Transcending Perception: The Maharishi Effect
Did you know that there is a technique by which a small percentage of any given population can reduce the rate of violent crimes in their area? That means less rape, less homicide, assault, and robbery. No, I’m not talking about getting dressed up as superheroes and roaming the streets at night in hopes of inflicting vigilante justice on the criminal class – and risk either being arrested as a criminal yourself or being killed by the criminals you seek to bring your own flavor of justice against. I’m talking about meditation. A technique known as Transcendental Meditation (TM) to be exact. Although the technique itself is relatively new, in comparison to other types of meditation such as Zen Buddhism’s zazen technique or Islam’s dhikr technique. TM is based upon the Vedas which are ancient Hindu texts believed to have been inspired by revelations experienced by its authors after long periods of deep meditation. The creator of this technique is the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (January 12th 1918 - February 5th 2008), once the spiritual guru to the likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, not to mention the spiritual inspiration to Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Hugh Grant, and thousands of others.
How does it work? According to the introductory lectures for novices beginning TM training, the one obstacle preventing us from obtaining true happiness and fulfilling all our desires is ‘stress in the nervous system’, which can only be released by rest. Naturally the amount of rest required depends entirely on the degree of stress present in the nervous system. Ordinary stress can be released by ordinary rest such as taking a nap but ‘deep stress’ can only be released by ‘deep rest’ and the only proven technique for deep rest is TM.
How does this help to lower the rate of violent crimes in the area surrounding the meditator? While exercising TM, meditators reach a state in which their stress levels are enormously reduced. While exercising TM together, a group of individuals may create between them a ‘coherence of consciousness’ in which their mental states unite and strengthen one another. Once coherence is achieved then the deep rest experienced by the meditators is then transmitted through a ‘field of consciousness’, an energy field which permeates and unifies all of creation, allowing the meditators to reduce the levels of stress in the population around them. A natural result of this stress reduction in the population is a reduction in violent crimes. This phenomenon is known as the Maharishi Effect and all it requires is that 1% of any given population regularly exercise TM.
How do we know it works? Because, it was demonstrated in Washington DC during the summer of 1993. Just go to https://www.mum.edu/about-mum/consciousness-based-education/tm-research/... and read the results of the demonstration for yourself. It cannot be denied, the answer to saving the human race from itself has finally been placed in our hands and world peace at our fingertips…at least according to the website of the TM movement and the provided anecdotes of its members.
Before we continue, here’s a bit of history.
The Development of a Movement
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – born Mahesh Prasad Varma – had for a time been both disciple and assistant to Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, the spiritual leader of Jyotirmath – a city tucked away in the Himalayas of northern India – before striking out on his own around 1955 with the express purpose of altering the course of human history through three distinct means: 1) by reviving the spiritual traditions within the nation of India, 2) by showing that meditation can be exercised by anyone, not just religious recluses tucked away in ashrams, and 3) by proving that the ancient Hindu traditions of Vedanta are compatible with modern science. He strongly believed that “within everyone is an unlimited reservoir of energy, intelligence, and happiness”, often teaching that “being happy is of the utmost importance. Success in anything is through happiness. Under all circumstances be happy. Just think of any negativity that comes at you as a raindrop falling into the ocean of your bliss.”
His early efforts involved touring his homeland teaching what he claimed to be a traditional form of meditation he referred to as Transcendental Deep Meditation – this would later become Transcendental Meditation – and constructing what he called the Spiritual Development Movement – later to become the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, a precursor to the current TM movement. It was in 1958 that he expanded his arena from the subcontinent of India to the world at large, beginning the first of several global tours teaching the technique and philosophy that would give rise to the international TM movement. In 1962, he began prescribing the daily exercising of meditation as a means of fueling one’s spiritual growth.
By the late 60’s and early 70’s, Maharishi became yogi to the likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, a position which allowed him to tap into the spiritually hungry masses of Europe and the US where he was able to attract followers by the thousands. It was in this time that he also created the TM-Sidhi program, what is alleged to be a higher form of TM which he claimed would provide its practitioners with such fantastic abilities as levitation, turning oneself invisible, and conjuring world peace from within. It was at this point that scientific analysis of meditation in general and TM in particular started to take off.
At this time, the young TM movement was little more than a new age religious movement, despite its member’s claims that it was more in league with modern science than it was with religion. It is due a great deal to the efforts of John Hagelin, a Harvard educated physicist, that the TM movement would eventually graduate from mere mysticism to pseudoscience, though TM was not unknown to the scientific community prior to the efforts of Hagelin.
John Hagelin is a summa cum laude graduate of Dartmouth who later went on to obtain a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard. By 1983 he had proven his competence as a theoretical physicist and gained a postdoctoral appointment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator. For reasons not entirely understood, it was about that time that Hagelin left the realm of theoretical physics only to reemerge nearly a year later as the head of the Physics Department at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. He would later go on to his current position, the leader of the American branch of the TM movement.
In 87 and 89, he published articles in the Journal of Modern Science and Vedic Science – a journal published by the Maharishi University of Management – in which he claimed that the ‘unified field’ of quantum physics – a major facet of the superstring theory – was one and the same as the ‘unified field of consciousness’ described in the teachings of the TM movement’s founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Hagelin argued that such a theory linking consciousness to superstring’s unified field provided a natural, scientific explanation for the variety of phenomena advanced TM practitioners reported experiencing during meditation such as levitation, invisibility, and the Maharishi Effect.
