Abnormal Sociology

Mass Hallucination, Hysteria & Miracles

By Lucien Greaves

Can “Mass Hallucination” explain anomalous phenomena corroborated by multiple witnesses?

Sound thinking and critical reservations were abruptly cast aside in New Delhi during the early morning hours of September 21st, 1995. Statue idols, it seemed, had taken to drinking milk being fed to them by spoon. By what bizarre urging the first pilgrim to report this phenomenon was compelled to test whether a milk offering would pass the lips of a statue is unclear, but the idea rapidly took hold, devolving into a frenzy. The World Hindu Council hastily declared it a “miracle”, and by noon hopeful herds across North India stampeded to the temples leaving trampled bodies wounded underfoot. Police reinforcements were deployed by necessity to restrain outbreaks among the fevered milk-bearing mobs. Faithful conviction ruled the day.

“On to the brocken the witches are flocking.” From Faust (1925) by Harry Clarke.

Some believers may well have been unamused — especially those within the ranks of the afflicted and dying — that the gods had chosen such a valueless display with which to affirm their continued beneficent authority, but it was the science-minded unbelievers who were predictably the least impressed… Nor did it take long to figure out what was really going on. Representatives from India’s Ministry of Science and Technology arrived on-scene to demonstrate that what was being witnessed was simple “capillary action”: The surface tension of the milk created an upward pull upon contact with the surface of the statue before the liquid ran downward in a transparent film, while some was absorbed into the porous stones. To illustrate this, the scientists colored their milk with a dye that remained apparent as it coated the statue. When hysteria regarding milk imbibing statues struck again in 2006, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal Edamaruku, was quoted in the press, “Forget deities. I fed a cup of coffee to a statue of Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first prime minister) right before television cameras,” he said, “Even bricks are drinking milk.”

The 1995 “Milk Miracle” hysteria spread throughout the world within the span of several days and has seen recurrences in the years since, despite the oft-repeated claim that the phenomenon was mysteriously confined within a 24-hour span. Faithful supernaturalists have proved predictably unwilling to abdicate their miracle to non-magical explanations. Nor has the lasting insistence that the Milk Miracle remains a mystery unsolved been confined to willfully credulous Hindus. A widely used college-level World Religions textbook states in its 2011 edition, referencing the 1995 incident: “Scientists suggested explanations such as mass hysteria or capillary action in the stone, but the phenomenon lasted only one day.”

To refer to the statement above as merely misrepresentative may be overly kind. “Scientists suggested explanations” indicates befuddled skeptics groping for generalized answers with which to force the inexplicable into a materialist framework. In fact, scientists did more than “suggest” capillary action, they demonstrated it. And it was never an either/or question between mass hysteria or capillary action — capillary action accounted for the illusion of milk drinking statues, while mass hysteria best described the temple-swarming religious fervor that the misattribution of “miracle” provoked. Both capillary action and mass hysteria were perfectly evident. To state that it could have been either/or further suggests confusion among scientists unable to accept a miracle taking place before their eyes, while also unable to come to a consensus amongst each other as to what might account for what was being witnessed.

More flagrantly misleading still are the countless accounts of the Milk Miracle which claim that scientists dismissed the entire event as a “mass hallucination”. The site milkmiracle.com, maintained by an outspoken Milk Miracle true believer, Philip Mikas, states:

There are many sceptics and scientists who have tried to explain what happened on September 21, 1995 in terms of science. Some have repeatedly said that this so-called “Milk Miracle” was caused by something as simple as capillary action. Some have tried to attribute it to a case of “global scale mass hallucination or hysteria”. To them, I would like to say this – there are many things that we just cannot explain with our present levels of science and technology. Perhaps, we will need to look into our souls and discover the secret spiritual powers that we all have before we can fully explain such phenomena.

Oddly, among a great many of the sites that treat the Milk Miracle as an unexplained or paranormal phenomenon, the phrase “global scale mass hallucination or hysteria” is offered as a summary of the skeptical position, always in quotes, never with attribution.

And so it degenerates… the actual explanation rejected, marginalized, obscured, and ultimately re-written to the point that numerous bloggers now treat the question of the Milk Miracle as one of mass hallucination versus paranormal activity, weighing the merits of — or elaborating the flaws in — an explanation that never was.

Presenting the scientific attempt at a rational explanation as a snobbish dismissal of mass eyewitness testimony certainly has its advantages to those who wish to maintain that something otherworldly was plainly observed, and arguments against the mass hallucination theory can be found anywhere believers in the improbable attempt to make their case. Thus, throughout the vast blogosphere, lengthy essays can be found heaping derision upon this scientific folly in favor of of claims ranging from Sasquatch’s existence, to the reality of extraterrestrial visitations, to Satanic cults conspiring to enslave the Globe… to any number of implausible and bizarre ideas believed by a resolute minority. Almost universally lacking in these tirades against the close-minded “scientific establishment” is any direct citation of an actual argument in favor of the mass hallucination theory, nor is mass hallucination explicitly defined, its meaning presumed intuitively clear.  

On the face of it, the idea of any specific event being attributed to “mass hallucination” sounds ridiculous. It suggests a large number of people suddenly, simultaneously, and spontaneously experiencing an intense, shared, detailed, false or grossly distorted shared perception of an event or events contrary to the reality surrounding them. At its most crudely literal, this would have us interpreting the Milk Miracle as an event wherein masses of individuals merely perceived milk disappearing from their spoons, while in actuality it did not; Sasquatch as a sudden unprovoked mental phantom shared amongst unwitting forest explorers; UFOs as but internal synchronized specters projected upon the empty skies.

But is this what “mass hallucination” actually means? And has there ever actually been an anomalous event for which mass hallucination was offered as a scientific explanation? Or — as with the Milk Miracle — is the idea of Mass Hallucination merely a straw man argument meant to paint the skeptical position as both improbable and patronizing?

A search for “mass hallucination” in the American Psychological Association’s PsycINFO — “an expansive abstracting and indexing database with more than 3 million records devoted to peer-reviewed literature in the behavioral sciences and mental health […] covering psychology back to its underpinnings in the 17th Century” — yields a total of zero articles. Of course, this does not bode well as an indication of the concept’s interest among serious researchers.

However, the concept of “collective hallucinations” — first expounded by French polymath Gustave Le Bon in his 1895 classic book on Crowd Psychology, La psychologie des foules (translated into english as The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind) — has a minimal  presence in psychology books related to Mob Mentality and psychological anomalies.

In The Crowd, Le Bon described inflated suggestibility as a general characteristic of human herds. “[…] a crowd [is] perpetually hovering on the borderland of unconsciousness, readily yielding to all suggestions, having all the violence of feeling peculiar to beings who cannot appeal to the influence of reason, deprived of all critical faculty, cannot be otherwise than excessively credulous.” This excessive credulity, according to Le Bon, primes the crowd to accept, as fact ,“[t]he first perversion of the truth effected by one of the individuals of the gathering”, which then becomes “the starting point of the contagious suggestion.” Collective hallucinations then, by Le Bon’s definition, are the outcome of perceptual interpretations colored by suggestions delivered to a crowd in its throes of thoughtless zeal.

The concept is further expanded upon in a book titled Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking by Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones. There, the authors confront the question of — if an event is presumably hallucinated — how do “2 or 200 people manage to coordinate and synchronize their subjective lives?”

“In collective hallucinations, expectation plays the coordinating role. Although the subjective matter of individual hallucinations has virtually no limits, that of collective hallucinations is limited to certain categories. These categories are determined, first, by the kinds of ideas that a group of people may get excited about as a group, for emotional arousal is a prerequisite of collective hallucinations.”

