The Institute of Noetic Sciences was founded by Apollo 14 Astronaut Edgar Mitchell after he had a mystical experience on the way back from being the sixth man to walk on the moon. After finding a description of his spiritual awakening experience as a “samadhi” within the ancient Vedas, he decided to start a science institution dedicated to studying the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is the “hard problem” in that there’s no widely accepted theory for how the mind is connected to the body, but IONS has been on the frontiers of researching this mind-body connection over the past 44 years.
They conducted a 10-year study researching the commonalities in different wisdom traditions that bring about a transformation of consciousness, and they published their findings in a book named Living Deeply. They’ve further refined a model of consciousness transformation, and are interested in applying virtual reality in invoking states of awe and exploring what types of latent human potentials might be unlocked.
I had a chance to catch up with Cassandra Vieten, the president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, to talk about how the vastness of awe leads to an experience that forces you to stretch your perspectives & accommodate new information. We also talk about how they’re starting to use virtual reality in their research, the impact on our environment and experiences in our lives, and the potential of unlocking latent human potentials through different contemplative practices & potentially mediated through technology.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So I just attended the Institute of Noetic Sciences Conference in Oakland, California, and Allianz was started by Dr. Edgar Mitchell. He was the sixth man to walk on the moon. And on the way home from the moon, he had this spiritual awakening experience of having this direct experience of complete unity with the universe. And he came back and he was like, what was that? And he tried to look to science and he looked to the religious traditions and he had to go back to the ancient Vedas to be able to find a description of this mystical experience that he had called Samadhi. And so he figured that if he was able to experience the body, then if it was written about in the past, then this is something that science should be able to look at and study. So IONS does a lot of frontier science. They've been on the frontier of trying to push the edge of what's possible. And they've been doing a lot of really cutting-edge research in terms of the mind-body interaction, the effects of meditation, which today is pretty common and accepted within mainstream science of the impact of meditation on our bodies. It used to be this Cartesian split where there would be no interaction possible between our internal subjective world and our objective reality. But looking at how you can meditate and how meditation changes your body is some direct evidence that points to that there's something that's going on with our consciousness. And consciousness still is this hard problem. We don't really understand it. We don't have a model of it. And so IONS is kind of on that cutting edge looking at what consciousness is and what is this process of consciousness transformation. So on today's episode, I'm going to be talking to Cassandra Vieten. She's the president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. She also worked on this book called Living Deeply, which did a 10-year study looking at models of transformation, like looking at all the major wisdom traditions and looking at different spiritual practices and trying to isolate what they all have in common and what are the principles that we can learn from these different traditions without all of the dogma that's associated with them. So we'll be looking at their model of consciousness transformation, as well as the latent human potentials that could be unlocked through direct experience. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Cassandra happened on Sunday, July 23rd, 2017 in Oakland, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:33.573] Cassandra Vieten: I'm Cassandra Vieten. I'm president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which has been around for about 44 years. It was founded by the Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who was the sixth person to walk on the moon. And when he came back to the Earth from his moonwalk, he was lucky enough to have the window seat in the space capsule. And he was viewing the Earth and the stars and the moon and the sun. over and over because the capsule was rotating every two minutes and he was overcome by this deep epiphany where he recognized his interconnectedness with everything he saw and really got that kind of direct download from the universe like the molecules that make up my body are the same molecules that make up the space capsule and the stars and the earth and the sun and the moon and And, you know, there is a way that we have obviously apparently separate existences and objects are separated in space, but there's also a way that everything is connected in a holistic way. And so when he came back to Earth, he was like, I want to figure out what that was. And not only that, he, like other astronauts, had that big picture or overview effect where when you view the Earth from space, you can't see boundaries between countries. Those are human constructions. And the idea that we've been fighting over these imaginary lines that we've drawn for millennia, is mind-boggling, so a lot of people who have this overview effect feel a very deep sense of motivation and purpose to do good things for the planet, to make sure we create an environment that allows for the thriving of all beings.
