Claims for Meditation’s Benefits Overreach

waking upBuddha “was merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self” (30), says Sam Harris.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion a book by Sam Harris (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014) was reviewed by Edward Tabash, a constitutional lawyer and chair of the board of directors of the Center for Inquiry, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. Tabash raises many questions about Harris’s claims of meditation.

Originally published in Secular Humanism

Harris writes: “In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life” (206). Excuse me? Play it again, Sam. So, there is a principle that brings value to the universe, identical to ourselves, that we can experience directly, over and above thinking about it? Either prove it or provide us with a surefire technique so we can all experience this.

Harris does not successfully demonstrate that it is more likely than not that our day-to-day awareness of ourselves as a separate being, a “self,” is incorrect. Regardless of what we may experience in meditation, we are still separate human beings in our own separate bodies.

Harris does not convincingly show that his recommended meditation practices are the most effective means of reducing or eliminating human suffering. However, even if these techniques yield only a modest amount of the benefits that Harris claims for them, they are still worth exploring.

Harris says that nothing he writes “needs to be accepted on faith” and that all of his “assertions can be tested in the laboratory” of our own lives (7). Sam, help me have these experiences in a way that I will have no choice other than to regard them as objectively verifiable by anyone who meditates as you recommend. Then, I will be happy to revise what I have written here.

Read the full article via Claims for Meditation’s Benefits Overreach – Council for Secular Humanism.

23 comments

  1. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: I may indeed be missing your point…but what exactly is your point? At the end of your comment, you also seem to be questioning what is the point (practical value OR for that matter any value outside of TM or meditation) for these studies and “pure consciousness” experiences? What are these “pure consciousness” experiences anyway? Can you give me or any of our readers a definition that we can all agree upon, or at least coherently understand? Or, must we all join TM to “know” and agree? This is a problem–the vague definitions that can only be agreed upon if one is also a follower of TM, SRF/Yogananda, or any of the gurus or esoteric teachings.

    I understand the claims of some breath suspension, heart rate reduction, “pure consciousness”. But so what? Why should anyone care? (I would like to). I understand there may be mental, physical, and emotional benefits from resting the organs of the body (as in sleep, relaxation, or non-concentrative states). But, humans can experience these states in many other ways (besides meditation), in various degrees, depending on the quality and length of a person’s practice or a practitioner’s genetic disposition.

    Some people sleep better, more soundly, produce more physical/mental benefits for themselves than other people can.

    (For example: people who sleep/rest well at night tend to not be as grumpy (the day they wake up from sleep) and will treat other people around them better, and by extension our interactions with this person are more pleasant (because they are not as grumpy as a person who’s not had good rest) and our world is that much more a pleasant, natural place for flourishing. No magic. Simple human nature).

    The above is an example of one practice or genetic disposition how natural explanations seem to carry as good or better weight than meditation for benefits to self and world.

    I’m not denying the studies or effects of meditation. Just the “implications” or evidence that many folks seem to think these studies prove that meditation is better than X, and more effective than X in controlled conditions.

    Like nearly all meditation studies (see my post Progress and Challenge in Contemplative Studies) we don’t find any solid evidence that meditation is practically any more effective than other methods or natural human activities, such as sleep.

    I wish you’d understand that I’d love to find solid evidence that meditation was going to give me all kinds of benefits, powers, or “pure consciousness”. (I dedicated 14 years in a monastery meditating and would love to know that my investment was special and paid huge dividends!) Meditation (as I practiced and still do) does provide me some benefits–but nothing extraordinary or more than many other activities in life. My meditations are just a different way to access similar benefits to those of other activities or rest.

    I wish people could understand my “position” or stance on meditation. I’ll take responsibility for not communicating well. This blog is where I learn and grow. I hope others can do the same. My position is not fixed. Let me try to post more frankly on this topic to get your’s and other reader’s input (which I value and helps me learn).

    thanks

  2. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: I fixed the formatting issue you had. Yes, I realize the WordPress commenting as setup here leaves much to be desired. If I find a “preview” option I will enable it. (I don’t find that option at the moment). However, there is a Markdown option I could enable.(See Markdown overview below). Apparently, commenters can use simple Markdown codes (see quick reference guide below) to help format comments they post. I’ll enable the Markdown feature IF you let me know that are interested in trying Markdown and if it helps other followers/commenters as well. Thanks

    Markdown overview: http://en.support.wordpress.com/markdown/
    Markdown quick reference guide: http://en.support.wordpress.com/markdown-quick-reference/

  3. saijanai

    @Scott: Here’s my response to your comments–

    “@saijani: Your summaries are easier for me to review and reply to than to the abstracts or studies. But, you have stated quite a lot in one comment. Here’s my key replies:
    Interesting stuff. Just not anything there for me to say is impressive, since I take the studies at face value (and leave out trying to make them mean something that props up meditational or relio-philosophical beliefs).”

    I think you miss the point. These physical things like breath suspension (or at least reduction in breath-rate), consistent changes in EEG pattern, abrupt heart rate reduction, abrupt change in GSR, all occur around the same moment and are highly correlated with self-reports of “pure consciousness” during TM. This strongly implies that “pure consciousness” is a genuine physical state of the nervous system, not merely something that people make up.

