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The Mythbusters of Psychology

Karl Popper said “Science must begin with myths and with the criticism of myths.” Popular psychology is a prolific source of myths. It has produced widely held beliefs that “everyone knows are true” but that are contradicted by psychological research. A new book does an excellent job of mythbusting: 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and the late, great skeptic Barry L. Beyerstein.

I read a lot of psychology and skeptical literature, and I thought I knew a lot about false beliefs in psychology, but I wasn’t as savvy as I thought. Some of these myths I knew were myths, and the book reinforced my convictions with new evidence that I hadn’t seen; some I had questioned and I was glad to see my skepticism vindicated; but some myths I had swallowed whole and the book’s carefully presented evidence made me change my mind.

The authors start with a chapter explaining how myths and misconceptions arise.

  1. Word of mouth. If we hear something repeated enough times, we tend to believe it.
  2. Desire for easy answers and quick fixes.
  3. Selective perception and memory. We remember our hits and forget our misses.
  4. Inferring causation from correlation.
  5. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning.
  6. Exposure to a biased sample. Psychologists overestimate the difficulty of stopping smoking because they only see patients who come to them for help, not the many who stop on their own.
  7. Reasoning by representativeness – evaluating the similarity between two things on the basis of superficial resemblance.
  8. Misleading film and media portrayals.
  9. Exaggeration of a kernel of truth.
  10. Terminological confusion. Because of the etymology of the word schizophrenia, many people confuse it with multiple personality disorder.

They discuss our susceptibility to optical illusions and other cognitive illusions, our propensity to see patterns where they don’t exist, the unreliability of intuition, and the fact that common sense frequently misleads us. They characterize science as “uncommon sense” – it requires us to set aside our common sense preconceptions when evaluating evidence.

They cover 50 myths in depth, explaining their origins, why people believe them, and what the published research has to say about the claims. Everything is meticulously documented with sources listed. Here’s a sample of the myths they cover:

  • Criminal profiling is helpful in solving cases. In most studies, professional profilers barely do better than untrained persons. Most of what they say can be inferred from “base rate information” about criminals: guessing that a serial killer is a white male will be right more than 2/3 of the time just based on statistics.
  • A large proportion of criminals successfully use the insanity defense. The insanity defense is raised in less than 1% of criminal trials and is successful only about 25% of the time.
  •  If you’re unsure of your answer when taking a test, it’s best to stick with your initial hunch. Darn! I wonder how many questions I got wrong over the years because I believed that. 60 studies have consistently shown that students are more likely to change a wrong answer to a right one than vice versa, and students who change more answers tend to get higher test scores.
  • Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles. This turns out to be an urban legend not supported by any acceptable evidence. It could backfire because students need to correct and compensate for their shortcomings, not avoid them. The authors cite a satirical story from The Onion about nasal learners demanding an odor-based curriculum.
  • It’s better to express anger to others than to hold it in. The evidence shows that expressing anger only reinforces it and leads to more aggression.
  • Men and women communicate in completely different ways. There are differences, but they are very slight, probably not enough to be meaningful, and definitely not enough to suggest that they are from different planets as claimed in the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Women don’t talk more than men: a study of college students carrying recorders showed that both sexes talked about 16,000 words a day.
  • A positive attitude can stave off cancer. Not only does the evidence not support this claim, but there is evidence that women who were highly stressed were less likely to develop breast cancer. And attitudes don’t prolong survival: even the most optimistic cancer patients lived no longer than the most fatalistic ones.
  • Memory is like a tape recorder.
  • Memories of traumatic experiences are commonly repressed.
  • Subliminal advertising is effective.
  • Some people are left-brained, others are right-brained.
  • Playing Mozart’s music to infants boosts their IQ.
  • When dying, people pass through a universal series of psychological stages.
  • Hypnosis is useful for retrieving memories.
  • The polygraph can detect lies.
  • Low self-esteem is a major cause of psychological problems
  • Only deeply depressed people commit suicide.
  • Abstinence is the only realistic treatment goal for alcoholics.
  • Childhood sexual abuse usually leads to adult psychopathology.

They also list a total of 250 other myths in a brief “Fiction/Fact” format with suggested resources for further reading. Some of these facts intrigued me. Dreams occur in non-REM sleep as well as during REM sleep. Transcendental meditation yields no greater effects than rest or relaxation alone. Most women don’t have worse moods in the premenstrual period. Women are no better than men at guessing the feelings of others. Sexual content of ads may make people pay more attention, but they are less likely to remember the product’s brand name. There’s little or no evidence for the G-spot. Men don’t think about sex every 7 seconds – somebody just made that up. Individual efforts produce better quality ideas than group brainstorming sessions.

I hope they will elaborate on some of these in “50 More Myths of Popular Psychology” and “Popular Psychology Myths, Volume 3” and a whole ongoing series. For that matter, it would make a great TV show along the lines of Mythbusters. Although, unfortunately, without explosions.

They end the book with a baker’s dozen of true psychological findings that are difficult to believe, showing that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

If you read this book, you may be challenged to give up some of your cherished beliefs. Some people find it painful to admit that they were wrong. I find it one of the greatest pleasures of skeptical inquiry and science. When I change my mind about something I don’t chastise myself for the original error; I congratulate myself for having learned better and for having achieved a better grasp on reality.

The proper stance of a skeptic or scientist is to defer judgment pending evidence. In practice, that isn’t always possible. We can’t take the time to thoroughly investigate everything we hear. It is reasonable to provisionally accept something that everyone says is true, that is compatible with common sense, that is plausible, and that is often based on some preliminary evidence. As long as we keep in mind that these claims may be based on inadequate evidence and we remain ready to change our minds when better evidence arrives.

We’re all susceptible to this kind of error. The authors of this book fell for one myth themselves. In a short mention of medical myths they included this one: “eating too many carrots makes our skin turn orange.” Apparently they had read it on more than one list of medical myths. I wrote the lead author to tell him this was not a myth, but a recognized condition called carotenemia. It looks just like jaundice except that the whites of the eyes are spared. I had a patient with that condition, caused by eating LOTS of carrots on a weight-loss diet. She had bright red hair and with her bright yellow skin she looked like something out of a comic book – sort of like an anti-Smurf. It was very impressive. As a good scientist, Dr. Lilienfeld accepted the evidence and promised to amend the statement in subsequent editions.

Apart from carrots, I found nothing to criticize in this book. The authors have done us a great service by compiling all this information in a handy, accessible form, by showing how science trumps common knowledge and common sense, and by teaching us how to question and think about what we hear. I highly recommend it.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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80 thoughts on “The Mythbusters of Psychology

  1. Rogue Medic says:

    If you’re unsure of your answer when taking a test, it’s best to stick with your initial hunch.

    I knew that one didn’t work for me. I just figured that was because I am different. now you tell me that I am more normal than I realized. Curses!

    It’s better to express anger to others than to hold it in. The evidence shows that expressing anger only reinforces it and leads to more aggression.

    But what about the famous saying, Blessed are the talk radio hosts, they shall be called the children of God.? Or is it cheesemakers?

    as claimed in the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

    All you had to do was listen to that guy for a little bit to realize he made some generalizations, but the rest was a more politically correct form of neurolinguistic programming.

    When dying, people pass through a universal series of psychological stages.

    I don’t think that even Dr. Kubler-Ross claimed that they were universal. Unfortunately, 40 years later, we still do not face death with maturity – even in the medical community. The childish DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) rules are just one example. They are improving, but much too slowly.

    Abstinence is the only realistic treatment goal for alcoholics.

    Now you won’t get your kickback from Big 12 Step.

    Individual efforts produce better quality ideas than group brainstorming sessions.

    James Surowiecki makes some persuasive points in favor of group decision making in The Wisdom of Crowds. He states that this only works with the right circumstances. He gives examples of group characteristics that lead to bad decision making. I guess I’ll have to read the book and see if they do actually disagree.

    The anti-Smurf sounds like an Oompa Loompa.

  2. Ztarr says:

    I had carotenemia when I was a baby! My mom brought me to a doctor fearing I had jaundice. But I just simply loved carrot baby food too much–my nose and cheeks turned orange.