[00:04:14.715] Kent Bye: Yeah, and what's interesting is that Google Earth VR was able to generate their experience of an immersive first-person perspective of the Earth, and they made the design decision to not put any of those boundaries in, and they made it as a first-person experience. And so the first time that I did Google Earth VR and was able to have a first-person perspective of a place where I grew up and start to zoom up as if I was a drone to see more vastness of where I grew up, a perspective I had never been able to see before, up to the top of the earth, I felt like I was able to get this almost synthetic, direct experience of the Overview Effect, where I had intellectually known about the Overview Effect, and I had done interviews both with Edgar Mitchell and other people talking about it, but there was something quite different than having the direct experience. It felt like it was in my body in a new way. And I feel like there's something there about that awe and vastness that allowed me to have a new category schema to understand and have a new relationship to the earth. So I'm with the Institute of Noetic Sciences. I know this is something that you were talking about here at this conference this week about awe and vastness. And so how do you think about awe? What it is and what the implications of it are?
[00:05:27.764] Cassandra Vieten: Well, awe is an experience or an emotion that kind of by definition forces you or requires you to stretch your perspective. So it often has a sense of vastness. One of the definitions of awe is that it has two requirements. One is a sense of vastness that your current meaning systems or schemas are not able to contain. And the second is a requirement for what they call accommodations. So the Piaget, the developmental psychologist, talked about when we encounter new information or new experiences, we have two choices. We can either assimilate that new experience into our current meaning system, or we have to stretch our current meaning system to be able to accommodate the new experience. So when people have experiences like some of the ones that we've been talking about here at the IONS conference of let's say synchronicity or knowing that somebody's in trouble at a distance and then finding out they actually were or knowing who's on the other end of the phone even though you haven't talked to them for several months and there were no hints that they would be calling. You know those kinds of phenomena a lot of people when they encounter them just fit it into their current meaning system And they're like okay coincidence. That's weird, but then every once in a while somebody's like okay wait that actually can't happen I have to revise my meaning system now because I can't deny how that lies outside of my former meaning system and So experiences of awe are not only just enjoyable or kind of mind-blowing temporary experiences, they also have these effects and a lot of research is showing now that not only does it broaden people's perspective or their cognitive scope, but it also induces greater altruism and It induces a sense of self that is more right-sized, so people see themselves actually as smaller. Dacher Keltner has done at UC Berkeley in his laboratory studies where he asks people to draw themselves at Fisherman's Wharf and then draw themselves at like the Grand Canyon. and they'll make themselves smaller when they're drawing themselves at the Grand Canyon. So it's like a very literal interpretation of bringing you this sense of right-sizedness, which also seems to induce humility, gratitude. And I think if you can make awe a practice, not just a random event, you can actually cultivate those virtues.
[00:08:03.158] Kent Bye: Yeah and I guess if you're chasing awe and there's some novel component of things that you've never seen before and so like at some point you could potentially run out or there's other dimensions of beauty and I'm just curious of like is there a limit to awe or like if you make it a daily practice how can you continually try to expand your worldview or is there models or maps you know I know Ken Wilber or Spiral Dynamics these are kind of like high level Developmental models that are based upon inspiration from these different moral development models that have almost like a hierarchy There's issues and problems with you know, thinking that you're kind of further along the path And so there's benefit to kind of mapping out some sort of path But also the risk of thinking that you know, you're better than somebody if you you're at a certain level And so how do you think about that in terms of like a map or a territory to be able to have these? experiences to continually cultivate this sense of awe
[00:09:01.666] Cassandra Vieten: Well, at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, we've done research on how people experience major transformations in consciousness. And we did a study where we started with people's stories of transformation, analyzing hundreds of stories of people's positive transformations, where they became more service-oriented, more meaning, purpose, hope, joy, you know, moved into a different place in their life, more love-centered, more service-oriented. And then we did focus groups with teachers of various forms of transformation, religious, spiritual, secular. We did interviews with 60 masters and teachers of transformative processes from integral to Eastern to Western to indigenous. We followed people over time who were engaged in transformational practices. So through all that, we created a model of the transformative journey. And for the very reason you just mentioned about those ladder hierarchies having some difficulties associated with them, we put our model into the form of a Fibonacci spiral where somebody's ever expanding And if we were to do it actually more accurately, it wouldn't just be a two-dimensional Fibonacci spiral, it would be a three-dimensional one, where people are starting with a core experience that shifts their worldview, moving into a place of seeking. What does that experience mean? Why did that just happen? If they allow it