The safety of the Transcendental Meditation Technique (TM)

By Jaan Suurküla M.D.

Two studies especially give an idea of the safety of TM.

1. CLINICAL OBSERVATIONS OF PRE-PSYCHOTIC CASES LEARNING TM

People in a psychiatrically most fragile state, meaning people who are on the verge of psychosis (so called pre-psychosis), especially schizophrenia are very unstable. Very small destabilizing influences are required to precipitate a full psychosis. Therefore they are the most sensitive indicators of the safety of any mental technique.

The psychiatrist Dr. Harold Bloomfield had accidentally found that some pre-psychotic patients improved remarkably due to TM. Therefore he decided to make a systematic study in order to assess the usefulness of TM as a preventive measure.

On a voluntary basis, pre-psychotic patients at a psychiatric clinic were referred to a TM-teacher, associated with the clinic, for learning the technique. A trained TM teacher, a mental health expert and a psychiatrist worked closely together in the care of the patient including appropriate adjustments of the technique.

The result was that the 22 patients, who volunteered to learn TM, recovered from the pre-psychosis state. In no case the condition deteriorated. The need for medication seemed, according to Dr. Bloomfield, to be lower than for those who did not learn TM. Also his general impression was that they required shorter in-patient care than those who did not learn TM (Bloomfield 1974).

Comment

These clinical observations of improvement of pre-psychotic cases by a distinguished specialist are remarkable. According to psychiatric experience, very small psychologically disturbing influences may be sufficient to make pre-psychosis deteriorate into a full-fledged psychosis. If TM would have had even a minor destabilizing effect, this would have been revealed as a deterioration in most, if not each, of the cases after learning the technique.

2. NATIONAL SURVEY OF THE OCCURRENCE OF SERIOUS MENTAL PROBLEMS IN MEDITATORS

In Sweden, a national survey about the safety of TM and other mental techniques was made in 1972-1974 (Suckle J, 1989). It was organized by the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen). All psychiatric emergency wards were asked to report if any cases demanding acute psychiatric inpatient care were practicing “unconventional mental techniques”, including TM. Also some unconventional psychological therapy methods including Sensitivity Training were looked for.

To be able to estimate the safety it was found out how big each of these subpopulations was. The occurrence of acute need for psychiatric inpatient care in each of the subpopulations was then divided with the total size of the subpopulation.

This figure was compared to the average occurrence of such problems, which was about 5% in the whole adult population during the inquiry period. The requirement, set by the National Health and Welfare board, was that the frequency of acute mental illness should not be significantly higher than 5% among those practicing any of the studied techniques.

Results

The study resulted in two remarkable findings. One was for TM and the other for Sensitivity Training. For other techniques no significant findings appeared.

Among those who had undergone Sensitivity Training there was a remarkably high occurrence of acute psychiatric disorders compared to the 5% occurrence in the general population. The National Board of Health and Welfare decided to recommend that this kind of therapy should not be allowed.

For TM a radically opposite situation was the case. At that time about 35.000 people had learnt TM during a period of a few years. The statistically predicted occurrence of mental conditions in meditators requiring inpatient care was 5% of 35.000. That is, about 1.700 meditators should have contracted acute mental illness.

However, the inquiry found only eight persons who were subject to 10 admissions during the inquiry period. This means an occurrence of 10/35.000 compared to the expected 1.700/35.000, see the diagram below. Dr. Jan-Otto Ottosson, Professor of psychiatry and medical councilor of the The National Board of Health and Welfare, consequently stated that the figures meant that “the occurrence among (TM) meditators of admissions to in-patient mental care is thus 150-200 times lower than in the general population.” (Internal report to the Medical Board of Sweden, 1977).

 

The National Board of Health and Welfare consequently concluded that TM was safe.

Comment

This exceptionally low occurrence of admissions among TM-meditators is especially remarkable as, at that time, TM was popular among people who had mental problems or were in a psychological crisis. Therefore it could have been expected that the occurrence among meditators of such problems would have been higher than 5% (=1.700 – the frequency in the general population at that time) even if TM had not had an adverse effect.

However some people without scientific training have maintained that nonetheless, TM caused psychosis at least in these ten cases (and actually made headlines about it in Sweden). This is a false conclusion resulting from lacking understanding of the scientific significance of such studies. Therefore, some explanation is needed about this:

The occurrence of two events in close sequence (temporal connection) does not necessarily mean that one causes the other (causal connection).

Statistical studies of this kind can never prove any causal connection in individual cases. They can only indicate if there is a larger or smaller occurrence than expected. The extremely low occurrence of admissions of TM meditators indicates that the ten cases were temporally and not causally connected to TM practice. That is, it was inevitable, considering the large numbers of TM-practitioners, that some cases had to happen to fall ill, not because of TM but just because they were strongly predisposed to do so anyway at that time.

To demand that there should not have been a single case of admissions among meditators, would mean to demand that TM should have cured all of the at least 1.700 meditators predisposed to fall ill at that time according to health statistics. – It is highly remarkable that TM appears to have done so in a considerable number of cases.

This result complies well with the observations of Dr. Bloomfield as it is likely that a significant number of mentally unstable and possibly even a number of pre-psychotic persons were among those who learned TM even though TM-teachers are instructed to teach such cases only after the consent of the responsible physician or psychologist (pre-psychotic cases are sometimes able to hide their problem even to trained professionals).

CONCLUSION

These observations, along with other studies reporting a beneficial effect of TM on the psychology, indicate that TM has not only a preventive effect against psychological illness but promotes the development of mental balance and psychological health. This includes a study by the Psychiatrists Gluck and Strobe on psychiatric patients who successfully learnt TM even in psychosis and improved (Gluck B, Strobe C, 1984).

NOTE: Considering that there are important differences between the TM technique and meditation techniques, there is no scientific basis for concluding that these results are valid for meditation techniques in general.

REFERENCES

Bloomfield H, 1974. Personal communication.

Socialstyrelsen 1975. (The National Board of Health and Welfare). “The connection between certain activities and mental disease” (in Swedish). PM # SN 3-9-204 dated 1975-09-09.

Bernard C. Glueck and Charles F. Stroebel. Meditation in the Treatment of Psychiatric Illness. Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Alden Publications, 1984, p. 150

Suurküla, J 1989. “The Transcendental Meditation technique and the prevention of psychiatric illness.” In Scientific research on Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi program: Collected papers, vol. 2, Paper 127.