Thursday, March 11, 2010

More Unimpressive Transcendental Meditation Research

A recent study published in the low-impact journal "Cognitive Processing" by TM Org employees Fred Travis, David A. F. Haaga , John Hagelin, Melissa Tanner, Alaric Arenander, Sanford Nidich, Carolyn Gaylord-King, Sarina Grosswald, Maxwell Rainforth and Robert H. Schneider claims to (once again) establish significance for that which is well known to be insignificant.

In other words: another typical TM "scientitific" study in a journal most people will have never heard of.

The paper, A self-referential default brain state: patterns of coherence, power, and eLORETA sources during eyes-closed rest and Transcendental Meditation practice, attempts to draw conclusions about the nebulous "alpha power" much talked of in TM literature as some magical brain wave signature.

Alpha EEG waves (or more commonly simply "alpha") is a common artifact of everyday human life. Coherent alpha is needed for everyday function of our brains and in no way represents anything extraordinary. We all have it, if we are healthy. The TM organization researchers would like us to think different. Thus we see numerous studies over several decades trying to convince us of the magical, consciousness expanding qualities associated with this brain signal. No one else seems to buy it except these guys, as they still keep talking about it long after their scientific peers have called such speculations "exaggerated" or "premature" [2007, The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness].

Despite the collective yawn in the scientific community these TM scientist-fans keep pumping out more unimpressive material than just about anyone and make sure we all hear about how important they think it is by pushing it to every media outlet that will listen to their sales pitch and every web site that will allow them to post it.

The problem is many of the tasks associated with TM, esp. listening to or for a faint sound (in this case a mantra), are known to cause fairly long (several minutes long) bursts of alpha coherence. So I don't know if the question of whether or not the alpha power is greater with TM is therefore explained with the current study design.

Even if it was, the significance and relevance of "increased alpha power" in TMers is pretty low. They might as well be investigating bums on Skid Row. They're relaxed too, so they probably exhibit many of these same miraculous TM features, as will any relaxed person.

As the great pioneer in EEG interpretation, Barbara Brown, states "Concluding anything about alpha is perilous."

But conclude they do. Their latest spin on the TM alpha craze is that it represents the "ground state" of the human brain. (One would have thought the unusual flat EEG seen in some advanced meditators would have been the best candidate for this claim).

Unfortunately the subjects they chose and their timing does not make for a good baseline, let alone any sort of "ground state". Academic neurologist James Austin [Zen and the Brain] points out:

"When TM meditators were studied, it was found that they were relatively tense to begin with during the control period. This initial “tension response” was prompted by the mental stress of their entering the artificial experimental situation itself. Thereafter, although their metabolic rate did fall during meditation, most of this drop could be attributed to their subsequently becoming more at ease and reducing their muscle tension."

Measuring college students during finals week, would quite obviously enhance this same effect (tension response vs. relaxation response). The fact that researchers placed the student is a deliberately "tense" situation (college finals week) and then induced a relaxation response with TM, just makes the change in relaxation and alpha power appear greater, because the difference compared to baseline is thereby exaggerated.

Classic TM researcher manipulation of baseline. An old TM Org trick. Didn't fool me. The real question is how many people will they fool?

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