Monday, September 21, 2009

Noetic Sciences

So, I, like millions of others, have bought a copy of the new Dan Brown book: The Lost Symbol.  I'm not very far into it yet, but an early mention of a character who is involved in the "Noetic Sciences" which are supposedly attempting to uncover the untapped potential of the human mind, piqued my curiosity.  Now, like I said, I haven't gotten too far in the book, so I don't know how Dan Brown will treat the subject, but here's what little I know.  There is such a thing as "Noetic Sciences", but it is NOT a widely accepted field of scientific inquiry.  In fact, it seems that the only group pursuing "Noetic science", or at least, calling it that, is the Institute of Noetic Sciences which was founded by astronaut Edgar Mitchell.  From their website, it's hard to pin down exactly what the full spectrum of the institute's research consists of,  though the mission statement appears to be geared toward the attempt to discover advanced human mental capacities and, through understanding these abilities (if they exist) manipulating or enhancing them for the benefit of society as a whole.  More specific mentions are given to questions of precognition, intuition, heightened states of awareness, healing at a distance, mind over matter, and de-stressing techniques for mothers.  These are interesting and ambitious ideas for scientific inquiry, and there are lots of researchers outside of the institute who are doing peer reviewed research into questions such as "what comprises consciousness?", "do intercessory prayer or the willed positive intentions of others have an impact on those who are ill or injured?", "can we stimulate the brain to recreate hallucinations or out of body experiences?", etc. and so, many of the questions that the Institute for Noetic Sciences (which I keep wanting to abbreviate as the INS) seems to be asking fall under the purview of either psychology and cognitive neuroscience, or, the less respected parapsychology (with the questions of "precognition" and "mind over matter" falling into the parapsychology heading).   The interesting thing is that its hard to get a read on the Institute as to how much of what they do is real science and how much of it is pseudoscience (i.e. quackery).  For example, the website lists some research projects aimed at increasing creativity and compassion in children and using yoga and other breathing techniques to help mothers deal with stress.  These are topics that can be studied scientifically, and are studied by many psychologists, sociologists, and educators.  Topics like precognition and mind over matter can also be studied scientifically, but unfortunately, they are often not pursued in a rigorous scientific fashion.  The difference is all in the methods.  For example, if I wanted to test someone to see if he/she had psychic abilities, I could have a computer generate random numbers (say from 1 to 1000) which would be displayed on a screen one at a time, where, between numbers there would be only a dark screen.  If I ask the subject BEFORE the number comes up, "what number will come up next?" and we do this a bunch of times, and he or she gets the numbers right more often than would be probable according to chance we would have to be open to the idea that this person can predict numbers generated by a computer (of course this still isn't conclusive evidence for any psychic ability to "see" into the future as the person may just be really good at "seeing" the pattern the computer is using to generate these "random" numbers... because computers run by programs, ultimately, a "random" number generator must still follow a program that involves an algorithm which ultimately means that there is a pattern, even if it is incredibly complex and seemingly random).  Now, if I asked the person "what number were you thinking of?" but I ask it AFTER the number has been shown on the screen, this is NOT science, and not evidence for anything because there is no way of knowing what the person was really thinking.  Also, if, instead of using a computer to generate the numbers, I just thought of a number myself and then asked the subject to guess what the number is, several things could happen which would make any results doubtful, the most obvious being that I (the experimenter) could lie in the interest of being "proven" right about my belief in psychic abilities, or that any pattern of "random" number generation I use would be even more recognizable than that of a computer.  In the past, all scientific attempts to answer these parapsychological questions have failed to demonstrate the presence of any extrasensory perception or precognition, and so, most groups who persist in asking these questions, particularly those who claim to be getting positive results, tend to be less than reputable. 
As for the Institute of Noetic Sciences, I remain skeptical, but am open to the idea of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater: their website (and downloadable "research report") don't link to or reference any peer reviewed scientific articles, only popular press books that you can purchase or the institute's own periodical (which is NOT peer reviewed).  As for the downloadable "complete research portfolio" it is remarkably slim on data, in that there is none, just some pretty pictures, vague descriptions, and seemingly scientific figures that don't show any experimental evidence (just a new age flow chart on how to "transform your consciousness")... and, the capper, of course, is the last couple of pages which are dedicated to how you can donate to the cause.  Like I said, I don't have enough information yet to form a complete opinion, maybe some real science does go on at the Institute for Noetic Sciences, but I would bet there's more than a fair share of pseudoscience going on there as well.  For now, I am leaning toward the opinion that the institute, and the field of "Noetic Sciences", is not much more than new age quackery trying to gain some sliver of credence by sprinkling in a little bit of actual science in with the rest of the "consciousness transforming" (new age astrology and eastern medicine) snake oil they hope to sell. 

1 comment:

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