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Research on TM and Other Forms of Meditation Stinks

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


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In response to my last post, which proposed that Transcendental Meditation and other cults might be exploiting the placebo effect, some readers cited studies supposedly showing that TM has therapeutic benefits. Well, sure. There are lots of studies showing that lots of forms of meditation can yield lots of benefits. But the research is unimpressive, to say the least, and is corrupted by the “allegiance effect,” the tendency of proponents of a treatment to find evidence that it works. (The term was coined by a Lester Luborsky, a prominent psychotherapy researcher.)

For a critical overview of meditation research, see a 2000 article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, “Meditation Meets Behavioral Medicine,” which I discussed in my 2003 book Rational Mysticism. Author Jensine Andresen, now a religious scholar at Columbia, reviewed more than 500 papers and books on meditation published over the last half century. Andresen cautioned that there are thousands of techniques that could be categorized as meditation; it is virtually impossible to define the term in a way that does justice to this vast diversity.

Not surprisingly, she said, attempts to measure meditation’s neurological effects with brain-wave monitors, positron emission tomography, and other techniques have yielded widely divergent findings. Meditation has been “prodded and poked by a variety of technological apparati, with inconclusive results,” Andresen commented. For every report of increased activity in the frontal cortex or decreased activity in the amygdala, there is a conflicting finding.

Investigations of meditation’s therapeutic benefits have been equally inconclusive. Meditation has been linked to a dizzying array of benefits, including the alleviation of stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, substance abuse, hostility, pain, depression, asthma, premenstrual syndrome, infertility, insomnia, substance abuse and the side effects of chemotherapy. But many of these studies have been poorly designed, Andresen remarked, carried out with inadequate controls or no controls at all.

Andresen noted that meditation has been linked to adverse side effects, too, including suggestibility, neuroticism, depression, suicidal impulses, insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, psychosis and dysphoria. In an implicit reference to the cultish context within which meditation is often taught, Andresen added that meditators may become vulnerable to “manipulation and control by others,” including “unscrupulous or delusional teachers.”

A similar picture emerges from the 2007 peer-reviewed report “Meditation practices for health: state of the research,” by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The report analyzed 813 studies of meditation and concluded that most were of “poor quality.”

The report stated: “Many uncertainties surround the practice of meditation. Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence.” If your particular form of meditation makes you feel good, do it! But don’t kid yourself that its medical benefits have been scientifically proven.

Image: http://www.ophpen.org.

 

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. hystoical 8:32 am 03/8/2013

    Most of the research you cite is outdated.

    Meditation research has exploded since 2003, and use of standardized interventions, namely Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) provide a structured method which can be reproduced across studies.

    A simple search on Google Scholar will show many meta-analysis studies supporting the efficacy of mindfulness meditation: http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=mindfulness+meta-analysis+placebo&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C31&as_sdtp=

    For example:
    Piet, J., & Hougaard, E. (2011). The effect of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for prevention of relapse in recurrent major depressive disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 31(6), 1032-1040.

    Galante, J., Iribarren, S. J., & Pearce, P. F. (2013). Effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on mental disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Journal of Research in Nursing, 18(2), 133-155.

    If you want to downplay the effects of meditation, at least use the latest meta-analyses.

    Even the 2007 report, at this point is 5 years old. The amount of research on mindfulness since then has exploded.

    Furthermore, there is no mention in this article of the changes in the brain that are associated with mindfulness / meditation. People who meditate have “increased cortical thickness,” increased immune response to the flu vaccine, increased NK cell activity, and increased telomerase activity. All of these things are related to be healthier, therefore these biological changes provide reasons why someone would feel better when meditating.

    Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., … & Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893.

    Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., M., R., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 564-570.

    Fang, C. Y., Reibel, D. K., Longacre, M. L., Rosenzweig, S., Campbell, D. E., & Douglas, S. D. (2010). Enhanced psychosocial well-being following participation in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program is associated with increased natural killer cell activity. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 531-538.

    Holzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., & Gard, T. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.

    Jacobs, T. L., Epel, E. S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. H., Wolkowitz, O. M., Bridwell, D. A., et al. (2010, October 29). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Dominic108 10:52 am 03/8/2013

    The articles mentioned by Mr. Horgan are not only old, but also of poor quality. Perhaps, he has some bias against meditation, TM in particular. This is not important. His last blog post and the title of his current post bring forward an important question : can we show that meditation beats the placebo effect? I am totally sold out to the value of meditation, TM in particular. Nevertheless, my answer to the question is NO. In fact, we cannot even show that medication (i.e. pills) beats the placebo effect. Why? Because the placebo effect is part of any treatment. Consider a random controlled study where the treatment is some active pill and the placebo is just some inactive pill that tastes just like the active pill. Note that it is well known that every subject in the study has a 50% chance to have the placebo – we cannot hide this fact to the subjects. Clearly, as soon as some effects from the active pill will be experienced by a subject, not necessarily positive effects, but nevertheless noticeable effects, the subject will realize that he is on the treatment group. The basic point here is that a placebo effect is a part of any treatment, even medication, and cannot be controlled using a control group, especially if the treatment has some real effects. Any difference between the control group and the treatment group will lead to a totally different application of the placebo effect.

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  3. 3. jstevewhite 1:02 pm 03/8/2013

    @Dominic108 – People designing trials understand the point you’ve made here, and use so-called “active” placebos. Ones that cause noticeable effects (like dry mouth).