However, these claims are strongly disputed by the scientific community. Sociologist Barry Markovsky and Philosopher Evan Vales have pointed out that Hagelin’s ‘far-fetched explanation lacks purpose’ taking in the fact that none of these abilities have ever been validated and that the parallels between modern science and ‘vedic science’ found throughout his publications ‘rest on ambiguity, obscurity and vague analogy, supported by the construction of arbitrary similarities’. According to theoretical physicist Peter Woit, author of Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and The Search for Unity in Physical Law, “virtually every theoretical physicist in the world rejects all of this as nonsense and the work of a crackpot.”In 1994, Hagelin was awarded the Ig Nobel Award - a parody of the Nobel prize in which trivial scientific work is awarded rather than progressive work - for the 1993 demonstration in Washington D.C. which he managed.
The realm of physics may have lost a potentially great participant but at the same time, the TM movement gained a profitable new leader.
The 1993 Demonstration:
The public first became aware of the movement’s intended demonstration in the early months of 1993 when an ad ran in The Washington Post, the Washington Afro-American, and the Washington Chinese News. The ad consisted of a picture of several TM members along with a caption reading, "We want a crime-free Washington. We want our new President to make policy decisions and programs in a neat, clean atmosphere. Will the Mayor do something about it? Will the Mayor do something about it?"
This rather antagonistic caption was not the first time the TM movement had harassed Washington’s mayor of the time, Sharon Pratt Kelly. A group of local TM members formed a non-profit organization entitled Citizens for a Crime Free D.C. and began lobbying the mayor along with D.C. Council members and Chief of Police Fred Thomas at community meetings, demanding the politicians test what they referred to as an ‘effective crime reduction technology’. This continued until the city officials finally agreed to provide police assistance for the demonstration. Emanuel Ross, then director of the D.C. police department’s crime research lab was appointed to handle the situation, stating, "It's their study, and somehow I'm caught up in their study. It's kind of a bad position."
Before the demonstration began, Hagelin confronted the press in a conference room in the District Building, explaining that the demonstration would prove a ‘scientific demonstration that will provide proof of a unified superstring field.”
Beginning in June of ’93, TM members began arriving from a total of 82 nations across the globe, living and meditating in spaces rented at Gallaudet University, Trinity College, and a space below Waterside Mall. The meditators would exercise TM in two daily shifts running from 8 am to 11 am and 3:30 pm to 5:30 pm through the final day of the demonstration, July 31. Eventually, a total of 4,000 TM members arrived and joined in the meditation shifts, sitting in long rows, assuming the usual lotus position, and quietly repeating their personal mantras.
At the end of the demonstration period, Hagelin assured the press that over the next year the results of the demonstration would be analyzed in accordance with the strict standards of science. A year later, Hagelin returned to the spotlight with a fifty-five-page report describing the results of the demonstration. At the press conference Hagelin announced that the demonstration was a success, having reduced violent crime by 18%.
A journalist for the Washington Post, a bit confused at the nature of this claim, asked, “An eighteen-percent reduction compared to what?” When Hagelin explained that it was an 18% reduction in comparison to what it would have been had the demonstration not taken place, his response was met with another question, “But how could you know what the rate would have been?”
Sounding just a bit irritable, Hagelin performed a wonderful example of the argument by gibberish fallacy by explaining he knew what the rate would have been through a series of ‘scientifically rigorous time-series analyses’ that included crime data as well as other factors like fluctuations in the planet’s magnetic field, and changes in the weather. In truth, it is impossible to determine what the crime rate would have been had the demonstration never taken place, at least not without time travel technology and consequently that does not exist. The best one could do is look at the rates of violent crime before and after the demonstration, compare those with the years before and after and speculate on what the rate would have been without the demonstration and there is nothing ‘scientifically rigorous’ about speculation.
A review board was formed in order to assess the results of the demonstration, a board composed almost entirely of TM movement members or known associates with Emanuel Ross being the one exception. The results were described in a report titled Reduced Violent Crime in Washington D.C. which claimed:
Analysis of 1993 data, controlling for temperature, revealed that there was a highly significant decrease in HRA (Homicide, Rape, Aggravated Assault) crimes associated with increases in the size of the group during the Demonstration Project. The maximum decrease was 23.3% when the size of the group was largest during the final week of the project. The statistical probability that this result could reflect chance variation in crime levels was less than 2 in 1 billion (p < .000000002). When a longer baseline is used (1988–1993 data), the maximum decrease was 24.6% during this period (p < .00003). When analyzed as a separate variable, robberies did not decrease significantly, but a joint analysis of both HRA crimes and robberies indicated that violent crimes as a whole decreased significantly to a maximum amount of 15.6% during the final week of the project (p = .0008).
Did you understand any of that? No? Good. That’s the whole point of an argument by gibberish, to inflict confusion so the subject is likely to assume the matter is beyond their own understanding, thus preventing any further questioning.