Collective hallucinations, according to Zusne and Jones, are not spontaneous occurrences, and in accompaniment to “emotional arousal”, there is the prerequisite of “spreading imagery”…

“[…] all participants in the hallucination must be informed beforehand, at least concerning the broad outlines of the phenomenon that will constitute the collective hallucination. This may take the form of a publicly announced prophecy, for example, or someone suddenly looking up and saying, ‘Lo, in the sky!’ or words to that effect.”

And while the imagery preceding the event may only contain the “broad outlines of the phenomenon”, it is important to note that, due to the reconstructive nature of memory, the hallucinations themselves need only be broadly similar…

“Once the general type of hallucination is identified, it is easy to harmonize individual differences in accounts. This may take place during the hallucination or in subsequent discussions.”

As examples of collective hallucinations, Zusne and Jones offer several occasions at various locations in Italy where locals reported “moving and bleeding images of saints”.

Also, in 1981, in Yugoslavia, in a village called Medjugorje, a small group of children reported meeting and speaking with the mythical “Virgin” Mary, whereupon some estimated 11 million pilgrims travelled to the childrens’ village. These pilgrims stared into the sky, toward the sun, looking for Mary’s divine form at an appointed time and place. Interestingly, despite their priming, none of them seemed to manage an actual vision of Mary herself. However, they did report anomalous visions, “such as […] crosses in the sky, double suns”, and some reported “being able to stare at the setting sun without eye damage.”

Similar to the Medjugorje incident, the famous Fatima apparition of 1917 was a mob reaction to reports made by 3 Portuguese children who claimed to have been visited by the ghost of Mary. Here again, reports were less-than-impressive as far as presumably synchronous specific subjective events are concerned. The children, it is claimed, saw the Virgin, while some of the crowd reported seeing the sun “dancing” in the sky, radiant colors, or the sun approaching the Earth… Others still saw nothing at all.

Of course, the sun did not make any aberrant movements that day, as witnessing astronomical observatories could attest. The same sun, visible to much of the world, appeared to be following its daily routine everywhere but where expectations for a miracle found faithful pilgrims looking to the sky in anticipation of something extraordinary.

In both Medjugorje and Fatima, observers were staring into the sunlit sky. Joe Nickell (author and Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry [CSI]) explains, “several eyewitnesses of the October 13, 1917, gathering at Fatima specifically stated they were looking ‘fixedly at the sun’ or ‘tried to look straight at it’ or otherwise made clear they were gazing directly at the actual sun […]. If this is so, the ‘dancing sun’ and other solar phenomena may have been due to optical effects resulting from temporary retinal distortion caused by staring at such an intense light or to the effect of darting the eyes to and fro to avoid fixed gazing (thus combining image, afterimage, and movement).”

If UV-beaten eyes are responsible for reports of Fatima’s dancing sun, Zusne and Jones are unclear as to whether their definition of mass hallucination is meant to describe such illusions for which an organic cause is apparent. In either case, however, the prerequisite conditions of emotional arousal, spreading imagery, as well as the subsequent harmonizing of the narrative from various disparate reports, were clearly extremely influential factors in Medjugorje and Fatima.

In 2001, Christian apologist Gary Habermas published a paper titled Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: the Recent Revival of Hallucination Theories. Though Habermas explains that he surveyed “over 1,000 critical publications on the resurrection”, he offers no hard numbers with which to qualify his claim of any recent “revival of hallucination theories”. In vague terms, he reports, “more scholars apparently support various naturalistic hypotheses [to account for the biblical claim of Christ’s resurrection] than has been the case in many decades. […] Of those who now prefer hallucination explanations, however, only a few scholars have pursued this approach in detail, while several other scholars simply mention the possibility of, or preference for, the hallucination thesis.”

A preference for “the hallucination thesis” opposed to what, one wonders? Opposed to other “naturalistic hypotheses” (such as the quite obvious explanation that the New Testament is a poor fictional work from the start) mass hallucination weighs in rather weakly; Opposed to accepting the resurrection myth at its face value, however, mass hallucination can clearly be assigned a much higher probabilistic value by mere virtue of being a naturalistic hypothesis. Missing this point completely, Habermas asks, “[…] why must a naturalistic, subjective explanation be assumed?”

Though the question is presented rhetorically, there is sound rationale for assuming naturalistic explanations. To begin, while there is ample cross-cultural research demonstrating the human tendency to embrace superstition and to exert self-deceiving confirmation biases, there is no such research at all that satisfactorily demonstrates any supernatural phenomena. For that matter, supernatural forces are, by definition, not observable — they cannot be recorded, transcribed, traced, or measured by scientific procedure. As we can never isolate a mechanistic cause of a supernatural event, we are left with simply no other option than exhaust all naturalistic options first.

Further, history provides hard lessons in the unreliability of even large consensus accounts. The archaic minds of Christian philosophers, from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, took seriously claims of demonic assaults upon humanity by mere virtue of the claims’ ubiquity, Aquinas even insisting that reports or demonic voices could not be imaginary as they were reported to be heard to all within earshot. From this logic, prosecutions and brutal purgings of “witches” were deemed sound and fair due to their multiple corroborating witness accounts.

Habermas goes on to contest Zusne and Jones’s description of collective hallucination as it might be applied to the myth of Christ’s resurrection, though he concedes that Zusne and Jones themselves wrote of collective hallucinations “without any application to Jesus’ resurrection”. Further, none of the only three authors from this “revival” of hallucination theories Habermas explores — as examples of those who share a “hallucination theory preference” — invoke Zusne and Jones’s collective hallucination definition to support their positions. Nor are these authors unclear as to what they themselves mean when referring to the resurrection as a hallucination. Of the three authors Habermas disputes, only German theologian Gerd Luedemann advances an explanation directly born of an established collective hallucination theory. Invoking Le Bon, Luedemann describes the appearance of the resurrected Christ to “more than 500 brethren” as “mass ecstasy” stimulated by the “preaching and the recollections” by Peter and the twelve disciples who saw Jesus die on the cross. This proselytizing devotion, according to Luedemann, “led to religious intoxication and an enthusiasm which was experienced as the presence of Jesus[…]”

Summarizing this without offering a direct counterpoint, Habermas goes on to protest against hypotheses published by two more theologians, Jack A. Kent and Michael Goulder. Kent, in his book The Psychological Origins of the Resurrection Myth, proposes that Jesus’s cult individually “experienced grief-related hallucinations or illusions following the traumatic death of their leader”. Kent details the Gospel accounts of “the Easter morning events” and notes that they are “inconsistent, contradictory, and inconclusive”, though he argues that “Mary Magdalene and the disciples did see what they believed were ‘appearances’ of Jesus but those ‘appearances’ were grief-related hallucinations or illusions.”

    Likewise, Goulder, in his essay The Baseless Fabric of a Vision, describes Peter’s vision of the resurrected Christ as a personal vision — a conversion vision — which he likens to violent conversions reported throughout history wherein the convert typically describes visions accompanying an intense feeling of revelation. As an example, Goulder cites Manson Family murderer Susan Atkins’ prison conversion, which she described in visual terms, with Christ personally appearing to her offering consolation and forgiveness.

The appearances of Christ to the apostles or the 500 brethren, however, are seen as a collective delusion by Goulder, which he likens to today’s Bigfoot phenomenon. With both Bigfoot and Jesus expectation and popular enthusiasm precipitated sightings. “If you sighted Bigfoot, you were the centre of attention; people spoke about you; the press sought you out. If you sighted Jesus, you confirmed the Church’s hopes, and your own.”

