In Dan Brown’s new book The Lost Symbol, the fictional character Katherine Solomon mentions “universal consciousness,” which is an ongoing topic of interest at the real-life Institute of Noetic Sciences.
For millennia, diverse spiritual traditions have described in many different ways aspects of what could be called a universal, or collective, consciousness—a “shared ground of being” that encompasses everyone and everything. Like the Zen master who goes up to the hot-dog vendor and says, “Make me one with everything,” mystics throughout the ages have reported experiences of feeling merged with God or with all of existence (at some level feeling no separation between them and all that is). The psychologist Carl Jung postulated the existence of a “collective unconscious,” a concept that attempted to explain these and other subjective experiences, such as presentiment and synchronicity (for example, suddenly thinking of a long-lost friend and then the phone rings, with the friend on the other end of the line) or the existence of remarkably similar symbolism in ancient, isolated, or primitive cultures that had no prior contact with one another or the rest of the world.
Our survey and interview research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences has shown that these “unity” experiences have the potential to stimulate long-term changes in the way that people view themselves and the world around them. Some people who have had experiences like these seem to take things less personally, or they see all people as similar to themselves—as members of their ”in-group” no matter how different they appear on the surface. They may feel more compassionate toward the suffering of others, behave more altruistically, or forgive more easily. And they often report more meaning, richness, and joy in their lives.
At the Institute of Noetic Sciences, we are exploring this phenomenon in several ways. For example, we design and conduct studies to empirically test hypotheses consistent with the theory of a universal consciousness. If in fact there is a universal, shared aspect to consciousness, then does the intention or attention of one person affect the physiology of another person, even at a distance? And can this type of connection be demonstrated under rigorously controlled laboratory conditions? We also conduct studies using social science approaches to systematically examine people’s experiences of oneness or universal consciousness and how it impacts their lives. What are the conditions under which these experiences take place? How do they feel, and how long do they last? What insights arise from them, and do those insights have lasting effects on coping, stress, or health and well-being? We are also exploring what happens in the electrical activity of the brain when people are actually experiencing these states of consciousness.
So, is there evidence for a universal consciousness that can be reliably measured and demonstrated in physical reality? From a purely empirical perspective, I’m not sure we have the answer yet, but we see hints in the affirmative.
First published by Science + Religion Today.