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Do All Cults, Like All Psychotherapies, Exploit the Placebo Effect?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’m a child of the Sixties, so I’ve known lots of people over the years who’ve joined cults. One of the most popular was Transcendental Meditation, which the Indian-born guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began marketing to westerners, notably the Beatles, a half century ago. TM is making a comeback, in large part because of the efforts of David Lynch, director of Eraser Head, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and other creepy classics. Over the past eight years he has become a global evangelist for TM. According to a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Lynch believes that TM can yield “true inner happiness.”

I have no doubt that for Lynch and many other practitioners, TM works; that is, it makes them feel better. “Better” can include anything from feeling calmer and less stressed to having a stronger sense of purpose, meaning and connection to other people and all of life.

Of course, by this criterion Scientology, Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, the Hare Krishna movement, Unification Church and every other cult works. (Some readers may prefer the term “religion” for some of these institutions, but I view religions as cults that have achieved respectability, in some cases by abandoning extreme tenets.) After all, numerous studies have found a correlation between health and religious faith.

The question is, why do cults work? Why do they make adherents feel better? The obvious (to me) answer is that they harness the placebo effect, the tendency of our belief that something will benefit us to be self-fulfilling. Cults share many elements that seem designed to evoke potent placebo effects:

*Specialness. Each cult usually insists on its uniqueness and superiority to all rivals. It offers not just a path to knowledge and happiness but The Path. The cult holds out the hope that diligent adherents can achieve special states of being, called salvation, enlightenment, getting clear, etc. Followers are often encouraged to persuade others to convert.

*Supernatural Founder. Each cult insists that its founder—and sometimes its current leader–possesses revelatory knowledge and powers beyond those of ordinary mortals. This prophet, savior or guru is said to be infallible, enlightened, chosen by God, semi-divine or divine. Examples: Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Reverend Moon, the Dalai Lama, the Pope, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

*Rituals. Adherence to the cult often entails ritualized practices such as meditation, yoga, prayer, signing hymns to God, attending regular group services and so on.

*Secrecy. Some cults bind adherents together with secret knowledge. When I lived in Denver in the 1970s, I had friends who joined a cult called Divine Light Mission, which taught members meditation techniques that they could not reveal to outsiders. Each TM practitioner is also given a unique, secret mantra to repeat during meditation. I once pestered two friends who had learned TM to reveal their secret mantras. One finally told me, and the other blurted out in dismay that he had been given the same mantra.

*Money. We value what we pay for, so not surprisingly religions ask devotees to donate or tithe, and some, such as Scientology and TM, charge for spiritual training. Learning basic TM costs $1000, and advanced courses cost much more. In 2002, Lynch paid $1 million for an “Enlightenment Course” taught by Maharishi Yogi himself (who didn’t even teach in the flesh!). Sigmund Freud, who was no fool, insisted that payments were a crucial component of psychoanalysis. It’s a win-win situation for therapist and patient, guru and devotee.

Speaking of Freud and psychoanalysis, I’ve written about how different psychotherapies all produce roughly the same benefits, or lack thereof, an equivalence that has been dubbed “the Dodo effect.” The term refers to an Alice in Wonderland scene in which a dodo bird, after watching Alice and other characters run a race, announces, “Everyone has won, and all must have prizes!” The Dodo effect is consistent with the hypothesis that all psychotherapies harness the placebo effect. My guess is that the dodo effect applies to all cults as well as to all psychotherapies.

Cults and psychotherapies are hardly alone in exploiting the placebo effect. In his new book The Placebo Effect in Clinical Practice, psychiatrist Walter Brown of Brown University writes that “the history of medical treatment is largely a chronicle of placebos. When subjected to scientific scrutiny, the overwhelming majority of treatments have turned out to be devoid of intrinsic therapeutic effectiveness; they derived their benefits from the placebo effect.”

So here’s another question: What happens if you just practice one of a cult’s rituals—singing in a church choir, say, or eating peyote–without buying into all the claptrap about its supernatural specialness?