Despite these descriptions of purely personal hallucinations acting to precipitate group delusions of resurrection, Habermas — after breezily under-summarizing each author’s actual position — disingenuously states: “One of the central issues in this entire discussion concerns whether a group of people can witness the same hallucination.” In fact, this appears only to be the central point that Habermas was predetermined to argue, while his survey of “over 1,000 critical publications” seems to have yielded little to indicate that this was ever at issue.

From the few academic descriptions available, authored by Le Bon and Zusne and Jones, we see that collective hallucinations are not intended to describe spontaneous herd occurrences of perfectly matched phantasmagoria. Nor is it irrelevant to emphasize the difference in terminology: collective hallucination, as opposed to the often-invoked mass hallucination which, while subtle, further reinforces the suspicion that those arguing against mass hallucination theory (in favor of their cherished chosen implausibility) are in fact inveighing against an imaginary opposition.

While “collective hallucinations” find a negligible presence in psychological literature, “mass hallucination theory” is disproportionately invoked as the primary — if not only — explanation offered to counter extraordinary claims for which there are (presumably) multiple corroborating witnesses. So long as this position is maintained, arguments for paranormal events are presented as less incredible than the alleged scientific alternative: that a mass of people all at once spontaneously shared a detailed mental vision, much like a group of people watching a film, and collectively mistook this shared vision for an external physical reality.

When “mass hallucination” is said to be the scientific counterpoint to any claim, it is worth asking, By which scientists? Where? What other explanations have been proposed? and, of course, “Mass hallucination” meaning what, exactly? Upon inspection, we find that the idea of mass hallucination as the fall-back end-all “scientific” position toward the inexplicable is, in itself, nothing more than a desperately crafted mass delusion… a bullshit argument — attributed to rational arguments against bullshit — that is meant to make said rational arguments look like bullshit.


Repeal the Opinion Entitlement


Somewhere lurking amongst middle-American fears of local Al-Qaeda operative cells, satanic cults, and White House-hatched Socialist coups is the specter of the anti-American “entitlement”. Entitlements — or “hand-outs” — coddle the weak, foster a culture of dependency, and discourage healthy self-reliance. They mock the American ideals of hard work, independence, and self-determined grit.

Alberto Martini, La Divina Commedia, 1901

…Or so we’re told by those who believe that they are entitled to their opinion on the matter. I believe, however, that this entitlement, too — the Opinion Entitlement — should also be questioned for the deleterious effects it has had upon those whom it is meant to protect.

In fact, before the matter of social entitlements — or any other issue — can reasonably be debated, we must first outright repeal this intellectual entitlement of the opinion. The Opinion Entitlement has, for too long, coddled the uninformed and willfully ignorant, cultivating an environment of lazy thinkers and armchair pundits dependent on a social norm which acts to shield their most senseless and irrational notions from critical assault. I would like to see a nation that instead cultivates a sense of responsibility toward opinions, opinions that have been earned through a critical scrutiny of facts, an earnest weighing of evidence, and with deference to Logic and Scientific Method.

The Opinion Entitlement is often presented in the guise of moderate diplomacy: “Hey, you’re entitled to your opinion”, your debate opponent says, thus withdrawing from the match. No need to argue, let’s just be civilized and agree to disagree.

What could be more reasonable?

Of course, there is a deeper subtext, one which asks you to assume that your opponent could, in fact, argue against your point endlessly, but the exchange could only end in a bitter stalemate, unresolved and unproductive on both sides. The assumption that one could argue their point often benefits the withdrawing party, who in all probability invoked the Opinion Entitlement for lack of an ability to argue their opinion any further. One cannot simply walk into a boxing ring and take it upon himself to declare the fight a draw after the first punch has landed him dazed and bleeding upon the floor, or before the match has even begun… yet the equivalent is often done in a debate when the Opinion Entitlement is invoked.

The Opinion Entitlement asks us to regard all opinions as equally valid and worthy of respect, regardless of our differences with them. But, obviously, not all opinions are equally valid. Some are disproportionately weighted with supporting evidence, while others are entirely invalid or untenably weak, supported by poor evidence, false evidence, or no evidence at all.

To invoke The Opinion Entitlement is to effectually state that nothing being said, no amount of reasoned perspective, logic, or fact, could possibly change the entitled person’s mind. Being equally valid, opinions, from this perspective, are mere accessories to one’s personal identity — items of fashion chosen at will, perhaps, because they simply looked good at the time — suited one’s demeanor and self-image — rather than for any rational purpose. Thus, to challenge one’s opinion is to challenge one’s very sense of self. An affront to the opinion is an affront to the person.

This is an unscientific mode of mind at a very fundamental level, and it’s a mindset that all individuals should rid themselves of by adulthood. In science, all theories and hypotheses, properly tested, actively seek disconfirming evidence. Experiments are designed in such a manner that their results might disprove the idea being tested. Reasonable people should welcome correction and new information. A responsibility to our opinions would demand that we properly manage them through reasoned consideration of all available evidence. Sadly, the current culture of The Opinion Entitlement finds quite the opposite: the most vociferous opinion-holders are often the most willfully removed from outside evidence, self-sequestered into comfortable echo chambers that provide nothing but validation in a dysfunctional feedback loop.

To be fair, there is a type of opinion for which any attempt at disagreement and active opposition may indeed be considered in poor taste, or even irrational. For instance, when a man claims that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, the subjective nature of his assessment — as well as the benign nature of his judgment — should be enough to prevent anybody from trying to correct him by pointing out that by any third-party independent qualitative standards, his wife appears hideous.

As Patrick Stokes, lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University, Australia, writes:

“Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike ‘1+1=2’ or ‘there are no square circles,’ an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But ‘opinion’ ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views ‘respected’.”

“You are not entitled to your opinion”, Stokes asserts, “You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

Another champion for the movement to repeal The Opinion Entitlement, Jamie Whyte, author of Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders, explains the irrelevance of The Opinion Entitlement as an answer to any dispute:

“Let us suppose that Jill disputes Jack’s opinion that free trade causes poverty in the Third World. Jack may defend his opinion by producing evidence connecting trade and poverty but he cannot help his case by insisting that he is entitled to his opinion. How could that show that free trade causes poverty in the Third World?”

“The entitlement would be relevant only if it guaranteed the truth of your opinions. But it can’t do that, because it is an entitlement supposedly enjoyed by everybody. And people disagree. Jack and Jill are both entitled to their contradictory opinions about trade and poverty, but they can’t both be right. So insisting that you are entitled to your opinion cannot possibly give you any proper advantage in a debate.”

One cannot assert a “right” to an opinion, Whyte explains, because such a right would demand an impossible responsibility of those upholding it: “Does your right to your opinion oblige me to agree with you? No, that would make the duty impossible to perform. For I too have a right to my opinion, which you must respect. If we disagree, I must change my opinion to yours, and you must change yours to mine. But then we disagree again, and must change our opinions again. And so on forever, never managing to do our impossible duty.”

With the repeal of The Opinion Entitlement I feel that we’ll have taken a bold stride in the proper direction, toward a respect for fact-checked data over platitudes and “zingers”; a step away from sacrosanct personal realities, toward a real-world understanding of what we know to be true… and how we know what we know to be true. Indeed, we will have taken an important step toward a greater respect for Truth in general when we end The Opinion Entitlement’s requirement that all supernatural assumptions, fantasies, delusions, irresponsible speculations, and otherwise unsound opinions be equally respected.

So when next somebody asserts The Opinion Entitlement in the face of your arguments, proudly inform them that it isn’t so — there is no longer any such entitlement. You are entitled to defend your opinion. Failing that, you have no right to your opinion at all.



