Friday, October 11, 2019

Tony's story of his journey through, and out of, the TM program

We’ve received here at the TM-Free Blog, a dual submission of personal stories, from Tony, a meditator, and his wife Ashley. Their names have been changed to protect their anonymity. Here's Tony's story, which starts with his search for a meditation practice, and ends, while deciding not to proceed with the TM-Sidhis, also known as the "Yogic Flying" course, with the realization that he'd "been handing over my mind to the TM organization in exchange for 'Enlightenment.'" He also talks frankly about the balance between the benefits of TM that he experienced, and what those benefits might have eventually cost him if he'd continued down the path of deeper involvement with the TM program.

Photo illustration of a TM lecture, with video.
(Shutterstock/BBC World Service)
I’ve always been interested in the non-physical world, lightly dabbled in various meditations and read various spiritual books over the years. However, in 2016, I decided to make a go of practicing meditation. I wished to find an inner sense of stability in life and not get as stressed internally about upcoming events or past failures. 
The most popular way that didn’t involve a teacher was using the Headspace app to develop a mindfulness meditation practice. I practiced this daily for a few months and indeed found benefits of more control of my reactivity in stressful or pressured situations, such as at work. This was great but I felt like the meditation was a lot of hard work for the mind, struggling to bring it back to focus on something all the time, and I had the feeling there must be a more effortless technique out there. I stumbled upon Transcendental Meditation (TM). I was disappointed in not being able to find much about the technique online - it always said one needs to learn it from a teacher. However, as my luck would have it, I found a TM teacher close by so I signed up for an intro talk. I was a bit confused about why the teacher wouldn’t tell me much about the technique itself, they just went on and on about the benefits. However, I was intrigued and had to find out if it was indeed that beneficial. 
So, a few months later I learned TM from this certified teacher. In my very first meditation (at the instruction session) I experienced a profound settling of my mind - moments of beautiful silence. This seemed encouraging. As it seemed very expensive given the length of the course (about US$ 1000 for 1 hr/day over 4 consecutive days), I was very dedicated to doing the prescribed 20 minutes morning and 20 minutes in the evening every day without fail. Within my first week, my social anxiety dropped to virtually zero. I realized this one day when about to go to a social gathering and the very uncomfortable feeling of wanting to get out of my own skin and run and hide from the world was simply gone. Over the next few months, the enjoyability of my meditations always varied - mostly on the enjoyable side. Once back from our 2 month summer vacation, I made sure to attend the free Thursday evening TM center group meditations with the hope of maximising my progress. 
During these Thursday group sessions, after the 20-minute group meditation, the teacher would show videos of Maharishi (the founder of TM) talking on various subjects. I found listening to Maharishi’s answers rather long-winded, and he didn’t always make total sense to me. Meditation seemed to be enhancing my life by slowly but surely giving me a sense of inner calm. Thus I had developed quite an enthusiasm for promoting it and would find myself recommending it to other people and talking about it whenever the chance arose in conversation. 
The TM center Thursday group evenings often had a component of the teacher saying what was new in the TM world. One time the teacher mentioned that one can learn “advanced techniques” to speed up one's progress to Enlightenment. The analogy used is that regular TM was like walking toward Enlightenment, the advanced techniques were like taking a car and the TM Sidhis program was like talking a jet plane. This should have been a red flag right there as my initial goal of meditation was not to “get Enlightened.” However, this analogy was repeated many times by the teacher, and I believe planted the seed in my mind that I must do the advanced techniques. So the following year when a special advanced technique teacher came (all the way from India) I jumped at the chance to learn the “night technique.” Upon learning it, I was a bit shocked by how simple the technique was and why that cost nearly US$ 600 but reasoned that a trained teacher needed to be flown out. 
With my attention now turned toward this “Enlightenment” thing it did feel like I’d hit upon a secret/not-so-secret club that was going to bring about world peace. Something which my TM teacher kept mentioning that fueled this notion was “research” by TM scientists claiming that a certain number of people practicing this super special technique called Yogic Flying would create world peace. Of course one could also aspire to become a Yogic Flyer, but first needed to complete all four advanced techniques. Over the next two and a half years I dutifully completed the remaining three advanced techniques. With each one, if I’m honest, there was this background doubt as to why they cost so much, the personal instruction so simple and brief, and why I needed to watch the same video of Maharishi talking each time. I did, however, feel inspired by being around other students and teachers who seemed positive, sincere and joyous. 
After completing the final advanced technique, I felt on top of the world as I had everything in line to do the Yogic Flying course. I’d also managed to connect with a fellow meditator, who is on a similar path with learning TM and the advanced techniques. We enjoyed talking about different spiritual and personal development modalities we’d come across. We stayed in touch through the coming months over Facebook chat to share our TM experiences and enthusiasm. At the same time, I was trying to share my rapidly increasing enthusiasm for TM and the Sidhis course with my wife, Ashley. I would quote statistics and studies from the group TM evenings which all pointed to TM being the solution to all of the problems of the world. I don’t word things the best way when I’m excited about something and unknowingly at the time made her feel inferior for not being a meditator. Also, she consequently mistook my correspondence with my meditating friend to be something more than friendship or a shared interest. This meditation which was supposed to create such harmony was day by day increasingly tearing my marriage apart! Many of our usually pleasant night time walks together were ending in tears. Somehow we managed to resolve the issue with the friend and I was all on track to book in for the TM Sidhi course. At this point, I don’t really know what I was expecting to get from being a Yogic Flyer. I guess any thoughts of what I personally wanted were long down the drain as the one big thing I was looking forward to was that course. 
This is where things really came to a head. The Sidhis course is comprised of three weekends (in a different city) and two weeks in residence in an even more distant town. Also, it’s advised to do a retreat before the course. This added up to the best part of over six thousand (US) dollars, not to mention a lot of time away from my wife while she has time off from work - a time we usually look forward to spending lots of time together. Also as a Yogic Flyer, one’s meditation program becomes 70 minutes morning and 70 minutes evening, every day. Clearly this was not just eating into spending time as a couple in the short term but every day after the course finished. I failed to see this simple fact, especially when other TM Sidhi practitioners would say “you just find time to fit it in” and “your relationships will benefit so much from being a Sidha, people will notice the change in you.” 
My wife now had such an aversion to me doing the course that we would argue most nights for a couple of weeks, always ending in tears. I didn’t really want to confront all the practical details of being a Sidha - how to fit in that much meditation and keep up all my usual hobbies and fitness activities - many that I shared with my wife. Finding yet more evenings to practice Yogic Flying with other Sidhas in my city. It was clear the commitment was huge and everything else in my life was sliding to second best. My wife managed to find some independent, skeptical and critical views of TM as well as a movie called “David wants to Fly.” She also got in touch with a person who helps people out of the mental fog TM advanced courses and Sidhis create. I read through the articles and we watched the movie together. 
Doubts about the course and why it needed to be such a focus were starting to form in my mind. Seemingly solid assumptions I had taken for granted for years about TM creating world peace were beginning to melt as this other perspective was emerging. Part of me was still quite defensive as I took in this new information. Fortunately, throughout this time I had been reading non-TM books on meditation and spiritual teachings. The one which I was currently reading was by Adyashanti called “Falling into Grace” and had a section on how his teachers didn’t want to be an authority for his waking up/enlightenment process. This was the final straw to make me realize that all these years I’d been handing over my mind to the TM organization in exchange for “Enlightenment” rather than learning to listen to my own inner guidance system. 
Over the course of an evening, I went from downgrading from the full course to just the weekends, to completely pulling out of the Sidhis course altogether. I had lost some money in this move but fortunately not huge amounts. Flights I had booked were thankfully all able to be changed relatively inexpensively. If my brain was a washing machine, it felt like it was undergoing some sort of deep wash and rinse cycle! It seemed like it wasn’t really me wanting to do the Sidhis course all along, thus there was no regret once I’d make the choice to cancel. A bizarre feeling indeed. The following couple of days were not easy. I was in a weird state of emotional shock, feeling emotionally numb sometimes and very uncharacteristic outbursts of anger at other times. As my wife pointed out, I also need to break the routine of actually doing TM for half an hour twice a day for a while. Again I was resistant to this but eventually saw the wisdom. 
Having spent a lot of time and energy through my TM involvement wearing down my relationship with my wife, I'm so grateful for her strength, love and questioning mind to look out for me and saving me from a potentially expensive and lonely path. Now just a few days after this brainwashing realization, it feels like we are stronger together than ever. Wonderfully, of course, we now have much more quality time together each day. 
Despite this experience, I don’t think meditation is a waste of time - not even the basic 20 minute TM practice - which did, after all, alleviate my social anxiety. I look forward to using meditation in a flexible way to keep myself balanced and able to fully enjoy life. I may even look to teach a form of meditation someday, just not TM! 

