What the heck is noetic science?

BY Allison Loudermilk / POSTED October 13, 2009
Astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, 1971. (© Bettmann/CORBIS) Astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, 1971. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

In case you missed it, and I doubt you did, Dan Brown has a new novel called “The Lost Symbol.” In his new thriller, Brown discusses an area of research that I’d never heard of — noetic science.

Forget studying how an avian infection may have plagued dinosaurs or surveying sea ice for clues to climate change, these guys tackle experiments like testing the efficacy of prayer, although prayer would likely be called “distant healing” in noetic science parlance. (If you’re curious, here’s a link on how to carry out such studies, published by the president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Marilyn Schlitz, and her colleagues.)

But I still haven’t told you what noetic science is.

A multidisciplinary field that brings objective scientific tools and techniques together with subjective inner knowing to study the full range of human experience.

That’s Cassandra Vieten, the director of research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences writing on the Huffington Post. So noetic scientists are trying to measure things we’ve longer regarded as immeasurable, like prayer, intuition or maybe even life after death, with the help of evidence-based research and peer review.

The field of research got a big boost from an epiphany Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell had upon his return to Earth. (This was the same guy who stirred up some controversy when he conducted ESP experiments on that same Apollo flight.)

As he approached the planet we know as home, he was filled with an inner conviction as certain as any mathematical equation he’d ever solved. He knew that the beautiful blue world to which he was returning is part of a living system, harmonious and whole—and that we all participate, as he expressed it later, “in a universe of consciousness.”

Mitchell then founded the institute in 1973. He also wrote a book titled “The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey through the Material and Mystical World.” I can’t help but wonder what his fellow astronauts thought of Mitchell’s career after NASA. Did they scoff? Did they have similar experiences? Did they also found institutes that will wind up in a Dan Brown novel?

I’d be curious to hear what some of you lab rats have to say about noetic science.

*Since I first wrote this post, Robert has tackled the muddy waters of science and religion again. You can find his post here.

About the author: Allison Loudermilk is a senior editor at HowStuffWorks. As a science editor, Allison edits most of the stories on things that blow up and otherwise keep researchers busy in the lab and moldy old basements.

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