Sunday, September 15, 2019

The dubious research claims of Transcendental Meditation, part 1: Truly independent research on TM is rare

This series on TM's research claims continues with Part 2, here.

PDF files containing copies of spreadsheets with all the supporting data for this article are available at the bottom of this page.


TM original research listed on the tm.org website, evaluated over
five-year periods. Meditating individuals and affiliated MIU/MUM
faculty have authored the majority of it since 1981.
For over a half century now, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the movement and the organizations that he spawned, and now the David Lynch Foundation, have insisted that their claims supporting Transcendental Meditation have been scientifically validated, and are supported by some consensus among many scientists. The prominence of TM, and the reputations of public figures who are constantly named in the media as having learned this mental technique, have rested on the assumption that these claims are completely valid. They regularly make reference to a large pile of scientific studies - the actual number of those studies varies a great deal from moment to moment, but it’s usually in the hundreds - that confirm, for them, that these assertions are always true.

But what happens when all those supportive scientific studies that they constantly mention in support of TM, are actually obtained, analyzed, sorted and evaluated? How many of them reflect the work of people who have no connection to TM at all, financial, emotional or otherwise - not as meditators, TM teachers, or faculty at the movement’s own university? Is it at all accurate for them to imply that because they can name-drop many universities, research institutions, and the titles of prominent medical and scientific journals, that some positive scientific consensus exists to support the claims they constantly make for the safety, efficacy and validity of Transcendental Meditation?

The short answer is, as you might expect, no. 

As it turns out, as far as I can determine, no systematic, in-depth study, formal or otherwise, has ever been attempted, of the lists of journal articles, reports and other publications - even letters of complaint to journal editors! - furnished by the TM program that are offered as if they were all  “published research studies.” To my knowledge, there has never been publicly available or online, a careful evaluation of any of those lists, that considers the identities and affiliations of the researchers named, the nature of the research, or even if each of the publications named actually reports on an original research study. 

There has been one major attempt to address some of these questions, by way of a ‘talk’ page on Wikipedia associated with the ‘Transcendental Meditation’ entry there. It was last edited in 2010, and it relies on a 2009 bibliography created by a TM movement affiliated doctor, Roger Chalmers, listing 341 studies. Individuals with a known connection to TM organizations have had their names bolded; of those 341 entries, 264 of them contain a bolded name as an author, meaning that 77% of the entries included an individual connected with the TM organization. No attempt was made to evaluate the nature of the published paper, or to remove entries that do not reference actual original research studies.

Another much smaller investigation, confined to 9 studies funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health that were cited by the David Lynch Foundation (DLF), showed that all 9 studies involved TM-connected individuals. (The current version of this list at the DLF’s website names 16 published papers, 2 of which are duplicates or are the second part of a multi-part article, and all of them name TM-connected individuals as authors.)

Even a TM leader who has long specialized in creating and publishing research on TM has clumsily avoided even beginning to answer this question directly. David Orme-Johnson was the chairman of the psychology department at Maharishi University of Management (MUM, formerly MIU) for twenty-three years, beginning in 1973, and for a few years he was acting president of the university. His name appears on dozens of articles, appearing both in independent journals and the movement’s own publications, focused on TM and other programs offered by the organization. Since retiring from MUM, he’s created the “Truth About TM” website, which ostensibly exists to defend the reputation of Transcendental Meditation and to support almost every imaginable claim made in support of it. On that site, on a page addressing issues with the research, he asks the question: “Are All Scientists Who Conduct Research On The Transcendental Meditation Program Affiliated With The TM Organization Or Do They All Practice The Technique?

What follows this question is a paragraph that is a perfect demonstration of the method that I’ve seen attributed to Maharishi, that he supposedly once said during a TM teacher training course: "Every question is a perfect opportunity for the answer we have already prepared."  Here, Orme-Johnson’s “answer” is to first repeat the same old party line and selling point as if he were a used car salesman who will first distract and obfuscate while attempting to avoid answering the question at all:

During the past 36 years, more than 360 scientists at 209 independent universities and research institutions from 29 countries have conducted research on the Transcendental Meditation program.

By now this claim or something very similar to it can be found in almost one hundred thousand online pages, at least, that’s how many hits Google returns if you take the significant words from that sentence, along with “Transcendental Meditation” as a quoted phrase, and search on them. So this sentence is the same non-answer that most people visiting that website, interested in finding out more about TM research, would have likely already seen variations of, several times over. And then there’s the second sentence, where it’s clear, he has no answer for you:

No formal survey has ever been conducted to determine exactly how many scientists practice the Transcendental Meditation program, although it is clear that many do not practice the technique.

Remarkably, Orme-Johnson then offers up a short “list of a few examples of the scientists who do not practice the Transcendental Meditation program, and the results of their research.” There’s only one slight problem: of the eleven examples he provides, only five are examples of research that was entirely the product of scientists who were not involved with the TM program in any capacity. The other six involved one or more individuals who Orme-Johnson admitted were, at least, practitioners of Transcendental Meditation. 