Ashley's story, which she tells as a witness to this process from the perspective of Tony's spouse, will follow in a forthcoming post.

Friday, October 04, 2019

The dubious research claims of Transcendental Meditation, part 3: Journals are the product of editors and reviewers

Read this series from the beginning.

Read the previous installment of this series (Part 2).

Recent issue of International 
Journal of Neuroscience
November 2019
Many people are easily impressed by what look like big numbers, and the organizations that offer Transcendental Meditation (TM), including the David Lynch Foundation (DLF), often use numbers in a bid to establish scientific legitimacy among non-scientists and the general public. Here’s a particular paragraph that is part of the preface to one bibliography of research on TM, produced by a TM affiliated doctor in the UK:

Scientific research on the Transcendental Meditation technique comprises more than 600 studies conducted at over 250 independent universities and research institutions in 33 countries...  These studies have demonstrated a wide range of benefits for mind, body, behavior, and society... and have appeared in many leading, peer-reviewed journals.

As I explained earlier, this frequently mentioned number of “600 studies” gets significantly reduced in practice, and that’s because, in my opinion, it includes a few hundred studies performed at TM institutions, including Maharishi University of Management, that were never published anywhere other than their own, seven-and-soon-to-be-eight volume, “Collected Papers” series. It’s also interesting to note, that at the inauguration of the so-called “Age of Enlightenment” in 1975, forty-four years ago, it was already claimed that 300 studies were performed at 200 universities.

Today, the list of studies on the website only includes studies that were published in books, journals or other scientific publications. When that list is pared down to include only original research and not other articles, only 123 studies remain, and they say they were “published in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals.” Only 21 of those studies were authored entirely by people with no connection to TM movement institutions.

When the list of publications in which those 123 studies appear is analyzed, a pattern emerges: ten of those studies appeared in a single journal, eight of them over a ten year period. Another seven of those studies appeared in a single issue of another journal. Four journals each published four of these articles, and one of those journals published four articles in a single issue.

Given that there are so many journals in which researchers could publish their findings, the question arises: why is it that there are these clusters of TM research papers in a few journals? 

Here I’m going to focus on four journals, that accounted for 23 of the studies reporting on original research, on the bibliography that appears on the website. That’s over 18% of the entries included there. The journals and the abbreviations for them I’m using here:

  • International Journal of Neuroscience (IJN) in which 8 papers from this list appeared from 1980 through 1989, and then two others in 1997 and 2006. Nine of these ten were authored by individuals with TM institutional connections, seven of them exclusively so.
  • Journal of Social Behavior and Personality (JSBP) in which 7 papers from this list appeared in a single 2005 issue that was also later offered as a book. All the authors across all the papers therein, and all the editors, were connected with the TM movement. This guest edited special issue was published after the JSBP had ceased regular publication. Over half of the reviewers could be connected with TM institutions, and others clearly had a past history indicating sympathy with TM or had participated, with TM meditators, in performing research. This issue was later offered as a book, titled “Applications of Maharishi Vedic Science,” containing over two dozen papers.
  • The Permanente Journal (TPJ) in which 4 papers from this list appeared from 2014 through 2018. All four were authored by individuals with TM institutional connections. An associate editor of this journal is a TM meditator and Maharishi Ayur-Veda practitioner who, in another article, editorialized in this journal in support of TM and related products, exclusively citing research performed by TM affiliated individuals. His co-authored book promoting TM and ayurveda has been published by the affliated Permanente Press. He's also on the research staff of Maharishi University of Management.
  • Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly (ATQ) in which 4 papers from this list appeared in a single issue in 1994. Three of these four were authored by individuals with TM institutional connections, two of them exclusively so. This was a guest edited special issue, and both editors were connected with TM. This special issue was later offered as a book, titled “Self-Recovery: Treating Addictions Using Transcendental Meditation and Maharishi Ayur-Veda.”

