The institute was founded in 1973 by astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Mitchell was part of the Apollo 14 mission and the sixth man to walk on the moon. It was during the three-day journey back to earth aboard the Apollo 14 spacecraft that Mitchell had an epiphany while looking down on the earth from space. "The presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes ... The knowledge came to me directly," Mitchell said of that experience. In 1973, following his spaceflight, Mitchell and others founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
Among the projects it has sponsored are a comprehensive bibliography on the physical and psychological effects of meditation, an extensive spontaneous remission bibliography, and studies on the efficacy of compassionate intention on healing in AIDS patients. Current research and education is focused on three primary areas, extended human capacities,integral health and healing, and emerging worldviews.
The institute publishes a quarterly review called Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness. It is a membership organization with 35,000 members worldwide. The headquarters are in Petaluma, California, on a 200 acre (80 hectare) campus housing an active retreat and learning center.
In a November 2005 article that critiqued the New Age movement's detachment from the mainstream scientific community, Thomas W. Clark, founder of the Center for Naturalism, criticized members of the institute. Clark wrote: "parapsychologist Dean Radin of the Institute of Noetic Sciences [willingly applies]... what humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz calls the 'transcendental temptation' [that] drives the flight from standard, peer-reviewed empiricism into the arms of a dualism that privileges the mental over the physical, the teleological over the non-purposive." The skeptical organization Quackwatch includes the IONS on its list of websites it does not trust.