    In turn, the EEG found during the PC state is generally at the most extreme range of the EEG changes that take place during TM, strongly implying that the resting state of TM ranges from normal waking, through myriad intermediate states, to PC and then back.

    Finally, as the changes in EEG pattern that shows up during TM start to show up outside of TM, there is a tendency for people to change how they describe themselves and the description changes more as teh EEG changes to become more PC-like. The EEG in people who describe themselves in terms of an abstract sense-of-self that isn’t about beliefs, actions, desires, etc., is most like that found during PC.

    All of the above suggests teh theory that TM brings about changes in the direction of “enlightenment”–defined as the presence of a strong sense-of-self that is not associated with desires, thoughts, actions, etc–is correct:

    within the definition given by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, TM brings about “enlightenment” as Maharishi defined it.

    NOW…

    Is that of any practical value?

    That’s another question entirely.

  4. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijani: Your summaries are easier for me to review and reply to than to the abstracts or studies. But, you have stated quite a lot in one comment. Here’s my key replies:
    1) Breath suspension: The episodes you report are interesting. However, I don’t know what to conclude from suspension of breath that varies from seconds to minutes (even if it were hours). If you Google (which I did) “how long can human hold breath” you will find search results that say the average human can hold breath for 30-40 seconds, some much longer. I don’t see anything conclusive in breath suspension, nor would it necessarily prove anything other than breath suspension.

    I assume that TM/Maharishi and other Modern Yoga schools are impressed with breath suspension since yogic “pranayama” is an unsubstantiated claim that control of breath leads to supernatural powers, ascension into divine realms, and pure consciousness or samadhi.

    2) Samadhi and pure consciousness: Right. I recall now that in past comments you’ve equated samadhi with TM or Maharishi’s “pure consciousness”. Unfortunately, samadhi, consciousness, and pure consciousness are vague words, terms, or distinctions.

    3) Proportion of evidence to belief: I’m curious if other people are won over by these “studies” to TM or meditation. Or, if a reader must already be a convinced or a practitioner or TM or meditation to find these kinds of studies compelling evidence. Enough evidence to believe on the studies own credibility and results. Sorry, that I no longer do find these vague studies convincing (though I used to find them so when I was swayed by New Age religious arguments and while I was a meditating monk with Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order).

    Interesting stuff. Just not anything there for me to say is impressive, since I take the studies at face value (and leave out trying to make them mean something that props up meditational or relio-philosophical beliefs).

    Thanks

  5. saijanai

    as an aside, it is trivial to add teh tags for things like italic, but unless I do it an external editor and preview, I often mess up. Doesn’t wordpress have the option to let us review our comments including formatting, before submitting for publication?

  6. saijanai

    @saijanai: I’ve read the three abstracts of the studies you referenced. I replied with my comments to the Breath Suspension study in a separate comment yesterday. Today, here’s my reply to the other studies/abstracts–

    Badawi, Electrophysiologic characteristics…:
    * “Subjective experience of pure consciousness” – subjective experience is personal feelings, opinions versus objective experience that others can confirm. I don’t see how any subjective experiences can be categorized, agreed upon by everyone, and then verified. This is the problem with subjective experience. Also, the term “consciousness”, as being a meaningful term and useful measure is problematic (see the link for consciousness). Consciousness isn’t verifiable, or at least there’s not an agreed upon definition or measure used by clinicians, scientists, philosophers, even disagreement here among the yogi’s themselves.

    The procedures described in those papers are exactly those used in mainstream research on sleep states and dream states. Researchers ask people to self-report their internal situation using a variety of methods while hooked to measuring devices, and then try to determine crude physiological correlates between the self-reports and the physiological measurements. They repeat with new subjects using the correlations from the previous studies in order to refine their measurements.

    Results from sleep studies including determing that dreaming includes an obvious physical correlate called “rapid eye movement,” and once that was established, dreaming is now usually referred to as “REM sleep.”

    * 18 test subjects in the study is a rather small sample size.

    Yes it is. However, as I pointed out, for the first 32 years after the first breath suspension study on TMers was published, there were ZERO subjects studied with the breath suspension state when studying any other form of meditation, or at least, no research on such was published. Fred Travis, for 20 years, would attend every scientific conference on meditation research and ask/challenge researchers to point him to any published studies on teh phenomenon in subjects other than TMers. 18 subjects vs zero subjects. And you’re complaining about 18. Bias?

    * Despite the above problems with the study-I’m curious what the study indicated was the subjects “heart rate decrease” in test and control groups. Do you have the heart rates?

    About 10 beats per minute, I think (or perhaps 10%). The point was the abruptness of the change, when associated with breath suspension, EEG and skin resistance changes. By itself, heart rate change was never reported as a good sign of the pure consciousness state, as I recall.

    * Samadhi, the term, was not mentioned in the abstract. Is samadhi mentioned in the study/full article? Samadhi is another term that has no agreed upon definition among clinicians, scientists, even among yogi’s. Different yoga schools use different definitions of samadhi and usually provide circular arguments that its an advance state of “consciousness”– which consciousness as a term is already quite vague and no agreed upon definition. Do you see the circular logic in using these vague words to define each other? I understand Maharishi/TM may have their own definitions–which I still am not clear on since that is quite difficult/noone as yet really is able to provide a clear definition, because no one knows for sure if consciousness, samadhi, and subjective experiences can be defined and measured in an agreed upon way.