Soon after the closing of the demonstration, TM movement officials began lobbying Washington, using statistics and bar graphs along with print outs of brainwaves, claiming the demonstration had successfully and scientifically proven their ‘effective crime reduction technology’ works. These efforts were meant to convince the city officials to free up $5 million from the city’s funds in order to pay for a permanent team of meditators to exercise TM year-round. When the spokesman for Citizens for a Crime Free D.C., Kaman Sunev, was asked where the money was expected to come from seeing as the city was already in the midst of a financial crises, he shrugged, "The money would come from wherever the city government's money comes from." In other words, the TM movement expected city officials to pay them $5 million per year from the wallets and purses of Washington D.C.’s hard working taxpayers. Any official who agreed to such a thing would quickly find themselves unemployed and shunned by the city’s residents. Naturally, the officials refused, not so much for fear of losing their jobs but because the one individual on the review board not associated with the TM movement disagreed with the claims of the report.
Emanuel Ross stated that the crime statistics the TM movement revealed were unfounded. Although there was a 19 percent reduction in robberies and an 11 percent reduction in assaults, there was an increase in homicide and rape by 50 percent and 9 percent respectively. Go to http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/dccrime.htm and you’ll find that 1993 stands out as a very significant year in the history of Washington D.C. in that violent crimes reached a height never seen before or since with a total of 16,888 violent crimes reported. This habit of misrepresenting data is nothing new, according to an ex-member of the TM movement, Patrick Ryan, who claimed, "If they look at 20 variables, they pick the ones that changed and take credit for it."
Another factor inspiring Washington city officials to ignore the claims and demands of the TM movement is the fact that the 1993 demonstration wasn’t the first attempt by the TM movement to reduce violent crimes in Washington D.C. The movement had a strong presence in the area for the greater part of a decade when their national headquarters was located there.
The 1985 Demonstration:
During the 1980’s, the TM movement had several facilities present in the D.C. area including the College of Natural Law near the Washington Convention Center, its national headquarters on 14th St. NW, the Maharishi Ayur-Vedic clinic in the district of Springfield, as well as several meditation and TM teaching facilities. D.C. was also home to the largest concentration of TM movement members in the U.S. outside of the Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. For years the movement tried to gain government support to finance group meditation facilities without success and so they decided to perform a demonstration to prove that their claims weren’t just the mystical beliefs of a new age religion but natural phenomena with scientific explanations. Thousands of individuals arrived at the city to take part in the demonstration. Sound familiar?
There are a few differences in that this demonstration took place in July of 1985 rather than June of 1993, this early demonstration involved 5,500 meditators rather than the 4,000 meditators involved in the ‘93 demonstration, unlike this earlier one, the ’93 demonstration included a $25,000 publicity campaign to draw public attention. Both demonstrations ended the same way, in failure. Return to the Disaster Center website and you’ll find that throughout the 80’s, despite the strong presence of the TM movement in the area and despite the ’85 demonstration, violent crimes in Washington D.C. was steadily rising throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s only to climax on the year of the second demonstration.
Due to financial burdens, in 1986 the College of Natural Law was shut down and its staff moved to Fairfield, Iowa. This event marked a decline of the movement’s presence in Washington D.C. Then in 1991 Maharishi Mahesh Yogi himself put out the call to abandon D.C. altogether, stating, “I would not advise anyone to stay in the pool of mud. Save yourself from the criminal atmosphere.” Several TM members sold their homes, uprooted their families, and sought homesteads elsewhere. For those unwilling to uproot themselves entirely, they simply moved to the suburbs, visiting the city only as needed for their work. Director of public affairs at Maharishi University, Robert Oates Jr., stated, “People were just given to understand it is like living near Chernobyl. All the stress of the world’s collective consciousness impinges on D.C. Plus the incredible rate of violence. You’re not talking about the ideal spot.”
Just two years later, the spokesman for Citizens for a Crime Free D.C., Kaman Sunev, made a claim which countered these earlier statements by the TM movement’s founder and one of its officials, “To just leave D.C. is not the thinking of the Maharishi.”
Go to http://www.tm.org/ and you arrive at a page showing a young woman apparently in a state of meditation. You’re also presented with the Transcendental Meditation icon followed by the caption ‘The technique for inner peace and wellness.’ Beneath that is the statement ‘The only meditation that’s: 1) Absolutely effortless: Anyone can do it – even children with ADHD; 2) Taught one-on-one: Personalized instruction with a certified TM teacher; 3) Evidence-based: Hundreds of published research studies; 4) Consistently Effective: We guarantee it.
Points 3 and 4 drew my attention the most: Evidence based with hundreds of published studies and a guarantee that it is consistently effective yet two demonstrations as well as an effort spanning the greater part of the 1980’s all resulted in failure.
First I clicked on the third option which triggered a pop-up page titled: Research on the Transcendental Meditation Technique. This was followed by a caption reading: ‘More than 380 peer-reviewed research studies on the TM technique have been published in over 160 scientific journals. These studies were conducted at more than 200 research institutions, including Harvard Medical School and Stanford Medical School.’ Just below the caption was a short video featuring Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist and associate of the TM movement, explaining what it means to have an article published in a peer-review journal – an explanation that neglects to point out that publication within a peer-review journal does not indicate scientific validation of a concept but is merely one step in the process of validation. Finally, you’re given a list of the publications. I ran into difficulties right off the bat.
#1 Barnes V. A., et al. Stress, stress reduction, and hypertension in African Americans. Journal of the National Medical Association, 89, 464-476, 1997. When I cut and pasted the first article into foxfire, my results were dozens of TM websites, all of which listed this article as a reference but none of which provided the actual article. I then searched for the journal itself and after some digging found its website where I pasted the title of the article and was given 4 results, none of which were the article listed on the TM website. Next I typed Transcendental Meditation into the search bar of the journal’s site and still came up empty handed.