    It’s nice to see books like this. I picked up Richard Wiseman’s “59 seconds” a few months ago, which covers self-help myths.

  3. Joe says:

    Did they cover the full-Moon myth? Thanks for the review, I had meant to check out that book.

  4. Jojo says:

    I should have read this post before I placed my book order this morning. I love books like this and I can’t wait to read it. Thank you for the review.

  5. micheleinmichigan says:

    Sounds interesting and it’s good to see myths debunked. The anger expression is one I heard about awhile ago and I think it can be particularly helpful.

    My only question is when they say “people” “women” “students”, which ones? My personal pet peeve in popular psychology is when the writer generalizes a statistic. So, “70% of students behave a certain way” becomes “students behave a certain way.”

    But maybe they debunk that one too.

  6. Dacks says:

    “Most women don’t have worse moods in the premenstrual period.”
    Boy, I sure am curious about the strength of evidence for this one. Because this is so contrary to my experience (I sometimes feel like a simmering volcano during premenstrual time) I immediately wondered what kind of study was used to produce this result, which describes a purely subjective state of mind.

    Sounds like an interesting book. Another, more dense take on this subject is Inevitable Illusions by Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini. The author tries to help us recognize “mind-tunnels’ such as optical illusions – things that we can not avoid being fooled by.

  7. Watcher says:

    That one caught my eye too Dacks. I’ve been on the wrong end of the gender spectrum at the wrong time of the month too many times … It would be amazing if this were not true. :D

  8. superdave says:

    In reference to what watcher and dacks are saying, i’m going to need to see those studies.

  9. Scott says:

    Because this is so contrary to my experience (I sometimes feel like a simmering volcano during premenstrual time) I immediately wondered what kind of study was used to produce this result, which describes a purely subjective state of mind.

    Ah, but what about all the times you feel like a simmering volcano during the rest of the month? And the months you DON’T feel like a simmering volcano at that time?

    That particular claim is very susceptible to confirmation bias. A bad mood at one time of the month is attributed to PMS, a bad mood any other time is just a bad mood.

    Have you kept careful logs of your moods for at least, say, a year? Without that, experience can’t really be trusted in the presence of such a potentially large bias.

  10. yeahsurewhatever says:

    “Most women don’t have worse moods in the premenstrual period.”
    Boy, I sure am curious about the strength of evidence for this one. Because this is so contrary to my experience (I sometimes feel like a simmering volcano during premenstrual time) I immediately wondered what kind of study was used to produce this result, which describes a purely subjective state of mind.

    Good example of another common psychological error: the belief that because it happens to you, it must be typical.

    “Purely subjective states of mind” can still be accurately reported, or else talking about them would be meaningless. They can also manifest in, and be inferred from, behavior.

  11. Dacks says:

    Scott and yeahsure,
    Of course I’m only relaying an anecdote. And, yes there are times when I don’t feel like that, although the change in hormones is usually quite noticeable.

    My skepticism is just toward the finality of that statement -Women don’t have worse moods during PMS. Remember, extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. :)

    “ ‘Purely subjective states of mind’ can still be accurately reported, or else talking about them would be meaningless.”

    It seems to me that reporting of subjective states, like moods, or even pain, are often highly influenced by outside factors, such as placebo effect. These topics are researched all the time, but the evidence only becomes compelling when there are multiple studies pointing to the same result. That’s why I wondering how strong the data is.

  12. Calli Arcale says:

    I developed carotenemia as an infant as well, but not from carrots. I got it from pureed yams, which I loved so much that my parents would mix other foods into yams to get me to eat the other things. :-D Interestingly, by the time I was old enough to remember, I *hated* yams, sweet potatoes, and squash. Passionately. I only started liking them again in the last decade or so.

    Side-note: flamingos are naturally white, not pink. The pink pigment actually comes from the brine shrimp that is their natural food source. Captive flamingos used to be fed food coloring to restore their plumage, though nowdays they can be given actual brine shrimp instead.

    As far as the PMS thing, remember that he said “most”. Some women definitely do experience it, some to a frightening extreme. But for the majority of women, there are no studies to conclusively link it. Remember also that we are not necessarily the best suited to judge whether we ourselves get PMS. This is because we cannot be blinded; we *know* roughly when our periods are due. Are we feeling moody because of hormones, or because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we should feel moody, resulting in a form of confirmation bias any time we get upset? How would we even know?

  13. kathleen says:

    Yes, I wonder if we ‘allow’ ourselves to be moody at certain times because we can blame our hormones. It’s not my fault it’s time of the month.
    Thanks for the book review Harriet – that’s another one that’s going on my wish list.

  14. Javadude says:

    I’m confused about the polygraph myth. Pen and Teller disproved it on one episode but then the Mythbusters seemed to validate it on their show. Any input on this one?

  15. Scott says:

    My skepticism is just toward the finality of that statement -Women don’t have worse moods during PMS. Remember, extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.

    Reread:

    Most women don’t have worse moods in the premenstrual period.

    The reverse of this claim is what would be extraordinary and require extraordinary evidence.

  16. occumsedge says:

    “…Transcendental meditation yields no greater effects than rest or relaxation alone…”

    This is not true. There have been over 40 published RCT (randomized controlled trial) research studies comparing the physiological effects of TM to both non-stylized rest and to other relaxation techniques, and TM has routinely been found to have significantly greater quantitative effects on almost all physiological parameters.

    In other words, rest and other relaxation techniques provide many physiological benefits, but TM (Transcendental Meditation) typically provides significantly more of those health benefits than rest or other techniques.

    to see the studies, search for keywords RCT and transcendental meditation on pubmed.org

  17. Dacks says:

    “Remember also that we are not necessarily the best suited to judge whether we ourselves get PMS. This is because we cannot be blinded; we *know* roughly when our periods are due. Are we feeling moody because of hormones, or because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we should feel moody, resulting in a form of confirmation bias any time we get upset? How would we even know?”

    Right, so again, I’m curious as to how the studies were done.

  18. Calli Arcale says:

    Yes, I wonder if we ‘allow’ ourselves to be moody at certain times because we can blame our hormones. It’s not my fault it’s time of the month.

    I don’t think it’s so much of a blame thing (though maybe sometimes it is). I think it’s more of a “I’m feeling down; PMS is supposed to make me down; therefore it must just be PMS”. Confirmation bias, rather than an excuse. The same thing happens with “full moon syndrome”. The same number of murders happen at all phases of the moon, but if the moon is full, suddenly folks start attributing it to that, not realizing that nothing extraordinary is actually happening. They just see something which is consistent with what they’ve been told.

  19. Dacks says:

    Callie, your example illustrates the problem I have with the PMs thing. It’s pretty easy to compare the number of murders (or ER visits, another thing falsely believed to spike during full moons) with the lunar cycle and come up with verifiable results.

    The PMS statement bothers me for 2 reasons, both of which have specific logical fallacy titles:
    1. Argument from personal experience – it happens to me.
    2. Argument from incredulity – I can’t imagine how this can be reliably measured, given the blinding problems,etc.

    So, I know my skepticism might not have good grounds, but I’d still like to see the studies.

  20. Harriet Hall says:

    The PMS myth was just mentioned in one of the fact/fiction notes. They didn’t explain the evidence. That will have to wait for another book – or an SBM post…

  21. micheleinmichigan says:

    Actually I could believe that “most” women don’t get PMS. What is most women? Women between the ages of 12 and 98, 24 and 45? Does the result “correct” for women who have some sorts of hormonal inbalance, perimenopausal, menopausal? Sometimes the general can be pretty meaningless to the specific.

    As someone who has gone through fertility hormone therapies I can tell you that your hormone levels do have an impact on how you feel. The only question is to which hormones trigger which responses and to what degree?

    For those of us women who do have or may have PMS, knowledge about it and it’s symptoms is important.

    Kathleen – I do not allow myself to be in a bad mood so as to avoid blame. I am aware that I may be in a bad mood to avoid unnecessary conflict.

