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Rebuttal of NRC Report on Meditation

Issue: Did a National Research Council (NRC) report discredit research on the Transcendental Meditation program?

Orme-Johnson, D. W., Alexander, C. N., & Hawkins, M. A. (2005). Critique of the National Research Council’s report on meditation. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality,17(1), 383-414.

Download PDF of this paper (click here )

The Evidence: A report by the National Research Council (NRC) that purported to review the research on meditation failed to examine over 500 scientific studies on the Transcendental Meditation program. The report has come under sharp attack from prominent American scientists, including from those who do not practice the Transcendental Meditation program.

The NRC is part of the National Academy of Sciences, America’s pre-eminent scientific authority. The U.S. Army paid the NRC $300,000 for a study of the research on techniques to enhance human potential. A series of three books have been published and a fourth is planned, coming out at intervals of about one every two years. The first book contained only a brief mention of meditation. The second book, released in September 1991, contained an entire section on meditation. In this report, meditation was claimed to be ineffective in improving human performance. The NRC report was based on a review of meditation and relaxation techniques by Brener and Connally previously commissioned by the U.S. Army in 1986. This report was outdated, incomplete, and was never published, which means that it never went through peer-review—the essence of the scientific process.

Following are comments from leading scientists, who do not practice the Transcendental Meditation program, on the NRC report and the research on the Transcendental Meditation program

NRC Didn’t Look at the Data

By Archie Wilson, M.D., Chief of Pulmonary Medicine,
University of California Irvine Medical Center

“I would dispute any claim that Transcendental Meditation is not physiologically different from ordinary relaxation sitting with eyes closed. Our research shows that the Transcendental Meditation program is definitely different in terms of cardiovascular and metabolic function. If the NRC report concluded the opposite, the committee clearly didn’t look at the data.”

Note: Dr. Wilson does not practice the Transcendental Meditation program. He has co-authored 25 scientific papers on the Transcendental Meditation program, published in such journals as the American Journal of Physiology, Psychophysiology, Psychosomatic Medicine, and Hormones and Behavior.

NRC Failed to Take into Account an Impressive Number of Physiological Studies

By Herbert Spector, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the Georgetown University Medical Center and Adjunct Professor of Microbiology and Neuroscience at the University of Alabama in Birmingham

“I have noted with some concern and surprise that the recent NRC report on meditation failed to take into account an impressive number of papers, in peer-reviewed journals, published for more than a decade, dealing with physiological changes during meditation. It is not necessary to agree with their results, but it is certainly improper and inappropriate to ignore them or to omit considering them in any review on the subject of meditation.”

Note: Dr. Spector does not practice the Transcendental Meditation program.

NRC Has Irresponsibly Reviewed a Hard-Won Body of New Knowledge

By Ross Adey, Associate Chief of Staff for Research and Development,
Pettis Memorial Veterans Hospital, Loma Linda, California

“The history of science is strewn with instances where scientists have locked themselves into wrong and preemptive assumptions. Perhaps this happened in the NRC review of meditation research. Specifically, they have trivialized a significant body of neurophysiological evidence, including quite detailed evaluations of electroencephalographic (EEG) concomitants of meditational states. Many of these findings have been independently replicated. In short, this appears to be another instance where the NRC, or its parent body the NAS, has irresponsibly reviewed a hard-won body of new knowledge out of carelessness, ignorance or both.”

Note: Dr. Adey does not practice the Transcendental Meditation program.

This Is an Area of Scientific Research that’s Here to Stay

By Dr. Sidney Weinstein, Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Neuroscience

“Over the past 10 years the editors and reviewers of IJN have accepted several papers on Transcendental Meditation because they have met the rigorous standards of scientific publication. IJN is honored to have two Nobel laureates on its editorial board, and has a distinguished group of scientists from leading universities on every continent who judge the scientific value of the papers submitted for consideration. Not once have these scientists ever questioned the integrity or scientific validity of the papers on Transcendental Meditation. The fact that the articles on Transcendental Meditation continue to appear in large numbers in reputable journals in addition to IJN demonstrates, at least to me, that this is an area of scientific research that’s here to stay. Any review of Transcendental Meditation literature which overlooks these publications smacks of scientific censorship. Perhaps such reviewers would find it instructive to read about the Galileo affair."