    Link to this
  4. 4. jstevewhite 1:11 pm 03/8/2013

    I find it interesting that this post quotes:

    “But many of these studies have been poorly designed, Andresen remarked, carried out with inadequate controls or no controls at all.”

    and

    ” The report analyzed 813 studies of meditation and concluded that most were of “poor quality.”

    But at no point does this post discuss the findings of the “other” studies. When you say “most”, it leaves the “rest” who did not fail to meet the criteria of a “good study”. When you say “many”, it’s generally expected that even more met the criteria of a “good study”.

    What did those studies, the ones that weren’t poorly designed or of poor quality, have to say?

    I agreed with the general thrust of these two posts in re “woo” and meditation until about three years ago, when I started seeing studies that had what I consider to be rational methodologies; randomly assigned (rather than self-selected) cohorts, researcher-provided training for the meditation cohorts, with training methodology included in the study, and researchers that were not previously proponents of meditation. Measured results rather than self-reported results, etc. I’ve seen at least three studies that were very compelling and cannot be dismissed as “poor methodology”.

    And mindful meditation has many “methods” of training, but they share some common goals and outcomes.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Dominic108 1:43 pm 03/8/2013

    @Jstevenwhite, the main point is not that they cannot use an active placebo. The main point is that the placebo effect is a part of the treatment. The question was “can a treatment, say meditation, beat the placebo effect?” The answer is NO, because a treatment cannot beat what is part of itself. I added to that main point that we cannot really control for it because any difference in the treatment group will result in a different application of the placebo effect, especially in the case of treatments that have some efficiency. This remains true even when we use active placebo – I should have made it clear. I first came to this conclusion when I considered the active control groups used to study meditation, for example, the Health
    Enhancement Program (HEP) to control mindfulness (MBSR). It seemed obvious to me that there was plenty of room for a different application of the placebo effect in the treatment group. Then, I asked the question is the situation much better in the case of medication? The situation appears to be very similar. Recall that, in a rigorous scientific context, because a study must be repeatable, a fundamental requirement in science, the protocol must be public. Therefore, the active placebo used must be public. Add to this that effects of the active placebo will usually be documented in the literature, we are back to point zero : you cannot assume that the subjects will not be aware of this. I though about all these points before I made my first comment. Thank you to have allowed me to clarify what I mean.

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  6. 6. Dominic108 3:05 pm 03/8/2013

    Note the “research-has-not-shown-that-meditation-beats-a-placebo” in the URL. This is the main point that I wanted to discuss, in case this was still not clear.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rshoff 3:19 pm 03/8/2013

    I have absolutely no doubt that the placebo effect and relaxation techniques would help many, if not most, of us feel better in general. Let’s throw in stretching and moderate exercise for good measure. A good diet while we are at it. All of that is obvious to me.

    However, whether or not placebo or TM can treat an illness by altering the mechanism of the illness is a completely different issue. And the most troubling issue is that of the morality and the ethics of prescribing a placebo treatment protocol without full disclosure to the patient. Possibly not even a thorough diagnosis. Parading it as inexpensive medical science. Those who want to passively accept a diagnosis or treatment protocol based on placebo may be sorry that true diagnosis and treatment lay permanently beyond their reach.

    But don’t bother with medical science. Just pop another aspirin (tree bark) and wash it down with ginger ale (drink made from ginger root). It worked great for the cave dwellers and I hear it makes patients with most illnesses feel better. And isn’t that the goal? To ‘feel’ better with ourselves? To feel we can take the bull by the horns and wrestle it to the mat with sugar pills and relaxation? (sarcasm).

    Real medical care takes a lot of work by researchers, practitioners, and patients. There’s no short cut.

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  8. 8. Dominic108 3:39 pm 03/8/2013

    rshoff wrote : “Real medical care takes a lot of work by researchers, practitioners, and patients. There’s no short cut.” Yes, part of this is to clarify that the important is not so much whether the placebo effect is exploited or not, but whether the effects are objectively measured. These are completely different questions, but are often confused as being one and the same. To my knowledge, a big shortcut nowadays in the research on depression is the use of self-reports by the subjects and subjective assessments by the doctors. They discuss a lot the need for RCT with active controls, but they use subjective (unreliable) measurements that are only self-validated among themselves. The protocol, RCT, etc. will not make the measurements more reliable : garbage in, garbage out ! They want to give a lesson to those who study meditation, but the fact is that the research on meditation is actually a lot more serious, because it is based on objective measurements, size of the amygdala, cortisol level, EEG, Test on the quality of the Attention (which is not subjective), just to name a few.

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  9. 9. northernguy 3:14 am 03/9/2013

    T.M. encourages practitioners to use biofeedback processes to reach relatively deep levels of mental and physical relaxation for twenty minutes twice a day. The release of stress is an immediate response proportionate to the level of relaxation reached. During meditation their respiration changes becoming more even. Over time the body is conditioned to enter into the process more rapidly and deeply.

    Practitioners also understand that consumption of mood altering substances and stimulants like drugs, alcohol and coffee etc. impede progress. It follows that many reduce their intake of such.

    Distractions in the environment impair settling into the process so many go to some lengths to reduce aural and visual noise for at least the duration of each sitting. Naturally this increases their awareness of the presence of such distractions that are built into their surroundings and lifestyle.

    People who do T.M. do it because they enjoy it. They learn what it feels like to be deeply relaxed with increased sensory awareness.