Journalist Claire Hoffman, who wrote the Times Lynch profile, apparently falls into this category. She learned TM as a child and still meditates twice a day “to deal with anxiety and fatigue and to stave off occasional despair.” But she doesn’t buy Lynch’s claim that if we all embrace TM it will “change everything, for everyone.” She calls her practice “something very simple, like doing yoga or avoiding dairy.”

Hoffman might get much stronger placebo effects if she had as much faith in TM as Lynch. The more you believe in the uniquely transformative power of your cult, the more you get out of it. The only price you have to pay is your rationality.

Photo of Maharishi Yogi courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Jeanine Broderick 4:29 pm 03/4/2013

    Only the belief is required. The other aspects are all trappings and usually designed in some way, shape or form to be of benefit to the leaders rather than the followers.

    There is one set of teachings that only have two in common – the belief and the founder having “information from God” yet many practioners will tell you that they don’t care if it is from God or an elaborate hoax because their life is indescribably better because of following the teachings and they would continue following them even if the “teacher” was deemed to be faking the source.

    The teachings are available freely on-line.
    While there are events that you can attend for money they are in no way required to gain the knowledge.
    They absolutely do not state they are better than any other path & will encourage people to use the path that works for them.
    There is no secrecy or requirement for secrecy.
    Many different rituals are offered as “potential paths” to greater happiness but none are proscribed or mandated.

    The teachings changed my life in innumerable good ways and I have gone on to find scientific support for all the main tenants they put forth.

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  2. 2. bicylemichaela 6:45 pm 03/4/2013

    This is a good list of the characteristics of spiritual groups. They certainly seem to apply to a Chinese group I belong to. I was initiated and now after many years of practice, I am beginning to feel like I am satisfied and less anxious. It wasn’t blind faith, I don’t think. It was introspection and thought, i.e., rationality. But then that brings faith. My experience of our leader being supernatural is of the leaders’ abilities to articulate conditions that I have in my life and solutions to them. But the leader is not perfect. Even our higher power, the creator, is not totally perfect. There are obvious flaws in the world. But it is the best solution I’ve heard. And I’m always interested in listening and learning from others. As my group teaches, most people we meet are actually ahead of us. Our group asks for donations and that is good because we all see the benefit for us and we want to help create the same benefits for others. I like to make these donations more than to many other organizations that I can think of. So the donations argument is somewhat lacking. On secrecy, we are told that, as Jesus said, each of you can do what I have done. So I encourage our group to tell more to newcomers right away and if what we think rings a bell, well then great. Otherwise, what good is keeping these great beliefs all of the insiders have and not letting them bounce off of the minds of the newcomers?

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  3. 3. littleredtop 7:51 pm 03/4/2013

    On the positive side; cultism unquestionably can provide people with a sense of well being and that’s something in exceptionally short supply these days. What, other than a puppy, can provide that effect naturally? Perhaps its time for some industrious and charismatic individual to start a puppy cult thus providing followers with the ultimate in warmth, comfort and well being.

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  4. 4. GKaplanMDPhD 8:22 pm 03/4/2013

    The nice thing about the scientific method, as Sci Am readers know, is that it can easily tease apart real effects from placebo effects when the experimental design includes appropriate control groups, blinding of raters, a cross-over of groups when feasible, and an analysis of results with appropriate statistical rigor. The nice thing about the Transcendental Meditation technique is that no matter the beliefs of the subjects, the experimenters or the independent raters, time after time it has been shown to have a real positive physiologic effect, beyond any placebo effect. This has been amply shown in studies of the effect of TM on hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and anxiety, to name just a few disorders.

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  5. 5. popseal 8:24 pm 03/4/2013

    Clearly the best evaluation of any religion comes from the personal lives of the founder and the first generation of disciples. Time soils the purity of the “firstlings”. With the exception of Jesus and the twelve, all religions are more than wanting. Islam was started by a known killer. Eastern mystics were pretty much busy with self knowledge. I’ll go for the redemption, justification, reconciliation, regeneration, and ultimate sanctification and glorification proceeding from Christ’s cross and His empty tomb. New agers, and TV church can leave me out.

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  6. 6. tmonk 8:47 pm 03/4/2013

    Dr.Brown is a reverse ideologue.An ideologue who believes that not believing makes him-not an ideologue.Tell the people who get insulin who are in a diabetic coma, a defibrillator when in a malignant arrhythmia or an anti hypertensive when they have malignant hypertension etc that medicine is based mostly upon placebo.I suppose publishing a book these days has trumped public well being.