to crack through their habituated sense, it sends them into curiosity. And then often people find cosmology or a practice or a community of people who've also had a similar experience and they're like, okay, this is gonna help me understand it. Ideally, then they move on to engaging in a practice themselves that can help to reinforce that new understanding. So that could be meditation, yoga, Aikido, being in nature. It has to be intentional. It has to change your attention somehow. It should be repeated and it should have some framework or some guidance so when people find that practice that can help them to build less of a state experience of awe and wonder and curiosity about the world and more of a trait experience of approaching life in that way. and then they move through further stages of the process. And the reason we made it a spiral is because a lot of people find themselves, you know, going through a lot of personal work and a lot of personal transformation, and then they find themselves at a new level where they're lost again, you know, or they lost some aspect of their practice and they have to regain it. So it really is a spiraling in our lives. It's not a straight line. It's not a ladder. And I have the same concerns that you do. What you see in a lot of people who follow those latter methodologies, when they get to a point where they feel like they're enlightened or they're lavender or whatever the thing is, the rules don't apply to them anymore. So there's often also a lot of corruption. They abuse their power. You find out they're abusing students because they've put themselves above. And that's when the ego has co-opted their transformational journey and perverted it. So I like the spiral model better.
[00:12:19.600] Kent Bye: Well, I think the other thing in looking at your spiral model, the other thing that I noticed is that similar to like Kohlberg's theory of moral development is that, you know, as you go higher and higher into moral dilemmas, you are facing issues where your identity is kind of expanding into what is the best for larger and larger clusters and groups of people, whether it's just yourself, just your family, just your friends and just your community, your state, your country. you know, you can go all the way out to the world or the cosmos, but I think that there's this similar trajectory of like thinking about yourself, but then as you get to these higher stages, then you start to then be of service or to be more connected of kind of bringing your gifts and being able to help other people. And so maybe you could talk a bit about that dimension of how you see that either as an identity expansion or something where people feel like they have to give back in some way.
[00:13:12.825] Cassandra Vieten: Yeah, well for most people they come into the transformational journey either because they've had a mind-blowing experience that they want to follow up on that maybe was really positive, you know, they saw something new or they learned something new and they were just like, wow, I got to figure out what that was. But really the vast majority of people come in because they are in some sort of pain or suffering. They've had a loss, grief, some kind of deconstruction of their life, or a divorce, change in career, near-death experience, illness. And so they come into the journey because they're trying to ease their own suffering and pain, or they're trying to enhance or make their life more thriving. And as they continue in their practices and their seeking and learning, a lot of people can just stay at that sort of new and improved level, like I'm a higher performer now because I'm a meditator, or I'm healthier, I'm more integrated because I'm a yogi. But if you really continue on the path, at some point you'll hit a point where you realize this is not just about me and my thriving and reducing my suffering, It's about reducing the suffering of my community, my state, my country, my nation, my planet. And that's a natural process that happens in transformation. So if you keep going, that will happen at some point. And when people make that shift from I to we, they will find that the peace and contentment and happiness that they were seeking through personal gain, they paradoxically find it when they let go of personal gain and they start to become of service to a greater wellness. And that's kind of like the big secret. That's what Rumi called the open secret. letting go of your own journey toward achievement and acquisition and enlightenment and saying let's do this all together, let's make sure everybody's okay. And there's a great study that looks at Eastern cultures in relationship to Western cultures and they put a picture of a person with a whole group of people behind them and the person is smiling and the group of people behind them is frowning or looking upset. And when you take that to a more collectively oriented culture, they'll say, how does this person feel? And they'll say, well, they look like they're smiling, but they can't feel well. They're grimacing because they see that the community is not feeling well. Whereas in a more individualistic culture, they look at the person and they're like, that's a happy person. They don't care about the other people. And you don't want to go too far into the collective. I mean, we're not talking about, you know, becoming the Borg or, you know, the shadow sides of communism that don't work. We're talking about a balance between the individual and the collective. And that's the other paradox, is the more people move into a collective self-orientation, strangely, they start to become really clear on their own unique contribution. the thing that only they can do that almost nobody else in the world can do because everybody has an extremely unique combination of their own resources and networks and abilities and talents and genetics and karma and you know all of that stuff. You're the only person who has that. So I think a lot of what noetic science is, is understanding that even what our language makes into opposites, these opposites are really complementary pieces of the same thing.