    For generally two days, four days before my cycle most things the people around me do, sounds they make, etc, gets under my skin. I can’t listen to certain music, My mind leaps from one incredibly dark thought to another. I feel worthless and hopeless.

    I don’t assume I am going to go through that every month (it only happens some months) , but it does help to be aware that it may happen. That way I can bite my tongue, breath deeply, send my husband to take my kids to the 5 year olds birthday party and remind myself that people really aren’t trying to drive me insane (it just feels that way).

    Calli – “This is because we cannot be blinded; we *know* roughly when our periods are due. Are we feeling moody because of hormones, or because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we should feel moody, resulting in a form of confirmation bias any time we get upset? How would we even know?”

    Depending upon your hormone level or your age you MAY know roughly when your period is going to be ;)

    Who exactly are you going trust to report on someone’s mood? I’m not aware of any physiological testing that doesn’t include at least some self reporting.

  22. Kimbo Jones says:

    I too have extreme PMS, but I don’t think that is typical of all women. I have dysmenorrhea and mood swings. The littlest thing can send me into a burning rage. And even though I eventually remember what the date is and figure out why I feel that way, it’s still hard to control. But I do my best by purposely avoid anything that will cause frustration in the first place (video games, reading certain things, etc – sometimes even my spouse) because frustration will turn into a needless overreaction of blood boiling, heart pounding rage in a matter of seconds followed almost immediately by remorse and guilt-riddled weeping. Or the strangest things will make me weepy and emotional during that time. 3 days later, it’s gone. It may not even happen every month.

    It’s relatively insulting for people to insinuate that I’m “faking” this or it’s some sort of excuse to behave badly. Actually, I absolutely hate those days and feel extremely bad about my behaviour – sometimes even during. I don’t keep close track of my periods and sometimes when I’m in a mood like that I consult the calendar and realize “oh, that’s why I feel like this – it’s not anything X is doing to me” and that cues me that I have to try to calm down. A few days later, my period starts.

  23. Robin says:

    “The PMS myth was just mentioned in one of the fact/fiction notes. They didn’t explain the evidence. That will have to wait for another book – or an SBM post…

    That would be a nice change from vaccines and homeopathy. I would love to hear more about the g spot research too — I thought it was explained by the normal variation in anatomy but apparently not?

    I liked your posts on evolutionary medicine and suspect that evolutionary psychology is full of woo just like popular psychology. That would be interesting too.

  24. Dr. Tim says:

    Popper was using the word myth in the sense of being something which is commonly believed but is not verifiable. Religions, for example, are full of myth.

    You and all of the other commentators have used it in the sense of being a misconception and therefore false. This is not implied at all by Popper who is really talking about going beyond myth.

  25. Calli Arcale says:

    As far as testing relationship between PMS and mood disorders, this could certainly be done. I’m not intending to argue that it’s impossible to blind the study. I’m just saying that we can’t blind *ourselves*. Therefore, we should not be the ones making the observations. While it is indeed problematic to study mood, it is not impossible, and there are established methods for doing so. It does rely in part on self-reporting, but if you’re systematic enough, you can eliminate a lot of the personal bias that might cause a woman to report more moodiness when she knows it’s been about three weeks since her last period.

    My hunch is that even with self-reporting of mood, if it is objectively analyzed, there still won’t be a pattern for most women of childbearing age. In other words, I suspect that except in cases of actual PMS or PMDD, there isn’t even really a correlation, let alone a causal one. But it’s just a hunch.

  26. BrianTani says:

    @occamsedge:

    This old article may be helpful:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20070207074308/http:/onwww.net/unstress4less.org/transcendental_meditation-tmresearch-problems.htm

    Maybe that’s how they concluded that TM is no better than Rest or relaxation; by questioning the methodology of the studies purported to be in favor of such claims…

    I wouldn’t know much about it, though. Perhaps some SBMer could pick-up the ball and explore this subject further?

  27. Dacks says:

    Dr Tim,
    Good clarification. Puts a whole new light on things.

  28. Harriet Hall says:

    The myth is that “most” women have PMS. The truth is that only a small number (maybe as few as 2%) have clinically significant symptoms.

    If PMS is common, why was it not identified until just recently? You’d think it would have been common knowledge throughout the centuries. There would have been herbal remedies and home remedies of all kinds. I have an 1889 book by a woman doctor that covers pregnancy, menstruation, and all kinds of female disorders and is full of all kinds of prescientific nonsense. It says 9/10ths of American women are afflicted with uterine diseases, and recommends treating them with everything from hot vaginal injections to avoidance of highly seasoned foods. It doesn’t mention any kind of premenstrual symptoms.

    Good research is hampered by the subjective nature of many of the symptoms and by the fact that many women only have symptoms in some cycles.

    I never had premenstrual symptoms. Neither did my daughters, sisters, mother. None of my friends ever mentioned having them, although that doesn’t mean they didn’t. It’s not that PMS doesn’t exist, it’s just that it isn’t as common as pop psychology would have us believe.

  29. weing says:

    Is it possible that PMS is not noticed by the women but by their spouses?

  30. Harriet Hall says:

    weing’s comment suggests a way to study PMS more objectively. See if male co-workers can tell when a woman’s period is due. That would reduce confounding by other factors like girl talk and seeing tampon wrappers in the garbage.

  31. micheleinmichigan says:

    On PMS – Huh, I guess I didn’t know people thought it was common in most women. If it was, most women would be taking Prozac (and wouldn’t that be a happy day for that company) Sure, you hear the second hand misogynist comment. I have heard more of the “it doesn’t exist, it’s just an excuse type comments” I guess I was just reacting to that.

    And sure you shouldn’t diagnose yourself and compiling a bunch of self diagnoses into research would be – not good. But you do need to make observations and connections to take to a doctor for discussion.

    But, I don’t tend to think in broad terms about whether most people in a population have anything. I tend to think more in term of how to reach or identify people with a particular issue and how not to marginalize particular issues.

    Harriet Hall “I never had premenstrual symptoms. Neither did my daughters, sisters, mother. ”

    I hope you realize how lucky you are in that respect ;)

  32. micheleinmichigan says:

    Harriet Hall “I have an 1889 book by a woman doctor that covers pregnancy, menstruation, and all kinds of female disorders and is full of all kinds of prescientific nonsense. It says 9/10ths of American women are afflicted with uterine diseases, and recommends treating them with everything from hot vaginal injections to avoidance of highly seasoned foods.”

    This sounds like a good bring to bring out when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves. :)

    # Harriet Hall
    “weing’s comment suggests a way to study PMS more objectively. See if male co-workers can tell when a woman’s period is due. That would reduce confounding by other factors like girl talk and seeing tampon wrappers in the garbage.”

    I’ll trust a coworker observation on someone’s mood right about the time when they can accurately predict a suicide or workplace shooting.
    - see other myth.

  33. Harriet Hall says:

    Javadude asked about polygraphs. The book devotes 7 pages to that one, with lots of references.

  34. Basiorana says:

    ““Most women don’t have worse moods in the premenstrual period.”
    Boy, I sure am curious about the strength of evidence for this one. Because this is so contrary to my experience (I sometimes feel like a simmering volcano during premenstrual time) I immediately wondered what kind of study was used to produce this result, which describes a purely subjective state of mind.”

    Most does not mean all. I also had mood swings (so much I have to suppress my period with BC now, and confirmed by mood recording well before my periods were regular enough for me to know), as did my sister (who has PCOS), but no one else in my family does, and none of my friends. They joke about it and use it as a mock excuse, but if you pin them down they admit that they don’t actually notice anything, and none of their family or friends can tell when they have their period. I know there are definitely people– myself included, as well as other women of more distant acquaintance. It’s interesting, the women who genuinely suffer from it rarely talk about it and may even avoid social interaction when they get it. And I’m not the only one I’ve heard of who uses hormones to control their mood swings.

    Something on evolutionary psychology would be cool. I’d suggest you guys try to get a psychiatrist on staff, but they don’t tend to be in the blogosphere (WAY too easy to violate HIPAA– cases are too unique) and I’ve never met one who was a decent skeptic who wasn’t constantly swamped with patients, particularly difficult referrals. I dunno, maybe someone in teaching?

