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This week’s conversation is with Dr. Mona Sobhani, a cognitive neuroscientist, researcher, entrepreneur and author.

After receiving her doctorate from the University of Southern California, Mona spent the next several years contributing her expertise in neuroscience to fields such as law, business, healthcare tech, venture capital, and research innovation centers. 

Then, following what she describes as an “existential crisis,” everything changed. Her strict scientific perspective, frameworks of thinking, and process for truth-seeking were no longer satisfying the bigger questions she had about life  – she became fascinated by exploring the crossroads of science and spirituality. 

In her new book, Proof of Spiritual Phenomena: A Neuroscientist’s Discovery of the Ineffable Mysteries of the Universe, she details her transformation from a diehard scientific materialist to an open-minded spiritual seeker.

Coming from a scientific background myself, this was a fascinating conversation – Mona has done the brave work to push up against edges of her own deeply-rooted paradigms and beliefs to ultimately reimagine her philosophies of how the world works. 

We can all learn from this type of thinking – deeply discerning, challenging beliefs, working your way through new information, and leaning into the fact that there are many things we don’t understand.

“We’re in a very divisive moment. And if there’s one thing these phenomena hopefully help you understand, is that we shouldn’t be so dismissive of each other and each other’s experiences. There’s a lot that we don’t know.”

In This Episode:

Why she writes, “The old me would hate the new me”

Old me was a very typical, skeptical, hard-nosed scientist, kind of walked around with bravado and arrogance that I understood the world and had a lot of the answers, because I had excellent scientific training. And that served me really well for many years, and then it didn’t serve me anymore, and I had a personal existential crisis. I had multiple things happen in my life that I couldn’t explain with the scientific paradigm that I was trained in, and that caused me to explore other things, like open my mind, read other texts, do some research speak to people, just get curious, really, because it was just a situation where I was forced to do that, really, to find meaning and to find ground again, because I was on such shaky ground. And where I ended up was as a completely new person.

Her transformation threatened who she had become

The transformation I went through that made me look at more than just spirituality, really made me dive into psychology and the ways we look at ourselves and the thoughts we have, because I encountered all of that along the way, and you’re exactly right. I wrote those things and went back, when I looked at them, I’m like, “I meant it. I meant she would hate me.” And then I had to look at that. What does that mean? The way I see it now is I had built a defense, a shield of being smart around me, and anything that threatened that, which, in my head, included people and views that didn’t resonate with scientific materialism, the standard scientific paradigm, threatened my superiority.

Beginning to see a psychic/reader

So we went, and then it turned into this fun project where it was me and two or three girlfriends, we’d go at the same time to the same reader and then different readers, and then just over the course of a year, we kept going back and switching it up and comparing notes to see if they were the same general things to all of us. And it turned out that they were just so… They weren’t always right, but when they were right, they were right on seven variables, or enough variables that you’re just sitting there like, “What is happening right now? How could they possibly know this?” And not vague variables, just very specific things from your life and very deep things. Like I say in the book, it’s like they would reach their hand into your mind and pull one of the deepest, darkest things that you think in your head but never tell anyone, and pull it out to show you. And they wouldn’t be vague things that are applicable to everyone, they’d be specific things related to specific events in your life.

Starting to make sense of what happened to her

And that is the point, after that book, is when I started doing actual reading and research into it. Like, “I am going to read everything I can to either debunk this psychiatrist and this so-called past life regression, or learn more.” I wanted to learn more about the spiritual framework and just understand it. And part of the reason was because it started to help me make sense of what happened to me. So the psychic psychic intuitive readings that I had gotten, the intuitives would say this was a… They would kind of explain it in a spiritual framework. And I was surprised at how comforting that was. Because as a scientist, I was not used to even encountering spirituality at all, but them saying this was meant to happen this way. This had to happen this way for the next thing to happen, or them kind of describing it was unexpectedly comforting. And I guess that’s why I was interested in learning more about the spiritual framework because I thought, well, nothing has helped me thus far. This is providing a bit of relief, like a mental reframe of this situation I’m finding myself in. Whether it’s true or not is a second and separate issue that I can address. But in the current moment, this is helping me, and nothing else has. So let’s go with it.

Needing research

That old me would pop up and say, this is stupid. This can’t be real. Who cares if it’s useful to you? It’s not true. And so there was a lot of this back and forth, and that’s why I needed the research. I’m like, I need to read everything I can. I need to know if this is true or not. And that’s how I started the whole project. And I’m like, I’m going to interview intuitives, mystics, behavioral health practitioners, scientists. I just need to know what other people believe in – if anybody believes in any of this stuff, if there’s any evidence for any of it – and so that launched me on this quest to do research. And again, it was really just for me. It wasn’t meant to be published or anything. It was just for me… So that’s why I turned to see did any, has anybody done scientific studies on this? And I, like you, thought no one had, and that’s why my initial thing was, oh, I’ll have to talk person to person. I’ll have to interview these intuitives because no one’s ever talked to them before.

Updating your data set

I now think of us all having data sets in our mind, because I really am such a scientist. I think of it as like an Excel spreadsheet, and we’re constantly adding data, which means you have to constantly update your model. And I’m aware I come from one very strict Excel sheet that was saved and could not be updated, which is my scientific mindset. And now it’s been opened and updated, and I’m not going to close it again. I’m just going to let data keep being added to it, and probably my model will have to keep updating.