[00:16:51.725] Kent Bye: Yeah, and one of the things that I find really interesting about what's happening with people within the virtual reality community is that they're having a direct experience of having all of their senses hacked and that in their mind they're having these experiences that almost feel indistinguishable from reality in a certain sense of achieving these different dimensions of presence. And they come out of these experiences saying, OK, well, if that felt real, then what is this reality that we're living in? And are we living in a simulation? So we're looking at sort of a philosophy of idealism, of everything sourcing from this mind or consciousness. But yet, in the mainstream, paradigm is still very much a materialistic society where consciousness right now is still the hard problem and we don't have a description of how it emerges yet from our neuroscience or biology or psychology. It's something that we can't really explain. I'm just curious to hear your perspective of how you see this emphasis of the direct experience of your senses and the implications of that from a larger scientific perspective.
[00:17:52.222] Cassandra Vieten: Well, it's become increasingly clear over time that our biology, our DNA, the way that our bodies work, is extremely experience-dependent. So we used to think, and those of us who are older learned in school, that DNA is a blueprint for the body, and it tells your body a lot about how it's going to unfold, which is true on the very gross level. It tells you that you're going to have arms, and your eyes are going to be blue, and your hair is going to be brown. but for complex aspects of human personality and experience and behavior and even disease, risk, inflammation, all of our psychology highly dependent on how we're interacting with the world around us. So one of the examples I like to give is, you know, they do studies on fruit flies and they look at genetics because fruit flies have a lifespan of like two weeks, so they can do lots of generations really fast. So they put these fruit flies into an extremely cold environment, and they thought, how many generations is it going to take for them to adapt to the cold? Well, they were shocked to find out that it was like two, three, four generations they started sprouting hair, which is totally not possible with Mendelian selection. So they had latent genes inside that were basically unlocked. You know, it's like if this being encounters an extra cold environment, turn on the growing hair gene. So my real interest in virtual reality is We can give people environments in this reality that we know are like scaffolding for transformational experiences. We know that's what all the religions are. You know, you give them rituals, you give them cathedrals, you give them mosques, you give them all these elements are like most likely to promote a positive transformation. But those are all locked into Newtonian reality. So what if we don't have to? What if people can walk through walls? What if people can fly? What if they can make flowers grow? I mean, there's a limitless possibility in VR to expose people to environments that you cannot expose them to in ordinary realities. So what I'm really interested in is Do we have latent capacities or latent aspects of our personalities that if we expose people to a virtual environment will get unlocked by that?
[00:20:13.030] Kent Bye: Yeah, and that's been a huge interest of mine as well. I mean, I think that theme was explored in Lawnmower Man where you have one of the characters go into a VR experience and he's getting all these magical and alchemical symbols and then all of a sudden he starts to do these psychokinesis and psychic phenomena that is unlocked in him by doing these virtuality experiences. Just a couple examples that I have that are I guess provide inspiration for this potential of neuroplasticity is James Blaha of vivid vision Had a lazy eye that was basically weak muscle that he wasn't able to see in stereoscopic 3d but yet through the process of completely controlling his sensory input from virtual reality technologies and It was like tricking the sensory motor contingencies to the point where it was actually able to rewire his brain through these principles of neuroplasticity. And after like 10 weeks, he was able to see in 3D for the first time, both in virtual reality environments, but also outside of it. With vivid vision, he's been able to see like a 60% success rate. And also the work of David Eagleman, looking at sensory addition or sensory replacement by having these different motors buzz on your body, being able to essentially train someone who's deaf to hear by sending the same signals that the cochlea would send into the ear, but through the torso. So turning the torso into an ear. So both of these kind of point to like these capacity of the body to be able to take in all sorts of new information, but also to be able to rewire our brains. And so what's it mean to use these principles of neuroplasticity with this principle of latent human potentials? And I guess that's something that the Institute of Noetic Sciences has been studying for a long, long time, of some of these latent human potentials that are, I guess, outside of the repeatability and replication of mainstream science. And so they tend to be either in the realm of folklore or direct experience, but yet not in the realm of being explained by science. So, I don't know, just curious to hear some of your thoughts. what the limits of human potential are, what you already know of what the body can do, and how virtual reality could potentially start to either train or cultivate this to a more refined level.