    Maharishi conflated “pure conscioiusness” and “samadhi” in his own writings and talks, but as the term is used different ways by different groups, that is problematic as you point out. “Samadhi,” for some is the highest level of forceful concentration, while for others, it is the highest level of effortless concentration. Maharishi could resolve the apparent contradictions by talking about “one-pointednews” referring to observer, observed and process of observation merging, but thought that such explanations were too convoluted when actually teaching TM to people. The TM course was designed to work with 10-year-lds and 90-[year-olds, with people who were quite mentally challenged, and with super geniuses. Using phrasing during the intitial teaching of meditation that would confuse the majority of people was worse than futile, so he used the simplest modern terms, clarified in ways that emphasized spontaneity and effortlessness and reserved more esotoric discussions for more advanced lectures and books.

    Travis, Autonomic patterns
    * definition of “consciousness” is a problem. See above.

    See above. When researchers use terms that are familiar to the test subjects, and measure their physiological responses in a consistent way that establishes consistent physiological correlations, philosophical confusions are, well, philosophical. The physical correlations are consistent, and should be replicable by other researchers (even non-believers) using similar subjects and similar lab apparatus and similar kinds of instructions to the subjects.

    * “Phasic autonomic activity was higher”. I don’t know what that means. Do you?

    Checking around, “tonic’ appears to refer to slowly changing physiological parameters, while “phasic” appears to refer to rapidly changing physiological parameters.

    In this context, I believe it simply means that certain changes happened very fast at the very beginning of the “pure consciousness” episode and then at the end, which can be identified physiologically by looking for abrupt changes in EEG to PC-like patterns, along with abrupt reductions in heart-rate, along with abrupt reduction in galvanic skin response, and along with an abrupt change in breathing–either apparent breath-suspension, or reduction in breath-rate–all happening within a very short period of time (less than a second or 2 for all such changes to appear, going by my impression of what I have read and the real-time EEG traces I have seen), followed by an equally abrupt return to more normal levels for each parameter.

    I don’t claim to be able to understand highly technical, clinical data or studies. But if we can’t understand or explain them I don’t see how these are useful for our discussion about samadhi or meditation.

    Thanks for trying

    You are welcome.

  7. saijanai

    1) How long was the average duration of breath suspension or breath cessation in the 40 subjects? Duration in seconds, minutes, hours?

    It varied quite a bit. Episodes of apparent “breath suspension” had been noticed by researchers during other experiments on TM, and the set of data in “Experiment 1” of Breath suspension during the transcendental meditation technique was actually a summary of those observations, which were noted when using a “nasal respiration thermocouple” to measure respiration rate in various studies on 95 subjects practicing TM.

    2) It’d be helpful if you did the legwork and summarize for me as I don’t have access to the full article, nor present time to study it in depth. (As you know scientific papers are quite technical and time consuming to assess a studies methods and results properly, which is really meant for other scientists in the field).

    “Experiment 1”:
    This is a summary of data from previous studies.
    11 of the 95 subjects showed periods where the respiration appeared to stop, a total of 151 times over the course of the various studies. Table one in that paper summarizes the results. One subject shows 29 episodes during their meditation session(s), ranging in length from 10 seconds (the minimum that a period was counted) to 53 seconds, and the time they spent in the breath suspension state during their meditation session(s) was 54% of the meditation period.
    Other subjects showed less extensive periods, and 84 subjects showed zero such periods (of at least 10 seconds of apparently not-breathing). 5 subjects had double-digit percentage-time-in-suspenion, while the less were single-digit (or 0%).
    Among TMers with breath suspension episodes, the mean number per session was 13.7. The mean episode length averaged for all subjects was 18 seconds, the maximum average length was 30 seconds, and the average time spent in the breath suspension state (in all subjects showing breath suspension) was 30 seconds.

    “Experiment 2”:
    28 TM subjects and 23 controls were specifically examined using more sophisticated equipment for signs of breath suspension. TM subjects and controls were meditating (or relaxing) in small groups since meditators report that group meditation leads to a “deeper” experience.
    21 TM subjects and 9 control subjects showed some period of breath suspension with 161 episodes occurring in the TM group during meditation, and 14 episodes happing in control subjects during eyes-closed relaxation.The longest period of breath suspension was in a TM subject: 62 seconds.
    Among TMers with breath suspension, the mean number of episodes was 13.7 per session. Amongst non-meditators with breath-suspension, 1.5 per session. The mean episode length for breath suspension in TMers was 14.5 seconds. The mean episode length for breath suspension in non-TMers was 10.8 seconds. The mean for maximum episode length in b.s.-TMers was 22.6 seconds. The mean for max length in b.s.-non-TMers was 10.9 s.
    The mean total time spend in b.s. for b.s.-TMers was 5.6% of meditation period. The mean total time spend in b.s. for b.s.-nonTMers was 0.7% of relaxation period.