International Journal of Neuroscience:  "It's hard to find the reviewers you want."

The IJN, in my view, is of particular interest when considering how TM research was published, particularly during the 1980’s, but not only because of the unusual volume of TM related papers that appeared in its pages. The IJN’s then-editor-in-chief, Sidney Weinstein, once gave a glowing endorsement of the research on TM performed by researchers connected with TM institutions including MIU/MUM, and that is still frequently quoted in TM promotional materials today, including at the David Lynch Foundation’s website:

“Over the past 10 years the editors and reviewers of the International Journal of Neuroscience have accepted several papers on Transcendental Meditation because they have met the rigorous standards of scientific publication.”

If Weinstein was dating those ten years from when his journal first accepted a TM related paper, that would place his statement at having been made around 1990, so this is in no way a new or recent endorsement. Weinstein died in 2010, having been editor-in-chief of the IJR for over thirty-five years, starting in 1975.

A cluster of 8 TM-related research papers appeared in this journal between 1980 and 1989, and then two others afterward, according to the research list on the website. Other TM related research papers were also published in this journal. According to another TM research bibliography (Chalmers, 21 September 2017), seventeen TM papers were published in this journal, with twelve from 1980 to 1990, and five afterward, starting in 1996. I’ve noticed a pattern here. Coincidentally, around the time that Weinstein likely gave his endorsement, did something happen around 1990 that might have had some effect on the volume and frequency of TM papers published in his journal?

As it turns out, there were two controversies, starting in 1989, which may have had an effect on the IJN’s editorial and review policies and procedures. The first of these concerned an alleged cure for epilepsy, published by the IJN in early 1989, reported on later that year in Science and summarized in an American Library Association newsletter as follows:

... the September 29th issue of SCIENCE reports on a "cure" for epilepsy published in Gordon and Breach's INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF NEUROSCIENCE. The article in question, written by two Greek researchers, is blasted by American scientists, including two who are members of IJN's advisory board. Lloyd Kaufman [a member of the IJN’s own advisory board] is quoted in the SCIENCE article as saying, "It's the worst thing I have seen in a scientific journal." The complaints come because the researchers did not describe adequately their "device," did no follow up, used no controls, and on "maps" of electro-magnetic impulses, provided no scales on before and after scans. One of IJN's reviewers, according to its editor Sidney Weinstein, believed the finding was worth a Nobel prize. He does admit, however, that with the number of issues produced each year, "It's hard to find the reviewers you want."

The Science article puts forward many of the same issues that I am raising generally, with respect to the research offered in support of Transcendental Meditation. The insistence that journals, editors and reviewers are unlikely to be wrong and that quality and accuracy of journal articles is a given - as I earlier explained, the sort of argument put forward by TM researchers like David Orme-Johnson, and that I’ve seen in recent days from meditators and former MUM students in online comments to the previous two parts of this series - is called into question by this one paragraph in the Science report:

This remarkable claim [of an epilepsy cure by way of an electronic device] - and the decision by a peer-reviewed journal to publish it - raise several troubling questions about the role that such journals, their editors, and reviewers play in establishing scientific truths. Who is responsible for controlling the quality of articles? Should standards be relaxed for laboratories outside the wealthy industrial nations? What are the dangers of lowering standards? How representative is this case of the selection process at other journals? It is apparent from the wide range of opinion Science encountered among those who know of the epilepsy "cure" article that on these issues there is no consensus.

The theme of “lowering standards” for various, sometimes vague, reasons is a common thread here across at least two of these journals I’m focusing on. One TM related paper in particular, published in the IJN in 1983, I think is of particular concern, titled “Intersubject Eeg Coherence: Is Consciousness a Field?” While it’s evidently placed on lists of research like this one on the TM website as support for the alleged individual benefits provided by TM - reduction of “stress,” resulting health benefits, and so forth - this sort of research is of an entirely different nature. This study attempts to prove one of the points of Vedic/Hindu fundamentalist doctrine, recast into scientific-sounding secular language: that the source of human consciousness is some “unbounded” field that is common to all physical existence. Attempting to show brainwave “coherence” between research subjects separated at a distance, and that they are affected by a distant group of people practicing a mental technique - “2500 students [participating] in the TM-Sidhi program at a course over 1000 miles away” - is an attempt to refute all known laws of physics and biology, in a futile attempt to validate a point of religious dogma.  

This nonsense - at least, that’s what it is from any authentically scientific viewpoint - has been a core feature of the TM movement’s academic efforts for decades. In my view, the sole reason Maharishi University of Management has existed, beyond seeking legitimacy and institutional support for Transcendental Meditation worldwide, is to endlessly work on this task of creating the illusion of scientific validation of this so-called field of “pure consciousness,” “unbounded awareness,” or the resulting “Maharishi Effect,” in which the environment and society are calmed and made more orderly by the existence of people with allegedly “coherent” brain activity brought about through the practice of Transcendental Meditation.

The existence of this paper or anything like it in the pages of this journal should have raised an alarm back in the early 1980’s, but I suppose that having one’s own university, populated with a number of educated professionals from Harvard and other brand-name schools, churning out piles of “research” in service to a religious, and ultimately political, agenda, provides a veneer of legitimacy that may make it easy for some to disregard the obvious. The unfamiliarity of Vedic/Hindu principles and other such concepts from Eastern religions on the part of many people at the time may also have played a role in the decision to publish such a study.