The Ghost in the Machine: The Case Against the Soul

Originally published in Skeptic Magazine 14.2(2008): 72-73,80.

The Ghost in the Machine A review of The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary. HarperCollins, 2007. 384 pp. $25.96 ISBN 100060858834 ISBN 13-978-0060858834

Even before we reach the table of contents, the book has run afoul of reason, casting serious doubts upon the intellectual honesty of its authors. The first sentence on the inside flap of the dust-jacket synopsis asks “Do religious experiences come from God, or are they merely the random firing of neurons in the brain?” Of course, confined strictly to those two magv14n02_coveroptions, one may even feel compelled to choose the former-but dearly the cards have been stacked. That neurons must fire in patterns seems intuitive. But to present this as necessarily the product of God’s divine will demands quite a bit of justification. The question is also eerily similar to the equally misrepresentative question often posed by Intelligent Design advocates: “Was life designed, or is it the product of mere random chance?” Available biographical information about the authors reveals this similarity as no coincidence…

The Spiritual Brain- A Neuroscientist’s case for the Existence of the Soul was co-authored by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard-whose Templeton Foundation-funded research provides what very litde original content the book has to offer and journalist Denyse O’Leary, author of an Intelligent Design pseudoscience book titled By Design or By Chance? The Growing Controversy on the Origins of Life in the Universe. Indeed, The Spiritual Brain proves to be little more than a remanufacturing of Creationist arguments applied to the cognitive sciences.

One might reasonably expect that a book that claims to give evidence for the existence of the “soul” would at least give the reader the benefit of defining “soul” at the very outset. Why-it has been asked-if there is some angelic vapor that drives a living being, provides character, morality, and consciousness, would God have equipped us with burdensome, fragile, and expensive (in biological terms) organs such as brains? Where does the brain end and the soul begin? If the brain provides robotic function, and the soul provides “consciousness”, what are we to make of cases of extreme character change due to neurological disorder or brain injury?

The book begins with no such definition, nor with any overview of its evidence, nor a clear interpretation of the authors’ findings. It begins instead with a vitriolic attack on what the authors refer to as “materialist science”; being quite simply a euphemism for that damnable brand of elitist science that insists upon testable, empirical data.

According to the authors, an unwillingness to accept causes outside the physical world has crippled progress in the field of neuroscience. The reader is belabored with full-paragraph quotations from the leading minds in the cognitive sciences meant to demonstrate the magnitude of this bias. Current theories are misrepresented, ridiculously simplified and mocked. But, while the authors effectively prove that great minds have shown a near unanimous unwillingness to accept supernatural theories, they entirely fail to demonstrate how this has hindered progress. Quite the contrary. After pressing through bloated pages of rambling anti-materialist drivel, the reader will likely become solidly convinced that the practice of “non-materialist science” as advocated by the authors could itself only serve to end scientific progress. According to the authors, this magical science “is not compelled to reject, deny, explain away, or treat as problems all evidence that defies materialism.” It is quite plain that, instead of seeking explanations for the unexpected or unknown, the non-materialist scientist would be perfectly at liberty to “explain” anomalous data as the mysterious workings of God.

Those readers who are convinced by the arguments exposing the follies of evidence-based science may find the presentation of evidence for the soul now entirely unnecessary. However, the “evidence” is sparse enough that converts may immediately practice their newfound powers of credulity.

The primary data put forward as evidence for the soul regards mystical experiences and the profound life-changing effects such experiences have. The authors seem to feel that mystical experiences are indicative of entirely real spiritual contact with God Almighty Himself, and scoff at the idea that these perceptions are derived merely from an altered state of mind. “The fact that mystical experiences and states may have identifiable neural correlates […] has typically been interpreted by journalists as suggesting that the experiences are somehow a delusion. In itself, that is a confused idea, equivalent to assuming that if hitting a home run has identifiable neural correlates, the home run is a delusion.”

Author Mario Beauregard ran a study on Carmelite nuns, who “live a life of silent prayer.” These nuns report that they enter a “mystical state” that they find difficult to describe. “(T]hey felt the presence of God, his unconditional and infinite love […]”

But this is precisely what any scientist might expect of a Christian sect of meditators attempting communion with God. Meditators of another religion would surely interpret their experience in their own spiritual framework. The authors mention Buddhist meditators, but fail to give an account of their interpretation of the Religious Experience: “The scope of the present book does not permit a wide-ranging assessment of all types of contemplative states, so we will consider only the study of the Franciscan nuns.”

In fact, cognitive scientists don’t shy away from the study of mystical experiences, nor would most deny that these experiences do have the ability to change lives. But the fact that these experiences occur provides no evidence for the existence of the soul or an outer “spiritual reality”. Because the Franciscan nuns interpret this as a communion with God doesn’t mean that we should accept this uncritically.

There is a rare neurological disorder (Capgras’ syndrome) in which the afflicted are capable of recognizing the faces of loved ones, but feel that these people have been replaced with an imposter. Would Beauregard have us believe that this is because exact human replica imposters delight in annoying victims of particular types of brain lesions, or would he see these unique conditions of the brain as having manufactured this perception? The former would be just as scientifically valid as his assertion that spiritual experiences are elicited by a spiritual world.

Curiously absent from this book is any mention of mystical experiences achieved through the use of psychedelic drug usage. A recent study (performed at Johns Hopkins University under neuroscientist Roland Griffiths) involving the inducement of mystical experiences by means of psilocybin (the psychoactive component in “magic” mushrooms) produced a report titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” (http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/Press _releases/2006/GrifrithsPsuocybin.pdf). The report concludes, “When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” If mystical experiences induced by heathen drugs are somehow to be distinguished from mystical experiences induced “naturally” by prayer or contemplation, Beauregard has failed to demonstrate this.

The authors, to their credit, actually do admit that there is no proof of a spirit world to be gleaned from the mystical experience: “Do our findings prove that mystics contact a power outside themselves? No, because there is no way to prove or disprove that from one side only.”

Research of the mystical experience as experienced by Carmelite nuns provided the only original data in this book, and it admittedly proves nothing.

For reasons unclear, the book references the well-known placebo effect as some type of evidence for the soul. The ultimate message in this bizarre placebo digression seems to be, “faith matters”, as belief itself has yielded tangible benefits. Equally perplexing is the handling of the question of Free Will, wherein the authors seem to mistake consciousness and self-control for Free Will. The most cursory perusal of available literature on the topic could have served to correct them.

In citing Near Death (NDE) and Out-of-Body Experiences (OBE) as evidence for the soul, the authors again fail to make mention of certain data that seem to contradict their conclusions. One relevant experiment involved subjects whose brains were electrically stimulated in the right temporal region, thus causing them to experience full blown Out-of-Body perception. If Out-of-Body experiences can be electrically induced, where does this leave the argument that such experiences are caused by supernatural spiritual forces?

Near Death Experiences are handled no better. Here again the authors are remiss in their research. Omitted is any mention of NDEs induced by the drug ketamine, or by rapid acceleration, in subjects who are not in fact dead, or in serious risk of dying. Instead, the unscientific supporting “evidence” is anecdotal.

A “science” book that attempts to justify supernaturalism sometimes holds a certain entertainment value as it attempts to explain away contradictory evidence with contortions of logic. Since The Spiritual Brain merely ignored any data that troubled its thesis, we’re denied any such entertainment here. Searching for some redeeming quality, we might be amused at the book’s tone as it oscillates from indignant confidence to near-resignation, confessing that the soul’s existence cannot be proven. It’s similar to the perverse entertainment one might find in witnessing a lunatic street-preacher who, while engaged in solo argument… finds that he is losing.