  35. pmoran says:

    It’s not just carrots. I encountered two patients with carotenemia — one was a mango-lover, and the other was caught up in the quackery of blue-green algae.

  36. lighthouse keeper says:

    After starting with a quote from Sir Karl Popper, one of my heroes, I was sorry to see this article overlook one of the book’s glaring epistemological errors—one that Sir Karl, Thomas Kuhn and all the other great philosophers of science consistently warned against: drawing conclusions before thoroughly (or perhaps even lightly) examining the data.

    Of course, who would disagree with the books tenet, that we should get beyond myths and establish a science-based psychology. In addition to getting it wrong about carotenemia—the carrot-induced orange coloration of the skin—there’s a more egregious mistake: asserting that “Transcendental Meditation yields no greater effects than rest or relaxation” is, well, a myth in itself.

    For example, in several randomized controlled trials TM has been found to significantly lower high blood pressure—something that ordinary rest does not do. A meta-analysis at University of Kentucky, recently published in the American Journal of Hypertension, examined 107 previous studies on stress reduction programs and hypertension. The study found that TM is the only mind-body practice that significantly reduces high blood pressure. But this is just one example of how TM has been scientifically demonstrated to improve your health. Over 350 independent, peer-reviewed studies, conducted at over 230 medical schools and research institutions around the world, show that TM is powerful medicine. Replicated studies and meta-analysis have also shown that TM provides deeper rest than ordinary relaxation, as measured by respiration rate, skin resistance, and plasma lactate. TM is an entirely different state of psycho-physiological functioning, distinct from ordinary rest, with a unique brain pattern—high EEG alpha coherence throughout the entire brain.

    In recent years, the AMA, the American Heart Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American College of Cardiology have all published or promoted research on the health benefits of TM. The NIH has given $26 million over the past 18 years for scientists to research the effects of TM on cardiovascular health and brain functioning—and the US Government continues to fund TM research only because there’s a precedence of solid, highly promising findings. Another NIH grant for $2 million was announced this month.

    A meta-analysis done at University of Alberta a couple years ago was promoted as concluding that no meditation of any kind has any clinical benefit. The mistake some people make is to stop there and not consider the existing body of research for oneself—not only on TM but also on mindfulness and other forms of meditation. This one paper is usually where the “no real benefits” idea comes from.

    The type of research design which the Alberta paper advocated, to dismiss hundreds of peer-reviewed research studies on meditation, is never used by real-world scientists looking at effects of meditation and other behavioral protocols on human subjects. For example, the double-blind experiment, typically used in pharmaceutical research, is one where neither the subjects nor the researchers know who’s taking the real medicine and who’s taking the placebo. This design could not be used to study the effects of, say, cigarette smoking, because people know whether or not they are smoking cigarettes. In such behavioral cases scientists have learned to use other, more appropriate designs to control for variables such as placebo. Otherwise, if only the double-blind design were allowed, there would be no science left to show that smoking is bad for you! Similarly, people know whether or not they are practicing the TM technique. Double-blind studies and other pharmaceutical-type controls would not used by researchers anywhere to study the effects of meditation techniques. The same is true for evaluating research into the effects of diet and exercise, otherwise there would be virtually no science showing that a healthy diet and proper exercise are good for you. Not even the tobacco industry would try to dismiss smoking research on these grounds. Yet skeptics jump at the chance to dis meditation research on this very basis.

    Here is a link to an article just published addressing the flaws of that study: http://www.physorg.com/news104501710.html

    A new paradigm is emerging in the field of meditation research, based on the recognition that not all meditation practices are the same or produce the same results—especially in regards to brain function.

    Many philosophers regard the “professional” or “commercial skeptic” as a peculiar beast, someone striving, more often than not, to sell books or promote oneself as an expert; but such professional debunkers sometimes function within a paradigm so bias and rigid that it impedes the normal process of critical thinking. It seems the book’s author, who otherwise displays sound judgment, fell prey to a knee-jerk, preconceived analysis of Transcendental Meditation (and carrots!) when considering his list of myths.

    The site http://www.DoctorsOnTM.org is a fine overview of the health effects of meditation, presented by highly credentialed physicians and researchers. Thanks for furthering the discussion on science-based psychology.

  37. megancatgirl says:

    The PMS myth doesn’t surprise me. I’m sure that some women suffer from a genuine problem related to their cycles, but I’ve noticed that many people don’t even know what PMS is. I’ve heard women say “I’m in a bad mood because I have my period”, and I’ve heard men say “She’s just upset because she has her period”. However, the term is premenstrual syndrome. It’s understandable that some women would be in a bad mood just due to the nature of menstruation, but it’s not PMS they’re talking about. I used to think I was just lucky that I don’t have PMS, but I guess my situation is fairly common.

  38. Dacks says:

    The PMS discussion is an interesting exercise in skepticism. And it makes me want to learn more. On the one hand, it calls into question a widely accepted myth – most women tend to have bad moods during the premenstrual days.

    On the other hand, most of the commenters, including me, base their opinion on personal experience. Those who feel that they have experienced PMS think, Oh, I must be in that minority. Those who do not experience PMS think, Oh, this confirms what I always suspected -it’s not a common problem.

    Here’s a question: why are we so quick to accept the argument from authority – it’s in a book so it must be true? The authors apparently didn’t give sources for this tidbit, so I’m assuming that most of the commenters don’t have access to the relevant studies.

  39. occumsedge says:

    # BrianTani

    that site you reference is a hodgepodge of crap

    instead read the studies yourself from pubmed.org

    TM has over 350 research studies published in major peer reviewed journals from dozens of leading research institutions around the world for 40+ years

    and 42+ of those studies were rigorous RCT trials

    TM is the most effective (and well-studied) stress reduction technique available – Mindfulness also has a lot of good studies, but it doesn’t demonstrate the breadth and depth of physiological results that TM has

    maybe there is something better out there than TM, but there is nothing that science has so clearly validated, in spite of various random website ankle biters, self-fashioned “skeptics” and myopic religious fearfuls

  40. Harriet Hall says:

    occumsedge,

    No one is denying that TM is effective for relaxation and stress reduction. The myth was that TM offered something unique beyond that. Since most of us don’t have time to read 350 research studies, perhaps you could tell us if science has shown beneficial effects of TM that correspond to something more than relaxation and stress reduction. Something that can’t be obtained by other means.

  41. Alaskan says:

    I look forward to reading more about evolutionary medicine from this Blog’s perspective. Considering the first documented scientist to apply evolutionary theory to health is a family member and Crafoord Prize receipient, I relish the chance to hear his ideas scrutinized by those more learned than I. :-j

  42. cglenn says:

    I may have to pick this book up. I’m involved in adult education; the myth of learning styles in prevalent in education. It would have been nice to have some facts to back up my disagreements in one of my adult ed classes this summer. The professor was big on learning styles, of course she also insisted we only use 10% of our brains and we were highly encouraged to use braingym. Learning styles probably is more of a function of what we are learning rather than who is learning.

  43. Harriet Hall says:

    I wrote about a book on evolutionary medicine at http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=446
    Evolutionary medicine seems to run the gamut from obvious evolution in action (the development of antibiotic resistance) to the wildest untestable imaginings. Evolution is essential to understanding anything in modern biology as well as in many other fields. I guess I really don’t see the necessity for a separate designation of “evolutionary medicine,” since evolutionary thinking is an integral part of science. Did you have some specific aspects in mind?

  44. micheleinmichigan says:

    Dacks, good point. That is a good illustration of your former comment. I admit to being in that confirmation bias zone but I am somewhat withholding judgement.

    My personal thought. I know women who say they don’t have PMS. I didn’t used to have significant PMS. I feel comfortable ruling out that ALL women have PMS.

    My sister is taking SSRI for pretty severe PMS on her doctor’s recommendation and I have my experience. So I feel pretty comfortable saying that PMS does exist.

    I wouldn’t hazard to guess the percentage of women who experience it. I don’t really need to know that.

    But I’m only read the science blogs as a hobby. I enjoy looking at the logic of arguments. My approach could be full of holes.