    “Experiment 3”:
    Involved 11 subjects.
    Used an even more accurate and less-intrusive way of measuring breath suspension. Subjects were asked to press a button when they noticed a “pure consciousness” event.
    All subjects pressed the button at least once during the experiment, which may have included multiple meditation sessions, with the average number of button-presses being 9.5 per subject, and the highest number of button presses being 28.
    Of the 84 button presses in the 8 subjects exhibiting breath suspension, 36 occurred within 10 seconds of the offset of one of the 57 breath suspension episodes that met our criterion. (If a subject participated in more than one session, the mean value over all his sessions is used in this calculation. Three subjects pressed the button but did not show respiratory changes of sufficient length to meet the criterion; these three subjects are omitted from this calculation. The sum of the sessions lengths used in the calculation is 249 minutes.)

    All of the above is fromTable 1 and Table 2 of:
    Breath suspension during the transcendental meditation technique.
    http://www.totalbrain.ch/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/transcendental-consciousness.pdf

    “Experiment 4”:
    A single subject who showed extremely long and frequent breath suspensions and reports of pure consciousness, was examined in much greater detail in 5 different TM sessions.

    In this subject, who was 26 at the time of the study and had learned TM when she was 10, the subject was asked to press a button when she noticed “pure consciousness” during TM practice during 3 of the 5 sessions. She pressed the button a total of 96 times. In every case, the button press came at the end of a period of breath suspension.

    A total of 191 episodes of breath suspension (I assume they mean, though they say “episodes of pure consciousness” in the paper, as they refer to “breath suspensions” for all 5 sessions) were measured in this subject over 5 TM sessions. No breath suspensions were measured before or after meditation, during the eyes-closed resting periods.

    Over the five sessions, 191 pure consciousness episodes occurred, with a mean rate of one every 52 seconds (57, 55, 54, 44, 51 seconds for sessions 1—5, respectively). The relatively small variability of these values over five sessions distributed over a 4-month period indicates the stability of the phenomenon in this subject. The mean rate for the three sessions (1,2, and 5) that flect a true reduction in the need for utilized the event marker was 54 seconds. The mean rate of breath suspension events in the two session (3 and 4) without the event marker was approximately the same, 49 seconds, which suggests that the use of the response button did not markedly distort the meditation process.

    The rest of the results section continues to discuss Experiment 4 with the single subject in more detail, including analysis of heart rate, galvanic skin response and EEG of that single subject.

    3) How many citations of this paper in peer-reviewed journals? We’d be interested in knowing if other scientists paid attention to the study or paper. Peer-review and studies that are used by others (not part of the paper) in the field.

    Google Scholar says it has been cited 117 times:
    http://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites=10866817623232486901&as_sdt=805&sciodt=0,3&hl=en
    That includes citations in books, most of which appear to have nothing to do with TM but merely discuss research on meditation in general. I’ve seen it cited in psychology textbooks in the section on meditation, also, I believe.

    Up until this year, “breath suspension was never reported in a laboratory, as far as I know, during any other form of meditation practice besides TM. This year, 32 years after the original study was published, a study on a single meditating subject from another tradition was published (top most search item):
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=%22Breath+suspension%22+or+%22respiratory+suspension%22+meditation

    3) I don’t see the word “samadhi” used in the abstract. Are you claiming the article is about samadhi as defined by TM?

    As it says in the abstract you quoted:

    “Many TM subjects report experience of a completely quiescent mental state characterized by maintained awareness in the absence of thought. Eleven TM subjects were instructed to press an event mark button after each episode of this pure consciousness experience.”

    Maharishi explicitly identified “pure consciousness” as being the same as samadhi and defined it using different terms at different times.
    In the video I linked to, he talks about being aware but “devoid of perception” of any thing. In his translation and commentary of the Bhagavad Gita he quotes Krishna talking about how the “mind withdraws from the senses.”
    He also talks about it as a state where rishi (observer), devata (process of observation) and chhandas (the observed) merge into a state where only the qualities of the observer exist. The state of “pure restful alertness” etc.

    I have several times, in this blog, mentioned it as a state where the meditator is not aware of anything–no perception of thought, emotion, intuition, sensation, breathing, memory, etc–and yet, appears not to have fallen asleep.

    In my own TM practice, I have had what I consider to be “pure consciousness” and I tend to describe it as where I was aware of something such as mantra, and/or random thoughts, or a car passing by, and/or birds chirping, and then there’s a kind of “click” (meaning abrupt change in awareness) and while I’m not aware of time having passed, nor of having fallen asleep nor of having been distracted by any external or internal thing, suddenly that mantra/thought/car sound/bird, seems to no longer be present. At some point, the bird stopped chirping, or the car moved down the road, or I forgot to think the mantra, or whatever, but there was apparently no other awareness of something to replace it. At that point, I would have pressed the button if I had been in the above experiment. What spirometers or EEG apparatus would have shown, I have no idea.

  8. saijanai

    Sorry about the links only to abstracts. I managed to find links to full text (pdf) versions of all of them, but one of them, you need to have a pdf-reader that can read pdf 1.4, which a lot of more recent readers may not handle.