    Dr Brown-if you get ill, lets see if you take a sugar pill.
    In reality , a careful analysis shows the placebo effect is enormous.Sometimes it is long lasting-other times it is not.To make a blanket statement is really rather uniformed-except to publish a book.

    Russian proverb-a fool throws a pebble in a pond-takes 100 wise men
    to fish it out.

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  7. 7. knowledgekitten 9:55 pm 03/4/2013

    Your basic assumption about Transcendental Meditation being a cult is false, most likely based on Internet gossip and not fact-based, journalistic research.

    TM is not a cult, except in the eyes of a few uninformed people on the fringe who grossly misconstrue the practice for something it is not. In my opinion, the “comeback” that TM is making (if it’s even correct to say that it ever fell from mainstream culture in the first place), is due not so much to David Lynch but to 40 years of scientific research on the effects of the technique. I know that many health professionals, medical school professors, therapists and others are now recognizing that there’s a solid scientific basis for recommending TM. Your article seems way out of date.

    As a TM meditator, I can vouch that TM makes you “feel good.” But your classification of TM alongside the religions you cite is a fallacious association. It is a category error to classify TM as a religion. To date there are over 600 scientific research studies, conducted in more than 250 independent universities and medical schools, validating the benefits of TM. Hundreds of these appeared in peer-reviewed journals. Over 50 are randomized controlled trials. The NIH has granted over $27M over the past 20 years for teams of scientists to further research TM. The American Heart Association just published an NIH-funded study showing that TM reduces heart attack and stroke by 48%. Most of the research on TM controlled for the placebo effect. There goes your main premise.

    I do suggest you research before you write.

    Here’s my favorite link to a page that addresses the baseless feeble old “TM is just a cult” myth: Myth #7: Yikes! It’s a cult! http://meditationasheville.blogspot.com/2010/12/myth-yikes-its-cult.html

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  8. 8. BrianB2 10:42 pm 03/4/2013

    it’s funny how easily ideology can get in the way of science – prejudicial criticism does not replace scientific rigor

    The author of this blog article would do well to actually look at the science underlying meditation in general, and of TM in specific, before naively and erroneously categorizing the effects TM as simply being a placebo effect, when there have been over 350 peer reviewed studies done by thousands of scientists at dozens of top universities around the world (all of which used appropriate controls to avoid placebo effects), and published in over a hundred reputable medical journals, over the last almost 50 years.

    The substantial constellation of beneficial physiological effects associated with the practice of TM are not placebos.

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  9. 9. m 6:22 am 03/5/2013

    Its heart warming to see all the loonies defending their cults for naught.

    The article is not about whether singing is good, or whether yoga, or mediation is good, or if saying yes to everyone you meet is good for you, its about cults wrapping up their beliefs with placebo effects. When all is said and done the process and its effects whether real or not means “50%” of people you meet will agree with it.

    Unfortunately too many people with low iq’s frequent this site, but at least some book writers with “old” feelings/ideas and concepts are presented in a nice fashion is refreshing.

    We will never solve the problem but its unlikely cultists will read it, except to exploit more people. He may have done better if he had done a “dummies guide to building your own cult”.

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  10. 10. knowledgekitten 6:37 am 03/5/2013

    I think the main and glaring point Horgan misses is that when people learn Transcendental Meditation, they are not joining anything. They learn a technique that involves no belief, no change in lifestyle, no mind control. TM is a non-religious technique with no dogma or spiritual trappings. It’s taught by professionally certified teachers in a professional setting. Even if you don’t believe in TM, it still works for you, as so many well-controlled scientific research studies have shown. How is that a religion or a sect?
    A simple technique that I do on my own, at home, in my room by myself, for my own personal benefit (like jogging), is not a cult. Even when I meditate with my friends, I am practicing a technique that settles my mind to a state of natural order and self-reliance (yes, in the Emersonian sense). I keep practicing twice a day because of the growing benefits I enjoy, not because someone told me to do it or just because I believe in it.
    The author misses the mark here by a long shot with his cursory, knee-jerk classification of TM. Sometimes even an educated person might make this mistake just because TM originated in India (a deeply religious nation) or because its founder wore a robe and was himself a monk, or because of the word “meditation.” But such misclassifications have nothing to do with science or critical thinking.