Lies, Levitation, & Defamations Most Foul: On Transcendental Meditation’s attempts to enter public schools  

30 Jan 2010

The diagnosis is in: I have a malignant negativity, a “negative world view” that prevents me from accepting the unique universal healing properties of Transcendental Meditation™ [TM].  My problem has been recognized by some of the top minds at Maharishi University (TM’s university in Fairfield, Iowa) who have expressed a willingness to take legal action against my writings so as to quarantine this ugly contagion – this hideous negativity that has deformed my critical thinking to the point in which I can no longer recognise an established scientific fact.  According to TM™:

“Scientific research has clearly demonstrated that when one per cent of the population of a city or town practices Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation Programme, the crime rate significantly decreases. Similarly, when groups of individuals practicing Maharishi’s TM-Sidhi programme with Yogic Flying equal at least the square root of one per cent of a population, there is a significant reduction of crime and accidents, as well as an increase in stock prices, decreased pollution, decreased unemployment, and decreased hostilities between nations.”

This crime-reducing by-product of TM™ is a phenomena known as “The Maharishi Effect”. flyer1 During the Summer of 1993, 4,000 faithful, trained in the peaceful art of Transcendental Meditation™, gathered in crime-ridden Washington, D.C. with a mission: to scientifically prove the Maharishi Effect.  And, if you ask those minds from the prestigious Maharishi University who were responsible for the study, the experiment was a great success… A success, that is, despite the fact that “during the weeks of the experiment Washington D.C.’s weekly murder count ‘hit the highest level ever recorded.'”

So where was the success?  I childishly ask in my negativity-induced ignorance.


Ah… you see, though homicides peaked in this TM™-increased field of peace, crime was in fact reduced 18 percent from what it would have been had the meditators not been present!  

No doubt about it.  Maharishi University’s own physicist, Dr. John Hagelin worked out all of the variables.  The Maharishi Effect is proven…  But I have my doubts.  When I published an article questioning the validity of TM™ science, a commentator and TM™ practitioner tried to set me straight:

“[…]You get the facts all wrong because you see it through a negative belief system. Lighten up. I’ve been doing TM for years. It’s given me more happiness & energy for success in my work, gotten rid of stress that I see dragging others down & making them sick. Friends whom I’ve gotten to do TM, I’ve watched meditation change their life. It’s ridiculous to try to reason or explain the facts to people enmeshed in an unhealthy, negative mindset. This article’s not even about the research. It’s not about TM. It’s about a world view threatened by the possibility that TM really has the effects claimed for it. It’s about a rigid belief system that needs to convince itself & others that the all-positive, life-changing effects of TM are not possible, because that would mean your beliefs & your defense mechanism would collapse. TM is a totally cool, edifying experience – a fact you cannot change.”

Worse than my failure to appreciate the science of the Maharishi Effect, is the fact that I’ve dismissed out-of-hand, as absurd, TM™’s Yogic Flying – the claim that TM™ meditators may achieve levitation.  “Stage One is generally associated with what would best be described as ‘hopping like a frog.’ Stage Two is flying through the air for a short time. Stage Three is complete mastery of the sky.”  The very idea proved altogether too much for the defense mechanisms of my negative world view, and when I learned that TM™, through the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, was attempting to insert itself into public schools, I went on the offensive, publishing the following article on Examiner.com… an article that the General Counsel for Maharishi University would deem “defamatory”:

Transcendental Meditation in schools, the David Lynch program

Expel from your mind the stereotyped image of the robed, bearded yogi.  Forget the worn image of the unkempt, hash-headed, lotus-seated hippy listening to sitar music in an incense-filled room behind a beaded curtain.  This is not the Transcendental Meditation [TM] we are talking about.  This is Science!

“Hundreds of scientific studies have been conducted on the benefits of the Transcendental Meditation program at more than 200 independent universities and research institutions worldwide in the past 35 years,” explains the TM-promoting David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace website.  Among the positive side-effects of the TM program, we find: increased focus, decreased hostility, reduced anxiety, even a reduction in cardiovascular disease among practitioners.

Surely, with this in mind, no reasonable person would argue against teaching the TM method in public schools.

And this is exactly what the David Lynch Foundation – founded by the cult film director of Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive – proposes: implementation of a TM teaching program “in public and private schools and in after-school programs across the U.S. and around the world, with thousands of students enjoying its benefits.”

This past April, the foundation held a large benefit concert in New York – including performances by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Ben Harper, and Moby – which, according to USA Today, raised an estimated $3 million toward funding the TM-in-schools program.

But, despite the attributed benefits and celebrity endorsements, some worry that the teaching of a TM-based program in public schools constitutes another breach across the ever-eroding church-state dividing line.  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State reports, “Slowly but steadily, TM seems to be gaining a foothold in public schools across the country. The trend has alarmed some advocates of church-state separation, who point out that the practice is based in Hinduism and that the federal courts removed it from New Jersey public schools on church-state grounds in 1979.”

In regards to funding being offered by the David Lynch Foundation in support of the TM program, “Americans United is urging school officials to turn down the money, reminding educators that TM in the schools can spark litigation. In 1976, Americans United and other groups joined with Roman Catholic and Protestant parents to bring a lawsuit against the use of TM in five New Jersey public schools.” […] “A federal court struck down the TM classes in October of 1977, a decision that was affirmed by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February of 1979…Ruling in Malnak v. Yogi, the federal appeals court declared that TM is grounded in Hinduism. Students, the court pointed out, were assigned the name of a Hindu god to chant, and even went through a type of religious initiation ceremony called a puja.” (http://www.au.org/media/church-and-state/archives/2009/06/levitating-over-the.html)

Indeed, though the David Lynch Foundation seems keen to express that TM is just a technique, with real estate holdings, schools, and clinics—even a town, Vedic City, in Iowa—“worth more than $3 billion in the late 1990s,” TM is clearly something more.  Some go so far as to describe TM as “a cult that ultimately seeks to strip individuals of their ability to think and choose freely.”

Therapist John Knapp, specializing in providing help to ex-cult members and people entangled in “cultic relationships” left TM after 23 years of involvement.  “I married somebody who was not involved with the group, and part of my group experience was that I was asked to lie about a number of items. And living every day with someone and having to lie to them was extremely difficult… It caused what you could call a cognitive dissonance. It really caused a bifurcation in my mind. It was really difficult to live with. And I’d also gotten very far away from my family, which is not uncommon for people who are in these kinds of [cultic] relationships. As my mother was getting older I wanted to re-establish my ties with her and the family. These kinds of things led me to begin questioning my relationship [with TM].”

Upon deciding that he would leave TM, Knapp reports that he suffered a good deal of harassing behavior from the group.  “It was difficult for me, because I had believed so strongly in this group [TM]. My spiritual and emotional life was really bound up completely with this group, so when they turned on me it was very confusing and very difficult for me…”

Worse, Knapp reports negative effects derived from the meditation technique itself, from addictive behavior to increased feelings of dissociation.  He claims that many clients of his that come from TM have experienced the same.

TM was founded by a man known as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1956 in India, and the revered guru himself had once been accused of using “fear and intimidation” in order to work to prevent a disciple from leaving the Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. The disillusioned student, Robert Kropinski, and six other people sued Maharishi’s University for $9 million on the grounds of “fraud, neglect, and intentionally inflicting emotional damage”. Kropinski stated that none of the promised TM benefits ever surfaced during his time as a student, and he was awarded $138,000 by a Washington D.C. jury. Maharishi did not appear in court, as he was never available to receive summons.

Admittedly, all of this sounds most unpleasant, but what of the scientific data supporting the individual benefits of TM?