So this is one of the few instances this question has been broached in public, with someone who’s created a website to defend TM from the standpoint of an experienced in-house investigator. They can only come up with five, yes, just five, studies that were produced with zero possibility of that research reflecting any form of favor of a particular result, intentional or otherwise, because of the involvement of a TM meditator. Given the weakness of that reply, obviously this issue is ripe for some detailed analysis. Careful study may also show that, after decades of trying to generate interest by performing their own studies, there is still very little interest among other scientists outside the TM movement, in testing these claims or replicating the research.

There are many bibliographies circulated by a few people in the TM movement that contain up to about 400 studies, and the seven volume “Collected Papers” series published by MUM contains about 800 studies, many of them never published in peer-reviewed journals. Since those bibliographies aren’t all that accessible to the general public without considerable searching, I’ve instead focused my analysis on the list that is currently on the tm.org website as of August 2019.  I think it’s reasonable to think that the list easily reached from the front page there would contain the best and most complete picture of what they believe the current state of research on the TM program to be, and that it would contain the most recent research they consider relevant, published through 2018. Another reasonable assumption is that what’s on the tm.org website today would be a list of studies that would be of interest to prospective meditators, attempting to make a convincing case for TM, and that, unlike what has come before, it would demonstrate that research supporting all the positive claims that they make would be the product of many unaffiliated researchers, not disproportionately representing researchers from the meditating community.

University and agency logos appearing on the tm.org website
at the top of their "research studies" popup section.
Certainly that’s the impression that TM organization leaders attempt to create through the presentation of this list on that website. I’m referring to a popup section on the front page of the tm.org website which is much like what’s been included in the brochures, publications, and websites that we’ve seen for decades. The page comes up when you click on the link under the third heading, “Evidence–based/Hundreds of published research studies.” Go there, and you’ll see it’s topped by the logos of three universities and a government medical agency, followed by, “Hundreds of studies have been conducted at more than 200 independent universities and research institutions, and published in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals.”

What I think is happening here is what I sometimes call “firehosing.” It’s a situation where a lot of information is being thrown at the reader or viewer at one time in a somewhat disorganized way, as if being made to drink from a fire hose, and the recipient can’t quite keep up with the flow. Go through to those categories,  and there’s a lot to read, and it all looks substantial, important, and to some degree, hard to question at first glance. A TM introductory lecture is also a lot like this, where many unfamiliar concepts, jargon and an air of authority that comes from the assumption of being recipients of some “ancient” “tradition” are part of the presentation.  It’s hard to get a firm grasp on what the claims truly are, or whether those claims are reasonable based on the available evidence, if all you have to work with are what the marketers of TM have long produced.

After carefully gathering the list from the categories in which it’s broken into online, removing duplicates - 23 papers are in more than one category, 3 are in 3 categories - and inspecting the list, line by line, the first thing that I noticed is, despite the implied claim in the introduction that this is a list of “studies” directly performed with people practicing TM, that went through some process of peer review before publication, and not anything else, that’s not exclusively what’s listed there. The list has been padded out with other articles that don’t directly qualify as original research studies that have undergone peer review:

  • Meta-analyses and reviews of other published studies, which often contain the keyword “review,” were published in journals specifically tasked with publishing reviews, or otherwise were articles that did not describe new research but instead described research studies that were already published elsewhere. Oftentimes these are articles by TM affiliated individuals that review and promote research performed by themselves or by other TM affiliated researchers.
  • Articles that were published in collections of presentations made at conferences, symposia, and other gatherings that may not have gone through the usual peer-review process that would apply to most journal articles.
  • Opinion pieces and letters to the editors of journals by individuals directly connected with the TM movement, that either attempt to refute the conclusions of other published research, or that promote the views of the TM movement with respect to such research.
  • Other material that was not clearly a description of a research study, including a statement by the American Heart Association that TM proponents have long interpreted as an endorsement of TM, which it is not, and that was later partially refuted by the AHA a few years later.


Despite the claim that there are “hundreds” of relevant peer-reviewed studies published in major journals, the website list only contains 160 entries, of which 37 were these articles that, by my criteria,  don’t directly qualify as original research, leaving a remaining 123 entries for further consideration. 

In upcoming parts of this series,  I’ll discuss the actual content of some of these studies, and the 37 that I’ve disqualified. Another part will explore the identities, affiliations and demographics of the 16 individuals whose names most frequently showed up as researchers on this list. Finally, I’ll offer an explanation as to what role the creation of these research studies plays in the broader TM movement, and how that movement reflects attempts by Vedic fundamentalists in India, over the past century or so, to recast their religious beliefs and scriptures as somehow scientific in nature. In this part, my focus is on the people who are doing the research, and the degree to which they are involved with the TM organization, generally as MUM faculty. Given that the same names are repeated over and over on this list, that fact suggests the obvious: that the research on this list, and research on TM in general, is dominated by a very small number of individuals who have long had a formal relationship to the institutions of the TM movement.