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  11. 11. john4burns 6:40 am 03/5/2013

    I know a fair bit about Transcendental Meditation..as I teach it. Reading John Horgan’s opinions about the technique brought to mind some lines by Yeats: “The clever man who cries, The catch cries of the clown”

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  12. 12. Dominic108 10:17 am 03/5/2013

    I totally disagree with the negative connotation that some attach to the placebo effect. The placebo effect is simply that negative thoughts or feelings have negative effects on our health and, conversely, positive thoughts and feelings have a positive effects. The placebo effect is an intricate part of the overall effect of any treatment, including medication : it is not a separate effect, but plays a role at different stages of the treatment. This means that the placebo effect is always specific to the treatment. We may try to compare the treatment group with a control group that receives what we may call a placebo, but the placebo effect on the control group will never be the same as on the treatment group. It is very important to realize that this is also true for medication. The placebo effect of a drug that has some self-noticeable effects on the physiology, not necessarily positive effects, but still some self-noticeable effects, cannot be compared with the placebo effect of a totally non active pill. Therefore, we never really control for the placebo effect. Why should we? If it is an intricate part of the treatment, then we should not even try to control for it. A control group is very important, not to control for the placebo effect, but to control for other variables that are NOT a part of the treatment. What is more important than to control for the placebo effect is to measure objectively the effects of the treatment, not using self-reports or subjective assessments only, but also physiological measurements and other objective tests and then choose the treatment that is best. In that arena, TM is doing very well. In fact, even the usual “high quality” research on the effect of drugs to treat depression is not as good, because they typically use self-report and subjective assessments to quantify the effect of these drugs. In contrast, the effect of TM is measured in terms of physiological measurements such as blood pressure, cortisol level reaction to a stressor, etc. and it was shown to do better than other meditations that are as likely as TM to make use of the placebo effect. Again, this is the key point, the placebo effect is only that, if you have positive thoughts and feelings then the results will be better. Sure, the mechanism of TM might include this kind of effects. We cannot argue against that. The important is that it is a genuine mechanism, just like with medication. In both cases, the placebo effect is an intricate part of the treatment, which cannot be avoided and should not be avoided.

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  13. 13. marclevesque 10:41 am 03/5/2013

    @m

    “Unfortunately too many people with low iq’s frequent this site”

    Please avoid that kind of rhetoric. As a group, people with lower IQs are not the cause of some problem.

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  14. 14. Baconneggsuhave 11:50 am 03/5/2013

    Self-fulfilling prophecy is certainly a reason that positive thinking approaches can work for many people.

    It is a pretty irrational leap to decide that they in some way explain either religion or the greater happiness reported by religious people. I realize you think there is no difference between a religion a a cult, but in fact the difference is an obvious key to well-being: practicing a religion builds community and social acceptance in the believer, while being in a what is termed a cult often leads to social rejection and conflict. So, in respect to the issue you purport to be discussing, social respectability is a major difference.

    Of course, it is obvious to anyone who gives it a moment’s thought, that religions are not primarily devoted to enhancing the believers’ well-being. Religions often demand sacrifice, mortification, calls to uncomfortable political action, persecution of out-groups, and burdening followers with guilt.

    No doubt that some people get a “positive thinking” boost from casual practice of religious devotion. But it is hardly an explanation for the fanaticism of cult followers, who are often making themselves miserable.

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  15. 15. Quantumburrito 1:08 pm 03/5/2013

    Some people here seem to be taking offense at the labeling of the effects of TM as placebo effects. That’s unnecessary. The placebo effect is a well-respected effect in medicine, especially in psychiatric medicine. There’s nothing wrong in ascribing the salutary nature of TM to the placebo effect.