There are problems with TM’s data.  While the David Lynch Foundation endlessly promotes the “unique” benefits of TM, there is a conspicuous shortage of comparative analytical studies that measure TM against other relaxation techniques.  Surprisingly, studies measuring the effects of a simple mid-day nap report many of the same “unique” benefits touted by TM.

In fact, a study published in the journal Science in 1976 found in studying “five experienced practitioners of Transcendental Meditation”, that they “spent appreciable parts of meditation sessions” merely napping.

And, according to a June 2007 report, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that evaluated the quality of the meditation research along an array of standard scientific criteria such as the proper use of randomization and control group techniques, “Overall, the methodological quality of both intervention and observational analytic studies on meditation practices is poor.”

According to Dr. Barry Markovsky, professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina, “Poor evidence, even in large quantities, falls short of establishing scientifically the benefits of TM.”

Worst of all, TM makes a series of staggering claims that can be charitably described as “unlikely”.  Old advertisements for TM claim that practitioners of TM will develop “supernormal powers” including “supernormal sight and hearing”, invisibility, and levitation!  The organization even circulated photos with pictures of lotus-seated students apparently hovering above the ground, but first-hand observations of the “levitations” left many unconvinced. The levitators never managed to levitate for very long; they never really “hovered”. In fact, they sprung up rather abruptly and dropped immediately to the ground again. Really, it was quite apparent that these transcendent hopefuls were merely hopping about from a seated position.

Nor has TM provided any legitimized demonstrations of any of its supernormal powers.

When asked about “advanced techniques” such as “yogic flight” during a press conference promoting his benefit concert, David Lynch replied with some rambling vagaries about a “field of unity”, “bliss”, and the “collective consciousness”.

The David Lynch Foundation has a stated of goal of teaching TM to one million children, which is reminiscent of another supernatural claim of TM: the Maharishi Effect, which states that a certain critical mass of TM meditators can affect change upon the material world.

While John Hagelin of the David Lynch Foundation claims that the Maharishi Effect is a scientifically proven phenomenon, there is no reliable evidence to support this.  (Hagelin, it should be noted, is partially to blame for the simple-minded buffoonery of the best-selling book The Secret, which promotes a simpler version of the Maharishi Effect: The idea that one can obtain what one wants through mere wishful thinking.)  Hagelin claims that in 1993 crime was reduced in Washington, DC during a two month period due to the collective effort of 4000 TM practitioners.

As Skeptico reports: “There were many problems with this experiment. One was that the murder rate rose during the period in question. Another was that Hagelin’s report stated violent crime had been reduced by 18% (in the film [What The Bleep Do We Know] he says 25%), but reduced compared with what? How did he know what the crime rate would have been without the TM? It was discovered later that all the members of the “independent scientific review board” that scrutinized the project were followers of the Maharishi. The study was pseudoscience: no double blinding, the reviewers were not independent, and the experiment has never been independently replicated. Hagelin deservedly won an Ig Nobel Prize in 1994 for this outstanding piece of work.”

James Randi, famed stage magician, author, founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and debunker of supernatural claims, explains that TM has “always maintained this… [the idea] that if a certain critical number of people take up TM, they will protect everybody, and the world will be perfectly safe from then on.”

Randi came to be aware of TM through his friend and fellow magician, Doug Henning. “I knew [Henning] very well as a kid, and later as a mature magician. We were always in touch…” Randi describes a deeply cultic relationship between Henning and Transcendental Meditation that would destroy Henning’s career and eventually take his life. Henning’s career as a television magician was compromised as he strove to hire only TM initiates to work on the set. According to Randi, this was not only problematic for the fact that it was difficult to find people within TM who were talented in television production, but “every so often they went into meditation and work just stopped…” Eventually, TV executives grew weary of Henning’s professional antics.

Henning became even more deeply involved with TM following his diagnosis of liver cancer, eventually removing himself from contact with non-TM practitioners. “He gave up all medical care… the Maharishi had told him that he could recover from his liver cancer simply from meditating… he meditated himself to death.” Henning died in February of 2000.

“I’m so angry at the TM movement,” says Randi, “for having taken an innocent person.”

John Knapp feels that the drive to bring TM into more schools is destined to failure as any critical scrutiny of the organization will prove its undoing.  According to him, “It’s just too damn strange…”

Relaxation – whether by crude napping, or practiced meditation – holds certain benefits that are not the monopoly of the TM brand.  It is this author’s hope that schools will continue to seek techniques to aid the reduction of stress and conflict – while increasing health and focus – without reducing their curriculum to supernatural philosophies that cross the church-state line.


Not long after posting the article above, I received an email from an Examiner editor informing me that she had received an email from William Goldstein of Maharishi University.

I received [an] email [from William Goldstein] regarding your recent article regarding transcendental meditation and the David Lynch Foundation.  As you should be aware, the Examiner.com Terms of Use and the click-through Examiners Independent Contractor Agreement and License (which you entered into with Examiner.com) prohibit the posting of content that is defamatory or factually inaccurate, as has been alleged here.  Accordingly, we have temporarily removed the article from our site pending further investigation and/or modification of the article by you.”

She helpfully made my situation clear:

“Please be aware that because you are an independent contractor and your articles are selected, written, posted or controlled solely by you, you alone would be liable should either of the organizations listed below decide to bring a lawsuit for defamation or otherwise.  Accordingly, we strongly encourage you to consider modifying the article[…]”

William Goldstein’s accusatory email followed:

Dear Examiner Editor in Chief

I write this letter as General Counsel for Maharishi University of Management and the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness Based Education and World Peace concerning the article in your online publication: http://www.examiner.com/x-20682-Boston-Underground-Examiner_y2009m10d5-Transcendental-Meditation-in-schools-the-David-Lynch-program

I will not comment on the inappropriate statements on the scientific research conducted on the TM program contained in Mr. Mesner’s article.  Dr. Orme Johnson’s comments you have received reply more expertly than I could on that subject and I incorporate them. But there are other false, defamatory and/or misleading statements which need to be identified as such and retracted. The failure to do so continues to damage the reputation of my client organizations which teach and promote these programs, and the individuals involved in those activities.

One court case, over thirty years ago, found a curriculum in the Science of Creative Intelligence which included the TM program to have religious overtones violative of the First Amendment. That “Malnak” case has been mischaracterized and its scope overstated by Mr. Mesner. No court at any time has ever ruled that teaching the TM program alone is impermissible, nor that the student is “assigned the name of  a Hindu God to chant”.

What is even more relevant is the fact that, largely in light of the extensive research that has been done over the last thirty years on the Transcendental Meditation programs benefits in removing stress, several thousand at risk students in public schools across the United States have decided voluntarily to learn the TM program. Through sponsorships from the David Lynch Foundation, they have learned the technique in voluntary Quiet Time programs without any legal interference. The Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 US 38 and its progeny have now made it clear that secular or non-secular meditation is permissible under the First Amendment in such circumstances.

Mr. Mesner then goes on to paste the horrific label of a “cult” on the TM program. Al Gore, Jerry Seinfeld and Paul McCartney would find it remarkable to be told they are members of a cult, but that does not mitigate the serious damages that such thoughtless labeling can have on the organizations which teach these programs to the public. And while Jerry may laugh at such a characterization, Al Gore may not have as well developed a sense of humor.

John Knapp, who claims to be a licensed counselor, is quoted by Mr. Mesner as saying he was lied to and harassed by the TM organization. But this is not factually supported. However, what is a fact is that Mr. Knapp has developed a niche in the field of counseling for victims of cults which he actively promotes on his websites. He has created a straw man, and now he is selling expensive medicine to him. Mr. Knapp’s professional ethical conflict of interest seems much more worthy of note than his unsupported claims of lies and harassment.