    Autonomic patterns during respiratory suspensions…
    http://www.totalbrain.ch/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/transcendental-consciousness.pdf

    With the next two files, click on the long number-link at the very left:

    Electrophysiologic characteristics of respiratory suspension periods occurring during the practice of the Transcendental Meditation Program
    http://libgen.org/scimag/?s=10.1097/00006842-198405000-00008
    [This one returns a file named get.php, and you’ll need to make sure it opens with a pdf reader than can handle older versions of pdf files]

    Breath suspension during the transcendental meditation technique
    http://libgen.org/scimag/?s=10.1097/00006842-198205000-00001

    This last one should download a regular pdf file again. I have no idea what is up with the other one.

    You can request that someone on reddit find you the full text of scientific papers by going to this forum and submitting a post with the title of the article, and if possible, more information to help someone find it in the optional text:
    http://www.reddit.com/r/Scholar/

  9. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: I’ve read the three abstracts of the studies you referenced. I replied with my comments to the Breath Suspension study in a separate comment yesterday. Today, here’s my reply to the other studies/abstracts–

      Badawi, Electrophysiologic characteristics…:

    * “Subjective experience of pure consciousness” – subjective experience is personal feelings, opinions versus objective experience that others can confirm. I don’t see how any subjective experiences can be categorized, agreed upon by everyone, and then verified. This is the problem with subjective experience. Also, the term “consciousness”, as being a meaningful term and useful measure is problematic (see the link for consciousness). Consciousness isn’t verifiable, or at least there’s not an agreed upon definition or measure used by clinicians, scientists, philosophers, even disagreement here among the yogi’s themselves.

    * 18 test subjects in the study is a rather small sample size.

    * Despite the above problems with the study-I’m curious what the study indicated was the subjects “heart rate decrease” in test and control groups. Do you have the heart rates?
    * Samadhi, the term, was not mentioned in the abstract. Is samadhi mentioned in the study/full article? Samadhi is another term that has no agreed upon definition among clinicians, scientists, even among yogi’s. Different yoga schools use different definitions of samadhi and usually provide circular arguments that its an advance state of “consciousness”– which consciousness as a term is already quite vague and no agreed upon definition. Do you see the circular logic in using these vague words to define each other? I understand Maharishi/TM may have their own definitions–which I still am not clear on since that is quite difficult/noone as yet really is able to provide a clear definition, because no one knows for sure if consciousness, samadhi, and subjective experiences can be defined and measured in an agreed upon way.

      Travis, Autonomic patterns

    * definition of “consciousness” is a problem. See above.

    * “Phasic autonomic activity was higher”. I don’t know what that means. Do you?

    I don’t claim to be able to understand highly technical, clinical data or studies. But if we can’t understand or explain them I don’t see how these are useful for our discussion about samadhi or meditation.

    Thanks for trying

  10. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: Below are my responses to your referenced article (actually your link took me to the breif abstract of the article):

    1) How long was the average duration of breath suspension or breath cessation in the 40 subjects? Duration in seconds, minutes, hours?
    2) It’d be helpful if you did the legwork and summarize for me as I don’t have access to the full article, nor present time to study it in depth. (As you know scientific papers are quite technical and time consuming to assess a studies methods and results properly, which is really meant for other scientists in the field).
    3) How many citations of this paper in peer-reviewed journals? We’d be interested in knowing if other scientists paid attention to the study or paper. Peer-review and studies that are used by others (not part of the paper) in the field.
    3) I don’t see the word “samadhi” used in the abstract. Are you claiming the article is about samadhi as defined by TM?

    Breath suspension during the transcendental meditation technique.
    Farrow JT, Hebert JR.
    Abstract
    We observed, over four independent experiments, 565 criterion-meeting episodes of breath suspension in 40 subjects practicing the Transcendental Mediation technique (TM), a simple mental technique involving no breath control procedures. The frequency and length of these breath suspension episodes were substantially and significantly greater for TM subjects than for control subjects relaxing with eyes closed. Voluntary control of respiration was most probably eliminated as an explanation of ths phenomenon by the experimental design and by the use of a variety of nonintrusive respiration transducers, including a two-channel magnetometer, an indirect but accurate means of monitoring respiration. Many TM subjects report experience of a completely quiescent mental state characterized by maintained awareness in the absence of thought. Eleven TM subjects were instructed to press an event mark button after each episode of this pure consciousness experience. The temporal distribution of button presses was significantly related (p less than 10(-10) to the distribution of breath suspension episodes, indicating that breath suspension is a physiological correlate of some, but not all, episodes of the pure consciousness experience. In an extensive study of a single advanced mediator, pure consciousness experiences were also associated with reduced heart rate; high basal skin resistance; stable phasic skin resistance; markedly reduced mean respiration rate, mean minute ventilation and mean metabolic rate; and statistically consistent changes in EEG power and EEG coherence (an indicator of long-range spatial order in the nervous system).

  11. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: My response comes from your comment: “A more careful look at the original psychological (table 1) (8) and physiological (9) research shows that the folk psychology of many ancient Yogic texts is too simplistic”.

    What’s not folksy or simplistic in any technical explanation prior to the 20th century? We don’t need to go much further than 50 years from today to discover that virtually every explanation (diet, health, disease, sleep, dreams, weather, earthquakes…) was simplistic or steeped in folk-lore. It was the best humans could do before science and technology could provide better explanations. The explanations, and the meaning humans give them, are on a continuum.

