I try not to watch too much ‘tabloid television’ as I find that the way scientific issues are covered is likely to provoke either the tossing of objects in the direction of the television, or the feeling that my blood pressure is rising to dangerous levels. When medical or health issues are being discussed the reaction is usually a combination of the two.
When I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the latest miracle weight loss treatment, or arthritis cure, I escape to a bit of sound scientific reporting by switching over to the ABC, and watch the normally excellent general science program Catalyst. Tonight, though, I momentarily thought I’d turned on the wrong channel, as Catalyst’s first story – on Transcendental Meditation – was right out of the tabloid guide book.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a form of meditation that came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s after The Beatles became followers of the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Though their direct involvement with the Maharishi was relatively short lived, the publicity led to worldwide interest in the teachings of the ‘giggling guru’, as the Maharishi became to be known.
As a skeptic I have no concerns with meditation as a means of relaxation, and TM is one of many types of meditation that can assist people in achieving a state of relaxation. My concern with TM is that over the years a range of health claims and powers have been associated with it, including levitation, invisibility, walking through walls, colossal strength, ESP, and improvements in standard medical conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure).
With regards to relaxation, TM supporters claim that unique brain wave changes are observed on EEG tracings of those practicing TM. They claim specific changes in alpha wave tracings, but whilst it is accepted by neurologists that alpha waves are associated with a relaxed brain there is no evidence that TM produces a state of relaxation different to what can be achieved with a variety of other techniques, including other forms of meditation. The presence of alpha waves on EEG is indicative of a relaxed, inactive mental state, and nothing more They are certainly not specific to TM. In addition there is no conclusive evidence that the presence of the alpha waves means anything other than the person is relaxed. That is, there is no evidence that there are any specific health benefits associated with having these EEG tracings.
Given that one does not have to dig too far into the scientific literature to find doubts about TM’s claims one might have expected Catalyst to cast a more critical eye than it did. The general tone came across as supportive, and there was a glaring absence of adhering to sound scientific principles, particularly in their coverage of the issue of EEG tracings.
In this segment they took a single person, one who practices TM, and recorded their EEG whilst apparently ‘relaxing’, and then whilst in a meditative state. We were shown the tracings, and then the surprised response of the person conducting the test, who said all the right things about this being something he hadn’t seen before. There was no comparison with someone relaxing by another means, and no comparison with someone practicing another form of meditation. There was no acknowledgment of the fact that the person they used was a TM practitioner, who could well have had a vested interest in the result. A good scientist would at least consider the possibility that the person being tested could easily have not been as relaxed in the earlier measurement because she understood the purpose of the test, namely to identify a unique TM related change. Where were the control test subjects?
Full credit to the Australian Skeptic’s own Dr Richard Gordon , the lone voice of reason, but I’d like to know just how much of what he contributed at interview was left on the cutting room floor.
I’m all in favour of relaxation. In fact, I regularly tell my patients that they need to find “a hammock swinging between a couple of palm trees”. I do mention meditation as one of the means of achieving this, as well as listening to music, walking in the park, lying in bed with a good book, going to the gym, and a host of other means to an end. What I don’t tell my patients is that any of these techniques will make them invisible, cause them to levitate, or treat any medical condition they have.
There is no ‘right’ way to relax, and any individual or group that suggests otherwise, particularly if that suggestion costs you excessive time and/or money, is linked to a quasi-religious belief system, or has associated claims of supernatural benefits, is to be avoided. If they offer to help you to relax then by all means think about giving it a go. If they try to tell you how to live your life, then walk away.