#2 Dillbeck M.C. and Orme-Johnson D. W. Physiological differences between Transcendental Meditation and rest. American Psychologist 42:879–881, 1987. Same results searching for the article as listed on the TM website, a long list of other TM sites listing it as a reference but none of them linking to the actual article. Using Wikipedia, I found that American Psychologist is the official journal of the American Psychological Association, at whose site I typed in the article as listed on the TM website but came up empty handed. Next I typed in just the article’s title and again came up empty handed. As one last attempt, I typed in just the names of the authors and still got nothing.
#3 Haratani T., et al. Effects of Transcendental Meditation (TM) on the mental health of industrial workers. Japanese Journal of Industrial Health 32: 656, 1990. I was unable to find the journal even after searching the Scientific Information Database. Moving to journal-data.com finally landed a hit only to find the journal was discontinued since 1994 and the provided link http://www.journalarchive.jst.go.jp/english/jnltop_en.php?cdjournal=joh1959 was no longer active. Unlike the first two which I considered strikes, I considered this one as inconclusive since the article was not available despite evidence suggesting that it could possibly exist.
#4 Jevning R., et al. The physiology of meditation: a review. A wakeful hypometabolic integrated response. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 16(3):415-24, 1992. Finally, I got a hit, intermixed with tm websites but the article was not readily available. I looked up the journal itself and found it to be published by Elsevier so I pasted the article into that website’s search bar and got nothing. Including just the article’s title also got nothing. Again, inconclusive.
#5 Jevning R., et al. The transcendental meditation technique, adrenocortical activity, and implications for stress. Experientia 34(5):618-9, May 15, 1978. As per usual, my initial search provided only TM websites, so I tried to look up the journal itself and found no such journal. Next I went to Wikipedia and punched in Experientia and was redirected to Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences where a link was provided to springer.com but once again the article was not readily available. Another inconclusive.
After two strikes, three misses, and no hits, I gave up trying to get my hands on any of the articles listed on the TM website itself and decided to take the matter on from a completely different angle by looking to see if there were any meta-analyses or reviews available on TM research as a whole. Not only did I get a hit on my first try, but the article was also readily available at the following site: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK38360/. Titled ‘Meditation practices for health: state of the research’, and authored by Ospina MB, Bond K, Karkhaneh M, Tjosvold L, Vandermeer B, Liang Y, Bialy L, Hooton N, Buscemi N, Dryden DM, Klassen TP, the intention of the study was to review and assess the quality of the research done not only on TM but meditation in general including Mantra Meditation – which TM is a form of – Mindfulness Meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong. The author’s conclusion being:
The field of research on meditation techniques and their therapeutic applications has been clouded by confusion over what constitutes meditation and by a lack of methodological rigor in much of the research. Further research needs to be directed toward distinguishing the effects and characteristics of the many different techniques falling under the rubric “meditation.” The single and multimodality meditation practices included in this report were categorized for pragmatic reasons, but specific attention must be paid to developing definitions for these techniques that are both conceptually and operationally useful. Such definitions are a prerequisite for scientific research of the highest quality. Research of higher quality is vital to respond appropriately to the many persistent questions in this area. The dearth of high-quality evidence highlights the need for greater care in defining and choosing the interventions and in choosing controls, populations, and outcomes that permit comparison of studies across techniques regarding their therapeutic effects. More care in these choices will allow effects to be estimated with greater reliability and validity. More randomized trials that draw on the experience of investigators or consultants with a strong background in clinical and basic research should be conducted. As a whole, firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence. However, the results analyzed from methodologically stronger research include findings sufficiently favorable to emphasize the value of further research in this field. It is imperative that future studies on meditation practices be more rigorous in design, execution, and analysis, and in the reporting of the results. Greater importance should be placed on the reporting of study methods and providing detailed descriptions of the training of the participants, qualifications of meditation instructors, and on reporting the criteria and methods used to determine a successful meditation practice.
The points which stood out the most to me being:
• “…a lack of methodological rigor in much of the research.”
• “The dearth of high-quality evidence highlights the need for greater care in defining and choosing the interventions and in choosing controls, populations, and outcomes that permit comparison of studies across techniques regarding their therapeutic effects.”
• “As a whole, firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence.”
In other words, the experiments lacked scientific rigor and the evidence was of such poor-quality that no credible conclusion can be drawn from it.
My second search for analyses of mediation was much the same as my first, a hit plus the article was readily available: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD010359.pub2/epdf. Titled ‘Transcendental meditation for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease’ and authored by Louise Hartley, Angelique Mavrodaris, Nadine Flowers, Edzard Ernst, Karen Rees, the point of this study was to determine the effectiveness of TM for the prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD). The conclusion reads:
There was considerable heterogeneity between the included trials for blood pressure meaning that meta-analysis was not possible. Therefore, any ﬁndings with regards to this outcome can only be suggestive. None of the included studies reported data on lipid levels, occurrence of type 2 diabetes, quality of life, adverse events or costs. The trials in this review were also at overall serious risk of bias and as such, results should be treated with caution.
In order for a deﬁnitive answer on the effectiveness of transcendental meditation (TM) for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD) more trials that are methodologically rigorous, have longer follow-up periods and larger sample sizes are needed. As a consequence of the very limited evidence currently available, we are unable to determine the effects of TM for the primary prevention of CVD.