    Funny a book about myth would make such a statement and not source it.

  45. Alaskan says:

    Harriet Hall:

    For sure it’s a youngish field (evolutionary medicine). Regarding your position about there not being a need, well, I can’t speak to that though I think I understand your rationale. We do have veterinary medicine (public health,environment,animal) and human medicine slowing working toward “One Health” as talked about by the AVMA and AMA afterall.

    Surely there is the gamut of topics in evolutionary med that may or may not have clinical relevance. This is not to be unexpected. However, while evolutionary thinking is an integral part of science as you say, disease being studied from the point of evolutionary biology is not taught in medical school. Well, I think Harvard is teaching it now…not sure.

    I think science can handle yet another distinction. It’s what “it” does afterall. :-j

    Neuropsychiatry appears to the be a hot field for evolutionary medicine right now. Considering you like to read up on psychology I suspect you’ll find some interesting topics to be skeptical about there.

    I appreciate the heads up on your review of Meller’s book. I won’t be reaching for it anytime soon. The book, Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine (Nesse/Williams) was a fun read though dated now (1994).

  46. BrianTani says:

    @Occumsedge

    that site you reference is a hodgepodge of crap

    That it may be. I wouldn’t certainly vouch for it, it being an old article and all, and from a site that clearly has an agenda against TM.

    Having said that, and disclosing that I don’t know the arguments put forth by the authors of the book*, I suggested that maybe they analyzed those 350 studies, as Dr. Hall pointed out, and found the methodology faulty, or biased. Those people that wrote the article from that link certainly had caustic things to say, but I don’t know if they were true.

    It wouldn’t be the first time someone did such an analysis. Bausell did it for Homeopathy on Snake Oil Science. A great majority of studies in favor of Homeopathy have faulty methodology and/or showed conflict of interest. Sure, I’m speculating here… but perhaps you can convince me otherwise?

    *Being on the “Fiction/Fact” section I doubt they went in any detail or offered references.

  47. lighthouse keeper says:

    Harriet, you said: “The myth was that TM offered something unique beyond [stress reduction and relaxation],” and you ask if science shows further benefits. Yes, definitely. I’m writing a paper on this right now. There are 50 randomized controlled trials noting such effects. And the coherent state of “restful alertness” experienced during TM is itself unique—the very deep physiological rest (decreased sympathetic activity and increased parasympathetic activity) along with increased inner wakefulness (as shown by the unique pattern of EEG synchrony).

    But I think it’s important to convey that even for stress reduction and relaxation, all meditation practices are not the same, and a technique extremely effective at reducing stress and providing deep relaxation is not to be underrated. The NIH estimates that from 85% to 95% of all diseases are caused or complicated by stress; if it’s a significant decrease, stress reduction alone should show tremendous results for health and well-being.

    • TM’s effects on stress reduction: A meta-analysis conducted at Stanford University compared all available mind-body practices for which effects on trait anxiety had been studied, 146 independent outcomes. The techniques studied were Transcendental Meditation, Progressive Relaxation, Benson’s relaxation response, concentration meditation, Sanskrit mantra meditation, EMG biofeedback, and placebo techniques. The study found that TM had more than twice the effect size for reducing anxiety compared to all other treatments. Other techniques scored no better than a placebo. Of all the techniques studied, only TM showed a positive correlation between the reduction of anxiety and length of time practicing meditation. (Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45, 957-974, 1989)

    • Relaxation: The TM technique is the only practice demonstrated by meta-analysis to produce deeper relaxation than eyes-closed rest. A meta-analysis of 32 physiological studies compared TM and ordinary relaxation. It showed that both respiration rate and plasma lactate level decrease far more than eyes-closed rest, and that basal skin resistance increases more than twice as much during TM. (American Psychologist, 42, 879-881,1987).

    ‘Reduced blood pressure’ I mentioned above, and please note that
    ordinary eyes-closed rest or other stress reduction techniques have not been found to “significantly” reduce high blood pressure—”equivalent to adding a second hypertensive agent,” as the lead researcher at U of K described TM’s effects on hypertension.

    A sample of other findings showing effects beyond ordinary rest are:
    • Reduced drug, alcohol and cigarette use (Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 11,13-88, 1994)
    • Increased self-actualization (Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 6 (1991): 189–247; Journal of Counseling Psychology 19 (1972): 184–187; Higher Stages of Human Development: Perspectives on Adult Growth, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990: 286–341)
    • Increased field independence (Perceptual and Motor Skills 39: 1031–1034, 1974)
    • Decreased depression and insomnia (Journal of Counseling and Development, 64: 212–215, 1986)
    • Improved creativity and intellectual performance (Intelligence, 29, 419-440)
    • Reduced Carotid Atherosclerosis (Stroke, 31, 568-573)
    • Reduced PTSD (Journal of Counseling and Development, 64: 212–215, 1986)
    • Decreased Mortality Rate in Persons Over Age 55 (American Journal of Cardiology 95: 1060–1064, 2005)

    Most significant perhaps are the EEG studies, about 25 published in peer-reviewed journals, showing that TM consistently produces widespread EEG coherence throughout the entire brain, and that this coherent brain function extends into one’s daily activity and grows over time the longer one practices TM. These also are unique findings. There’s a new study on this in the upcoming issue of Cognitive Processing, which is a special issue devoted to various meditation practices. These EEG studies shows more efficient and integrated brain function, which is correlated with other effects found in research on TM, such as higher IQ, increased moral reasoning, faster reaction time, improved neurological efficiency, etc. (Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 302-318, 1999; International Journal of Neuroscience 14: 147–151, 1981)

    These studies and many others support the hypothesis that TM stimulates growth toward higher stages of human development, which is the premise offered by the ancient tradition of meditation from where TM comes.

  48. Dr Benway says:

    • Increased self-actualization (Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 6 (1991): 189–247;

    LOLwut?

  49. lighthouse keeper says:

    To Dr. Benway:

    Self-actualization defined as realizing more of one’s inner potential, expressed as integration and stability of personality, self-regard, emotional maturity, capacity for warm interpersonal relationships, and adaptive response to challenges. There are tests used in psychology for these values, of course.

    Statistical meta-analysis of all available studies (42 independent outcomes) indicated that the effect of TM on increasing self-actualization is greater than Mindfulness Training, Zen, relaxation response, Yoga, Mantra Meditation, Progressive Relaxation, or other relaxation techniques.

    The paper can be found at PubMed. For further reference, this study is discussed by Ellen Langor at Harvard in her classic text, “Higher Stages of Human Development: Perspectives on Adult Growth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990)—co-authored with C. Alexander, the lead researcher in the study.

    Reference for the study itself: Alexander, C., Rainforth, M., & Gelderloos, P., Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 6 (1991).

  50. Harriet Hall says:

    lighthouse keeper,

    You said “The NIH estimates that from 85% to 95% of all diseases are caused or complicated by stress”
    I couldn’t find a reference for this statement. Can you provide one?

    You make TM sound too good to be true. You presented a lot of studies. I don’t know what to make of some of the ones with subjective endpoints. (How do you measure self-actualization and improved creativity?) I was almost getting impressed by the ones with objective endpoints like the reduced death rate. But I lost it when you got to “stimulates growth toward higher stages of human development…” That’s metaphysical language. This is a science-based website. Can you re-phrase this as something scientifically intelligible?

  51. lighthouse keeper says:

    I agree, you have a point that a phrase like “higher stages of human development” sounds like a subjective endpoint or even “metaphysical language.” But I think in developmental psychology these “subjective sounding” terms are given a bit more weight than folks outside the field may sometimes realize. There are standard tests that measure creativity. If higher stages of cognitive function—characterized by increased IQ and problem solving ability, faster reaction time, etc.—can be empirically verified though standardized, systematic and repeatable psychological tests, then the theory of growth toward these higher stages can also be empirically supported, correct? The measured changes in intellectual performance and so on have been recorded in replicated controlled studies with many subjects, showing significant effect sizes. “Self-actualization” is an accepted term in this field, although the definitive parameters have not been widely agreed upon. It is fair to question such language.