    Popular media hypes up the claims of meditation (builds gray matter was a recent headline). But, modern research shows gray matter is also built via sleep, naps, reading, learning languages, many cognitive exercises. I use this one example to point out that, while I know meditation has some unique benefits from its practice, the benefits seem to be hyped to sell products. Meditation is sexier nowadays than learning a language or napping.

  12. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: Your breaking of your comments to individual points and limited to a 2-3 paragraphs on one topic is appreciated.

    I’ll review the three studies you mention here to see if they help me understand your points.

    thanks

  13. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai:

    Watched the video in your link of Maharishi explaining Mantra and TM. I understand his explanation of when the mind activity settles the person experiences stillness, when thought activity disappears a person cherishes that inner experience or lack of experience (thoughtless or boundless, no longer bound by thought). Helpful to hear from Maharishi in his own words his explanation of TM.

    The rest of Maharishi’s explanations seem to me to be deepities. Words and phrases that sound profound but are incoherent, to me at least. I used to find deepities convincing, when I was committed member of the New Age spiritual movement, a monk, and it’s Modern Yoga practices–which use lots of deepities sprinkled with sciency-sounding words.

  14. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    I’m not clear how anyone could measure “enlightened” and “enlightenment”. Personally anyone can claim they are enlightened or had the experiences. But how is another person to objectively confirm those claims. You also seem to imply TM of Maharishi is the only practice effective for “enlightenment”.

    You’ve been practicing TM, as taught by Maharishi, for decades, Saijanai. Correct? Have you been “enlightened” from the practice? Or, do you personally know other practitioners who have? Again, you’d have to explain what you mean by enlightenment. We need a commonly understood definition and way to measure these terms. Otherwise, they are lofty sounding but only meaningful to those people who give the terms meaning.

  15. saijanai

    Folk-psychology of yoga- I agree. I don’t find any more complexity in yoga meditation than there is in other cognitive activities, rest, or dreams (lots of activities or brain states).

    I’m not sure where this is coming from. The yoga has been in the folk psychology category for so long is simply due to the fact that there were no sophisticated external instruments to study it available until recently, and yogis had to go with attempts to define, describe and explain internal states using only the internal states theselves.

    The physiology of TM ranges from the physiology of someone in simple relaxation to the physiology of someone in samadhi along a continuum that is reasonably well defined.

    As the research progresses, eventually researchers hope to take a collection of people with the most consistent occurrence of samadhi during TM to this lab and have them produce visualizations of samadhi similar to the ones for people engaged in normal activity. Research on samadhi and enlightenment is becoming less and less folksy as time goes on:

    http://neuroscapelab.com/projects/glass-brain/

  16. saijanai

    Samadhi- Interesting how TM defines. I believe that is similar to Yogananda/SRF definitions. All vague definitions though. Without something more solid to define, samadhi seems to be personal experience/revelations (which are fine for individuals, useless for others to talk about or try to observe as a real thing).

    I understand that my traditional wall-of-text™ style makes it hard for you to read what I say, but these three studies on the physiological correlates of samadhi during TM (aka “pure consciousness” or “transcendental consciousness”) are hardly vague, and in fact, the results of the previous studies guide the design and implementation of the later studies and I am told that the next round of studies on samadhi will include analysis of genetic and epigentic markers to see if there are correlates that distinguish samadhi-with-breath-suspension, and samadhi-without-breath-suspension.

    Breath suspension during the transcendental meditation technique. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7045911
    Electrophysiologic characteristics of respiratory suspension periods occurring during the practice of the Transcendental Meditation Program. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6377350
    Autonomic patterns during respiratory suspensions: possible markers of Transcendental Consciousness. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9009807

    Having a sufficiently good handle on the physiology of the state that you have hopes that you will be able to make distinctions on the genetic level means that the state is not “vaguely defined.”

  17. saijanai

    Mind-wandering versus mindfulness-I need to digest your comments. Your angle is new to me and I don’t know enough about mind-wandering or the studies to comment at this time. But, I think your points seem to be related to my post Concentrative Or Nondirective Meditation? Which Does Science Say Works Better?.

    See my comment about the teachign of TM.

    Every single ‘non-directive” practice you mentioned springs directly out of the attempts of some former TM teacher or TM practitioner to “improve” on TM.

    Between the 4 or 5 “non-directive” schools I am aware of, perhaps 12 studies have been published in the past 40 years and none of them appeared to take seriously MMY’s discussions of the open-ended growth that TM facilitates, so none have been longitudintal, and none have attempted to compare the practice of people doing them for 50 years (if there are any) with neophytes.

    One study on “non-directive meditation” actually involves such a hideous distortion of TM that the researchers encouraged the meditators to use their meditation first as a “non-directive” mantra, and then as a concentrative mantra. If you don’t wince at that idea, then you certainly can’t claim to understand TM, and I seriously doubt if you ever even bothered to watch the videos I linked to by Maharishi attempting to explain the practice and teaching of TM:

    The rest of the research that has been published is equally off. One can level the same criticism at TM research of course, but they’ve had 40+ years in which to improve it, while ACEM meditation, despite being only 10 years younger than TM, has only had studies published in the last 7 years even though the founder says he abandoned the TM organization because it wasn’t secular enough and the quality of the studies reveals how young the research programme actually is.

