Say 'Om': What the Maharishi Gave Science

What the Hindu teacher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gave the Beatles is the stuff of pop-music legend. During their otherwise disastrous stay in his ashram overlooking the Ganges River in northern India in the spring of 1968, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison experienced a creative surge unlike any they ever had before. As biographer Bob Spitz recounted in his 2005 book “The Beatles,” the three retreated from the meditation sessions they had signed on for and instead spent their time writing dozens of songs. (Ringo Starr left after a week, saying he couldn’t stomach the spicy Indian food.) Many of those songs made it onto the White Album.

The other legacy the Maharishi, who died on Tuesday, gave the West is more controversial. In 1971 he founded Maharishi International University, in Iowa (now called Maharishi University of Management), which has become the center for studies of Transcendental Meditation (TM). Almost immediately—research papers on the benefits of TM appeared as early as 1974—scientists there began researching how TM affects everything from job satisfaction to blood pressure to anxiety.

There was just one problem. “Those early studies were extremely tendentious and just not of high caliber scientifically,” B. Alan Wallace, president of the Santa Barbara Institute of Consciousness Studies, told me last fall.

In the early days, many studies compared people who meditate to those who do not. That made some of their conclusions suspect: if meditators have lower levels of stress than non-meditators, as studies found, that might be because only already-mellow people choose to meditate and stick with it, not because of the practice itself.

Still, it would be churlish to deny the numerous studies reporting benefits from TM. One found that learning TM reduced hypertension in older African-American men. Others reported that meditation can moderate the harmful effects of strenuous physical exercise on the immune system, that it can produce a feeling of euphoria akin to “runner’s high”, and that it reduced anxiety more than other relaxation techniques. Maharishi University regularly updates the list of research results.

But scientists are not fully convinced. It has been difficult to rule out an alternative explanation for apparent benefits such as reductions in stress, blood pressure and heart rate—namely, the placebo effect. If you expect an intervention, be it a pill or learning TM, to help you, it often does. If you are testing the benefits of a pill, you can give half your study subjects a dummy pill but not tell them, which can help control for the placebo effect. It’s pretty hard to hide from test subjects the fact that they are learning to meditate and then doing so for several hours a week. Perhaps it is the belief that TM will do wonderful things that produces benefits, not the actual meditation. That question remains very much up in the air.

Despite these concerns, the Maharishi and his American acolytes deserve credit for introducing the study of meditation to biology. Hospitals from Stanford and UCLA to Duke and NYU have instituted meditation programs to help patients cope with chronic pain and other ailments. Scientists unaffiliated with the TM movement have been emboldened to study the effects of other forms of meditation on diseases as different as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and psoriasis, all with impressive results. Whatever you think of the White Album, give the Maharishi credit for helping to launch what has become a legitimate new field of neuroscience.