Note: Dr. Weinstein does not practice the Transcendental Meditation program.

Research Deserves the Most Serious Consideration

By David Edwards, Ph.D., Professor Government at the University of Texas, Austin

“I think the claim can be plausibly made that the potential impact of this research exceeds that of any other ongoing social or psychological research program. The research has survived a broader array of statistical tests than most research in the field of conflict resolution. I think this work, and the theory that informs it, deserves the most serious consideration by academics and policy makers alike.”

Note: Dr. Edwards has reviewed the studies on the Maharishi Effect. He does not practice the Transcendental Meditation program.

We Have to Take These Studies Seriously

By Ted Robert Gurr, Ph.D.,
Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland

“In the studies that I have examined on the impact of the Maharishi Effect [Yogic Flying] on conflict, I can find no methodological flaws, and the findings have been consistent across a large number of replications in many different geographical and conflictual situations. As unlikely as the premise may sound, I think we have to take these studies seriously.”

Note: Dr. Gurr does not practice the Transcendental Meditation program. He is one of the most well-respected scholars in the field of conflict analysis.

The Work Was Sound

By Raymond Russ, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Maine
and Editor of the Journal of Mind and Behavior

“The hypothesis definitely raised some eyebrows among our reviewers. But the statistical work was sound. The numbers were there. When you can statistically control for as many variables as these studies do, it makes the results much more convincing.”

Note: Dr. Russ does not practice the Transcendental Meditation program. His journal has published two papers on the Maharishi Effect.

The NRC’s third book was released on August 2, 1994, and contained a second report on the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi program. It purported to specifically review the 500 studies on the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi program that had been overlooked in their first report. This second report devoted only six pages to reviewing the 500 studies and limited its review to three meta-analyses.

The findings of the three meta-analyses include:

1) the Transcendental Meditation program produces greater physiological changes indicative of deep rest than ordinary relaxation with eyes closed;

2) the Transcendental Meditation program produces greater reductions in trait anxiety than other forms of meditation and relaxation; and

3) the Transcendental Meditation program produces greater increases in self-actualization than other forms of meditation and relaxation. The statistically significant difference between the Transcendental Meditation program and other techniques using the meta-analyses means that the results have been consistent across studies from different researchers.

The NRC reviewers collected the original spreadsheets of data from the authors of the meta-analyses and found the analyses to be proficiently executed. The report argued from information presented in the meta-analysis on anxiety that the Transcendental Meditation program was not superior to ordinary relaxation, relaxation techniques, and other meditation techniques.

However, Dr. Eppley, a physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center who was the senior author of the study, found that the NRC conclusions were contradicted by information contained within his meta-analysis. Dr. Eppley said that ‘the NRC reviewer appears to have only glanced at my article rather than reading it carefully. Every criticism he makes was dealt with explicitly in the paper.”

The NRC review argued that the Transcendental Meditation program subjects practiced the technique more frequently than the other groups and that this accounted for the greater effects observed for the Transcendental Meditation program in the three meta-analyses. The NRC review took the view that people who practice the Transcendental Meditation program are motivated by belief in a “religious (or quasi-religious) rationale”.

This is an unscientific and erroneous opinion, because practice of the Transcendental Meditation program does not depend on any belief or change in life style, as will be discussed in detail below. (An obvious counter-argument for why individuals are more regular in practicing the Transcendental Meditation program is that they find the technique more rewarding.)

Moreover, Dr. Eppley’s anxiety meta-analysis explicitly addressed this question. His study found that the there was no correlation between frequency of practice and effect size for “All Relaxation” techniques or for “Other Meditation” techniques (see Table 3 in the Eppley paper).

In other words, even if subjects did practice the other meditation and relaxation techniques more frequently, it would not further reduce anxiety. This is in contrast with the Transcendental Meditation program for which the research found that more months of practice resulted in a greater decreases in anxiety.