Further analysis of the identities and affiliations of the individual researchers, and the frequency with which their names appear, across this list reveals a pattern that isn’t evident when only one or a few studies are under consideration. For the entire 1970-2018 period during which these studies were performed and published, fully 83% of the studies were authored by at least one TM-affiliated individual. The average portion of researchers on each study who were TM-affiliated, was 66 percent.  TM connections to these studies increased considerably after 1980, where during the 1981-2018 period, at least 93% of the studies were authored by at least one TM-affiliated person.

Doing a survey based on the list of studies currently on TM movement’s own website really isn’t that complicated, and that’s what I’ve done here. It’s easy enough to determine who’s been working at the Maharishi University of Management (previously, MIU) for decades, and a subset of that pool of people dominate the list of researchers on that list. Perhaps they’ve deliberately avoided creating such a list, for fear of what it would clearly show? 

Since in this context we can’t prove a negative - that any one individual does not practice TM, unless they’ve stated so in public or others have vouched for them, which I only know to be true with respect to two individuals named on this list - these numbers should be considered to be minimums, and there may be others named as authors in these published articles who are meditators. Learning TM, and certainly post-initiation contact with the TM organization, does involve being exposed to a substantial amount of ideology and assumptions that the movement makes about TM, and their expectations that what they offer will positively transform the world (internally referred to as bringing about “Heaven on Earth”). This exposure is particularly so for those who have gone on to take residence courses or instruction in additional mental techniques, which usually involves doubling, at least, the time spent in meditation during those courses while attending lectures or viewing videotapes. Conventionally, in scientific publishing, there isn’t a requirement that researchers disclose this level of entanglement with what they are studying, since there is no direct financial benefit to them, it’s more of an emotional or ideological disposition. But I believe that any direct participation as a TM meditator should be disclosed by researchers, beyond that of being obviously affiliated with a TM-related institution such as MUM or the DLF, and that that level of involvement should be included in any assessment of the alleged independence of the people doing these studies.

As I already mentioned, this list appears on the TM movement’s most prominent website, on the front page, where you would likely think that the most convincing case would be made “from a vast body of 40 years of research showing very powerful long-lasting reductions in stress and sustained improvements in health.” This is exactly where the implied claim that these are unbiased, objective studies produced independent of the TM movement’s own organizations, were that true, should hold up under scrutiny. It does not; overall, 83% of the studies are tarnished by the direct, unambiguous participation of Maharishi University of Management faculty and staff, and David Lynch Foundation staffers. But what trends can we identify from this list? Has there been a trend toward the production of more objective, independent research on TM, performed by unaffiliated people and then cited by the TM movement, or not?

To answer this question, I separated the studies into 5 year long periods based on publication date. Viewed that way, it’s obvious that the golden age of independent research on TM ended by 1980, and there’s not the faintest glimmer of that ever returning. Over the 1970-1980 period, while TM was at the peak of its popularity and initiations or instructions in TM were at their historical zenith, only 39 percent of the named studies involved TM researchers. This contrasts with the period 1991 to 2018, where overall, 95% of the named studies involved TM researchers. For two five year periods after 1991, 100% of the studies had authors who were  TM participants, and for no five year period did that proportion fall below 90 percent. For the most recent period included on that list, 2016-2018, 91% of the studies involved TM connected individuals.

From this it’s clear that there isn’t a trend toward TM being an increasingly interesting subject to unaffiliated researchers. It’s evidently a stagnant field that very seldom attracts the interest of anyone other than those who have long been meditating, and when others are involved, usually they are working with meditators who are in a position to influence study design and the interpretation of data.

To sum up: there are 160 scientific papers listed on the tm.org website. From my perspective, 37 of those papers don’t qualify as original research for various reasons despite the claims surrounding the list that imply that all of them are “published research studies” directly applicable to what benefits a prospective meditator can expect from TM. 

Of the remaining 123 papers, 102 of them, or 83%, are a study in which at least one author has a documented institutional connection with TM. Only 21 studies, the remaining 17%, are studies that can’t be easily connected with the TM organization in this way, and are much less likely to have been studies in which the design, interpretation of data, or other influences would have affected the study’s outcome.

Clearly, the TM movement’s constant, misleading characterization of the evidence base to support TM, displaying the logos of institutions and repeating the phrase, “200 independent universities and research institutions,” doesn’t hold up to detailed examination. The location of the research is less relevant than the people doing the work. The people who did the research work, wherever they were, were overwhelmingly those who have experienced both the practice itself and the vast amount of ideology and doctrine that come with long-term involvement with the TM program and everything surrounding it, that go well beyond the twenty minute, twice a day practice.

This series on TM's research claims continues with Part 2, here.

Links to PDF's of spreadsheets with supporting data for this article:

Original research listed at tm.org, August 2019. These are the 123 papers describing original research studies.

Other research papers cited at tm.org, which were excluded from this analysis, because they were not original research studies.

Authors of the 123 papers describing original research studies. This list includes only authors of two or more papers on the list.

Calculations of TM affiliated researcher participation, based on the list in the first file above.

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