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  16. 16. Dominic108 1:51 pm 03/5/2013

    @Quantumburrito, I would not take offense if we say that the placebo effect is a part or an addition to the mechanism used in TM. This was the whole point of my previous comment. However, if there is a mental technique (i.e., a use of the mind) that has a real beneficial effect on the physiology, it is TM. I do not believe that every possible effect of the mind on the physiology must be considered a placebo effect – that would be a big stretch of the definition of the placebo effect. So, I am not offended by your comment, but I do respectfully disagree with it.

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  17. 17. jerryd 4:42 pm 03/5/2013

    Belief is not required as the real effect they exploit is many people are willingly believe anything to belong to the group, even when they know it’s wrong.

    Another is exploiting those with marginal personalities like Scientology, most cults do, by giving them a purpose and place they will do near anything to keep including becoming willing slaves to the figurehead.

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  18. 18. EssexGeoff 4:44 pm 03/5/2013

    Do TMers still levitate as they used to claim? Or is that too embarrassing and has been conveniently forgotten? Now, that would be impressive, and it’s quite hard to do by placebo…..

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  19. 19. joenn 6:06 pm 03/5/2013

    It seems like most people think in terms of Science “OR” religion, Science “OR” belief in God or a God. Science is itself a religion complete with myths, Apostles and even cults. (Once apon a time it was my religion) The belief that science can answer everything, that anyone that doesn’t believe in science like you do is dumber than you, that science only can lead to true enlightenment is the same as any other cult out there. To say that science only can answer everything is just as indefensable as the belief in the tooth fairy. Many of the pillers of science believed in God. Their belief in God didn’t invalidate their science did it?

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  20. 20. jonhuie 9:11 pm 03/5/2013

    1. The use of the word “cult” is derogatory, and inappropriate in this article. No one – whether Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, Yogi, or TM practitioner – would label their own belief system as a “cult.” People only use the word “cult” to describe OTHER PEOPLE’s belief systems – with which they disagree.

    2. The single greatest benefit people get from religious communities and other group activities is community – the mutual physical and emotional support of a group of like-minded people.

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  21. 21. tranquilitybase 10:15 pm 03/5/2013

    There was an earlier comment where it was pointed out the positive physiologic effects of TM and how those effects can be consistently measured. I’ve done TM for a number of years now, and have personally found this to be true. For example, it’s not uncommon that I feel more rested after meditating. I’m not sure how that experience would be attributed to the placebo effect, since it’s physical in nature, and not an emotion or mood.

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  22. 22. David Orme-Johnson 9:29 am 03/6/2013

    I was surprised to find so little science in a blog appearing in Scientific American, to which I subscribe and really enjoy reading. There are neurophysiological bases for the benefits of different meditation practices, which should not be trivialized. In the case of mindfulness (Buddhist) techniques, functional neuroimaging studies have suggested that extended practice of mindfulness develops a more flexible emotional regulation by engaging executive frontal cortical structures to dampen automatic amygdala (emotional) activation. There does appear to be a large overlap between these effects and psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy and those activated by placebo,1 but this does not mean they are not biologically based or unimportant.

    The Transcendental Meditation technique works by another neurobiological mechanism. It produces greater reduction in respiratory rate, skin resistance, plasma lactate, and cortisol (a major stress hormone in humans) than ordinary rest, 2 3 reduces stress reactivity 4-6 and reduces coronary heart disease.7 For example, a ten year randomized controlled trial of heart patients has shown TM practice reduced heart attack, stroke, and death by 48%. Importantly, it produces global EEG coherence,8 which a wide range of evidence has shown provides long-range integration of distal brain structures necessary for sensory, motor, and cognitive behavior.9,10 Indeed, well-controlled randomized trials have shown that TM practice increases a wide range of cognitive abilities, including logical reasoning, perceptual flexibility, and creativity, important components of critical thinking.11
    And, oh yes, a comprehensive meta-analysis of 143 studies has shown that TM practice has almost twice the effects as placebos on reducing anxiety.12