Dr. Eppley states: “In fact, the correlation with all non-TM studies was slightly negative, so adjusting for it would have only increased the difference between the Transcendental Meditation program and the other groups.”  Moreover, this meta-analysis found that for studies of Other Meditation, in which the subjects practiced their techniques with the same frequency as did the Transcendental Meditation program subjects, the effect size of only .24, compared to .7 for the Transcendental Meditation program (Table 1), which is 2.9 times larger.

Eppley’s meta-analysis also found that subject selection factors could not account for TM’s superiority in reducing anxiety. Table 4 of his paper shows that when only the strongest studies were analyzed, i.e., random assignment studies with low attrition in which the studies were published in journals and were conducted by authors who were neutral or negative toward the Transcendental Meditation program, that the Transcendental Meditation program was still much more effective than Other Meditation, All Relaxation, and Progressive Relaxation.

Eppley’s meta-analysis also found no support for the speculation that religious or spiritual elements could account for the difference between the Transcendental Meditation program and other treatments. He found that instruction from organizations that had explicit spiritual content had no effect on the outcome. For example, Yoga schools spend considerable time discussing philosophy, history, and spiritual element, which are not included in the Transcendental Meditation program course, yet the effect size for this group (.122) is considerably less even than other non-TM treatments, and extremely lower than the effect size for the Transcendental Meditation program.

Dr. Eppley concludes: “The NRC reviewer totally dismisses the findings of the meta-analysis, but it is worth noting that the editor and referees of the American Journal of Psychology (a highly selective journal), who had no bias in favor of TM, were all highly favorable towards it. One reviewer even wrote that it was one of the best articles to have been submitted to the journal in a long time”.

The question of frequency of practice was also explicitly addressed by individual studies that were brought to the attention on the NRC reviewer when he inquired about these issues 18 months before the NRC report was released.

One study compared the effects of the Transcendental Meditation program and Progressive Muscle Relaxation on hypertension, and another study compared the effects of the Transcendental Meditation program and passive relaxation and active thinking (mindfulness) on hypertension. In both cases the Transcendental Meditation program subjects, as well as controls, were shown research indicating that the techniques they received might be useful for controlling hypertension.

The amount of time spent with the teachers was matched for groups, and all of the teachers were experienced and committed to the techniques they taught. One of the studies was of an underserved Black elderly population in West Oakland, who were predominantly Methodists and Baptist fundamentalists. The other study was of elderly in the Cambridge area, who were very conservative in their religious beliefs. The subjects in these studies did not practice the Transcendental Meditation program because of any “religious or quasi-religious belief”.

In these studies, the Transcendental Meditation groups and control groups all practiced their techniques on the same two times a day schedule with the same regularity. For example, the authors of the Harvard study state: “among those completing the posttest, there was no significant difference between the three groups on degree of regularity of practice either for all 3 months of treatment or for the last month alone” (page 956).

Yet the Transcendental Meditation program group showed significantly greater reductions in blood pressure than the groups practicing other relaxation techniques. Thus, these studies showed that the greater effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation program was not because subjects practiced the technique more regularly, motivated by religious or philosophical zeal, which the NRC report maintains is the reason that the Transcendental Meditation program is more effective in all the meta-analyses.

Another longitudinal study that directly contradicts the conclusions of the NRC report, and which was also submitted in advance to the NRC reviewer, but apparently was ignored, compared the Transcendental Meditation program with ordinary eyes closed rest, in which controls rested on the same twice a day schedule as the Transcendental Meditation program. To control for subject selection, subjects were randomly assigned to the experimental or control group. The study found that the Transcendental Meditation program produced significant increases compared to controls on field independence as measured by non-fakeable tests, the rod and frame test, the embedded figures test, and the autokinetic perception test. This result was particularly remarkable because field independence usually does not increase in this age group, which was young adults.