    How any one can say that my blood pressure isn’t temporarily changed by entering into a state of deep relaxation free of constant stimulation is simply beyond my understanding.

    How can anyone seriously say that reducing stress induced cortisol levels doesn’t have benefits is puzzling.

    How anyone can say that reducing my intake of sugar, caffeine, alcohol, drugs and torpor inducing quantities of food can’t do anything but good for my body is incomprehensible.

    And if I’m relaxed as well as eating and living better you can bet my immune system is just a little bit stronger.

    I’m not sure which studies the author is relying on for his claim there are no benefits from doing serious relaxation a couple of times a day but they just don’t make sense.

    Pretty well everyone involved with human health advocates relaxing, reducing the pace and distractions of your lifestyle and eating better to live a longer life. But here is the author saying no way.

    T.M. is not magical and will not cure anything. Neither will it eliminate human frailty such as gullibility, irritability, anxiety, disease, mental instability or whatever. But it sure seems like many people might find such traits slightly ameliorated. Of course, some people won’t be so fortunate. Some people won’t even like T.M. at all. In fact, some people don’t even like relaxing in any way.

    Link to this
  10. 10. knowledgekitten 7:56 am 03/9/2013

    Thanks for exploring this matter and for your opinions, Mr. Horgan. Many others, including scientists who have actually spent their lives doing research, have opinions very different from yours regarding the quality of meditation studies, especially studies on TM. The studies you cite, as others have noted, are obsolete and admitted as such by many of the researchers who did them and their publishers. The government website posting the ARHQ study now classifies that study as obsolete. If you’re not a scientist yourself, perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the protocols of research design and the elements that render studies significant. You’ve picked and chosen a few studies to support your opinions but have disregarded others. I’m sure you’re aware of this but readers may not be.

    One such scientist whose opinion differs from yours is Norman Rosenthal, 20-year senior NIH researcher, whose book “Transcendence” you might want to read if you really want the most up-to-date assessment of the state of meditation research. Your article and cherry-picked wikipedia-ish citations do not represent the current state of research or consensus within the community of scientists and health professionals (a community I’m part of).

    Here are some links that you should consider to help you arrive at the bigger picture, which include rebuttals of those reviews cited by you:

    http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/RebuttalofNRCReport/index.cfm

    http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/RebuttalofAHRQReview/index.cfm

    http://meditationasheville.blogspot.com/2010/12/myth-scientific-reviews-show-that.html

    http://meditationasheville.blogspot.com/2010/12/more-on-ahrq-report-and-health-research.html

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  11. 11. knowledgekitten 9:04 am 03/9/2013

    And once again, regarding your pervicacious adherence to your own personal dogma, which unthinkingly classifies TM as a cult, I refer you to the Myths section of my favorite, small-town TM website: Myth #7: Yikes! It’s a cult! http://meditationasheville.blogspot.com/2010/12/myth-yikes-its-cult.htm

    tamtam

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  12. 12. Dominic108 11:25 am 03/9/2013

    A “l” was missing at the end of the URL that is provided above : http://meditationasheville.blogspot.ca/2010/12/myth-yikes-its-cult.html

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  13. 13. TonyTrenton 5:46 pm 03/9/2013

    T.M. Is a technique that works best if you don’t believe it and just do it without expectation.

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  14. 14. Dominic108 5:43 am 03/10/2013

    @Tony, your point is very important. It says that TM is primarily based on some mechanism that is NOT the placebo effect. My point was only that this mechanism does lead to a real profound experience, which in turns will lead to positive thoughts and feelings. You cannot rule out that those thoughts and feelings, even though they are the natural outcomes of genuine experiences, are likely to have some extra effects on their own. I was thinking in general terms, not specifically about TM. I am sold out to the unique value of TM, but I think that, as soon as you point out the importance of positive thoughts and feelings in treatments in general (psychotherapy, mindfulness, etc.), it is difficult to deny their contribution in the case of TM as well.

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  15. 15. tranquilitybase 12:56 pm 03/10/2013

    I’m aware that over the years many studies (several hundred?) have been done at well known universities and medical institutions. I’m not a scientist, but are we to believe that none of these studies were properly designed or conducted?
    I read the author’s meditation placebo article, and he includes TM as a cult. Doesn’t that type of biased thinking naturally preclude TM from consideration as a valid area for scientific research?

    Having read the author’s other TM article, he obviously believes that TM is a cult. Having done the technique for many years, I know that it’s not. How can I be led or influenced by the organization and/or it’s members

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  16. 16. rshoff 1:09 pm 03/11/2013

    TM is a technique. It can be used benevolently or malevolently. As a personal lifestyle choice, along with other healthy lifestyle choices, it can probably be beneficial. However, to be caste as a ‘cure all’ or a medical therapy I’m suspicious. And to naively trust solicitors of TM is dangerous. And again, using it as a placebo is indicative of a form of mind control. Can be considered a cult tool when misused that way.