    1. Chiesa A, Brambilla P, Serretti A. Functional neural correlates of mindfulness meditations in comparison with psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy and placebo effect. Is there a link? Acta Neuropsychiatrica. 2010;22(3):104-117.
    2. Dillbeck MC, Orme-Johnson DW. Physiological differences between Transcendental Meditation and rest. American Psychologist. 1987;42:879–881.
    3. Walton KG, Schneider RH, Nidich SI, Salerno JW, Nordstrom CK, Bairey-Merz CN. Psychosocial stress and cardiovascular disease 2: Effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation technique in treatment and prevention. Behavioral Medicine. 2002;28(3):106-123.
    4. Barnes VA, Treiber FA, Davis H. Impact of Transcendental Meditation on cardiovascular function at rest and during acute stress in adolescents with high normal blood pressure. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2001;51(4):597-605.
    5. Orme-Johnson DW. Autonomic stability and Transcendental Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine. 1973;35:341-349.
    6. Travis FT, Haaga D, Hagelin JS, et al. Effects of Transcendental Meditation practice on brain functioning and stress reactivity in college students. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 2009;71(2):170-176.
    7. Barnes VA, Orme-Johnson DW. Prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease in adolescents and adults through the Transcendental Meditation program®: A research review update. Current Hypertension Reviews. 2012;(in press).
    8. Travis FT, Haaga DA, Hagelin J, et al. Effects of Transcendental Meditation practice on brain functioning and stress reactivity in college students. Int J Psychophysiol. Feb 2009;71(2):170-176.
    9. Sauseng P, Klimesch W, Schabus M, Doppelmayr M. Fronto-parietal coherence in theta and upper alpha reflect central executive functions of
    working memory. International Journal Psychophysiology. 2005;57:97–103.
    10. Palva S, Palva JM. New vistas for α-frequency band oscillations. Trends in Neurosciences. 2007;30(4):150-158.
    11. So KT, Orme-Johnson DW. Three randomized experiments on the holistic longitudinal effects of the Transcendental Meditation technique on cognition. Intelligence. 2001;29(5):419-440.
    12. Eppley K, Abrams AI, Shear J. Differential effects of relaxation techniques on trait anxiety: A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology. 1989;45(6):957–974.

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  23. 23. rshoff 12:45 pm 03/6/2013

    I rail against ‘the placebo effect’. The end does not justify the means. It may influence some, but as in a cult, it is not a reliable treatment. If there was such an unreliable pill that also presented immense risk of misdiagnosis, the FDA would ban it immediately. Yes. The placebo effect and cults exploit the same human vulnerabilities. Disgusting.

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  24. 24. rshoff 12:52 pm 03/6/2013

    @Dominic – I have no bias against people choosing to use positive thoughts to feel better. I have no doubt that positive thoughts (at least abolishing negative thoughts) can lead us down a path of choices and behaviors that sometimes helps us feel better. But the Placebo Effect is something that medical practitioners (aka Doctors) actively prescribe without the knowledge of the patient. This is disgusting. It is a manipulation and a lie. That I cannot abide by. Meditation, yoga, and religious philosophies can be beneficial when we choose to participate with full knowledge about the technics full disclosure by those that prescribe it.

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  25. 25. rshoff 1:01 pm 03/6/2013

    @joenn – Science and God are not mutually exclusive as you point out. But they are separate practices. They cannot lend any sort of ‘truth’ to each other. They are completely different mind sets, and as such, should remain separate. We should not use science to define God, and we should not invoke God to define science. Nobody said that science can lead to enlightenment (at least not anybody legitimate). Science leads to knowledge. Hard, cold, knowledge that can benefit our lives. As long as we don’t distort study of science with our philosophical beliefs of God. Simply put, an atom is an atom whether one believes in God or not.

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  26. 26. joenn 5:06 pm 03/6/2013

    @rshoff-Thank you for responding to my comment. First, I agree that an atom is still an atom regardless of belief. However to say that Science and God are mutually exclusive is like saying that mind and body are mutually exclusive. Modern medical science has finally caught up with what centuries old medical practice already knew. Mind and body are part of the same thing. They found nerve tissue everywhere in tissue that they didn’t expect. That showed that the brain is connected to the body in such a way that there is no divide between them. This could explain a lot of the how and why the placebo effect works. All parts of the body are connected to the brain and are controlled by it therefore the mind can control and affect the body in ways that we (some of us) don’t understand yet.