A detailed rebuttal of the points made in the NRC report by the findings of extensive published research is available: Orme-Johnson, D. & Alexander, C. Critique of NRC Review of Meditation Research. MIU Reprint Office, 1000 N. 4th St. Fairfield, IA 52777-1118.

Druckman, D. & Bjork, R.A. In the Mind’s Eye. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1991.

Druckman, D. & Bjork, R.A. Learning, Remembering, Believing.  National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.,  235, 1994.

Regarding Meta-Analysis

A meta-analysis is the best way to arrive at objective, quantitative conclusions about all the research that has been conducted in a field. To give an example of how a meta-analysis works, take the example of the meta-analysis on the physiological effects of TM compared to ordinary rest. The authors wanted to address the question “Does TM have different physiological effects than ordinary rest, taken while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed in the same way that TM is practiced?”.  They began collecting all the papers on the physiological effects of TM or rest on the parameters of interest —respiration rate, heart rate, basal skin resistence (a measure of relaxation), spontaneous skin resistence responses (a measure of the stability of the autonomic nervious system), and plasma lactate (a biochemical marker of stress). 

Research papers were found by conducting literature searches of all computer data bases as well as searches following up the papers referenced in obtained papers.  Once the papers were obtained, the results were entered into a table, showing the mean level of each parameter during the baseline before meditation or rest (which was an average of 14 minutes long), and the mean level of the parameter during the experimental period (TM or rest ). 

Then for each experiment the mean change from baseline to the experimental period was computed for TM and for rest, and then converted into a standardized score by dividing by the standard deviation (of the control goup at pretest). The standardized change score provides a standard measure called the “effect size” that can be compared across experiments.  Each experiment on respiration, for example, has an effect size indicating how much respiration decreased during TM or rest.  By examining the effect sizes for all the experiments conducted by researchers at different laboratories, it can be seen whether TM consistently produced a greater reduction in respiration than rest. 

The hypothesis that TM does reduce respiration more than ordinary rest can be answered in a precise, quantitative way by applying a statistical test (e.g., a t-test).  In this example of respiration rate, the anwer is yes, TM produces a significanlty greater reduction in respiration than does ordinary rest. 

The conclusion from this meta-analysis and meta-analyses of other parameters is that TM produces a greater depth of rest than is ordinarily achieved, that it is more effective than other meditation and relaxation techniques in reducing anxiety, that it is more effective than other meditation and relaxation technques in increasing self actualization, and that it is more effective than other treatments in reducing drug and alcohol abuse and reducing cigarette use.

Dillbeck, M. & Orme-Johnson, D. American Psychologist, 42, 879-881,1987.  The physiological measures of rest were increased basal skin resistance, decreased respiration rate, and deceased plasma lactate.

Eppley, K., Abrams, A. & Shear, J. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45, 957-974, 1989.

Alexander, C., Rainforth, M., & Gelderloos, P. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6, 189-247, 1991.

Letter from Dr. Eppley to Dr. David Orme-Johnson responding to the NRC report , August 30, 1994, p. 1.

An effect size is a standardized statistical measure.  It was the mean change in anxiety scores from pretest to posttest divided by the standard deviation.

See footnote 8, p. 3.

Fax to Dr. John F. Kihlstrom from Dr. David Orme-Johnson, December 18, 1992.

Schneider, R. H.; Alexander, C. N.; and Wallace, R. K.  In search of an optimal behavioral treatment  for hypertension: A review and focus on Transcendental Meditation.  In Personality, Elevated Blood Pressure, and Essential Hypertension., eds. E. H. Johnson, W. D. Gentry, and S. Julius, pp. 291-312. Washington, D. C. : Hemisphere Publishing Corp., 1992.

Alexander, C. N.; Langer, E. J.; Newman, R. I.; Chandler, H. M.; and Davies, J. L. Transcendental Meditation, mindfulness, and longevity: an experimental study with the elderly. Summary of paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57(6): 950–964, 1989.

Pelletier, K. R. Influence of Transcendental Meditation upon autokinetic perception. Perceptual and Motor Skills 39: 1031–1034, 1974.

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