The second controversy involved a Russian scientist whose cause was that of good old fashioned, and familiar to Americans, Christian creationism. The paper that was published in the IJN in 1990 has a long and technical title, but the last few words of it should have been taken as evidence of some other agenda at work: “a New Criticism to a Modern Molecular-Genetic Concept of Biological Evolution.” The blatant deficiencies if not outright fraudulent nature of this paper went unnoticed for a few years, perhaps because this molecular biology paper was published in a neuroscience journal. But in 1993, when its author, Russian biochemist Dmitrii Kuznetsov, was about to arrive in Sweden for a lecture tour promoted by Swedish creationists, a creationist handed Swedish medical genetics professor Dan Larhammar a copy of Kunetsov’s IJN article. Larhammar’s critique was  published in the IJN the following yearA less technical version was published in the Skeptical Inquirer magazine  and Creation/Evolution Journal, where he wrote, and I’ve bolded one important point that shows that someone seriously dropped the ball when reviewing and editing this paper:

I am aware of only a single report in modern times in an established scientific journal that has claimed molecular data argue against evolution… [Kuznetsov’s] article apparently went unnoticed by scholars for a long time because this type of work is not within the regular scope of that journal; Dr. Kuznetsov's star has risen in creationist circles, meanwhile, because he holds an acknowledged doctorate and was winner of a Lenin Prize in the old Soviet Union, making his intellectual embrace of "scientific" creationism particularly dramatic to Western creationists. I was recently made aware of Kuznetsov's article by a Swedish creationist.

The experimental approach used by Kuznetsov is extraordinary and obscure (for technical details see my 1994 critique). None of his experiments were documented qualitatively; the report contains only tables and numbers, and the numerical results indicate experimental precision that is beyond normal accuracy for such assays. This could indicate that some of the results were fabricated.

One of the procedures that Kuznetsov used was ... cited as a technique published by researchers in "Uppsala University Research Reports" in 1974; this is the university where I work, and no such journal has been heard of here, and no persons with the names he cites could be traced. Other important aspects of his methodology were referenced to four other scientific journals. None of these journals could be found… Finally, an article ascribed to Holger Hyden, a member of the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Neuroscience, is unknown to professor Hyden himself (personal communication). The Scandinavian journal where the article was said by Kuznetsov to have been published does not exist. The purported article, as well as several others in the list of references, had illogical titles with grammatical errors. Taken together, this strongly suggests that many of the references were fabricated by Kuznetsov.

In conclusion, Kuznetsov's obscure experimental approach, qualitatively undocumented results and incomplete evaluation undermine all his conclusions. All key methodological references seem to be non-existent. Thus, Kuznetsov's critique of evolution has no scientific basis whatever. That his antievolutionary article was simply a bad joke is unlikely, because he does indeed include it in his list of scientific publications, and creationists at the ICR (and worldwide) take his work seriously.

There’s much more detail about Kuznetsov’s relationship with the IJN in two articles published in 2002 in the magazine published by The Italian Committee for the Control of Claims on Pseudosciences (in Italian: Il Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sulle Pseudoscienze (CICAP)), Science & Paranormal (Scienza & Paranormale). Both articles were written and translated by Gian Marco Rinaldi, mathematician, writer, and consultant to CICAP.  

The first article is a biography of Kuznetsov (original in Italian), including his relationship with various creationist organizations, including as adjunct professor at the Institute of Creation Research. The second article (original in Italian) is a complete dossier of Kuznetsov’s alleged scientific fraud over the course of at least eleven years. The first part of this second article concerns Kuznetsov’s relationship with IJR and Sidney Weinstein, where additional details are revealed.

Out of 65 references in Kuznetsov’s IJN paper that launched this controversy, “it can be concluded that, for the most part, the publications listed in the bibliography do not exist.” Rinaldi, in his 2012 English translation, revisited the question, using modern online databases, and states “that out of 65 references, I have found only 6 which surely do exist.” 

Even more disturbing is that Kuznetsov successfully had a total of 9 papers published in the IJN, the sixth of which was this paper which came to be examined and exposed as scientifically fraudulent. The relationship between Kuznetsov and Weinstein began with correspondence between them when Kuznetsov was in Russia, which resulted in Weinstein inviting him to visit his Connecticut lab, where he ended up staying in his house for seven weeks. Eventually Weinstein was so impressed by him, that he appointed him to the Editor’s Board of the journal. Rinaldi quotes from a letter from Weinstein:

As for how such nonsense got through the reviewing process of the IJN, I must sadly tell you that we have had two other instances of plagiarism during the decades of my tenure as Editor-in-Chief on the journal. (...) In my more than fifty years of experience in science I have learned that we are not entirely immune from such sociopathy. We must therefore continue to be vigilant, and I am grateful to Professor Larhammar for discovering this fraud and exposing it. Kuznetsov had been very highly recommended by professors in the USA, who were quite familiar with his former, presumably valid, scientific work and publications, and he was therefore appointed to the board. Our policy has been to allow board members to secure only one other reviewer in addition to themselves, to review any paper they submit. Apparently, Kuznetsov either found one of his nonscientist "creationist" colleagues, unknown to us, or merely avoided getting another reviewer. He was dismissed immediately from the IJN as soon as we learned of his malfeasance.

Rinaldi goes on to point out the obvious, that Kuznetsov was very skilled at gaining the trust and confidence of others, even while everything about him was completely fabricated. The weakness in science, as I see it, is that scientists may often be uniquely unprepared to be approached by people with nefarious intent, who see the scientific system as an object to be bent and harnessed for their own purposes.

How could the young Kuznetsov, just over thirty years of age, lacking an academic position and without a prestigious career, deserve to be appointed to the Editorial Board? Now Weinstein, as we have seen, justifies himself by saying that certain American professors, whom he does not name, had spoken so well of his work as a toxicologist. This may be true. Perhaps one should also consider the possibility that Weinstein, to some extent, had been the victim of what seems to be an outstanding talent of Kuznetsov: his captivating ability to gain the confidence of other persons.

The newsletter of the National Committee of Australian Skeptics also published an excerpt of a letter from Weinstein, emphasizing that he and his journal did not support creationism or similar, irrational beliefs.

I am aware of Dr Kouznetsov’s unfortunate belief in the “miraculous” creation of the universe. He is technically correct in saying that “miracles cannot be explained by science”. How can they, since by definition “miracles”, not rationally based can only be “explained” by legend and poetry, but surely not rationally. Naturally, I share your realization that this miracular dogma is absurd.