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  17. 17. David Orme-Johnson 1:41 pm 03/11/2013

    Part 1

    What is the 2007 Agency for Health Care Research & Quality (AHRQ) report, commissioned by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which asserted that meditation research was on a whole of poor quality? Serious problems with the AHRQ report were found by experts in the field who were invited to participate in the study process as peer reviewers. Three reviewers independently found the study had so many methodological flaws and mistakes that they recommended the report be withdrawn until it was corrected. Standard peer review, fact checking, and editors are usually effective at correcting misinformation. Unfortunately, these safeguards were not honored in this report. As every scientist who has ever published a paper in a peer-reviewed paper knows, the paper will not be published until the authors meet all of the reviewers’ critiques. This was not done in this report. It was published without meeting the reviewers concerns. 1

    For example, the peer reviewers pointed out that the study’s assessment of research quality was invalid because the study used inappropriate criteria for assessing research quality in the field of behavioral research. Studies got marked down if the subjects and providers were not blinded to treatment allocation. Blinded means, they didn’t know what treatment they were getting or giving out. Obviously the subjects will know whether they are learning the TM technique, yoga, tai chi, etc. and the persons teaching them also have to know. It is not like disguising a sugar pill from a drug, the kind of study that the research-quality scale used by the AHRQ report was designed to assess. In addition, the AHRQ report omitted research in several important health areas such as tobacco and alcohol use, mortality, and studies on adolescents at risk for heart disease. Moreover, it left out almost 100 studies from its review, although these had been provided to the reviewers in advance.

    With regard to the allegiance issue, fortunately for those of us doing research on meditation, this can be objectively studied. Meta-analysis has shown, for example, that studies done by researchers with a pro-TM allegiance and from universities associated with the TM organization do not have larger effect sizes than research done in outside universities. 2 In addition, there are a number of safeguards used in TM research to protect from bias (and allegations of bias), such as collaboration with outside institutions and researchers, replication by non-meditating researchers, and use of publically available data, which can be accessed and checked by anyone. 3

    I have not read Rational Mysticism’s review of meditation research, but I have read and critiqued every TM research paper claiming to have no effects or negative effects. Collectively, they make up less than 10% of the studies on TM. There are no studies showing that TM produced negative effect (no major review has identified any, including the AHRQ report), and the very few case histories that there are can be attributed to a pre-existing condition, not TM practice. 4 You need to discriminate the patient from the medicine. As for the few no-effect studies (no change in something, or no improvement, or “any relaxation does the same thing”) these issues have been resolved, or are in the process of being resolved. There are always bumps and jolts in the evolution of a new area in science, it’s par for the course, but don’t kid yourself, the effects of TM practice on health are not a placebo.

    How can the TM technique have such global effects? It’s simple. Stress affects everything, health, social behavior, thought processes, and TM practice reduces stress.

    References
    1. Orme-Johnson DW. Commentary on the AHRQ report on research on meditation practices in health. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Dec 2008;14(10):1215-1221.
    2. 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.
    3. Orme-Johnson DW. Commitment of researchers on the TM technique to science. 2013; http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/CommitmenttoScience/index.cfm.
    4. Orme-Johnson DW. Research on the Transcendental Meditation technique. 2013; http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/index.cfm.

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  18. 18. David Orme-Johnson 1:44 pm 03/11/2013

    Part 2
    It’s a good point that there are many different meditation techniques, with different methodologies, goals, and outcomes. It’s like the early days of biology when different species were closely examined for similarities and differences and systematically observed and classified. One cannot generalize about what “meditation” is, or expect consistency of results across techniques that are very different from each other. Even within a single technique there are many moderator variables to sort out, such as did the EEG technician use collodion to attach the electrodes, which can put the subjects to sleep (that actually happened).

    Progress has been made in scientifically categorizing types of meditation techniques. Travis and Shear (2010) classified three types of meditation according to their EEG characteristics.1 1. Focused attention techniques require the person to focus on an object or thought, and they produce high frequency EEG (gamma, 20-40 Hz). This result dovetails beautifully with the body of scientific knowledge on the EEG, because faster EEG frequencies has been associated with cognitive effort since Hans Berger first discovered it in the 1930’s, and there is a large body of knowledge about it, which informs the research on meditation.

    2. Open monitoring techniques (mindfulness) require a person to observe their stream of thoughts and try to maintain a neutral attitude towards them (for example, not react emotionally to painful memories). Open monitoring is associated with theta (4-8 Hz EEG), and what is known about theta is that it indicates inhibition of sensory input at the level of the thalamus (the main sensory switchboard of the brain). For example, when you do mental arithmetic, your brain blocks out incoming sensory information at the level of the thalamus so you can focus inward on your problem, and theta is produced in the EEG. No surprise that when you practice cognitive control of your emotions in open monitoring that neuroimaging shows increased activity (and perhaps tissue thickness) in frontal (executive) cortical areas that exert inhibitory control of midbrain limbic (emotional) centers.2 The frontal cortex is like the charioteer who controls the horses (emotions) from running wild by pulling in the reins (inhibition). It is the seat of our socialization and moral reasoning, as currently understood after a century and a half of clinical and experimental neuroscience. So here again we see an example of how these ancient meditation techniques can be studied by science and are informed by the cumulative body of scientific knowledge.

    3. Automatic self transcending (the Transcendental Meditation technique) is the third category. In transcending, the person effortlessly attends to a specific mental sound (mantra) as it automatically becomes increasingly subtle, until transcending the subtlest level, the mind becomes silent in unbounded awareness, in a state called pure consciousness. It is effortless and automatic in the same sense that falling asleep is, except that the mantra keeps the mind lively but undirected. It works on the principle that the mind is automatically drawn to increasing charm. For example, when we hear a beautiful piece of music, attention is automatically drawn to it. No decision is made to listen to the music, the mind just goes there, effortlessly. Unlike the other two categories of meditation, which require cognitive control, transcending is effortless. Although accounts of transcending permeate Western philosophy and literature, not to mention all the religions and Eastern philosophies, it is rare and seems mysterious to our work-ethic culture of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Any trying is counterproductive to transcending, and the teachers of the TM technique are highly trained in guiding effortless transcending. I became a TM teacher shortly after I got my PhD in experimental psychology, and I can say that the training was much more precise and exacting than anything I had in graduate school.