Leaning into philosophy and spirituality

Let’s just say psychic phenomena are real. This evidence looks good. I had this exact question of, how? Because a lot of it is symbolic. They talk about people who do it say a lot of it can be symbolic, and for a reductionist, when you’re coming from our scientific paradigm, reductionism is what we use, symbolism doesn’t make sense really because you have to reduce the symbol into parts, and then the answer should be in the parts. And I’ve struggled with this, and this is where I have to, the scientists are going to abandon me, I don’t have an answer from science for that. I haven’t found anything to explain that. I had to go to philosophy or spirituality. And I, for me, that what I found was that I found this from an author, Richard Tarnas, who wrote Passion of the Western Mind about how we’ve evolved into our Western worldview. He talks about this worldview that a lot of indigenous cultures have and that many cultures over humanity’s history have had, which is believing that whatever the universe is is created of meaning and  that’s why indigenous people or people who grow up on the land say, “I can derive meaning from the direction of the wind, from the way the leaf falls, from the way the birds are flying.” They can divine information. And they say it’s because ‘meaning’ is embedded in the universe.

The majority of people experience the “unexplainable”

There is good scientific evidence for psychic phenomena and unless our stats need to be reworked. But even when you take it out of the lab and don’t look at scientific studies, it’s most people, we call them exceptional human experiences, but most people have experienced one of these kinds of things. And it’s not that you’re creating meaning because a lot of times, what you perceive turns out to be true. And that’s what you call a veritical vision. Science loves to dismiss it as a subjective personal experience that can be dismissed. But when you can take that subjective, personal experience and link it to an external event and it was accurate, meaning it was vertical, it turned out to be true.

The catch 22 of it all

The belief that we crave to make meaning and our brains are meaning making machines, all true. Do we need religion and spirituality for comfort to get through a difficult life? Definitely true. Do we link all those things together? Yes. But it doesn’t make the other stuff untrue. It took me a very long time to accept that and organize these things in my mind because it’s actually a catch 22. It’s like your paradigm says, “You must follow the evidence.” But then when you follow the evidence and it takes you to an impossible belief, and your paradigm says, “Impossible things cannot be true.” And you’re just in this cycle.

Confronting your own world-view

When people push back, I understand, because questioning and changing your worldview is really, really hard. And it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. And even thinking back on it now, it’s excruciating to think about, for me. And so, I understand when people dismiss it because it is hard. They don’t even know how hard it is. I actually went through it and I’m like, “I don’t want to do that again.” My strategy sounds nice in hindsight, but in the moment, it was basically a loop of reading, being open to it all, old identity comes back, knocks it down. But then I review my own personal evidence, I review other stories, more studies, take it in, old identity comes back. And it was this spiral for God knows how long, probably for like a year. And it was just excruciating. And spirituality actually helped with that, the traditional kind of mindfulness. I had already been meditating for years, but I started to really pay attention to my thoughts. This is when I started hearing the difference almost, of the new stuff I was learning and open curiosity, and then the old identity. And that’s when there started to just be space between all the thinking. And I could just start to see, “Oh, wow. This is an identity. This isn’t who I am. And even though I feel like I’m losing myself, I am not these thoughts.

It’s easy to be dismissive

We’re in a very divisive moment. And if there’s one thing these stories hopefully help you understand, is that we shouldn’t be so dismissive of each other and each other’s experiences. And that there’s a lot that we don’t know. And actually there’s a lot of evidence…  we should all just come out and talk about them, because then it wouldn’t be so stigmatized. Because I really do think it’s a very typical human experience. I think we’ve just made it exceptional and stigmatized and marginalized. And I think if we just came out and talked about it, we could make it more legitimate, make people who experience it feel less stigmatized or marginalized, and maybe we could even study it. And I bet if we did, we’d have a more cohesive model of things that made sense, that didn’t just ignore anomalous data points. In neuroscience, we have a lot of things we can’t explain, so it might encompass and explain some of that.

How psychedelics can help in healing and understanding

I talk about some of the healing modalities in the book that I partook in that were kind of spiritual-based. And they really helped me heal. And I think a lot of them are altered states of consciousness. And I write a psychedelic newsletter now because I just think it’s so important with all the research that’s going into it. These states are very, very healing and there’s a long history of using these states through most cultures in the world, for most of humanity, for healing purposes. And I really think it’s important that we turn back to those and kind of move away from this very Western model of, [inaudible 01:06:30], I’m going to get knocked out for this, but everything for production, microdosing, to be more productive at work. No. Go home, take an hour. Take an altered state in any way you can. It’s really, really healing. And I think it could help us show up in the world more centered, more calm, more mindful.

How can we become more open-minded?

Stay open minded and stay curious. Like one of my personal mantras now is radical curiosity, and anytime I find myself sticking to something or like I did with you say, I believe, I try to remember no, no, no, no. Stay radically curious, like let’s just keep learning. I’d also like to think of it from the me perspective from other people’s perspectives. I try to remember people having different experiences, stay open minded, be kind, listen. If people are telling me a story, I always say I believe you, because it doesn’t matter what you’re telling me if it’s a personal experience I want to believe you. I also kind of have an adventurous mindset now about practices as I mentioned. As a neuroscientist I’d like to explore the different ways we can be conscious. And I encourage that for everybody because I think when you try different states of consciousness, even if it’s like falling asleep and waking yourself back up, like even if it’s just hypnagogia I think it brings a new kind of awareness to your everyday waking reality in ways that I find difficult to explain but I just find it very useful.

 

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Cognitive Neuroscientist |

Mona Sobhani, Ph.D., is a cognitive neuroscientist, author, and entrepreneur. A former research scientist at the University of Southern California, she holds a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Southern California and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University with the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project. She is the author of Proof of Spiritual Phenomena: A Neuroscientist’s Discovery of the Ineffable Mysteries of the Universe.