Unfortunately, the Creation Science Foundation has apparently misappropriated the good name of IJN by attempting to insinuate a nonexistent affiliation between us and religion. Therefore, I will caution him that such an implied association is inappropriate. Although he has the right to preach his religion I also hope that the efforts of the creation “science” people to proselytize by implying authorisation of a scientific journal is challenged by scientists’ awareness of its devious intent. I urge you to make our position clear: Neither this editor nor this journal supports irrational beliefs.

I believe that all of this should be viewed with a somewhat cynical eye. Though it may not have been clearly obvious to Weinstein, his editors, or his reviewers in 1983, Kuznetsov’s paper would not have been the only attempt to systematically use his journal to promote irrational, religious beliefs under the guise of scientific research. The entire basis of TM’s global aspirations to create “world peace” or “heaven on earth” rest on an idea with no rational basis, that originated in a religion: that action at a distance, measurable by monitoring brain activity, supposedly caused by mere thoughts, is not just a research hypothesis but is an absolutist, divinely delivered truth in the ideological system in which those researchers are working. Scientific and medical journals are one part of the process that they seek to use to legitimize that and similar ideas, sometimes by very indirect means, in those fields and eventually throughout all aspects of all societies.

Journals are the product of editors and reviewers, who are human, fallible, and who can be influenced by the usual methods just like anyone else may be, and given the conventions of science and the rarity of this kind of scientific fraud, many are often not as skeptical of new and novel scientific claims and lines of research as they should be. Egregious cases such as this story of Dmitry Kuznetsov’s manipulation of the IJN, unquestionably demonstrate those weaknesses. Other more subtle, though similar means may have been used to gain access to scientific and medical institutions and publications for the purpose of, what I would call, falsely promoting the underlying, unsupportable, religious belief system behind TM by harnessing the legitimacy of those institutions and publications for their own purposes, under questionable pretenses.

This discussion of the role of journals, reviewers and editors, continuing with an examination of three more journals in which research on Transcendental Meditation was published, continues in part four of this series, forthcoming.
Read this series from the beginning.

Read the previous installment of this series (Part 2).

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The dubious research claims of Transcendental Meditation, part 2: "peer review" doesn't always mean "quality" or "accuracy"

David Lynch, Sarina Grosswald,
and John Hagelin at a David Lynch
Foundation press conference,
December 2011.
Read this series from the beginning.

This series continues with Part 3, here.

The organizations that have promoted Transcendental Meditation (TM), including the David Lynch Foundation (DLF), have for decades repeated the insistence of TM’s founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, that extensive scientific research supports their claims of TM’s validity. As I discussed previously, when their claim that “hundreds of published studies” is examined, it’s clear that an enormous proportion of those studies - 82% of the studies listed from the front page of the website - have been authored, or co-authored, by researchers with a documentable, institutional tie to a TM organization. That’s just the first of the issues that arise, when their various claims of independence, volume and quality are contrasted with an analysis of this set of studies. I think we can safely assume that a list on the primary TM website would contain the best studies they can come up with and that support their frequent claims of scientific validation of TM. The response of, “is that really all you’ve got to offer after fifty years of trying?” comes to mind when the contents of that list are carefully examined.  The methodology of many of these studies, versus the conclusions made, are the points at which the movement’s assertions don’t hold up under scrutiny.

There’s also the implied insistence among those offering TM, that when a study is published in a “peer-reviewed journal,” that that study has some magical stamp of approval and that everything in any such study, particularly conclusions favoring TM, are always absolutely and perpetually true. This is, unfortunately, often the way that scientific research is reported in the media, leaving a misimpression with the public that published studies in prestigious journals are some fixed statement of scientific reality. This is seldom true. Science is an ongoing process of discovery, and often the findings of studies, even those published in highly regarded, peer-reviewed journals, will conflict with one another, are found to be not all they were initially thought to be, and in a few rare cases, the researchers were found to have committed fraud in the course of producing a study which supported their predetermined conclusion.

This reliance on peer review as some absolute stamp of accuracy and legitimacy is actively exploited by TM apologists. David Orme-Johnson, longtime psychology department chairman at the TM movement’s university, Maharishi University of Management (MUM), writes about peer review on his “Truth About TM” website as if it would, in every case, notice and intercept every instance of shoddy science performed by a researcher, who’s also a meditator, working on a subsequently published study favoring TM:

Moreover, one purpose of the peer-reviewed process is to screen out studies that may have been biased by the orientation of the investigators. The numerous published studies on the Transcendental Meditation program have met the high standards of peer-review.

This is not quite how academic publishing works in the real world, where faults in research, missed by reviewers, are noted by other scientists after they’re appeared in those peer-reviewed journals, and those faults are later discussed. Those critiques, rebuttals and counter-rebuttals of TM research can sometimes be found in the pages of the same journals in which the original studies of TM have been published.

The list that purports to be “Hundreds of published research studies” linked from the front page of the website, contains only 160 entries, of which 123 refer to original research. On that list are two studies that show how there are serious issues with much of the TM research that is performed by, or with the participation of, long-time committed meditators. These studies are  uncritically reported on in the media, and are recirculated in TM promotional materials over years if not decades, despite the clear issues with the quality and veracity of the research. These two studies, published 30 years apart, have both been criticized for having similar problems.

When the current list of publications from the website is winnowed down and alphabetized, the first of these two studies comes up on top of the list. It can be found under the subheading list, “Insomnia.” Both authors were affiliated with the TM organization in 1978, the first of the two authors, Allen Abrams, was once an assistant professor of education at MIU, and has published research while affiliated with a TM organization as recently as 2015.

Abrams AI, Siegel LM. The Transcendental Meditation program and rehabilitation at Folsom State Prison: a cross-validation study. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 1978, 5(1):3-20.

Now there’s quite a bit of irony surrounding the appearance here of this particular study, starting with the fact that the people who decide what goes on this website haven’t yet picked up on the fact that the second author, “Siegel LM” is actually Aryeh Siegel, the former TM teacher who recently wrote and published a book called “Transcendental Deception: Behind the TM curtain – bogus science, hidden agendas, and David Lynch’s campaign to push a million public school kids into Transcendental Meditation.” Siegel is quite explicit, as you might expect from the full title, about how he believes TM’s claims are based on “bogus science.” This forty year old study is one of only two studies on this list under the “Insomnia” heading, and it still regularly shows up on TM research lists published by the organization. Clearly, after half a century of trying, the scientific evidence in support of TM is still so thin, that to come up with just two studies for their website concerning “insomnia” they have to include one that’s both decades old and co-authored by someone who’s currently one of its most high profile critics.