  18. saijanai

    I assume you’ve not read Sam Harris’ book, Waking Up. (I have read it, but don’t profess to remember all the details). According to Harris, in Waking Up, he claims to have practiced many types of meditation, traveled to India and Tibet, and personally studied under Hindu, Buddhist, and Zen meditation gurus. Your assumptions are off about Harris, his knowledge of meditation, and his book. His book is worth reading.

    I have not, but was responding to what others have said he said. THAT said, you can study with a dozen or 50 dozen non-TM teachers, and still not find someone teaching TM or anything with remotely the same effect. When you look at the studies of EEG of people from the “Zen tradition,” occasionally, you’ll see a few that have TM-like EEG, while the rest have concentrative or mindfulness-like EEG. TM is unique because everyone trained to follow the teaching methodology of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as closely as HE could manage for them to follow it: words, hand-gestures, body-language, tone-of-voice, and what context to use them in, based on teh level of experience of the student.

    With other meditation practices, you get a random range of teaching methodologies that almost always end up with people exhibiting mindfulness or concentrative EEG. It doesn’t matter what people SAY they learned, or how they describe it. Nor does it matter all that much what the teacher says ABOUT what they are teaching. What matters most is HOW it is taught. With TM teachers, you get a teaching methodology that was rehearsed in a meditation retreat that lasted for 6 months. With the average yogi or zen master or whatever, you get whatever they remember from what ever their teacher remembered from whatever THEIR teacher remembered. And the lack of consistency shows.

    Before Maharishi, tradition insisted that only an enlightened master could teach meditation. He explicitly attempted to prove that aspect of his tradition wrong.

    Of course, since not everyone responds to TM practice by experiencing massive waves of bliss, not everyone is enticed to stick to the practice long enough to become enlightened. That, more than enticing new members, is the real reason why Maharishi encouraged research, I think. He called TM a diamond necklace that someone might wear for a while and then toss away because they found it heavy, assuming that since it was just glass, it was without value. His descriptions of enlightenment were his way of telling people the real value of keeping TM. Research on health benefits is another way of describing its value so that people will keep practicing what he taught.

  19. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @Saijanai:
    I assume you’ve not read Sam Harris’ book, Waking Up. (I have read it, but don’t profess to remember all the details). According to Harris, in Waking Up, he claims to have practiced many types of meditation, traveled to India and Tibet, and personally studied under Hindu, Buddhist, and Zen meditation gurus. Your assumptions are off about Harris, his knowledge of meditation, and his book. His book is worth reading.

    Mind-wandering versus mindfulness-I need to digest your comments. Your angle is new to me and I don’t know enough about mind-wandering or the studies to comment at this time. But, I think your points seem to be related to my post Concentrative Or Nondirective Meditation? Which Does Science Say Works Better?.

    Samadhi- Interesting how TM defines. I believe that is similar to Yogananda/SRF definitions. All vague definitions though. Without something more solid to define, samadhi seems to be personal experience/revelations (which are fine for individuals, useless for others to talk about or try to observe as a real thing).

    Folk-psychology of yoga- I agree. I don’t find any more complexity in yoga meditation than there is in other cognitive activities, rest, or dreams (lots of activities or brain states).

    Thanks

  20. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @Sabio: I too see how introspection, meditation, philosophy, dreams and observing oneself can help us “see” our mental-constructs. “Did you read that?”–Sorry, don’t understand your question/what you are referring to.

    Good points about “meaning” and agreement is required for constructive dialogue.

    Thanks for your comments

  21. saijanai

    My response:
    Harris practices mindfulness, as far as I know and all of his interpretations of ancient Yogic and Buddhist texts are based on his experiences with this form of meditation, and the research that has been done on them.

    Mindfulness practices are known to disrupt the normal functioning of the default mode network (DMN) of the brain–the network of brain regions that activate when the brain is in an idling/mind-wandering mode–which is generally acknowledged as vital for a sense of self to emerge, as discussed in the review article, “Towards a neuroscience of mind-wandering”(1).

    Concentrative practices ALSO tend to disrupt the mind-wandering activity of the DMN, for reasons that should be obvious (mind-wandering and concentration are opposites, both by definition and by measurable physiological effects on the DMN). This disruption of mind-wandering, and the implication of disruption of sense-of-self, by such meditation practices are celebrated by many Buddhists and Buddhist-leaning people as vindication of their belief that “sense of self” is an illusion.

    However, there is a meditation practice that is neither concentration nor mindfulness that actually ENHANCES the mind-wandering functionality of the DMN, and perhaps not-suprisingly, leads to an enhanced sense-of-self. That practice is Transcendental Mediitation (TM), which is actually described in terms of mind-wandering by the Hindu monk who introduced it.(2)

    TM is viewed as a practice that allows the mind to wander into a state of greater mental quiet and restfulness. This leads to EEG patterns that are an enhancement of the relaxed EEG patterns (alpha1 EEG coherence) found during mind-wandering while at the same time, EEG frequencies (beta and gamma) associated with sensory and mental processing are reduced (3).