Again, here are the points that stood out:
• “The trials in this review were also at overall serious risk of bias and as such, results should be treated with caution.”
• “…more trials that are methodologically rigorous, have longer follow-up periods and larger sample sizes are needed.”
• “As a consequence of the very limited evidence currently available, we are unable to determine the effects of TM for the primary prevention of CVD.”
In other words, the experiments lacked scientific rigor and the evidence was of such poor-quality that no credible conclusion can be drawn from it.
My third search provided the same results as my first two, a hit and the article was available. This one was titled ‘Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis’ authored by Madhav Goyal, Sonal Singh, Erica M S Sibinga, Neda F Gould, Anastasia Rowland-Seymour, Ritu Sharma, Zackary Berger, Dana Sleicher, David D Maron, Hasan M Shihab, Padimini D Ranasinghe, Shauna Linn, Shonali Saha, Eric B Bass, and Jennifer A Haythornthwaite, available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0063263/. The point was to assess the quality of evidence supporting the claim that meditation is an effective treatment for stress, the conclusion being:
Our review shows that there is moderate strength of evidence that mindfulness meditation programs are beneficial for reducing pain severity, and there is low to moderate strength of evidence that mindfulness meditation programs may lead to improvement in dimensions of negative affect, including anxiety, depression, and perceived stress/general distress. Otherwise, much of the evidence was insufficient to address the comparisons for most of the questions. There were also too few trials of mantra meditation programs to draw meaningful conclusions. There may be many reasons for this lack of evidence.
First, while we sought to review the highest standards of behavioral RCTs, there was wide variation in risk of bias among these. Of 41 RCTs, we only rated 10 as low risk of bias. However, for studies where there is mostly a medium-to-high risk of bias, one might expect to see more positive results. We did not see this.
Second, many if not most studies appeared to be underpowered to find an effect, as we rated most of the studies as imprecise. While this is critical for the individual study, it may not matter as much for a systematic review where we are also concerned with the directionality of effect among numerous studies, irrespective of their statistical significance.
Third, we attempted to analyze the effect meditation programs have on certain domains of mental, emotional, and physical health that are affected by stress. These domains are heterogeneous and studies often report them on different scales, which make it more complicated to analyze. We found modest consistency in improvement on multiple domains of negative affect for mindfulness programs. However, we did not see an effect on positive affect. Due to the limited number of trials we reported, one should view these conclusions cautiously within the context of the particular population studied, type of meditation program used, and type of comparison used.
Fourth, for many outcomes, there was a dearth of adequate studies to draw detailed conclusions. For example, nearly all of the studies assessing pain focused on musculoskeletal pain populations. None assessed neuropathic pain, and only one assessed a visceral pain. We need further studies that better define what outcome is responsive to a particular meditation program.
Fifth, symptom levels may have been low to start with for many trials, not leaving much room to find a difference from an intervention. However, if one purpose of meditation interventions is to improve symptomatology at non-clinical levels, this issue may not be as relevant.
Sixth, the reasons for a lack of a significant reduction of stress-related health behavior outcomes may have to do with the way the research community conceptualizes meditation programs, the difficulties of acquiring such skills or meditative states, and the limited duration of RCTs. Historically, the general public did not conceptualize meditation as a quick fix toward anything. It was a skill or state one learns and practices over time to increase one's awareness; through this awareness one gains insight and understanding into the various subtleties of their existence. Training the mind in awareness, nonjudgementalness, or in the ability to become completely free of thoughts or other activity, are daunting accomplishments. While some meditators may feel that these are easy tasks to do, they likely overestimate their own skills due to a lack of awareness of the different degrees to which these tasks can be done or ability to objectively measure their own progress. Becoming an expert at simple skills such swimming, reading, or writing (which can be objectively measured by others) take a considerable amount of time, so it only follows that meditation would also take a long period of time to master. However many of the studies included in this review were short term (e.g., 2.5 hours a week for 8 weeks) and the participants likely did not achieve a level of expertise needed to improve outcomes that depend on a mastery of our mental and emotional processes. Trials of short duration and training may be insufficient to develop the meditative skills or states necessary to affect stress related outcomes in substantial ways.
• “Otherwise, much of the evidence was insufficient to address the comparisons for most of the questions. There were also too few trials of mantra meditation programs to draw meaningful conclusions.”
• “Due to the limited number of trials we reported, one should view these conclusions cautiously within the context of the particular population studied, type of meditation program used, and type of comparison used.”
The consensus seems to be counter to the claims of the TM website. Yes, studies were performed and published but the evidence produced by these studies is of too poor quality, and the studies themselves at high risk of bias – due to the researchers being members or associates of the TM movement – to make the kinds of claims the TM movement is constantly making. In order to validate such claims, further research including longer-term studies and experiments of higher quality, preferably performed by individuals not involved in the TM movement, than those to date are required. Any claims as of now are scientifically unfounded, including the guarantee of consistent effectiveness.
There’s Science and then there’s TM Science
A problem and it’s solution:
As human beings, there is only one thing that prevents us from experiencing reality as it truly is, and that is our perceptions of reality. Our perceptions are not always in accord with reality and when this happens we experience something called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a kind of mental discomfort, it’s the frustration we feel when our expectations are not met, it’s the betrayal we feel when a friend or family member behaves in a way contrary to our perceptions of them, it’s that frightening sense of doubt when our beliefs collide with reality. This discomfort urges us to try and clear the matter up, absolving the dissonance. Strangely enough, when given a choice between reality or our beliefs we will often side with our beliefs, absolving the dissonance by further distorting our perceptions of reality.