In “Transcendental Deception,” at page 26, Siegel describes his later misgivings about TM research and this study which he co-authored:

I also recognized that other aspects of TM were failing me. Importantly, my strong research background led to a troubling realization: nearly every study done by TM researchers was at least somewhat biased, and most were poorly designed. To be fair, I had to include the study that I co-authored at Folsom Prison in that assessment.

As it turns out, we don’t have to rely only on Siegel’s self-assessment of this study. The other ironic thing about the inclusion of this study on a current list on a TM website, is that the study itself is not online. If you Google the title, you’ll find the publisher’s page with an abstract of the study, which mentions reduction in insomnia, among other alleged benefits. But you can’t see the article unless you’re willing to spend 36 dollars, which the usual prospective meditator layperson without everyday access to such journals is probably not willing to spend to confirm the claim.

But what is available online for free download is another article, entitled “TM At Folsom Prison: A Critique of Abrams and Siegel,” written by a British Columbia forensic psychologist at a prison there, which the same journal published a year later. The abstract says it all in a few words:

The article by Abrams and Siegel, "The Transcendental Meditation Program at Folsom State Prison: A Cross Validation Study" is examined and found wanting in several respects. Abrams and Siegel are criticized for inadequate controls which seriously limit the conclusions to be drawn from their study. In addition, the authors have taken greater than normal liberties in interpreting their statistical results. It is suggested that if there are any rehabilitative effects from Transcendental Meditation, they are not documented by Abrams and Siegel’s paper.

What I find fascinating about this critique, is that the writer’s  “first point of contention” is very similar to that found in a critique of the subsequent study written thirty years later. Here is the kind of basic research methodology error, particularly regarding the use of controls, or not, that I think is common across so much TM research, and that I also think is almost completely unavoidable. This is because the multi-session method of teaching TM, taken as a whole, goes way beyond simply the assigning of a mantra and how to use it. It’s a process that’s full of coaching and expectation-setting that a certain sort of mental experience will occur, and that meditation practice will be followed by a great positive change in their lives and give them certain benefits, but only if the research subject meditates and meditates regularly. In the 1970’s, and still true to some extent today, it may also have been difficult to impossible to shield the research subjects from the ubiquitous media coverage of the claims for personal transformation through TM common at the time. All of these factors are difficult to control for, thus TM sympathetic researchers simply don’t bother trying.

The first point of contention results from the authors’ failure to use any form of placebo control or to shield the Ss [subjects] from the Es [experimenters’] main expectations. Basically, what Abrams and Siegel have done is to take two groups of people, tell one they will be given training which will radically alter its members lives, show them the way in which this alteration will be assessed (by the use of the same instruments in the pre- and posttests), and then ask them if they feel their lives have been altered. This group was then compared with a second group whose members were told they would not receive treatment until a later date and therefore to expect no change in their behavior.

The critic goes on to allege that the study’s authors made multiple errors, one sentence begins, “A more flagrant example of an attempt to distort the data…”  and the phrase “grossly misleading” also appears.

These certainly aren’t the kind of things that one would normally think would be associated with a study, that an organization would put forward on a rather sparse list of scientific evidence in support of its products. But that’s what’s happened here, and evidently it’s not unusual. Few people ever scratch the surface of these lists or spend time examining, in detail, these claims, even while they’ve been sitting out in plain view for a long time. In this case, it’s certainly been easy enough to find in recent years, as these documents eventually become accessible online.

Fast-forward to 30 years later, to 2008. I think it’s reasonable to think that, if the study of TM were a robust field of research, a lot of these obvious problems would have been resolved, subsequent researchers would have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors, and there would be studies that would move beyond the realm of “exploratory research” - that is, preliminary research of questions that aren’t fully defined, where hypotheses are being proposed, and where research design is being refined. 

The reality is that, after fifty years of trying, most if not all TM research is still exploratory and in its initial stages. That never seems to stop this research from making its way into the media as some definitive proof that TM is effective and is every bit as important and valuable as its proponents say it is. These studies, at best, provide nothing more than tenuous suggestions for more research and are not solid evidence in support of all the claims made for TM. But a rather effective promotional effort aimed at the media, where celebrity endorsements are woven together with claims of scientific legitimacy, results in media coverage, that along with the studies themselves are perpetually recycled by the TM organization and the David Lynch Foundation. 

The second study, published in 2008, received a considerable amount of media attention at the time. It’s listed in the “Stress and Anxiety” research section on the website.

Current Issues in Education is an online journal that’s edited by graduate students at Arizona State University. If the impression is to be maintained that TM research generally appears in highly regarded and influential journals, this is not one of those examples. For example, the SCImago Journal Rank, for 2008, of this journal is 626, out of 828 publications worldwide. This ranking is a measure of the scientific influence of journals, as measured by how often articles are cited by other researchers; this one is not particularly influential.

Once again, as with so much research concerning TM, there is the issue of the institutional connections of the investigators, with TM promoting organizations. Out of the 4 authors of the study, three are obviously meditators and they can be directly connected to TM institutions.

  • Sarina J. Grosswald was an owner of a medical education consulting firm and was formerly employed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Ms. Grosswald died in 2015. She was a candidate for the United States House of Representatives, from Arlington, Virginia, in 1996 and 2000, with the Natural Law Party, which was the TM movement’s since-defunct political party. She also served in various roles with the David Lynch Foundation, including  Executive Director, Office of ADHD and Learning Differences, was reportedly the DLF’s “director of research,” and was the director of the Arlington, Virginia Transcendental Meditation center, in the Washington DC area. Her name appears in seven studies listed on the website. 

  • Fred Travis learned TM in 1972 and became a TM teacher shortly afterward, according to his 1974 letter to the editor of the Ithaca Journal. He’s a 1976 graduate of Cornell University, his senior thesis was a study of 35 Cornell undergraduates who practiced TM. He received both his  MA and PhD from Maharishi International University (now MUM) between 1984 and 1988, and has directed the Brain Center there since 1990. Twenty-eight of the 123 original studies on the website were authored or co-authored by Travis.

