What Science (and Katy Perry) Say About Transcendental Meditation
Exploring the surprising research and strange culture around transcendental meditation.
On a sunny April morning in 2018, I stood in a conference hall in one of the strangest and most sacred places on the planet: Vatican City. I looked out toward a surprising audience: integrative doctor Dr. Deepak Chopra, actor Orlando Bloom, professional golfer Jack Nicklaus, life coach Tony Robbins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Dr. Francis Collins, and Bishop Paul Tighe, among others.
(Four months earlier, I took a job helping produce a health conference co-hosted by Pope Francis and The Cura Foundation, bringing leaders in medicine, industry, philanthropy, and religion together.)
On the last morning of the conference, we all listened as singer Katy Perry sat at the front of the room and shared the daily practice that transformed her life: transcendental meditation (TM). Bob Roth, Perry’s meditation teacher and CEO of the David Lynch Foundation, sat next to her on the dais.
"It feels like a halo is ignited around my head.
“I notice when I meditate that my whole brain kind of opens up; it feels like a halo is ignited around my head, and it’s like I’m clearing out the cobwebs of my neural pathways and finding new neural pathways to ignite,” Perry said. “It is some of the most incredible stillness.”
Perry also said TM helped her cope with anxiety and boosts her creativity.
Perry isn’t the only one raving about transcendental meditation. The secret to Harry Styles’ eternal sunshine, Hugh Jackman’s sense of purpose, Ray Dalio’s success, and Jerry Seinfeld’s energy, if you ask them, is TM.
Transcendental meditation is one of the most popular and hotly debated forms of meditation. Meditators claim they are calmer, more focused, even elated, from the daily practice.
“TM is a simple, natural, effortless technique that allows your active-thinking mind to access deeper, quieter, settled levels of the mind, and at the same time, allows the body to take a profound state of rest and relaxation at will,” Roth tells Inverse.
But whether that zen feeling causes measurable mental and physiological effects remains in question.
How TM Works
Generally speaking, the practice is simple: Sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and deepen your breath. After about a minute, start repeating your mantra in your head… over and over and over. After about twenty minutes of mental repetition, stop thinking of your mantra. A few minutes later, slowly open your eyes and conclude your meditation. Do this twice a day for twenty minutes each session, and you are a transcendental meditator. No equipment, app, or meditation room required.
The cost of learning transcendental meditation ranges from $380 to $960. The price but can be spread across installments or adjusted based on income. In TM training, an instructor chooses a meaningless mantra for each trainee, then teaches the technique over four hour-long sessions (plus follow-ups). The mantras are drawn from the Vedic tradition, ancient Indian teachings and scriptures.
Curious about Perry’s testimony and skeptical of TM ‘s associated benefits, I wanted to know for myself. So after returning from the Vatican conference, I completed the training. I found the practice easier to learn than some other forms of meditation I’ve tried, though I haven’t kept up the practice consistently. TM does not require intense concentration or emptying of external thoughts, but instead claims to be effortless and natural.
"There is a level where anyone’s mind is already settled and peaceful and alert and silent.
To explain TM, people often compare the mind to an ocean: the surface is chaotic and tumultuous, but at its depth, it is still and quiet.
“We hypothesize that there is a level where anyone’s mind is already settled and peaceful and alert and silent,” Roth says. “Transcendental meditation gives access to that. It does not deal on the cognitive level, doesn’t try to push out or resist thoughts.”
And Roth says we need transcendental meditation now more than ever with social media, the 24 hour news cycle, and political upheaval around the world.
These factors exacerbate stress, which is linked to a myriad of diseases: diabetes, obesity, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
“We have to look at these noninvasive, nonpharmacological, no side effect approaches that can calm the mind,” Roth says.
While the side effects may be minimal, meditation is not completely harmless: some people have reported negative experiences and psychologists have warned that the modern mindfulness industry can be more costly than it’s worth. In short, the positive effects may be blown out of proportion.