    Of course, the conclusion that this change in cognitive ability represents growth toward “higher stages” is an interpretation. Such an interpretation only has meaning in the context of an accepted theory of human development that acknowledges these possibilities of growth. Right now in psychology there is no established, developmental paradigm about higher stages that is consensual in the community at large. It is what Kuhn might have called a protoscience. So even though the term “self actualization” has been mainstream in the field since Maslow, you are discerning in pointing out the exploratory nature of the concept of self-actualization, which is still a scientific frontier.

    But please consider that there are many areas of research on TM beyond developmental psychological, where the findings are verified within a standard model:
    • physiology during meditation (and this field branches off into categories such as biochemistry, respiration, or brain function and nervous system)
    • physiology effects outside of meditation (again, branching into measuring changes over time in biochemistry, brain function, stress reactivity, cardiovascular health, blood pressure, etc.)
    • statistical research into health effects such as reduced disease rates, decreased hospitalization and medical expenses (Psychosomatic Medicine 49: 493–507, 1987)
    • research into academic performance, learning ability, cognitive function, memory, which verifies effects with or without an interpretive theory.

    I think one reason why hearing about this research makes TM sound too good to be true is that scientists usually don’t hear about it all at once—due to specialization. For example, neuroscientists generally only hear about the EEG and neural imaging research on meditation, if they hear about it at all, because they typically only read the niche journals in their field. Biochemists generally only read journals that focus on their particular area of research, and so on.

    But if one steps back and takes a glance at all the research at once on TM, it is astounding to the point of evoking skepticism, especially if one has not been exposed to a theoretical framework that would explain such a wide range of benefits, or if one has not had the experience of meditation.

    You asked for the NIH reference on the high percentage of diseases that are stress related: I heard a medical school professor make that remark in a lecture the other day, and he had a source, but I’m at a loss to verify it off the top of my head. I’ll keep an eye out for it or ask next time I see him, sorry. But I’ve also heard it before. I thought it was pretty commonly accepted.

  52. Calli Arcale says:

    Dacks:

    On the other hand, most of the commenters, including me, base their opinion on personal experience. Those who feel that they have experienced PMS think, Oh, I must be in that minority. Those who do not experience PMS think, Oh, this confirms what I always suspected -it’s not a common problem.

    Well, I’m just skeptical; I suspect that PMS is an uncommon condition, but what I really want to see is decent evidence. Most of the evidence I’ve seen (not just in this thread) has been a combination of anecdote and folk wisdom, and that’s not very compelling. Given the prevalence of similar myths (the full moon makes people crazy, sugar makes kids hyper, etc.), I think there’s a fairly good chance of it being a myth that PMS is a normal part of the average female experience, rather than being a disorder that some women suffer from.

    Certainly, there are premenstrual things that can happen. I get this terrible burning in my urethra prior to most periods, and it doesn’t go away until I get my period. Drives me batty. The only relief I get is from phenazopyridine. I’ve had a lot of pointless urinalyses done because of it. I ended up going back on the Pill to stop it.

    I had a friend in high school who didn’t have PMS, but did have terrible periods. Debilitating cramping, severe anemia, and it would go on for weeks. The only relief she got was when her doctor put her on the Pill to regulate it. I certainly believe bad things can be associated with period. I’m just doubtful that they’re commonplace.

    You make an interesting comment about PMS sufferers thinking “oh, I must be in the minority” and others thinking “oh, this must mean it’s not common”. I’ve experienced that thinking with respect to another condition: GERD. Some folks even think it’s a fake illness that only occurs in the present day in industrialized nations (not true) so that Big Pharma can treat it (also not true).

    Sufferers and regular folks don’t have a good perspective on one another’s situations. Until I started Prilosec, I basically ate Tums. My coworkers were shocked; they’d never imagined what heartburn could be like.

    Until my GERD was diagnosed, though, I didn’t think I was in a minority. I actually didn’t realize that having such frequent heartburn was unusual. I figured it was just something I had to put up with. Consequently, I had fairly significant erosion by the time I started taking it seriously.

  53. Charon says:

    “3. Selective perception and memory. We remember our hits and forget our misses.”

    My recollection is that Dr. Hall herself has mentioned Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So on this site… which debunks this as a myth. Gilovich reports that people are actually often better at remembering misses than hits – although they are very ready to explain the misses in terms of environmental factors beyond their control, and explain the hits as personal successes.

    Now, I imagine this isn’t always the case. But perhaps it tends to be more about selective publishing than selective perception or memory. (I.e., journals are less apt to publish null results, self-proclaimed psychics don’t put out video of their mistakes, etc.)

  54. micheleinmichigan says:

    Just a last thought about skepticism and then I’m going to stop commenting on this topic line. :)

    While it would be nice to reserve judgment or question all things, most of us don’t have time to research every decision or statement in depth. In many cases I am content to have a working decision in place while I keep my mind open to contradictory evidence as it comes up. I think this is one thing that Harriet Hall was talking about in the original post.

    Emerson once said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. I learned that in tenth grade from a lit teacher and try to keep it in my thoughts.

  55. Harriet Hall says:

    Charon,
    I don’t remember citing Gilovich, although I did read his book a long time ago.
    I think you may be confusing two slightly different issues. People may remember their personal failures, but they generally interpret the world in accordance with their pre-existing beliefs. They tend to see what they are looking for. Confirmation bias is a well-established principle of psychology and a serious pitfall for logical thinking. The book gives many striking examples from research.

  56. TsuDhoNimh says:

    Lighthousekeeper – TM has shot itself in the foot with the claims about “yogic flying” and other non-testable phenomena that supposedly come with intensive practice and total dedication to the Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

    Any kind of relaxation technique is better than stress, and until TM can be taught without the religious aspect of it, and the peddling of spiritual clap-trap, it’s just a quasi-scientific cult. (yes, I said the C-word)

    There are doubts about the results of some of those papers:
    http://www.aaskolnick.com/naswmav.htm documents one such paper that did not reveal the conflict of interests of the authors. Have you checked those papers you are citing to see if there are replicable results, and noconflict of interests?

  57. lighthouse keeper says:

    All the major findings on TM that I mentioned were replicated and can be retrieved through PubMed. None of the review discussions pertaining to the studies I’ve seen noted conflict of interest issues, but that is open for anyone to investigate in any of the 350+ peer-reviewed papers. Note that over 360 scientists have conducted research on TM since 1970, at over 200 independent research institutions and medical schools around the world. Analysis of the bibliography shows that the vast majority of these researchers were in no way affiliated with the TM organization or “Maharishi University” in Iowa.

    Yogic Flying is another story, but I respectfully beg to differ about untestability and the shot in the foot. First, one must ask, what is the hypothesis? And then, is it plausible, and within what theoretical framework? Then, is it a testable hypothesis? If so, is there any evidence to support it? I doubt that this thread is the appropriate forum for an in-depth discussion of this tangent, because the issue at hand is whether or not the TM technique produces benefits beyond relaxation and stress reduction. But I will say this: the hypothesis of the TM-Sidhi program and Yogic Flying is not that it will allow people to take off and fly. It is an advanced form of “meditation in motion,” and the hypothesis is:
    1. That the practice intensifies the effect of heightened brain wave coherence
    2. That it further accelerates the grow of human potential
    3. That group practice of requisite size can create an influence of coherence in the surroundings (measured through statistical research by standard social indicators).

    I think it would be too much and perhaps inappropriate to try and argue one way or another here whether or not there is compelling evidence for the three levels of Maharishi’s “Yogic Flying hypothesis”, as I understand it. But clearly the hypothesis is testable, and many people feel it is promising for many reasons.

    By the way, the practice was not ‘made up’ by Maharishi but comes from the ancient text of Eastern philosophy called the Yoga Sutras, which forms the core of the tradition of yoga and its associated procedures of self-development. In this venerated text it is indeed predicted that the Sidhis practices lead to the development of higher states of consciousness and that these heightened states are accompanied by certain abilities that are not standard features of lesser developed states. But these abilities, such as levitation, are not posited as the purpose of Yogic Flying as taught by Maharishi; rather, the research program is concerned with the three levels of hypothesis outlined above. But this is a separate issue from TM and not relevant to the central question raised by Harriet, to which I was responding.