[00:22:18.340] Cassandra Vieten: Well, we already know that people's minds can affect their bodies in ways that are really amazing. I mean, just paying attention to your breathing for 20 minutes a day for eight weeks has very solid evidence showing that it influences immunity. It influences both brain function and brain structure. So we're talking about thickening of the cortex, rearranging how the brain functions. That's just 20 minutes a day of paying attention to your breath for eight weeks. So imagine what would be possible if we could enhance those kinds of practices. You know, I think the unique element that IONS brings to the conversation is number one, what you mentioned, that these things that used to reside in the esoteric or the mystical or the folklore realm or the religious realm, spiritual, have been separated from the scientific realm because science originally was about exploring the natural world. And so our premise is that these experiences are part of the natural world even though they're ineffable and invisible to most. So were electrons, so were mapping the human genome, so were germs, so is electricity, so is wireless tech, you know. There are a lot of things that used to be ineffable and unmeasurable. So the idea that these experiences that we're talking about are somehow never ever possible to measure, that idea is unscientific. We get a lot of flack in the scientific community being told that just the very idea of studying any of these things is in itself unscientific. And so my response to that is that premise is totally unscientific. Of course we can investigate phenomena. That is what science is. And so probably the tougher one is, is it possible that the brain and the body are simply receivers or filters for a consciousness that isn't created by the brain and the body? That the brain and the body are somehow this aggregation of energy and information that's picking up not only your own personal personality, who knows how that works, but also kind of a shared level of reality or consciousness, what Jung called the collective unconscious, you know, and we're just now beginning to see like, okay, particles that are entangled, you know, the spin of one can predict the spin of the other one, no matter how, they just sent the first one into space, so now we know that thousands and thousands and thousands of miles away. If you know the spin of one, you can predict the spin of the other one. So there is definitely a connection happening across space. And the other thing that just came out recently was the idea of retro causality, which Ions has been talking about for decades. So the idea there is if you drop a pebble into a pond, you've got ripples that move out from the pebble. If you drop a pebble into the present moment, there's ripples that go out into the future, but there's also ripples that may go into the past. That's an idea we've been talking about for a long time. And it's just now that physicists are starting to be like, wait a minute. If what we're seeing is true and our modeling makes sense, this is saying that the present can affect the past or the future can affect the present. So these are just awesome ideas. And I think the promise of virtual reality is that people can go into a realm of consciousness where they can play with these ideas in ways that you just can't do. Like the most mundane example is we teach people to meditate and we say, please pay attention to your breathing. Well, a lot of people have a really, really, really, really hard time doing that. There are now virtual reality apps where you say pay attention to your breathing and you see when you breathe out a sparkly cloud go out of your mouth and then a sparkly cloud go back in when you breathe in. So for people who have a hard time imagining, that's just a beautiful training wheels or scaffolding for that experience. So I think there's just enormous potential. I think we've barely scratched the surface into the science of consciousness and I think that if we can be as bold and courageous as people were when they were flying to the moon at inside of ourselves really looking at the core of our consciousness and how we think and The really important point here is that every major problem that's facing society and humanity right now, almost every major problem other than let's say natural disasters are caused in part by limitations in human consciousness or they can be solved by a shift in human consciousness. So if you look at inequality, racism, sexism, imprisonment, environmental degradation, climate change, war, violence, sex trafficking, anything that people are worried about, it's something about humans thinking in a totally messed up way. So if we can start to investigate how people think and experience the world and how to shift how they think and experience the world, that is key to the future of humanity more than any other technological development that we could be involved in.