    1. Travis FT, Shear J. Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending: Categories to organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist and Chinese traditions. Consciousness and Cognition. 2010;19(4):1110-1118.
    2. 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.

    Link to this
  19. 19. David Orme-Johnson 1:46 pm 03/11/2013

    Part 3
    Actually, the first study on the physiology of transcending was published right here in Scientific American in 1972 by R. K. Wallace1 soon after the research had appeared in Science2 and the American Journal of Physiology.3 Since Wallace’s seminal study, a large body of research has shown that many of the effects of the TM technique can be understood in the context of our burgeoning scientific knowledge of stress. The neuroendocrine effects of stress have been extensively studied and are well understood, and the acute and long-term effects of TM fit right into that picture. For example, meta-analyses have shown that TM practice decreases a variety of autonomic stress markers (respiratory rate, basal skin conductance, plasma lactate, cortisol).4

    The picture that has emerged over 40 years of research is that TM practice produces a state of coherent rest (EEG coherence increases), which is conducive to self-healing via the body’s intrinsic self-repair mechanisms. When you get sick, whatever else the doctor tells you, she says to get more rest. TM is a kind of super rest that you don’t get in sleep and dreaming. In activity, the physiology begins to respond more efficiently and then recovers more quickly from stressors of various kinds.5 Medical care utilization is cut in half, both inpatient and outpatient, across all disease categories, and the mean number of days spent in the hospital per admission is cut by one third.6,7 Longitudinally, meditators start out at the same level of medical care expenses as controls, but after learning the TM technique their expenses progressively decline at a rate of about 10% per year.8 These data all come from independent, objective health industry and government statistics. In addition, well-controlled randomized studies, funded by NIH and published in top peer-reviewed professional journals, and conducted at independent universities, indicate that TM practice improves a variety of stress-related chronic diseases, including hypertension,9-14 carotid atherosclerosis, 15 congestive heart failure.16 For example, as 10-year study on 201 heart patients, conducted at the Medical College of Wisconsin in collaboration with researchers from Maharishi University of Management, found that patients randomly assigned to learn the TM technique had a 48% reduction in heart attacks, strokes, and death compared to controls receiving a health education program.17 Death is a pretty objective and important clinical outcome (See review.18 See link to abstracts and PDFs of NIH funded research on the Transcendental Meditation technique.19).

    NIH grant reviewers and journal editors and reviewers are highly sophisticated in research design issues, and don’t fund and publish studies unless they meet high standards. There are 369 research studies on the TM technique published in peer-reviewed journals, conducted in over 200 university and research institutions.20 The key cardiovascular studies funded by NIH referenced above were conducted in independent universities and medical schools.

    1. Wallace RK. The Physiology of Meditation. Scientific American. 1972;226:84-90.
    2. Wallace RK. Physiological effects of Transcendental Meditation. Science. 1970;167:1751–1754.
    3. Wallace RK, Benson H, Wilson AF. A wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state. American Journal of Physiology. 1971;221:795-799.
    4. Dillbeck MC, Orme-Johnson DW. Physiological differences between Transcendental Meditation and rest. American Psychologist. 1987;42:879–881.
    5. 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.
    6. Orme-Johnson DW. Medical care utilization and the Transcendental Meditation program. Psychosomatic Medicine. 1987;49:493-507.
    7. Orme-Johnson DW, Herron RE. An innovative approach to reducing medical care utilization and expenditures. The American Journal of Managed Care. 1997;3(1):135-144.
    8. Herron R, Hillis S. The impact of the Transcendental Meditation program on government payments to physicians in Quebec: An update. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2000;14(5):284-293.
    9. Anderson JW, Liu CH, Kryscio RJ. Blood pressure response to Transcendental Meditation: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Hypertension. 2008;21(3):310-316.
    10. Rainforth MV, Schneider RH, Nidich SI, Gaylord-King C, Salerno JW, Anderson JW. Stress reduction programs in patients with elevated blood pressure: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Current Hypertension Reports. 2007;9(6):520-528.
    11. Schneider RH, Alexander CN, Staggers F, et al. A randomized controlled trial of stress reduction in African Americans treated for hypertension for over one year. American Journal of Hypertension. Jan 2005;18(1):88-98.
    12. Alexander CN, Schneider RH, Clayborne M. Stress Reduction in hypertensive elderly African-American Men and Women: Comparison of Transcendental Meditation and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. American Journal of Hypertension. 1995.
    13. Schneider RH, Staggers F, Alexander CN, et al. A randomized controlled trial of stress reduction for hypertension in older African Americans. Hypertension. 1995;26:820-827.
    14. Alexander CN, Schneider RH, Staggers F, et al. A trial of stress reduction for hypertension in older African Americans (Part II): Sex and risk factor subgroup analysis. Hypertension. 1996;28(1):228-237.
    15. Castillo-Richmond A, Schneider RH, Alexander CN, et al. Effects of stress reduction on carotid atherosclerosis in hypertensive African Americans. Stroke. 2000;31:568-573.
    16. Jayadevappa R, Johnson JC, Bloom BS, et al. Effectiveness of Transcendental Meditation on functional capacity and quality of life of African Americans with congestive heart failure: A randomized control study. Ethnicity and Disease. 2007;17:72-77.
    17. Schneider RH, Grim CE, Rainforth MA, et al. Stress reduction in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease: Randomized controlled trial of Transcendental Meditation and health education in Blacks. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. 2012;2(5).
    18. 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;8(3):227-242.
    19. NIH-Funded Scientific Research on Transcendental Meditation. http://doctorsontm.org/national-institutes-of-health. 2013.
    20. Orme-Johnson DW. Annotated bibliography: Scientific research on the Transcendental Medtation and TM-Sidhi programs, volumes 1-6. . 2012; http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/TMResearchPublications/index.cfm.
    21. Orme-Johnson DW. Commentary on the AHRQ report on research on meditation practices in health. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Dec 2008;14(10):1215-1221.
    22. 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.
    23. Orme-Johnson DW. Commitment of researchers on the TM technique to science. 2013; http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/CommitmenttoScience/index.cfm.
    24. Orme-Johnson DW. Research on the Transcendental Meditation technique. 2013; http://www.truthabouttm.org/truth/TMResearch/index.cfm.