    The idea of “total dedication to Maharishi” that TsuDhoNimh mentions is his/her own personal interpretation, and I know that this idea is believed and spread on the Internet by some people, but it is not an aspect of the TM program as taught by Maharishi. In fact, years ago I heard a reporter ask Maharishi, “How many followers do you have?” To which Maharishi replied, “I have no followers. Everyone meditating just follows their own progress.” A close reading of Maharishi’s theory of consciousness clearly reveals that the system is not faith-based and that embracing TM as dogma is not at all encouraged. It is about direct experience and enjoying the benefits in daily life.

    I am aware of the one paper that TsuDhoNimh links to, and it is an interesting criticism of an article about Ayurveda that Deepak Chopra and a colleague submitted to JAMA—and they got in hot water because conflict of interest issues were raised (both were adherents to Ayurveda). But that was not about TM and was not a research study, it was an article in a sort of “editorial” section.

    As far as the derogatory aspersion “spiritual clap-trap” and accusations of “quasi-scientific cult,” I find such personal, predisposed negative biases to be outside the realm of critical discourse and irrelevant to this discussion—not to mention unthinking and preposterous (but I do get a kick out of hearing such talk).

    Respectfully,
    Lighthousekeeper

  58. Harriet Hall says:

    If a group of people practicing TM can be clearly and consistently shown to influence electrical coherence in the surroundings (assuming that actually means something) that would expand our knowledge of physics by what is commonly but mistakenly called a “quantum leap” and would be a discovery worthy of a Nobel prize. And it would easily win Randi’s Million Dollar Prize. If TM is so effective, surely some simple demonstration could be arranged to show Randi.

    If you can turn the metaphysical “spiritual clap-trap” into scientific language, we can have a meaningful discussion. For instance, how could you define “accelerating the growth of human potential” and measure it?

  59. Kimbo Jones says:

    Re: The PMS discussion

    Anecdotes aren’t good evidence, but they aren’t necessarily wrong either. It’s not logical to dismiss something just because it happens to be an anecdote. If all one has in an anecdote and there is no evidence for (or there is evidence against) the claim, then dismissal is generally warranted. But there is some merit to the idea that some women experience PMDD or other PMS symptoms – just not as much as people think. So I think an anecdote that puts that into context is appropriate for this situation (comments on a blog).

    I can’t speak for others, but I wasn’t attempting to make any claim above other than perhaps that PSM isn’t 100%, but it’s also not 0%. It would be frustrating if the myth that all women have PMS turns into a myth where no women have PMS when it’s probably true that neither extreme is accurate.

  60. occumsedge says:

    # Harriet Hall

    “…No one is denying that TM is effective for relaxation and stress reduction. The myth was that TM offered something unique beyond that. Since most of us don’t have time to read 350 research studies, perhaps you could tell us if science has shown beneficial effects of TM that correspond to something more than relaxation and stress reduction. Something that can’t be obtained by other means….”

    Define unique. Are their drugs and other relaxation techniques for reducing blood pressure in hypertensive patients – yes, but not as effectively or as safely as TM has been shown to be.. Are their drugs and techniques for decreasing cortisol and acth levels in stressed individuals? yes, but again neither as much or as safely as TM has been shown to be

    ditto improvements in asthma, insomnia, and high cholestrol

    ditto changes found in greater (by FFT) alpha and theta eeg power, increases in AVP (associated with increased learning and memory), decreases in metabolic rate, decreases in CO2 production and O2 consumption, and many other reportedly beneficial biochemical effects, any one of which may be found with some drugs or alternative technique

    but no drug or group of drugs or alternative practice has demonstrated to produce the entire constellation of beneficial physiological effects as TM has

    so is that unique? an argument can certainly be made for that being the case – not so much qualitatively (from a univariate biological point of view), but certainly quantitatively (on any given parameter) – but taken as a whole, the simultaneous range of multi-variate effects seem to suggest something important and unique

    but do i think that TM elicits a completely new and unique biochemical/physiological response? no i don’t

    what i do think is that whatever TM is doing is very powerful, such that no other drug or technique (or group of drugs or techniques) has demonstrated the same pattern of multivariate beneficial biological response, and certainly not in a simple and biologically safe 20 minute period of mental quiet

    so to sum up, the published research so far suggests that it typically effects individual test measure better than other approaches, and that nothing has been scientifically shown to elicit the same breadth and depth of beneficial effects as TM has

    but i would not say the question is closed

  61. Charon says:

    Dr. Hall,

    Yes, I remember someone mentioning Gilovich recently, but it may not have been on SBM at all.

    I don’t think you can say I was confusing issues, however. Your summary of the statement was “We remember our hits and forget our misses.” This is precisely what I was addressing – it’s not so. On the other hand, I completely agree that people “generally interpret the world in accordance with their pre-existing beliefs”. It appears we are interpreting the possessives in your summary differently. (Which brings to mind another problem – when people summarize, they always, no matter how conscientious they are, have to distort things a little.)

  62. vk83 says:

    The book sounds very interesting indeed. Although I consider myself a scientifically literate person, until now I’ve admittedly believed a few of the mentioned myths: the repression of traumatic memories and the positive effects of attitude on disease outcome, for instance.

    Since the discussion here lately turned to Transcendental Meditation, I think the essay “Doug Henning and the Giggling Guru” by the inimitable Martin Gardner is worth mentioning (http://www.csicop.org/si/show/doug_henning_and_the_giggling_guru/).

    In it, Gardner describes how his friend and famous magician Doug Henning, became a devout follower of the Maharishi, abandoning magic and spending the last decade of his life trying to establish, with Maharishi’s help, a “Veda Land” themepark to showcase the real magic of TM. He never achieved the promised invisibility or levitation, and the healing effects of TM failed to prevent his death from liver cancer at 52.

    At the bottom of the essay Gardner mentions a number of studies which showed no difference in effectiveness of TM over plain relaxation. Perhaps the authors of the book relied, at least in part, on those studies.

    To venture a purely unscientific judgement on the matter, I think that anyone who bestows a title of “Lord of Immortality of Heaven and Earth” on Deepak Chopra, as the Maharishi did in 1989, is perhaps less full of light than of bovine excrement.

  63. dlmccaslin@yahoo.com says:

    I am a student in a masters in counseling program and I have one published article in an APA journal (doi:10.1037/a0016025) about the tapping techniques that can supposedly cure everything from depression to erectile dysfunction. Self promotion aside, I bring this up because Scott Lilienfeld, one of the authors of this book, read an early version of my article and provided me excellent advice for revisions. I found Dr. Lilienfeld through his first book, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. He is a very nice guy, and I can’t wait to read the new book.

    Lilienfeld is also the editor of a journal, The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice.

    I think psychology gets a bit of a bad rap in the skeptics circle, and it seems to me, when psychology is covered in a post on a blog like SBM or on a podcast like the SGU, it is held to a higher standard. An example appears in the comments of this very article; someone noted that it irks them when “70% of students behave like x” turns into “students behave like x.” Now, this only really happens in the headlines of articles. If you read the whole thing, you get the real picture. And setting aside that the entire field of inferential statistics is based on inferring population figures from a sample, realize that this happens in medicine all the time. I just started taking Chantix, and headlines of articles about Chantix report that it successfully helps people quit smoking. If you read the article, you see that it doesn’t work for all people, but in reality those people are simply outliers. Yet this is the double standard between psychology and medicine. I can generalize that vaccines stop people from getting sick or that antibiotics fight infection and no one bats an eye, but let me state that rich people are not much happier than the working poor and everyone rushes to point out the one REALLY happy rich guy they know and the miserable bastard of a garbage man that lives down the block.

  64. occumsedge says:

    # vk83

    regarding Martin Gardner’s article on doug henning and TM – in it he mentions something in science news in 1976, but doesn’t actually reference any peer reviewed article (as is scientific protocol for any serious discussion of the literature)

    As previously mentioned, since the early 60s, there have been over 350 peer reviewed research articles published on the effects of TM across a wide range of variables, many of them biochemical. Of those, over 45 have been randomized control trials comparing TM to rest or to other techniques. Almost all of these studies have shown a stronger effect (statistically significant) on the studied variable(s) during TM than with the control/contrast group.