Further, Messrs.. Knapp and Mesner attempt to attribute the symptoms of mental illness to the practice of the TM program without scientific basis. This may be of great support to his cult counseling practice, but is not supported by the several hundred studies. No one claims that every person who practices the TM technique will be promptly freed of any mental distress. People who practice the TM program may indeed coincidentally suffer from such problems. What the research shows conclusively, however, is that they get noticeably and materially better through this practice — they do not get worse. If Mr. Knapp really and honestly feels otherwise, why has he not undertaken a controlled scientific study which has been published in a peer reviewed journal? In fact, all such studies of the TM program have shown that it only produces beneficial effects. Mr. Knapp’s self serving, conflict ridden unscientific anecdotes are not the evidence recognized as credible by science or his profession and claiming such is unethical and irresponsible. It is also damaging to those who teach and practice those programs and he should be held accountable for such damage. In any event, it should not be published and promoted by this publication or you are participating in this damaging process.

Mr. Mesner’s misrepresentations continue by his claim that Kropinski received a $138,000 jury verdict for claimed injuries from the TM program. What he omits to mention is that it was reversed on appeal. Kropinski v. WPEC, 853 F.2d 948 ( 1988) .

These falsehoods, defamations and omissions compel me to ask you to remove this article from your newspaper to put an end to the continuing damage its publication causes to my client.

Thank you very much for your anticipated co-operation.

William Goldstein

General Counsel,

Maharishi University of Management and

David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness Based Education and World Peace

Telephone 641 472 1183

Fax 641 472 1141

email: bgoldstein@mum.edu

William Goldstein

General Counsel

Maharishi University of Management

Telephone 641 472 1183

Fax 641 472 1141

email: bgoldstein@mum.edu


And so, my article was pulled, and I was being given the opportunity to amend and correct all defamations.  I re-read my work carefully….

No, no defamations there.  As Examiner claimed no legal responsibility regarding the article, I decided to take the liberty of re-posting it in full, exactly as it was but with this preface:

This previously posted article has been updated with appended material following a letter received from the General Counsel for Maharishi University of Management and the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness Based Education and World Peace, William Goldstein, under the subject heading “Retraction of Defamatory Article”.  Upon reviewing Goldstein’s criticisms, the author has decided that there are no grounds for labeling this article “defamatory”.  An open reply to Goldstein’s letter follows the article below:

As promised, the updated post of the article was appended with my reply to the claim of “defamation” as follows:

On October 13 editors at Examiner received an email from William Goldstein, General Counsel for Maharishi University of Management and the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness Based Education and World Peace.  The email’s subject heading was “Retraction of Defamatory Article”, and it ended with strong words claiming that the “falsehoods, defamations and omissions [in the article above] compel me [Goldstein] to ask you to remove this article from your newspaper to put an end to the continuing damage its publication causes to my client.”

And what were these “falsehoods, defamations and omissions”?  Goldstein opens: “I will not comment on the inappropriate statements on the scientific research conducted on the TM program contained in Mr. Mesner’s article.  Dr. Orme Johnson’s comments you have received reply more expertly than I could on that subject and I incorporate them.”

I had read Dr. Orme Johnson’s criticisms and found them less than compelling, some of them nonsensical.  For instance, this comment – “To Knapp’s statement that TM is “too strange” for America, one has to ask, strange for whom, the narrow minded and ethnocentric? I think our nation has gotten past a lot of that.” – left me to merely wonder what in the world ethnocentricism might have to do with any of this if TM is not to be viewed as an Eastern practice rooted in Eastern beliefs and traditions?

Dr. Orme Johnson made comments suggesting that James Randi was incorrect regarding Henning’s situation: “Maharishi’s advice was always to seek medical attention when one gets sick, not “just meditate” as Randi alleges. Studies of medical care utilization that I conducted on Blue Cross statistics found that 2,000 TM subjects over a five-year period had on average 50% less hospitalization and doctors visits than the norm or matched controls, with reductions in all categories of disease.”

This comment would be laughable if the ramifications were less grave.  When the criticism is that TM discouraged a sick man from seeking medical attention, the statistic of 50% less hospitalization amongst TM practitioners hardly makes that claim seem less credible.  But, just the same, if Randi’s comments are “falsehoods, defamations, or omissions”, that is problem that must be taken up with James Randi.  He is accurately quoted in the article above.

Likewise, the claim that TM is a “cult” is attributed, and Goldstein must take any disagreement with that label up with those who use it to describe his… “client”.  In my favorite part of his email, Goldstein writes: Mr. Mesner then goes on to paste the horrific label of a “cult” on the TM program. Al Gore, Jerry Seinfeld and Paul McCartney would find it remarkable to be told they are members of a cult, but that does not mitigate the serious damages that such thoughtless labeling can have on the organizations which teach these programs to the public. And while Jerry may laugh at such a characterization, Al Gore may not have as well developed a sense of humor.

This shameless name-dropping is pointless, as it can be worked both ways.  “Jerry may laugh”, and Al Gore may be a humorless bore.  Or Jerry may in fact cringe in disgust if presented with the idea that TM practitioners may learn to levitate, or that the Maharishi Effect is a proven phenomena.  Al Gore may laugh at such nonsense.  We really don’t know, do we?  Were Jerry Seinfeld, Al Gore, or Paul McCartney asked to give an opinion of my article?  Is it just too remarkable to imagine that such celebrities might be involved in a “cult” or cult-based practices?  Do Tom Cruise and John Travolta find it remarkable that many accuse Scientology of being a cult?  For that matter, isn’t Scientology’s Dianetics “auditing” practice nothing more than a therapeutic technique?  As such, perhaps it too should be welcomed into school rooms.

Goldstein goes on to question the credibility of John Knapp: “Mr. Knapp has developed a niche in the field of counseling for victims of cults which he actively promotes on his websites. He has created a straw man, and now he is selling expensive medicine to him. 

While I’m not exactly sure what is meant by this, it seems to imply that counseling ex-TM practitioners has proven lucrative for Knapp which would also imply a consistent client base of  TM disaffected.  But, again, if Goldstein takes issue with what is said by Knapp, he must take it up with him.  Knapp is accurately quoted in the article above.

The one helpful item mentioned in Goldstein’s email was the fact that the Kropinski finding was over-turned on appeal – though this would better have been mentioned in the comments, not in a full letter claiming “defamation”.

Most other comments regarding this article, by Dr. Orme Johnson and others, take exception to the criticisms regarding the Maharishi Effect.  I have no intention of being ambiguous about this: the Maharishi Effect is not a proven phenomena.  I seriously doubt it can even be considered a valid hypothesis.  It’s failed hippy mysticism, and it has no place whatever in public schools.

I said it.

Go ahead and sue me.

Speaking only for myself,

Douglas Mesner



Anticipating summons, though believing the claim of “defamation” to be entirely unfounded, I contacted organisations and institutions I felt might be of assistance should TM™ in fact attempt to sue me.

So it was that sometime in early December, somebody with copies of the Goldstein-Examiner emails posted them on Wikileaks so as to demonstrate TM™’s descent into Scientology-like litigiousness.  The public posting of Goldstein’s letter further agitated the TM™ apologists.  The comments on the Wiki page questioned the purpose of posting such an item.  One Commenter asked, Is Wikileaks serving a noble purpose here?:

“WikiLeaks needs to carefully discern documents such as this to determine if the material actually poses a threat to “A just and corrupt free world.” If the document is benign and the legal notice by the TM people was justified because the Examiner article actually is defamatory, then WikiLeaks is just letting themselves be used for destructive purposes by self-serving people with ill intentions.