When we go looking for evidence we will often see only what we want to see. Any evidence that appears to support our beliefs tends to stand out the most while any countering evidence is missed entirely – this is a bias referred to as cherry picking. Should that evidence be pointed out to us we’ve always got an excuse as to why we’ve neglected it – the source isn’t trustworthy enough or the evidence itself is too ambiguous – this is the ad hoc rescue ad hoc fallacy. We will spot patterns where there are no patterns – an illusion referred to as apophenia. We will see parallels between two completely unrelated things, or perceive two unrelated events as if one had caused or been caused by the other – another illusion known as illusory correlation. The list goes on and on including hundreds of illusions, biases, and fallacies.
Although there are some exceptions, just because somebody does these things doesn’t mean that they are knowingly trying to deceive people. They’re probably not even aware of what they’ve done, just as much a victim of the deception as those who follow them. The true deceiver is the human brain. Many of these illusions, fallacies, and biases are a result of faults in the perception building operations of our brain which exist below the floorboards of the conscious mind, down in the subconscious, where we have no control over them. In the end our perceptions become so distorted that they in no way resemble reality. The existence of this aspect of the human condition, that there is a very real difference between reality and what we want reality to be, is a truth come upon by countless philosophies across the globe and throughout history, including the philosophy of India’s Vedic religion which Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was once a participant of, in which reality is referred to as Rta, that which is true as opposed to that which is distorted.
Because we cannot always trust our perceptions, we require a systematic means of transcending them, gleaning information about the world in such a way that we are able to counter to the effects of our perceptual shortcomings – dissolve our illusions, overcome our biases, and correct our fallacies – in order to see beyond what we want to see. Thankfully, just such a system is already in place, we call it science. The practices and principles one must follow in order to properly exercise science are known collectively as the scientific method. If somebody wishes to validate their beliefs, at least scientifically, then these practices and principles must be followed without exception, the less they are followed the less scientifically valid the concept behind their beliefs will be, falling from scientifically valid, to bad science and eventually to pseudoscience.
A few of the practices and principles of science:
1) Skepticism: In the words of the late physicist Richard Feynman, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” Science begins and ends with skepticism. Contrary to popular belief, skepticism doesn’t require that you not believe in anything, or that you be closed minded – quite the opposite, actually – it requires that you always acknowledge the very real possibility that your beliefs are wrong despite how strongly you may feel about them.
The following are merely two from a long list of perceptual faults which this principles helps to protect against:
• The illusion of knowledge: Despite taking up about two percent of the mass of your body, your brain consumes nearly a quarter of your body’s oxygen and nutrients, as well as seventy percent of it’s glucose, making it a very expensive organ to use. If there is any way reserve those resources, the brain is naturally inclined to follow it. One way it does this is by convincing you that you know something even if you never bothered to learn it, inflicting you with the illusion of knowledge, which saves you the time and effort required to actually learn something and thus reserving your resources. You must always acknowledge the possibility that you do not actually know what you think you know.
• Alleged Certainty Fallacy: Should you refuse to accept the possibility that you are wrong, claiming absolute certainty in your beliefs and so negating any need to question them, then you will be incapable of properly exercising the scientific method – making yourself vulnerable to perceptual faults – and so any efforts to scientifically validate your beliefs is automatically a useless venture.
2) The Burden of Proof: This practice is basically the starting point for the construction of a new scientific concept and indicates my obligation as the person presenting the concept to prove it, at least if I want my beliefs to be validated scientifically, and especially if those beliefs counter any concepts that have already been proven. Say I come up to you and claim that there is a phenomenon I call ‘the maharishi effect’, not only is it my responsibility to prove that the maharishi effect is a real phenomenon it is also your responsibility to hold me to that. Should I fail or refuse to prove my claim then the status of the maharishi effect concept will remain in its default form, that it is not a real phenomenon.
Three fallacies in particular tend to pop up when dealing with the burden of proof:
• Blind Faith Fallacy: You accept that the maharishi effect is real on no other grounds than me saying that it is, taking me at my word in an act of blind faith.
• Blind Authority Fallacy: You accept that the maharishi effect is real simply because I have presented myself as an authoritative figure in the matter and claimed that it is real and so you don’t even bother questioning the validity of my claim in yet another act of blind faith.
• Argument from Ignorance: When you demand proof that the maharishi effect is real, I try to unjustifiably shift the burden of proof on to you by demanding that you prove the maharishi effect is not real. I am the one insisting it’s reality, therefore I am the one obliged to prove it.
3) Corroboration With Known Facts: It is very important that the concept corroborate what has already been proven, that it be in agreement with the known facts. If for whatever reason my beliefs are in disagreement with any known facts then we find ourselves back to the matter of the burden of proof. This time I have two responsibilities, first I must prove that the known facts are actually wrong and if I succeed in doing so then I must prove that those aspects of my beliefs which counter those disproven facts are actually correct. As per usual, if I fail or refuse to fulfill my obligations then the default concept will remain in place and the new concept stemming from my beliefs will be rejected.