    Most of these RCT comparative studies (which are the optimal protocol of all “evidence based” medical research) were published after David Holmes’ 1984 paper. So his critique and summary have been pretty thoroughly contradicted in the literature over the last 25 years.

    But it is interesting to note that even at the time of his study, there were 4 or 5 immediately following published critiques of it as to methodological errors from a number of different scientists in the field. So even back at the time, the reliability of his purported “finding” was in doubt.

    I would recommend looking into the current medical literature itself as a basis to establish an educated considered opinion on the topic, and not to simply rely on a dismissive 25 year old pop article.

    That said, there is still much more work to be done to understand what the neurophysiology of the significantly greater therapeutic effects of meditation are over simple rest, and which TM meditation apparently seems to elicit more profoundly (in both quantity and in variety) than other techniques of meditation or relaxation.

    It is an important and provocative frontier for mind-body medicine that deserves careful research and review.

  65. Harriet Hall says:

    You have provided evidence that TM is a very effective means of relaxation and of obtaining the physiologic benefits of relaxation. You haven’t shown that it is qualitatively “more” than a means of relaxation. I await further research with interest. Especially research showing that “group practice of requisite size can create an influence of coherence in the surroundings”. You haven’t commented on why TM advocates haven’t demonstrated this to win Randi’s million dollars.

  66. occumsedge says:

    I think I have referenced that peer reviewed research demonstrates that TM elicits more pronounced effects (on any individual measure) than any other form of meditation or relaxation technique, and that no other meditation or relaxation technique elicits the constellation of therapeutic effects that TM has been shown to have.

    I don’t know what qualitatively “more” than a means of relaxation means – you seem to believe that “relaxation” is some kind of well researched and established phenomena with regard to therapeutic changes.

    I point out that the extensive literature suggests that whatever kind of physiological effects that simply sitting with your eyes closed resting, practicing any other kind of meditation technique, or even sleeping for 8 hours creates, TM has been shown to elicit a more pronounced effect on that variable. That by itself is remarkable.

    I have also referenced that there are physiological (biochemical) effects that are found during the practice of TM that have NOT been demonstrated to occur with simple eyes closed resting, with practicing any other kind of meditation technique, or even with normal sleeping. That is even more remarkable.

    I further reference that no other relaxation method, has been shown to elicit the entire constellation of physiological effects that TM has. That is quite remarkable.

    I can’t speak to the non-medical published findings on TM or to james randi’s challenge – that seems to be a separate topic from the point of this article that i was addressing, that TM has not been shown to be different than simple rest or other stylized relaxation techniques

    In fact it has been shown in peer reviewed research to be substantially different, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

  67. Dr Benway says:

    tl;dr

    Did someone define “TM”? Doesn’t the TM technique involve sitting and calming for a minute then mentally repeating a mantra for several minutes?

    I’d prefer to call this “mantra meditation,” or “focused meditation.”

    TM makes a big deal about getting the “right” mantra. However, I believe any sound that feels right to a person works about as well –”om”, “namah”, “shoe”, “bollocks”, etc.

    TM is a religion with a lot of unproven beliefs. Medical science shouldn’t be promoting it to patients.

  68. occumsedge says:

    Dr Benway

    Might I suggested that you perform and then publish some peer reviewed research on your thesis, so that we (and you) may have at least a modicum of a scientific basis upon which to evaluate your otherwise simply unsubstantiated “belief”? (…which I agree should not be promoted to patients)

    Evidence based medicine is the optimal evaluative framework.

  69. geo says:

    Some people try to attatch kooky concepts to meditation. That doesn’t alter the usefulness of mediation as a technique for relaxation and developing a greater awareness of the workings of your own mind.

    Taking the time to avoid distractions and just sit with your own prejudices, instinctive beliefs and emotional reactions can be a useful way of recognising how irrational our behaviour and beliefs often are.

    Such claims can sound inherently kooky to some, but I don’t think it’s any more extraordinary a claim than stating that if you spend your time looking at, thinking about, and trying to understand medicine you are likely to be able to develop a better understanding of medicine.

    re manatras: I don’t think ‘bollocks’ would work terribly well. I don’t know how people normally choose mantras, but when I’m just focusing on clearing my mind of thoughts, somthing like ‘empty’ works fine with me, often becoming little more than a noise and then nothing as my practice goes on.

    I can imagine different mantras might be of varying use to different people doing different practices though

  70. Harriet Hall says:

    For what it’s worth, Susan Blackmore, the noted skeptic, practices meditation. She says it helps her come to terms with the fact that there is no “me” there, that the feeling of a conscious entity in charge of our thoughts and actions is only a construct of the brain.

  71. occumsedge says:

    Harriet – that is an interesting comment

    in other words, just get rid of the brain and then “reality” as we know it (and our sense of ourselves in it) just disappears? is the “me” diminished into oblivion? is that the take home message of her practice?

    this underscores that there are not so subtle differences between types of meditation

    an alternative perspective might be that there is a much more established “ME” that is the conceptualizing agent of “me” – and that meditation expands the “me” until it is no longer constrained and is eventually experienced as “ME”

    the CNS is no doubt an instrument capable of being tuned and refined, and that can only serve to enhance our perceptions and cognitions – like cleaning the windshield during a long dusty drive

  72. Harriet Hall says:

    occumsedge,

    No, you can’t get rid of the brain, and you can’t get rid of reality. The brain and its functions are all there is.

    To understand what Susan Blackmore is talking about, read “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel Wegner. Neurophysiology has shown that there is much going on in our brain that we are not aware of; our brain decides before we are aware we have decided, and our feelings of free will and of having a sort of homunculus in control are illusions that allow us to function. Meditation diminishes the illusion.

  73. occumsedge says:

    The arguments on both sides (for anyone in the field, or even for those non-involved observer catching TSC for the last ~20 years) are furious and long-standing

    Conceptualizations (systems, circuits, the homuncular self, mathematical end points, superstrings, reality) can be argued with equal fervor as being both illusory and functionally relevant.

    In any case, medically, rest is good, and deep rest (ie., metabolically more quiescent than eyes closed resting or sleeping) is much more therapeutic

    And there may well be other meditation/relaxation techniques somewhere which will eventually be demonstrated to be as powerful as (or more powerful than) TM for providing deep rest to the physiology (and its constellation of therapeutic effects), but so far, peer reviewed science has not established that anything qualitatively or quantitatively comparable exists.

  74. Dr Benway says:

    re manatras: I don’t think ‘bollocks’ would work terribly well.

    But why not? Why is “om” better than “bollocks”?

    I submit this is a question worthy of a few minutes meditation. But not in the self-decorticate manner one might prefer.

  75. geo says:

    Some thoughts would certainly benefit from being greeted with a silent ‘bollocks’.

  76. micheleinmichigan says:

    There is research that indicates “Bollocks” or another swear word of their choice helps subjects to tolerate pain longer than a more sedate vocabulary (perhaps om should be tested).

    http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/13/cursing-and-pain-relief/

    I can only imagine what meditation fad could come of this.

  77. micheleinmichigan says:

    Harriet Hall
    “For what it’s worth, Susan Blackmore, the noted skeptic, practices meditation. She says it helps her come to terms with the fact that there is no “me” there, that the feeling of a conscious entity in charge of our thoughts and actions is only a construct of the brain.”

    This is very interesting. Steven Pinker talks about “the ghost in the machine”in his book the blank slate. He talks about how we (and social scientists) have a misconception that people have an independent “self” with a personality, inner voice and it own motivation. He tend to believe that that “self” controls and interacts with the brian. It is a misconception, of course, because the “self” is only the workings of the brain.

    I’d be interested how meditation could help someone come to term with that.

  78. weing says:

    Tried “bollocks” as a mantra. For some reason Sandra Bullock kept coming up. Wife got jealous. Had to stop.

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