What Transcendental Meditation Does to Your Brain
No one knows exactly how transcendental meditation affects the brain. But research shows that repeating a meaningless mantra can precipitate a particular kind of brain wave: alpha brain waves.
Electroencephalograms (EEGs) which track and measure brainwave patterns measure alpha waves when subjects are in normal wakeful state and resting. A 2015 study published in Basic and Clinical Neuroscience found that increased alpha waves reduce anxiety levels in people with general anxiety disorder (GAD).
Roth says TM is unlike the relief you feel after exercise, during mindful activities, while listening to music, or even swimming in the ocean.
“It’s deeper than any level of relaxation you’ve ever experienced,” he tells me. “And yet, your mind is awake inside and you’re not asleep.”
But the exact neurological mechanisms underpinning a so-called “transcendental state” are unknown.
Dr. Madhav Goyal, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine and internist at Northbay Healthcare, holds up a sliver of possibility that the effects TM could be measured, but isn’t confident.
“We’re having a hard time measuring basic things in the brain,” he says. “To me, measuring a transcendental state sounds like it would be very, very challenging. But I don’t want to say that just because there is no scientific basis that therefore this doesn’t matter or this doesn’t exist.”
What Science Says About TM
Transcendental meditation dates back to the 1950s, when the practice was introduced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Maharishi spent a lifetime spreading TM and became an international phenom after teaching The Beatles how to meditate.
In the 1970s and 80s, Maharishi even founded a “TM Town”, in Fairfield, Iowa. The midwestern community claimed to be a radical utopia at the time, and was later featured in a feature on the Oprah Show.
Now, the David Lynch Foundation, started by the film director in 2005, promotes the practice everywhere from public schools to prisons to board rooms. Every year, TM grows more popular. To date, the foundation claims to have taught over half a million people transcendental meditation.
“Skeptical or not, evidence-based meditation cannot be looked at on the fringe,” says Roth, who has meditated for 50 years and taught for 47. “Transcendental meditation is not just a sort of a luxury for wealthy people on the Upper East Side who have the time.”
The foundation offers financial aid to train disadvantaged middle school and high school students, veterans with PTSD, and survivors of domestic abuse in transcendental meditation and helps fund research to make evidence-based conclusions about the practice.
"The research on TM is abundant, but mixed.
The foundation lists hundreds of studies on its website claiming TM has stunning impacts on the mind and body: improved creativity, intelligence, blood flow to the brain, confidence, muscle relaxation, and reduced hostility, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and blood pressure, as well as a better stabilized autonomic nervous system, among other impacts.
Some of these effects, like reduced blood pressure, are well-established. TM is currently the only form of meditation recommended by the American Heart Association for lowering blood pressure and improving heart health, a recommendation supported by consistent data.
The other research on TM is abundant, but mixed. One of the most provocative studies supporting TM’s positive physical health effects was published in the journal Circulation in 2012. It found that transcendental meditators aren’t just less stressed, they may actually be less likely to die from some of the most common and harmful catastrophic physiological events. The randomized, controlled trial looked at 201 black men and women with heart disease who started TM. Patients who meditated had a 48 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular clinical events. Meanwhile, death, heart attacks, and stroke were significantly reduced over five years of meditating.
Other studies show that transcendental meditation may be especially beneficial for particular populations: veterans with PTSD, male inmates in prison, and even school teachers struggling with burnout.
A small pilot study published in 2011 in Military Medicine found a 40-55 percent reduction in symptoms of PTSD and depression after 12 weeks of practicing transcendental meditation. The study was uncontrolled and only included five subjects, so larger, controlled studies are needed to confirm the findings.
Another study funded by the Department of Defense and published in 2018 in the journal The Lancet compared transcendental meditation to trauma exposure therapy for treating PTSD in veterans. The study, which included 203 veterans, found that transcendental meditation was non-inferior, or not worse than prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD.