  • Mark A. Bateh was a University of Phoenix faculty member, which is the affiliation that appears on this study. He’s a statistician and data analyst with his own consulting firm, and has been an adjunct faculty member at the University of North Florida and Florida State College at Jacksonville. No evidence of a direct connection to TM institutions, or his status as a meditator, could be confirmed, nor is he known to have authored or co-authored any other study on TM.

The authors of this study share some demographic quirks. Of the three who are clearly closely associated with TM, all of them were all born within a year of 1950 or 1951, and it's likely they all would have been undergraduate students between 1970 and 1974, during the period when Transcendental Meditation was being heavily promoted on college campuses. These traits match those that can be frequently seen among many of the published researchers associated with TM: most often, they learned TM as undergraduate students before 1975, sometimes almost immediately becoming TM teachers, and they have continued to be enthusiastic meditators for, at this point, forty years or more. Many of them moved to the movement’s base at Fairfield, Iowa, becoming staff or faculty at their university there and living and working almost exclusively among other meditators. They are outliers relative to most people who started TM at some point in their lives, and who stopped meditating some months or years afterward. In this case, two of these individuals lived and worked in the Washington DC area, where a large number of meditators settled in the early 1980’s and where an active community of meditators, and a prominent TM facility, still exist today, along with an office of the David Lynch Foundation.

Keep in mind, we’re looking at a paper co-authored by longtime meditators, one of whom was doing research on TM thirty years before working on this study, a few years after the Folsom prison experiment was skewered by at least one critic. If there was progress being made in this field, why would we see the same issues with this study, performed by a few people in a position to be fully aware of what’s come before?

But the first thing that captures my attention, reading through the paper, is this passage which is something of a diatribe against the use of drugs to treat children with ADHD. There’s a substantial amount of propaganda produced by the TM organization which centers on the fear of “side effects” of medicine, both with respect to TM, as in this context, and with its efforts to revive their version of Indian folk medicine, Ayurveda, as a commercial product under its own “Maharishi” brand name. While it may not be apparent to the reader unfamiliar with the culture around TM and the fear of medicine and science that it sometimes fosters, these few sentences, which start on the study’s first page, sounds a familiar refrain among meditators and TM critics:

Side effects of the ADHD medication can further compound the problem by causing or  exacerbating emotional disorders. Consequently many children on ADHD medication are taking multiple drugs that include treatment for anxiety or other mood disorders, though most of  those drugs are not FDA approved for use with children. The long-term health effects of ADHD medications are not fully known; however, evidence suggests risks of cardiac disorders and sudden death, liver damage, and psychiatric events.

To fan the flames of fear of the use of drugs, and to provide support for the TM organization’s products, including Ayurvedic remedies, here they are falsely implying that the off-label use of drugs, or their use outside specific FDA approval, is life threatening, by immediately raising in the next sentence,  the specter of “sudden death” as a consequence of any drug-based therapy. This also matches the more general attitude among TM insiders, that TM is a solution to all problems, including those of mental health. 

Such attitudes against conventional, authentically evidence-based, medicine and science are clearly present among TM leaders, teachers and many meditators. Vaccination rates at the movement’s primary school in Fairfield, Iowa, have been among the lowest in that state, resulting in an outbreak of measles cases there in 2004. In India, where the movement and its founder have at times been much more explicit about their intentions, a book published by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi contains a declaration that all medicine and medical practices must be banned, that do not conform to his concept of Ayurveda, which are largely folk medicine practices unsupported by modern science.

The authors continue:

In light of the growing concerns about the safety of ADHD medication, their actual effectiveness,  and potential long-term health risks, the need to find effective non-drug interventions is becoming paramount.

Again, what’s oozing out around the edges of this paper is the assumption that TM is a fix for everything. The disregarding of the benefits of medicine, and instead, emphasizing those scientific studies that, they say, showed that modern medicine caused side effects and thus should be avoided, could be seen on TM websites produced around that time. To drive home that point to students at MUM, a display in the lobby of the Dreier Building there, once held a clear plastic-enclosed stack of paper, piled almost to the ceiling, representing 7,000 studies that they say showed the “hazards of modern medicine.” A similar graphic appears with one such page on the “Global Country of World Peace” website, one of numerous global TM organizations.

So the report of this study is rather remarkable in that it leads off with one of the underlying assumptions of the TM movement’s self-importance and world-transforming agenda, in plain view. The sentiment that the world and everything in it is horribly flawed, that a need to do something different is “paramount” to avert imminent disaster, and that the TM movement and all its products will bring about “Heaven on Earth” as well as personal and social benefit, colors everything that TM researchers do, and that’s reflected in the poor quality of what they produce. It is also a set of expressions of an unusual religious faith, that also asserts that its premises will invariably be verified by way of modern science.

Clay Jones, a pediatrician who’s written under the handle “skepticpedi,” today writes for the Science Based Medicine website. In early 2009, around the time this study was getting plenty of uncritical, credulous coverage in the media, he wrote an article at the blog of the Houston Skeptic Society, “How to Design a Positive Study: Meditation for Childhood ADHD.” As with the critique of the Folsom Prison study thirty years earlier, the lack of controls is mentioned in the second sentence, and then there’s much more.

The flaws in this study are numerous. The number of subjects is too small, there is no control group and it isn’t blinded. The study reveals that some of the children are on medication but it does not take into account the possibility of recent changes in medical therapy, or improved compliance while on the study. It is based purely on self-report and subjective questionairres and there is very high liklihood that a placebo effect could have been the sole responsible factor in the subjects’ apparent improvements. 

He takes note of Sarina Grosswald’s obvious connections to the TM program, pointing out this particular quote in a Reuters Health report on this study:

“The effect was much greater than we expected,” lead researcher Sarina J. Grosswald, a cognitive learning specialist in Arlington, Virginia, said in a written statement.

As Jones points out, and as can easily be confirmed through numerous sources, Grosswald is “a hardcore believer in TM,” and so are two of her three co-authors. This expectation is what many meditators express, it’s what’s learned through the process of being instructed in TM, which is much more than just being handed a mantra and being told how to use it. There is constant reinforcement of the idea that regular and correct practice of TM must in every case bring about positive results.  If not, you must not be doing it right and it’s your own damn fault, and they think you should submit to having your meditation “checked,” which is more reinforcement aimed toward continued practice of TM. 