    Archeologists and or paleontologists study people and cultures by the artifacts that they leave behind. You cannot study artifacts successfully by themselves and leave the people and cultures that made them out of the picture.

    Science is the study of the universe and everything in it. Everything in this universe and we ourselves are artifacts put here by God. We cannot successfully study these “artifacts” and leave God out of the picture.

    Science and belief in God try to answer the most basic questions: Who are we? Why are we here? And why does it matter? The teachings about God help us understand why He did it; Science helps us understand how he did it.

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  27. 27. rshoff 7:03 pm 03/6/2013

    @joenn – I’m partially in agreement with you. Science and God are NOT mutually exclusive. That was my original comment to you. Where we disagree is whether they should influence each other. ‘They’ being the study of science and the practice of religion. My perspective is that although they are not mutually exclusive (the existence or pursuit of one does not disprove the other), they are indelibly separate practices and we should strive to clearly delineate that separation.

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  28. 28. joenn 8:52 pm 03/6/2013

    @rshoff-I am glad that we have some agreement on this matter. My point is not that you are wrong about keeping science and God separate, you’re not. It is that the different points of view together give us a better picture of what is “out there” than either one separately.

    Unfortunately just about all of science that I see starts with the premise that “God does not exist” PERIOD! Any science or evidence that leads in that direction is dismissed.

    Just as wrong is the notion that since it is all God’s will, why bother with science? Why not just accept things as they are?

    A healthy mix of the two points of view can give us a better understanding of the cosmos and our place in it.
    Stereo vision gives you a much better idea of the relationship of things to each other than a one-eyed view can.

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  29. 29. Jeanine Broderick 11:19 pm 03/6/2013

    @ rshoff
    12:52 pm 03/6/2013
    RE:@Dominic – I have no bias against people choosing to use positive thoughts to feel better. I have no doubt that positive thoughts (at least abolishing negative thoughts) can lead us down a path of choices and behaviors that sometimes helps us feel better.

    Your “at least banishing negative thoughts” is outdated.

    The meta-analysis published July 2012 (Harvard researchers) found “The absence of negative emotion is not the same as the presence of positive emotion.” They found that the benefits from the presence of positive emotions and optimism were not gained by those who experienced just an absence of negative emotions. Positive emotions were required to get the benefits.

    The benefits? 50% reduction in risk of getting heart disease and better decisions regarding many lifestyle areas including exercise and sleep.

    Someone else mentioned that TM had been shown to reduce the risk of by 48% – the TM study I saw showed a reduction that high in the risk of death from heart attack in people who already had heart disease.

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  30. 30. Jeanine Broderick 11:23 pm 03/6/2013

    @joenn
    5:06 pm 03/6/2013
    RE: @rshoff-Thank you for responding to my comment. First, I agree that an atom is still an atom regardless of belief. However to say that Science and God are mutually exclusive is like saying that mind and body are mutually exclusive. Modern medical science has finally caught up with what centuries old medical practice already knew. Mind and body are part of the same thing. They found nerve tissue everywhere in tissue that they didn’t expect. That showed that the brain is connected to the body in such a way that there is no divide between them. This could explain a lot of the how and why the placebo effect works. All parts of the body are connected to the brain and are controlled by it therefore the mind can control and affect the body in ways that we (some of us) don’t understand yet.
    Actually, a lot of the research is pointing to the heart being more of the “brain” than the brain. The heartmath institute has quite a bit of research on this topic.

    Link to this
  31. 31. rshoff 12:12 am 03/7/2013

    My point being that the placebo affect versus an active choice to choose alternate therapies. But nobody seems to bother to think about that distinction.

    Link to this
  32. 32. roberty 12:35 pm 03/9/2013

    John Hogan outlines a list of characteristics of specialness, supernatural authority, ritual, secrecy and money that could be applied to cognitive behavioral therapists, spiritual traditions, cults and the Founding Fathers, in that they exploit or take advantage of the placebo effect. As it seems Hogan is trying to sound the alarm on the dangers of placebos under his blanket list of cult characteristics. Of course, the placebo effect is something unexplainable or having an unknown cause. Friendships and even intimate love relationships could fall within Hogan’s idea of placebo manipulation. Herein Hogan may have stumbled upon the greatest placebo of all … the irrationality of love. Love has all the placebo characteristics of a cult … to stave off the unpleasantness of living in a rationalist world. It is a placebo that’s worth keeping despite not have a complete rationalist cause. Maybe John Hogan should try making friends … instead of calling everyone under the sun a fraud.