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  20. 20. IslandGardener 6:48 am 03/12/2013

    I reckon David Orme-Johnson has made the most sensible comment so far.
    ‘…there are many different meditation techniques… One cannot generalize about what “meditation” is, or expect consistency of results across techniques that are very different from each other.’

    For example, if the researchers are sceptical about meditation for other reasons, for example the ‘cultish’ culture which sometime surrounds it, then what research has been done which tries to separate ‘cult meditation’ from ‘non-cult meditation’?

    If many different factors are associated with an effect, then in order to understand it researchers need controls to separate out the effects of those different factors. If researchers don’t do that then their research will not reveal anything!

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  21. 21. Gina1GrownTMKid 2:13 am 03/13/2013

    Thank you, John! Your analysis is right – on!

    As someone raised in the TM Movement, I saw more than my share of others’ psychosis, bankruptcies, suicides and more that was scoffed away as “bad karma.” A group blog committed to exposing the fallacies and dangers of TM offers a public “Thank You!” for your two blog posts on TM.

    http://tmfree.blogspot.com/2013/03/all-publicity-is-good-publicity.html

    For those curious, the blog above links to more TM expose’ information and help for those in cult recovery.

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  22. 22. kylegyan 12:31 pm 03/13/2013

    Cults and cult members are slippery for sure. Just look at Orme-Johnson, his family has been die hard believers in Maharishi for the past 50 years. The other posts are links to TM teachers sites and research. I guess next TM’ers will explain how its been “proven” that their religious ceremonies(yagyas) which they charge up the whazoo for are also “scientific”. Give me a break, this is the most obvious and yes old cult around. Modern or old research doesn’t change the realities of mantra meditation creating a disassociative state where the practicioner becomes susceptible to indoctrination by the cohesive group philosophies. Intelligence is no barrier to cult recruitment so hold on to your wallets and JUST SAY NO:).

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  23. 23. Dominic108 1:50 pm 03/13/2013

    @Gina1GrownTMKid and kylegyan, I just want to say that I am sorry that you are feeling that way toward the TM organization. This certainly affect your perception of the facts, but still, we can see the value of TM in your posts. For example, kylegyan says that it brings the mind into a new state, a disassociative state. He could have said that TM does nothing at all, but NO, he had to say that it creates a new state, which is a big thing to say. Next, in harsh words, he says that it makes the person more receptive, that it changes a lot your interaction with your environment. He could have said that this experience has no persistent effect, but no, he had to say that it does change your life.

    My personal experience is also that it create a new state that makes you more receptive, but also wiser, more calm, happier, less dependent on the view of others, just as the research has shown. I see that the TM organization is not perfect and that it has a well defined structure, rajas, etc, that follows an old tradition to guarantee the standardization of the teaching. When you learn TM you pay a fee in exchange for that standardized teaching. The money allows the teachers to have a normal life and the TM organisation to continue to form new teachers. This is not what I would call a cult.

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  24. 24. rshoff 12:17 pm 03/14/2013

    @Dominic – After reading our comments bridging Cross Check’s last couple of blogs, I think we are struggling with the same concept but coming from different directions. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I see these last three blogs as being directly linked.

    In your above comment you said: “the importance of positive thoughts and feelings in treatments in general (psychotherapy, mindfulness, etc.), it is difficult to deny their contribution in the case of TM as well.”

    I would say: If TM contributes to treatment of any condition, psychotherapy or not, then it is not a placebo. A placebo makes you feel better but does not contribute to the treatment of the diagnosed condition. Therefore, TM is a relaxation technique, or a treatment, but not a placebo –unless it is used that way. To those that tell people to use TM to treat a myriad of conditions that it hasn’t been tested for, I say stop prescribing it as a placebo.

    In the conversation of TM it’s also important to consider the mind/body connection is being leveraged with meditation, possibly under the direction of a second malevolent party.

    So you and I agree that there is a mind/body connection. And we agree that TM may be a useful tool in treatment.