There’s more, and this concerns the fact that the children, who are the subjects of this research study, may have been coached in various ways. If they learned TM in ways similar to how most people learned TM - through multiple sessions, during which new meditators are told several times over how practice of TM provides benefits, and will change the world - they have been influenced in ways that go far beyond being taught to meditate. Such influences would, under the usual circumstances, invalidate any attempt to call this a valid research study; they aren’t disclosed or being in any way controlled for. (In this case, there were no actual controls, only “self-controls” through before and after questioning of the ten students.)

A more concerning red flag, and one which was also discovered in the talk given by Grosswald, is the fact that the 10 children involved in the study may have been coached. In the last few minutes of the presentation, Grosswald presents clips of the children meeting with the TM proponents prior to the initiation of the study, where it appears that they are told what the expected outcome of the trial is, that their symptoms will improve with TM. 

Not only are these kids aged 11 to 14 being told what the expected outcome of the study is by study investigators, the headmaster of the school, Linda Handy, can be seen at the very end of the video discussing how amazing the technique is and how it will change the students’ futures for the better. I am forced to question whether the teachers, whose evaluations of the study subjects’ behavior and performance are an integral component of the study conclusions of positive effect, might have been hesitant to give a negative evaluation when their boss is clearly also a true believer.

Jones noted the involvement of the Abramson Family Foundation in financing this study, a foundation created by a Washington DC developer and meditator, Jeffrey Abramson. Its since-defunct website listed an advisory board that includes most of the current advisory board of the DLF, and that included co-authors Grosswald and Stixrud, along with school headmaster Linda Handy.

In the acknowledgments section, The authors thank the Abramson Family Foundation for funding and the Institute for Community Enrichment for support. The Abramson Family Foundation is an organization which believes that TM can help students achieve the full potential of their brain… Of note, Grosswald sits on the Board of Advisors for the foundation. Joining her on the Board is none other than the school headmaster Linda Handy. Whatever doubt I had in my lack of enthusiasm for this study fell by the wayside upon that discovery.

Linda Handy was not just an advisor to the Abramson and Lynch foundations. According to a recent biography on the website of the school where she is now “Director of Guidance & Counseling,” the Woods School, Handy herself is a meditator, as we might expect from anyone with any significant role with the DLF. As I mentioned earlier, many other meditators with various roles with the TM organization share  the history of having been an undergraduate student in the 1970-1974 period, which is also true of Handy.  Her direct association with the DLF on that biography is not evident, instead, she claims to be on the advisory board of the “Montgomery County Committee for Stress Free Schools.” No evidence could be found that an actual organization with that name exists. The “Committee for Stress Free Schools” was, according to its now-defunct website, established “in partnership with” the DLF in 2005, and Handy is listed among its “education advisors.” Since 2015, the web address for what was the Committee’s website has forwarded to the website of the DLF.

There’s also another peculiarity involving Handy, and this is in her bio on the DLF’s current website. She is listed as being the “principal of the Waldorf School in Silver Spring, Maryland,” and she’s been described that way on the DLF websites since at least 2006 through to the present. But there isn’t, and hasn’t been, a school called the “Waldorf School” in Silver Spring, and Waldorf schools generally don’t have principals. Her current employer, the Woods School, is a private Catholic school in the Washington DC suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, and other than the fact that a co-author of this study, William Stixrud, has given a lecture or workshop there, I haven’t located any public association between the Woods School and Transcendental Meditation. 

The conclusion of Jones’ assessment is actually rather depressing, given that science and health reporting is often unable to question or filter out advocacy based on marginal-to-invalid research of this nature, and his prediction has certainly held true in the subsequent decade since this was written. 

It wasn’t difficult to look at this study and see that the claims being made by TM supporters aren’t valid. It wasn’t even that hard to uncover the connections between the investigators, the school where the study was conducted and pro-TM organizations. Yet I was unable to find one news report that displayed even the slightest amount of critical thinking, instead reading like press releases from TM believers. The current state of science and health reporting is rather depressing, and I don’t see things improving any time soon as more and more dedicated science writers are falling prey to the poor economy.

Having seen this phenomenon over and over, across decades, it should be clear that research on Transcendental Meditation, when it’s performed by MUM faculty or other allied, long-term meditators and TM teachers, is meant to serve as an inducement to get more people to practice TM, and thus fulfill their expectations of global transformation or even “utopia” via the so-called “Maharishi Effect” if only enough people would meditate. TM isn’t just a meditation method,  it comes with an enormous amount of dogma that dictates that TM is effective, that its model of human consciousness based on some completely unsubstantiated connection to the “unified field” is valid, and that scientists simply need to catch up to what they already believe is true. Many of these basic assumptions about TM can be heard at an introductory lecture, and they are repeated frequently as a meditator becomes involved with other aspects of the program. As a result, meditators are, in my view, uniquely predisposed to assume that TM is effective in everything they do. 

This is what I consistently notice when exploring the research that's been offered in support of TM for decades now: whether they are fully aware of it or not, meditating researchers bend basic hypotheses, research design, and data analysis in the direction of favoring TM. Frequently, what they are calling “hypotheses” are actually restatements of basic points of doctrine that come from Maharishi’s particular interpretations of Vedic scripture, taught to TM teachers as part of their training, and to meditators in advanced courses.

It then comes as no surprise, among those of us who are longtime critics of Transcendental Meditation, that this is what the research looks like when it’s carefully examined. These studies always suggest that the bullseye is being drawn around the arrow; the arrow is the underlying anti-scientific, religion-based absolutism that they call “Vedic Science,” and the bullseye is what they think should result when science is placed into service for their own fundamentalist ends. Using science in this way is unlikely to work out very well for those with these obvious agendas, as scientists who aren’t among the very few who’ve been doing TM for 40 years or more, and who aren’t predisposed to favorable findings for TM, will very seldom reach the same conclusions.

This series continues with Part 3, here.

Read this series from the beginning.

Photo: Cropped frame from David Lynch Foundation video at YouTube.