Take the example of the heliocentric model of the universe as a case in point. The original concept was the geocentric model, that earth lay at the center of the universe, and this was based on two known facts of the time: 1) each and every day, the sun, moon, and stars consistently rise from the eastern horizon and descend into the western horizon proving that the cosmos moves around Earth, and 2) while standing on the surface of Earth, you do not feel it moving the way you feel a cart moving while you’re driving it. When the heliocentric model that Earth rotates around the sun was first presented, the majority of people felt no inclination to accept this new idea because it countered the known facts. Eventually the first fact was disproven thanks largely to the development of the telescope, the universe is not in motion around Earth instead it is Earth that is in motion, spinning on its axis, hence why the celestial bodies consistently rise in the east and set in the west. It was also discovered that we do not feel Earth’s motions because it is moving through the vacuum of space with nothing to cause friction and so provide the sensation of movement like the friction of the wheels of a cart on the gravel of the road, and because those celestial bodies are so distant their passage in contrast to our motions are undetectable to the naked eye, unlike the passage of the surrounding landscape we see while riding in the cart. With the accepted facts disproven and the new concept proven, the heliocentric model replaced the geocentric one as the default model which remains to this day because nobody has succeeded in disproving it.
Hagelin’s attempts to correlate Maharishi’s ‘field of consciousness’ with quantum physic’s ‘unified field’, is little more than Hagelin modifying the science to fit his beliefs, and despite these efforts he has thus far failed to prove that either of these things even exist. He also has failed to prove that TM practitioners meditating in concert generate a ‘coherence of consciousness’, a vague and also unproven concept, or that the Maharishi Effect is real, resulting from the influence of the ‘coherence of consciousness’ across the ‘field of consciousness’. None of his works in these efforts have been of good enough quality to warrant publication in peer review scientific journals, only publication in those journals operated by the TM movement and their associates. Because the beliefs of the TM movement do not corroborate with the known facts, it has thus far been rejected by the scientific community.
4) Parsimonious: The invention of the ‘law of parsimony’ or ‘Ockham’s razor’ is attributed to the English Franciscan friar William of Ockham (1287 – 1347) and states ‘Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected’. In this case the two competing hypotheses are the default, that ‘the maharishi effect is not real’, and the concept provided by the TM movement, that ‘the maharishi effect is real’.
The default assumes only one thing, that the maharishi effect is not real. The concept that the maharishi effect is real assumes that stress is the primary cause of human discomfort; it assumes that it is not just any stress but something called ‘deep stress’ which is the primary cause of violent crimes; it assumes that something called ‘deep rest’ is the only way to cure deep stress; it assumes that the only way of achieving ‘deep rest’ is through Transcendental Meditation; it assumes that if a group of people perform the meditation in concert then they create something called ‘coherence of consciousness’ – the existence of which is also an assumption – which is transmitted not unlike a radio signal across something else called a ‘field of consciousness’ – again, the existence of this field is an assumption – which lowers the stress level of the population around them. None of these assumptions have been validated scientifically, what demonstrations have been performed to prove the effect is real have only provided negative results, and what science studies have been performed have all been of too poor quality to yield any significant evidence, hence the default shall remain in place until the necessary steps have been taken to replace it.
5) Empirically testable and repeatable with consistent results: One of science’s central practices is that everything is judged true or false according not just to the quantity but also the quality of the evidence provided, this protects us from making the same judgment using less dependable means like judging according to faith, authority, or personal experience. An entire mountain of poor quality evidence can be trumped entirely by just a few samples of high quality evidence. So, we come to one of the pivotal points in taking a belief and validating it scientifically, the point with the most potential to either make or break it.
First and foremost, the belief must be testable, meaning the proponent must be able to design experiments in order to gain evidence about whether or not the belief is true or false. In order to succeed through experimentation, there are two very important requirements to keep in mind, these experiments must be repeatable so that others can perform them the same as you have and that the results of all these experiments must be consistent. Such factors as cultural differences, gender, religiosity, or geographic location of the other parties should have no influence on the results so that a party consisting of male Muslim scientists in Saudi Arabia, a mixed gender group of Hindu scientists in India, an all female group of Buddhist scientists in Japan, Christian scientists in Mexico, and atheist scientists in England will all come up with the same results as you after repeating the experiment.
This is where publication in a peer review scientific journal comes into play. Using as precise language as possible you must clearly state the purpose of your experiment – what it is you’re trying to prove – next, you must describe the experiment process itself in as great detail as possible so that anyone desiring to do so will have no trouble repeating it, then you must objectively – without personal interpretation – state the results of the experiment even if they do not necessarily support your belief, in the end you must state how the results support your belief while also explaining away – with reason and logic – any results that do not support it. This way, scientists from all across the globe can read your article, repeat your experiment, then publish their own article either proving or disproving that the results were consistent. As you can see, publication within a peer review journal does not indicate a concept has been validated scientifically because it is only one of several steps required in the process of validation.
What if the results are not consistent? Confounding factors are any variables which interferes with an experiment, altering the results which would have been obtained had the experiment taken place without interference. Scientific controls are any methods used to prevent confounding factors from interfering with the experiment. If different people performing the same experiment come up with different results, that means that the experiment is somehow fundamentally flawed, usually because the very design of the experiment leaves it vulnerable to confounding factors. When this occurs then the confounding factors must be identified and a new experiment designed with scientific controls in place preventing further interference. This process must be repeated until an experiment is designed which yields consistent results.