If TM is proven effective, TM could be a cheaper and easier form of PTSD treatment than other pharmacological interventions: it is simple to learn and can be practiced almost anywhere at any time without the stigma that often comes with seeing a therapist or mental health provider.
"If TM can perform with a big, ugly, nasty thing like post-traumatic stress; it should also be effective on some lesser aspect of stress.
This research could also shed light for non-veterans as well.
“If TM can perform with a big, ugly, nasty thing like post-traumatic stress; it should also be effective on some lesser aspect of stress and distress and anxiety,” Dr. Brian Rees, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army and executive director of TM for Veterans, tells Inverse.
What We Don’t Know About TM
These promising studies are often lost in a shuffle of poorly designed and dated studies missing control groups or including small sample sizes. A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis, co-authored by Goyal and published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, parsed through 18,000 unique citations about meditation but only included 47 trials that met the reviewers’ standards of rigor, and graded their findings. That means only a fraction of the hundreds of studies on transcendental meditation would qualify.
The review found moderate evidence that mindfulness meditation helped improve anxiety, depression, and pain, a finding which could help shape clinical recommendations, Goyal says. But the researchers did not find any signal of TM specifically affecting these factors. Goyal attributes this to the lack of studies on transcendental meditation.
Goyal and his co-authors reported low evidence for improvements in stress and distress. They found insufficient evidence or no effect on a bunch of other factors of interest: positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, or weight.
The review did not find that mindfulness meditation was more effective than drugs, exercise or other behavioral interventions.
"There is not that wealth of data on meditation to draw really strong conclusions about anything.
Meditation and transcendental meditation have not been studied as extensively as allopathic medications like aspirin or estrogen.
“There is a growing number of studies, but there is not that wealth of data on meditation to draw really strong conclusions about anything,” Goyal says.
The field needs better-quality studies, but funding is still just a trickle, Goyal says.
“As the funding becomes available, I think researchers are very creative and inquisitive and they will have lots of studies to run that would address important questions — basic things like, ‘How can we be happier? How do we live with less illness? How do we prevent illness? And how do we live a more harmonious life?” says the internist.
Roth agrees: “I am a big believer in, ‘let’s do more research on everything so we really, really know.’” Roth says. “I don’t want false claims. I don’t want hyped stuff.”
But that doesn’t mean anyone should wait to meditate, he says.
“If we’re talking about government funding, if we’re talking about incorporating something in the healthcare system with a focus on prevention and treatment, then we should know more,” Roth says.
Repackaging Ancient Traditions
Through a program called “Quiet Time,” transcendental meditation is already being taught and practiced in public schools around the country, with positive effects. As interest and skepticism grows in TM, funding will likely follow. But quantifying meditation’s exact physiological impacts may be impossible.
Ultimately, framing meditation as a medical intervention is a Western interpretation of the ancient Eastern tradition, Goyal says. The current approach departs from meditation’s original intended use.
"Meditation was not designed to heal anybody or cure any health problems. It was something that one did to understand themselves better.
Currently, many people look at meditation and ask, “Well what’s the health benefit to me?”, Goyal says. “From an Eastern perspective, that really wasn’t ever the question. Meditation was not designed to heal anybody or cure any health problems. It was something that one did to understand themselves better, to purify the mind, to understand our place in this universe or why things happened to us.”
If people approach meditation with the goal to relieve their chronic headaches or alleviate pain, they may be disappointed, Goyal says.
“They could probably get a lot more out of it if they went in with an open mind to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to learn a technique of stress reduction, of observing myself, of being aware, and let’s just see where this leads.’”
"Meditation is one of those things that one has to experience to understand it.
Like most lifestyle changes, meditation isn’t one-size-fits-all. But with minimal side effects, some scientific evidence, and robust anecdotal experiences to back it up, transcendental meditation may be worth trying.
“Meditation is one of those things that one has to experience to understand it,” Goyal says. “Just like running or rock climbing is not for everybody, meditation is also not for everybody. For people who have an interest in this, it’s good to explore it and see where it takes you.”