    Traditionally, the deepest point in TM practice is held to be the state of “pure consciousness,” also known as _samadhi_, where there is no awareness of thoughts nor of emotions nor of intuitions nor of memories nor of sensory perception (including body awareness, heart beat, respiration, and so on), nor of any “thing” else, and yet the meditator, upon noticing the existence (really, the transition out of) the state, doesn’t report that they have been asleep.

    Several studies on people who regularly report this situation occurring during TM have been published, and, as would be expected from a ind-wandering technique, the EEG is that of normal TM, albeit more enhanced than found in non-samadhi (4)(5)(6).

    [It should be noted that different spiritual traditions interpret samadhi in different ways. “Nirvkalpa” samadhi literally means “end of cycle” samadhi, and in TM tradition, is reserved for the logical end-point of growth towards enlightenment where the meditator enters samadhi at the start of meditation and never leaves it again (hence “end of cycle”). It is perfectly possible, as the published research shows, for one to be without awareness of thoughts, emotions, intutions, sensory perception or any kind of body awareness for extended periods during meditation and not be even somewhat enlightened]

    Long-term practice of TM can lead to a situation where the EEG patterns most typically found during TM (especially during the _nirvkalpa samadhi_ (PC) state) become a trait outside of meditation. As the trait becomes strong enough, this leads to the emergence of a quiet, non-judgemental, present at all times (even during deep sleep) sense-of-self that is eventually identified as the “real” self, while more transitory qualities, such as personality, belief, actions, emotions, etc., are seen as “not self” by contrast. A review article of the research goes into more philosophical detail (7).

    A more careful look at the original psychological (table 1) (8) and physiological (9) research shows that the folk psychology of many ancient Yogic texts is too simplistic. While there is an abrupt change in identification of the nature of “self” once the “pure self” becomes permanent, the transitional phase, where the EEG of samadhi is not as well-manifest, still leads to changes in how “self” is described. Moreover, when highly successful non-meditators are examined in the same way, correlations of the description of “self” and EEG patterns in world-champion athletes compared to non-champiion world-level athletes (10)(11) correspond nicely with the equivalent descriptions and EEG of intermediate-experience TM meditators. Similar findings are found when comparing the EEG and descriptions of “self” of award-winning managers, and non-award-winning managers at the same company (12). The other end of the spectrum is PTSD, and rescent research on war refugees living in refugee camps that are themselves highly stressful, shows that TM practice can bring reduce symptoms to the non-symptomaic level within 30 days (13) with 2/3 of teh change occuring by the 10th day of practice (14), implying that these are not “strange” states, but merely what happens naturally, along a continuum of how stressed a person is, whether or not they practice any form of meditation.

    The takeaway from all of the above is that Harris is using research and experiences of meditation practices that disrupt the normal functioning of the brain to interpret ancient texts that, in my opinion at least, are actually describing states that arise naturally in low-stress or in people who practice stress-reduction practices that are natural in their mechanism. Any conclusions that Harris draws about traditions that date back thousands of years are almost certainly distortions of what was originally meant (unless you believe that meditation practices that can easily be learned from books are really what was referred to by spiritual traditions that explicitly say that real meditation practice cannot be learned from books).

    References:
    1) “Towards a neuroscience of mind-wandering” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3112331/
    (2) Maharishi: Mechanics of the Transcendental Meditation technique https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjem4YfJGQI
    (3) A self-referential default brain state: patterns of coherence, power, and eLORETA sources during eyes-closed rest and Transcendental Meditation practice. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19862565
    (4) Breath suspension during the transcendental meditation technique. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7045911
    (5) Electrophysiologic characteristics of respiratory suspension periods occurring during the practice of the Transcendental Meditation Program. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6377350
    (6) Autonomic patterns during respiratory suspensions: possible markers of Transcendental Consciousness. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9009807
    (7) Transcendental experiences during meditation http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.12316/full
    (8) Psychological and physiological characteristics of a proposed object-referral/self-referral continuum of self-awareness http://www.totalbrain.ch/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/eeg-of-enlightenment.pdf
    (9) Psychological and physiological characteristics of a proposed object-referral/self-referral continuum of self-awarenessPatterns of EEG coherence, power, and contingent negative variation characterize the integration of transcendental and waking states http://www.totalbrain.ch/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/brain-integration-progress-report.pdf
    (10) Higher psycho-physiological refinement in world-class Norwegian athletes: brain measures of performance capacity. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19883380
    (11) Mental and physical attributes defining world-class Norwegian athletes: content analysis of interviews. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22830416
    (12) Higher mind-brain development in successful leaders: testing a unified theory of performance. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22193866
    (13) Reduction in posttraumatic stress symptoms in Congolese refugees practicing transcendental meditation. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23568415
    (14) Significant reductions in posttraumatic stress symptoms in Congolese refugees within 10 days of Transcendental Meditation practice. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24515537

  22. Sabio Lantz

    Yeah, that sounded pretty lofty and unverifiable. “Meaning” — as if that is some commonly understood word. “Meaning” is such a culturally sensitive abstraction, it is hard to imagine it useful except between people who already agree on everything.

    Concerning “self” — meditation and other experiences helped me to see through the false constructions my mind had made for me. That became my “Many-Self, No-Self” view. Did you read that?

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