[00:27:45.356] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.
[00:27:47.150] Cassandra Vieten: Thank you so much.
[00:27:48.952] Kent Bye: So that was Cassandra Vieten. She's the president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, I was really, really struck with what Cassandra said about how our bodies are extremely experience dependent. You know, there is this dream that we'd be able to sequence the human genome and we'd be able to determine every different dimension of our being that was coming from our genes. But like Cassandra said, there's so many parts about our human personality, our behavior, even diseases and psychology that is coming from our direct experiences in the world. And so it is really this combination of nature and nurture with a lot of these genetic traits that are inherited from our DNA, but also the life experiences that we have. So what does it mean to be able to have these synthetic or virtual life experiences? Is it possible to be able to unlock these latent human potentials? by going into these virtual reality experiences and having these synthetic experiences that are completely impossible to have within our Newtonian reality. And then are we going to be able to take those potentials and then bring them out into the real world, just as James Baja was able to see in 3D for the first time in VR, but also rewire his brain to the principles of neuroplasticity to be able to see in 3D every day. So the Institute of Nordic Sciences has been on the cutting edge of looking at what has typically been thought of as these internal, subjective, mystical, spiritual, religious realms. And they're finding that there are ways to be able to measure how our consciousness interacts with our body. And I'll be having some more interviews here talking way more down at the lower level in terms of the specific research that they're doing that is really kind of like new paradigm frontier science that is really on the bleeding edge. But the other thing that I just wanted to talk about here is that they did this 10 year study looking at all these different wisdom traditions and they were trying to essentially isolate the primary components of what it means to have a spiritual practice that could lead to some type of transformation. And they said that there's these four components that you are setting an intention to do something, you're cultivating your attention or your sense of awareness, your internal state within your body, and then you're having a practice. So you have to repeat it. You have to keep doing it each and every day. Cassandra said that just by focusing on your breath for 20 minutes every day for eight weeks was able to make these huge changes within your immune system as well as your structure and functioning of your brain. And then the final component was having some sort of guidance of either having a community or a guide who's gone through these experiences before who could help guide you along your own path and be able to assess where you're at and then to be able to give you the next challenges to continue your process of consciousness transformation. So their model of consciousness transformation did eventually have this shift from I to We, such that once you have a mystical experience and you go through a transformation and you're able to integrate that and expand your worldview, there is a sense that at some point, if you keep doing that over and over and over again, that you'll start to have this expansion of your identity from not just yourself, but then to your family, your friends, your community, your country, and then eventually into the entire planet. So there's this polarity between self and other, and what Cassandra is saying is that there's kind of like this paradoxical phenomena, that the opposites are being complementary to each other, such that the more that you start to focus on the entire globe, then you start to really isolate your own unique gifts that you have to bring into the world. And that because IONS has been studying consciousness transformation, they've been really interested to see, are they able to invoke these states of awe through these virtual reality technologies? to be able to have the side effects of awe, which Cassandra listed as being able to broaden people's perspective, their cognitive scope, it can induce greater levels of altruism, it gives you a sense of self that is more right-sized, and it can induce humility and gratitude. So I'm super excited to dive into some of the interviews that I did at the Institute for Genomic Sciences conference. You know, I asked people about the ultimate potential of VR, and I feel like the type of work that IONS has been doing for the last 44 years is kind of getting at the extent of what it means to be human and looking at the human experience of what it means to live a good life or to be able to just cultivate this sense of awareness and fulfillment. So discovering the nature of who you are and what it means to be a flourishing human being. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Oasis of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word. Tell your friends. I think this is actually a really good interview to send to someone who may not be into virtual reality, because I think that the work that IONS is doing is kind of like universal to the human experience. And, you know, the work that I'm doing here at the Voices of VR is 100% supported by listeners through Patreon. You can give a monthly donation to ensure that I can continue to do this type of work and explore not only the extent of virtual reality technologies and how they're going to impact us, but also just looking at the nature of the human experience. So you can donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.