After reading the letter, and being aware beforehand of the positive nature of TM, it appears to me that WikiLeaks, in this case, is itself acting in opposition to a fair and corrupt-free world. Just because someone claims to have a “secret document” revealing unfounded threats doesn’t mean that promoting that person’s accusations is noble and progressive.

But I think you’re actually doing TM a favor by publishing the letter and showing people the rational, fact-based response of the TM organization to Mesner’s attacks, whose article in the Examiner (for anyone who actually does research or knows the facts) was replete with false accusations and defamations.

I urge WikiLeaks to consider this: If TM is actually a good thing, and the organization is actually justified in their request that Mesner adjust his article, then are you really serving a just cause to allow yourself to be instrument of further defamation?

By reading through your files on TM, one gets the impression that your organization is not neutral, fair-minded or inclined to value scientific research and objectivity, but is predisposed to accept negativity and rancorous attacks against TM just for the sake of providing more so-called “leaked material,” regardless or whether or not the “leaker’s” context and explanations are justified.

Wiley, USA”

Odd though it was that the publication of Goldstein’s letter should provoke a defensive reaction from those who claim to feel his criticisms of my article were justified, it was another comment that infuriated me and demanded my correction:

[…] I think this is a complete non-issue. There was a basis for the claim (erroneous defamatory information being posted in the article). That was then corrected and the article was reposted with the correction and no further complaint. Totally legit (as would also be the case if it happened to wikileaks or anyone else – removing false statements)

This statement was posted anonymously.  Of course, I had not “corrected” the article before I had reposted it.  The claim that I had done so, supposedly conceding to have posted erroneous and defamatory information made me feel… defamed as a researcher and freelance writer.

I replied under the subject heading of “Maharishi Spin”:

Amid what appears to be an attempt by TM to re-spin this story, I want to make it abundantly clear that I did not, in any way revise the article on Examiner.com – except to add a brief introduction mentioning Goldstein’s letter, and an addendum replying to that letter – before reposting the article on that site. The claim that the article was “corrected” before being re-posted is a flat lie, and I would challenge anybody saying otherwise not to do so anonymously, and cite what exact corrections are imagined to have been made. In reality, what seems to have happened is, Goldstein attempted to intimidate both me and the editors at Examiner.com with the threat of legal action on the baseless claim of defamation in hopes that we would fold and remove the article. That did not work, the article remains as is, and Goldstein’s failure to sue me since is perhaps a tacit confession that there is, in fact, no case for defamation to be made.Douglas Mesner 20:41, 15 December 2009 (GMT)

And that’s where we stand… for now….


Black Friday

Originally published November 10, 2011

Art by Anthony Angarola for “The Kingdom of Evil” by Ben Hecht (1924)

Beginning with the “Black Friday” sales panic annually observed, the Holiday Season in the American tradition is generally recognized to run from the day after Thanksgiving till the anticlimactic sales moratorium of December 25th. Black Friday is the gunshot start of a month-long consumerist frenzy marked by broken bones, scattered bodies, and impoverishing excess. Christmas itself has become really nothing more than a cease-fire. The “true spirit” of the Holidays has long been best reflected in Black Friday. This is the day in which celebrants are free to abandon any individual sense of decency and responsibility to become a part of the larger shopping mob. Year by year the brutality grows more severe, earlier and earlier consumers mindlessly congeal into riotous hordes outside major retail outlets during the predawn hours preparing their disorganized assaults with savage mania.

Injuries are to be expected and deaths are not out of the question.

It is widely believed that “Black Friday” earned its name to signify the day of the year in which many retail businesses find their revenue shifting to profit, from ‘in the red’ to ‘in the black’. In fact, it appears the term originated from the Philadelphia Police in response to the dark day’s traffic congestion and overall war-zone ambiance.

In an attempt to counter the sinking debasement, activists have attempted to re-fashion the day after Thanksgiving as an annual “Buy Nothing Day”, a time to reflect upon what we truly value removed from “the consumer treadmill”. This message has proven altogether too radical for network television stations who denied air-time to an Adbusters Buy Nothing Day campaign. CBS saw in it nothing short of treason, stating, “This commercial is in opposition to the current economic policy of the United States.” In 2000, the Guardian reported, “Only CNN agreed to run the commercial after being told that a refusal would lead to an embarrassing story in the Wall Street Journal. This year the network agreed to run the ad […] only to have an apparent change of heart.”

To recap some publicised recent Black Friday highlights:

Tragedy occurred in 2008 at a Wal-Mart in Long Island when marching morons rolled over a part-time employee — a certainly unwilling participant in the day’s stupidity — who had the bad luck of being tasked with the unlocking the store doors at 5am. Disgustingly, the crowd reportedly objected to clearing the premises in response to the man’s death.

The event resulted in a $7000 dollar federal fine gently rested upon the wrist of the multi-billion dollar company for “inadequate crowd management”. The minor fine was an outrage to Wal-Mart who fought the charge.

That same year, two men killed each other in a Toys R Us shoot-out, a jostled pregnant shopper miscarried, and combating consumers in Racine, WI fell upon each other struggling to secure flatscreen televisions, smashing each other and many of the TVs in the process.

One would have hoped that in 2006 there would have been a prison sentence given to whoever had the maliciously moronic idea of dropping 500 gift certificate filled balloons from the ceiling at the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrence, CA, where the ensuing melee injured 10 and sent one old woman to the hospital.

In 2009, a typical group of mindless beasts in their natural habitat — Wal-Mart — began tearing into shrink wrapped items in a warring frenzy. The store was temporarily closed in an attempt to restore order. This brought the mob to a riot. They began beating on doors and windows from the outside while others tried to force their way in from the gardening area.

Last year, CNN reported on the trampling of a man in Buffalo, NY. There was nothing unusual about the event, in fact the predictability of the occurrence brought the news cameras to the store in advance. The foot-pummeled fool “told WIVB that he was pinned against a metal door support and was shoved to the ground. Shoppers went over him until staff pulled him to safety. ‘At that moment I was thinking I don’t want to die here on the ground,’ he said.”

As part of the herd himself, one may well doubt that this man would have felt equal sympathy for somebody else, some hapless victim underfoot, had the roles been reversed.

And these reports are but a few culled from the archives. Disgracefully typical is the “holiday spirit” that finds housewives and businessmen alike making kamikaze death runs toward open parking spaces, clawing through one another to reach marked-down merchandise.

The beginning of the Christmas season has come to mean a relinquishing of all pretenses of human dignity in the name of the better deal. It is a time in which my most misanthropic prejudices seem most justified, and I can’t help but build a loathsome composite of the typical Black Friday shopper: a self-entitled slob unmoved, and even outraged, by political protest, but fully willing to “occupy” a parking lot overnight to join a feral predawn riot.

Such is the shame of these mobs that each individual who participates prefers to imagine him or herself somehow removed from the wild inhumanity of it. The only true dignity is in non-participation. All politics aside, self-respect and basic decorum should by now dictate the imperative of recognizing Black Friday as a day in which we buy nothing.

Alas, appeals to reason, propriety, even compunction are no match for the Christmas Spirit. Resigned to the inevitable brutality of the ritual stampedes that will take place the morning after Thanksgiving, I find myself hoping that at least the right people will get hurt. Considering the well-established modern history of Black Friday mob malice, and the fact that no participant can claim unwitting contribution… I must conclude all participants are guilty. There is no point in trying to discriminate by age, gender, or presumed level of need…

They all deserve to get hurt.