The following are a few examples of confounding factors and the scientific controls used to prevent them:
Placebo Effect and The Immune System: There is one thing almost all pharmaceutical commercials have in common, they present anecdotal evidence – that is, people claim to have suffered from a certain condition, had taken the product, then no longer suffered from the condition. Anecdotal evidence may work to convince people to buy the product, but scientifically it is all but worthless because of such confounding factors as the placebo effect and the immune system. The placebo effect takes place when somebody takes a product that actually has no effect whatsoever, and is relieved of their condition, not because the product worked but because they expected it to work and so when they experienced relief they assumed it was due to the effects of the product. The immune system is always at work, trying to clear up the various conditions that may arise such as the common cold, a rash, or a headache and sometimes we will take a product to help it along unaware that the relief we felt shortly thereafter was due to the efforts of our immune system as opposed to the effects of the product. When designing an experiment to test whether a certain product effectively cures a condition, scientific controls must be present to prevent these confounding factors from interfering, control groups are just such a method.
With a control group you would select a number of subjects with the condition you’re seeking to treat and randomly divide them into three groups, one receives the product, another receives a sugar pill they are told is the product, and the third receives nothing. The second group is a control against the placebo effect and the third is a control against the immune system. If a greater number of subjects who received the product were cured of their condition than the people in the control groups then the results suggest that the product is a successful treatment.
Chance: Just because the first test yielded positive results doesn’t mean that the jury is in, there is a possibility that the positive results were due to chance. This is a very common confounding factor in scientific experiments, the control for which is repetition. By repeating the control group tests over and over again, the more the merrier, with each round yielding positive results then you know that the product does work and the results were not simply a matter of chance.
Bias: Sometimes the results of an experiment can be influenced by the expectations or perceptions of the researchers and the test subjects. For example, the researcher performing the experiment is hoping for a particular outcome and so, unconsciously, will only acknowledge those results which positively support the desired outcome. Also, instead of allowing events to occur naturally, the subject being tested may strive toward a particular result which they believe the researcher is hoping for, thus interfering with the experiment. A blind study is an experiment in which the test subject doesn’t know they’re being tested, and so any bias on the part of the subject will not affect the results. A double-blind study is an experiment in which both the researcher and the subject are unaware of the true nature of the experiment, what it is intended to prove, and so the bias of neither can interfere with the results.
6) Correctable, Dynamic yet Provisional: As human beings, we find uncertainty to be very uncomfortable, the alleged certainty fallacy being our attempts to absolve that discomfort by convincing ourselves that our beliefs are absolutely certain, not a scrap of doubt to be found. Consequently, because we do not know everything about Nature - that is, the universe and all phenomena contained therein - certainty in what we believe is impossible. There’s always going to be evidence which suggests, not necessarily that our beliefs are wrong, but that they’re not entirely correct and so if our beliefs are to survive the process of scientific validation they cannot be set in stone. If new evidence arises which suggests a fault in our beliefs then we must be able to modify those beliefs in order to account for the new evidence. The beliefs must always be modified to fit the science rather than the science modified to fit the beliefs. Even if our beliefs do survive the process of scientific validation and so become the new default, we must always understand that it is a very real possibility that another concept will arise further down the line that will eventually replace it as the default. In science, as in Nature, nothing is certain and nothing is permanent, to claim otherwise would be a fallacy.
As a final point, when reading about science and experiments there is one phrase you will come by again and again: scientific rigor. This means that the practices and principles of the scientific method have been meticulously followed. Without scientific rigor you leave yourself vulnerable to the countless perceptual flaws inherent in all of as as human beings. If you do not properly exercise the scientific method then it is impossible to validate your belief scientifically and any results you may produce will be rejected by the scientific community as inconclusive.
As we saw before, the TM movements website provides a very impressive list of hundreds of publications in peer review journals pertaining to what they claim to be the validation of Transcendental Meditation and the Maharishi Effect. However, the reviews of this impressive body of work are very consistent:
The trials in this review were also at overall serious risk of bias…a lack of methodological rigor in much of the research…
…due to the limited number of trials…there were also too few trials…more trials that are methodologically rigorous, have longer follow-up periods and larger sample sizes are needed.
The dearth of high-quality evidence…As a consequence of the very limited evidence currently available…Otherwise, much of the evidence was insufficient…
The impressive number of studies provided by the TM website as validating their claims concerning TM and the Maharishi Effect may have quantity on its side but that is rendered pointless because of the poor quality of them due to the lack of scientific rigor. The science itself is not authentic science but bad science, however that fact does not necessarily disprove TM it simply means that there is much more work to be done before it can be proven one way or the other and because of this, despite the insistence of TM members that their beliefs are scientifically valid, Transcendental Meditation can at best only be considered pseudoscience. In light of this evidence, the default will remain in place, that the maharishi effect is not real. Granted one could argue that the scientific community’s rejection of the TM movement’s claims, and refusal to accept the results of the hundreds of studies listed on the TM website for being of too poor quality is little more than the scientific community suffering from the ad hoc rescue ad hoc fallacy mentioned earlier. However, this argument would immediately run into a brick wall in the form of the quantity and quality of the evidence that the scientific community’s judgment is fair and accurate. If there is any doubt in the accuracy of this judgment, simply observe the results of the ‘85 and ‘93 demonstrations in Washington D.C.
In closing, I would like to provide the advice from another spiritual leader from India, Siddhartha Gautama, “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”
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That is a great example of what Feynman called "Cargo Cult science":