    Link to this
  33. 33. Dominic108 12:37 pm 03/9/2013

    @rshoff, Thank you to have clarified a point that I did not appreciate clearly before. For some, a placebo effect, by definition, only occurs in treatments that are nothing else than tricks to create positive thoughts and feelings. If we take that definition, I understand your opposition to the placebo effect. I also value truth. However, this definition is not practical in the case of meditation studies because the control interventions usually have some real effects : even just closing our eyes can bring some real beneficial relaxation. Therefore, with the strict definition that you seem to adopt, we would not know how to measure a placebo effect. For example, in the meta analysis by Eppley mentioned by David Orme Johnson, what is defined as a “placebo” is in fact a classification under the placebo category of different kind of control interventions such as sitting eyes close, health education, etc. Are you saying that the benefits of health education are due to lies? What was shown by Eppley is that the effect of TM on anxiety is better than the average effect of the control interventions that were classified under the category “placebo” in the meta-analysis.

    Link to this
  34. 34. rshoff 4:42 pm 03/13/2013

    @Dominic – Thank you for responding. I agree that education is not a lie. Education is a good thing. Education is also truthful and transparent, as should be our healthcare.

    Placebo by definition prevents the kind of truthful and transparency we deserve in our healthcare. Perhaps the effect with which you refer is not a ‘placebo’ effect. But rather a genuine mind/body benefit derived from techniques such as TM.

    Merriam Webster Dictionary:

    Placebo – a: a usually pharmacologically inert preparation prescribed more for the mental relief of the patient than for its actual effect on a disorder.

    Link to this
  35. 35. rshoff 4:50 pm 03/13/2013

    Perhaps a better question: Does TM merely exploit the ‘placebo effect’ or does it genuinely help us heal by leveraging the mind/body link?

    1 – to assume TM is placebo, is to discount the genuine nature of our mind/body link.

    2 – to dole out placebos is dishonest and risks putting too much control in the hands of a practitioner who is not transparent about his/her goals and techniques.

    I’m not a TM supporter, nor a foe. I’m for truthfulness and transparency. I am a foe of anything with the word “Placebo” attached to it.

    Link to this
  36. 36. Dominic108 6:16 am 03/15/2013

    Yes, the way you phrase the question avoid the negative connotation associated with a placebo. I hope I had read this suggestion before.

    Link to this
  37. 37. Dominic108 6:25 am 03/15/2013

    On the other hand, the mind/body link is a very general concept and the mechanism that is triggered by a placebo seems more specific : it is a link between a positive expectation or a positive intention and the body. I am all for avoiding negative connotations, but I have not found a better wording.

    Link to this
  38. 38. rshoff 1:24 pm 03/15/2013

    As with all concepts, I guess semantics and words are everything. Many people feel the same way, but words complicate and confuse things. We should have specific terms (and we may) to describe how the mind and body works together. I wish the community wouldn’t use the word placebo to describe how the mind can affect the body (and vice versa) and how the two work together. To me, that’s not placebo, that’s real. But again, with a rigorous study before being prescribed by the medical community to treat particular illness or dysfunction.

    Link to this
  39. 39. joemo 8:24 pm 03/19/2013

    I suspect that a placebo effect exists in the TM practice, at least for me. That may not be a negative thing, however. I believe that meditation renders me more content w/what I have. After I returned to meditation (transcendental or vedic), I noticed that I was less affected by things that I did not possess, such as talent, intelligence, money, etc. Franz Schubert composed Symphony #2 when he was 18 but w/TM I am not so disturbed about being a loser!

    Link to this
  40. 40. Bogoslovsky 10:16 am 04/20/2013

    I would like to recall that concept of placebo is unscientific.
    Why?
    1) There is no single, unambiguous definition of placebo.
    2) All definitions oxymorons.

    So to compare something to placebo is unscientific.
    Read Robin Nunn article.

    Link to this

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