr. Alexander’s story published by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons can be found here.

For information on how to properly respond in the case of a paranormal encounter, please consult this link.


  1. In at least one sense of the word 'real', all experiences could be said to be real. After all even an hallucination is really an hallucination. The difficulty comes when attempting to position a report of a subjective experience in an objective empirical framework when the status quo finds even the topic of day to day consciousness challenging. What to speak of experience of the kind you describe. What used to be demonic possession may now be labelled as a syndrome of some sort, but that doesn't mean we understand it as much as we might like to think.

  2. I think we can usefully distinguish between belief in supernatural agents/phenomena and actual 'spiritual experiences' here.

    There is a whole raft of literature out there which aims to explain why the former are so culturally universal (Pascal Boyer or Jesse Bering would be two good places to start). Without going into too much detail, these theories are generally built on the dual processing model favoured in cognitive psychology today. According to much of this literature, supernatural agent beliefs exist because they are catchy and appeal to unconscious, swift-but-error-prone cognitive heuristics (one example would be the adaptive tendency to overdetect agency behind events). Add to this the potential for such beliefs to account for misfortune and provide the illusion of some measure of control ('It happened because the gods were unhappy with me/If I pray, God might take away my sickness') and numerous other factors, and that is just the individual level. Then, include the large scale, social-functional benefits of belief in supernatural agents (i.e. self-monitored pro-social behaviour because 'God is always watching') and you have a cocktail for a very successful cultural adaptation that might just spread like wildfire.

    The other side, that of actual experiences, I don't know much about. One (Timothy Leary-esque)theory going back to the late 1990's was that near death experiences result from the release of DMT in the brain. DMT, as you may know, is a very potent hallucinogen. This idea spawned a book called DMT: The Spirit Molecule, and connects to a possibly dubious sub-discipline calling itself 'neurotheology', i.e. the attempt to explain, neurologically, pruportedly 'spiritual' experiences. As far as I know, it's generally considered a bit of a dodgy area, but who knows...I leave you with this video of a DMT trip from the French director Gaspar Noe's 'Enter the Void':

  3. Before I looked at Hugh's comment this post immediately made me think of DMT as well, or ayahuasca as it's also known - maybe ayahuasca could be considered it's street name if thats how drug terminology works! The wikipedia entry on ayahuasca is particularly startling:
    "People who have consumed ayahuasca report having massive spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe as well as deep insight as how to be the best person they possibly can... It's nearly always said that people experience profound positive changes in their life subsequent to consuming ayahuasca and it is often viewed as one of the most effective tools of enlightenment.... There are many reports of miraculous physical as well as emotional and spiritual healing resulting from the use of ayahuasca. Long-term negative effects are not yet known"

    Sounds too good/straight forward to be true from my perspective. Of course the usual caveats have to be taken with a wikipedia article but the above quotes are all properly referenced so you feel like there must be some truth to them. As the old saying goes - 'this warrants further study....'