    However, I would not paint it with a wide brush. Meditation is not a cure all, and must be tested similar to pharmaceuticals before it can be recommended to treat medical conditions, including psychiatric ones. If on the other hand, a person makes a personal choice to practice TM, and benefits without expectations of treating illness, then great.

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  25. 25. Dominic108 4:04 pm 03/14/2013

    @rshoff, my angle was to distinguish between the placebo and the mechanism that it triggers and to accept that perhaps this mechanism can be triggered by other means. In that sense, TM would not be a placebo, but it would still trigger the placebo effect. I repeat that I am sold out to the unique value of TM, but I like to take the viewpoint of someone that does not get the idea that the experience of transcendence can have benefits such as the reduction of high blood pressure and the regularization of the diurnal cortisol curve. We have a lot of indications that the experience of transcendence is central to the TM mechanism, but it takes time for a person to get familiar with this field of research. Therefore, from an external perspective, the placebo effect must appear as a natural alternative explanation. On this respect, your point is very important, if I understood it correctly. If the placebo effect, using a true placebo, is not known to really heal, to really affect the average daily blood pressure, the diurnal cortisol curve, etc., we could not call the mechanism of TM a placebo effect because it does something different. Unfortunately, we do not know enough about the placebo effect. Can a placebo effect truly heal? My assumption here is that there is not yet any consensus on this issue. So, we cannot rule out anything about the placebo effect, simply because we do not know enough about it. What if the mechanism of TM was just an amplification of the placebo mechanism? I wish we had a consensus that the placebo effect cannot heal, cannot reduce the average daily blood pressure, etc., because that would clear the issue. Meanwhile, the important is that the results are real, as shown with different kind of objective measurements and, if we take the time to consider the research, we see that the experience of transcendence is a central ingredient.

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  26. 26. Gina1GrownTMKid 1:06 am 03/15/2013

    @Dominic 108 : You wrote a standard response to a TM lecture, as if speaking to potential new recruits : “TM organization is not perfect and that it has a well defined structure, rajas, etc, that follows an old tradition to guarantee the standardization of the teaching. When you learn TM you pay a fee in exchange for that standardized teaching. The money allows the teachers to have a normal life and the TM organisation to continue to form new teachers. This is not what I would call a cult.”

    Are you, or were you, a “108″? One of Maharishi’s blessed mystical 108 inner circle of bramacharya (celibate) TM Initiators? Leading a normal life?

    Do you consider TM teachers’ lives to be normal? Practicing 4-6 hours of daily “Program” for mystical powers, including “flying” (butt bouncing on special high intensity foam) to harness the “laws of nature”? How about refusing to enter homes with a southern entrance because they attract “rakshasas” (devils)? Or maybe wearing silk loin cloths beneath their pants to keep the kundalini rising upwards is considered normal? Is it normal for Initiator-parents to abandon their children for months at a time while they attend further advanced training? How about avoiding therapy for abused children, or refusing to report sexual predators amongst TM leadership, because the TM-teacher parents don’t want their family to be ostracized from “group-program”? After all, it’s only by practicing “group program” that their children could recover from such abuse – they must release the stress. And if they “un-stress” too quickly, they could have psychotic visions? Oops! Avoiding medical care in favor of Ayurvedic products that have not passed FDA testing? or Hindu astrology and mystical gemstones purchased for thousands of dollars to purify oneself and “avert the danger that has not yet come”? Yes, there is a structured organization to preserve what Maharishi called “the purity of the teaching” whose secrets are not to be disclosed to outsiders who are too impure to understand.

    I’m the first to admit that some quiet time – day dreaming, exercising, a siesta or a walk is beneficial psychologically and physically.

    However – a trademarked mystical meditation that requires several days of trance-induction, bowing to a dead guru to receive a secret mantra (you can look them up online or in a book), only then to be seduced for further prolonged meditation courses to lead to “Cosmic Consciousness” “God Consciousness”, or “Unity Consciousness” from “Governors of the Age of Enlightenment”, or invitations to a course to become a Sidha (perfected being), in the hopes of never returning for another incarnation on this ignorant planet Earth.

    Dominic108 – it sounds cult-like and far from normal – even when it’s my family’s normal.

    @David Orme-Johnson, and your wife Rhoda — you are well intentioned committed devotees of Maharishi. He taught you (us!) that the highest calling in life is to spread his teachings, speak the language of Science because we live in a scientific age, and thereby uplift the planet. I laud your nobel intentions. As faculty of Maharishi University, you adhere to the cult-lifestyle that I just described.

    John Horgan : Thanks again exposing TM-the-cult in Scientific American!

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  27. 27. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 3:25 am 03/15/2013

    You’re welcome, and thank YOU for providing this extra information.

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  28. 28. Dominic108 5:49 am 03/15/2013

    @Gina1GrownTMKid, I do not think that I “wrote a standard response to a TM lecture.” On the contrary, it is definitively my own style of writing, my own personal view that I shared. The TM organization has a specific structure, but that does not make it a cult. The first thing that I wrote here was “The articles mentioned by Mr. Horgan are not only old, but also of poor quality. Perhaps, he has some bias against meditation, TM in particular. This is not important.” This is my main response about his view that TM is a cult. My interest here was the question regarding the placebo effect.

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  29. 29. joemo 2:41 pm 03/20/2013

    I passed 6 months in Fairfield, Iowa, at the major TM center. To me TM seems to produce an analgesic or tranquillizing effect that perhaps other meditation techniques may produce. This is probably neither positive nor negative. Depends on utilization in life.

    The TM lifestyle is not for everyone, I suppose. It can also become very expensive, by the “natural” incentive to purchase the next technique, ayurvedic ring or treatment, etc., to improve the previous or 1st technique.
    TM has some value, but there must be much less expensive meditation techniques to produce the “placebo” effect. Perhaps “Conscious Mental Rest” or “Natural Stress Relief”?
    Also, it seems odd that a person would donate $100 million or more to the TMOrganization-Earl Kaplan?

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  30. 30. annatetro 8:17 pm 03/24/2013

    I have done personal research on many spiritual leaders today and proved to each of them that they are corrupt, ignorant, unable to make anyone Enlightened and harmful. Well, the only one that got through as the best guidance was the Dalai Lama. I told them. They continue because they make money. Ask them, they know all about it. I proved much of it to one cult like Buddhist lineage, how the deity that was banned by the Dalai Lama is malevolent through your magazine and website. Thank you so much. I wrote for years to all our gurus to say, you are harmful and now I have the science and studies that proves it. I can only imagine what the Dalai Lama feels. Deep gratitude I am sure. I was going to take them to court, talking with the religious freedom board of Canada for the illegal activities of these lineages and leaders that I found as well as showing that they are not doing due diligence. By not studying and being informed, through too much faith, they can be proven demonic and leading us astray. It is comical but at the end of the day, I am hoping they will mature in their sleep after reading the reality you brought. Wow, that felt amazing to share. TM guru known through another author we all know, was false. I know it. Many know it. Now you all know it. I don’t name names because you can google leaders of enlightenment or Buddhahood and find them. Only valid leader is the Dalai Lama. They say nothing to me as I tell twitter and Facebook because I told them and it is true. Tired of scsm artists making money using God. That is why we have poor views of the spiritual path but through the Dalai Lama, even as a Catholic or Hindu, you will succeed. God bless earth and God’s children. Oh, and the beautiful souls that made the best magazine and website ever,.Scientific American Mind. Love you!

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  31. 31. corejola77 3:59 am 04/1/2013

    Actually, all studies have flaws. It’s a matter of believing and testing it for yourself, if you want to establish further proof. As for meditation, there are people who indeed find it helpful and there is science behind it. It’s just a matter of doing it right, not just in terms of process but in terms of attitude towards it. If you do meditation with doubts on your mind, then I don’t think it will give you any good at all. Besides, a famous yogic once said “Being joyful means you have absolutely no compulsions of your own anymore. Once you have no compulsions, being the way the situation demands is not at all an effort for you, isn’t it?”—Sadhguru http://www.sadhguruonline.com/

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  32. 32. Saijanai 5:58 pm 07/22/2013

    Ironically, a few weeks after this blog entry was published, the American Heart Association issued a statement concerning alternate treatments for hypertension, and, in the section on meditation and relaxation techniques, concluded:

    http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/04/22/HYP.0b013e318293645f.full.pdf

    Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure : A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association

    “…The writing group conferred to TM a Class IIB, Level of Evidence B recommendation in regard to BP-lowering efficacy. TM may be considered in clinical practice to lower BP. Because of many negative studies or mixed results and a paucity of available trials, all other meditation techniques (including MBSR) received a Class III, no benefit, Level of Evidence C recommendation Thus, other meditation techniques are not recommended in clinical practice to lower BP at this time.”

    Not the most ringing of endorsements, but the AHA called for head-to-head studies of TM vs other forms of meditation in order to be sure that TM really did have a better –studies such as this one, which was conducted at Harvard University using test subjects living in rest homes near Harvard, using data collected by Harvard graduate students blinded as to whom was doing what technique:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2693686

    The presentation of each form of meditation or relaxation to the randomly assigned test subjects was done in a way to mimic the professionalism of the TM teachers, complete with the wearing of business suits, and the using of slick charts presenting the results of real meditation studies on the specific technique, with each meditation teacher required to show a comfort-level with the presentation that was equivalent to that of the TM teachers’.

    A questionnaire was given to all experimental subjects to determine the level of expectations that they had about the technique they were learning, and no significant differences were found. Each meditation practice studied — TM, mindfulness and Relaxation Response — had an advocate on the research team. For example, Ellen Langer, a full professor of Psychology at Harvard and widely published on the topic of mindfulness, was the person responsible for designing the mindfulness component of the study.

    Fred Travis of the TM university is currently contacting researchers into various meditation practices around the world, trying to arrange large scale, better designed, replications of the above study, in order to alleviate the deficiency noted by the AHA.

    If the results of such studies are along the lines of the original Alexander and Langer study from 24 years ago, would these be sufficient to convince you that meditation beats a placebo, at least in some contexts?

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  33. 33. JSBrooks 6:01 pm 05/7/2014

    The problem with most so-called meditation research is it is primarily in the service of promoting personality cults, and or the services and products of those cults. TM being one of the most dominant of those cults. Now days it is either the cult of Tibetan Buddhism or Catholic Christianity that is being promoted.

    However, if you go back to the writing that is ascribed to the major mystics: Siddhartha Gautama, Patanjali, Rumi, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, you will find a remarkable similitude between their descriptions of what meditation is, and what it leads to; which is nothing like what is understood today as meditation, and what it leads to. See http://www.greatwesternvehicle.org/jhanaarticles.htm for more research on this subject.

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