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Om Sweet Om: Can Transcendental Meditation be addictive?

Back in 1991, not long after I had been awarded my PhD, I was asked (by my then girlfriend) to attend on a course in Transcendental Meditation (TM). Up until that point, my only knowledge of TM was through my reading of many books about the Beatles and their association with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi back in 1967-1968. Although somewhat skeptical of TM I attended the weekly sessions for the whole course and was eventually inducted into the world of TM by a lovely guy called Mike Turnbull.

We didn’t have Google back then, but as a psychologist, I carried out a literature search and found that Turnbull had actually published papers on TM including a study in a 1982 issue of the British Journal of Psychology with Hugh Norris (entitled “Effects of Transcendental Meditation on self-identity indices and personality”). The results of Turnbull and Norris’ study showed that participants practicing TM appeared to have experienced consistent and definable changes of a beneficial nature, and that the value of TM as a therapeutic tool was recommended. For the next couple of years I did TM daily but by the mid-1990s TM had dropped out of my daily routine and now I only very occasionally do it.

Also in 1990, I became a psychology lecturer at the University of Plymouth, and was given my own specialist research-based module to teach on ‘Addictive Behaviours’ (which I still teach to this very day). It was during my teaching preparation for that module that I first encountered TM in an academic capacity in the context of ‘positive addictions’ (an area that I looked at in one of my early blogs).

It was in Bill Glasser’s 1976 book Positive Addictions that I first encountered the argument that activities such as TM and jogging could be considered positive addictions. It was also argued by Glasser that activities like TM was the kind of activity that could be deliberately cultivated to wean addicts away from more harmful and sinister preoccupations. According to Glasser, positive addictions must be rewarding activities (like TM) that produce increased feelings of self-efficacy.

As I wrote in my previous blog on positive addictions, one of my mentors, psychologist Iain Brown (now retired from Glasgow University) suggested it might be better to call some activities “mixed blessing addictions”, since even positive addictions such as exercise addiction (suggested by Glasser) might have some negative consequences. I have published a fair amount on exercise addiction since 1997 and I am of the opinion that some excessive exercise is genuinely addictive. However, I have never researched into excessive TM and as far as I am aware, there is no empirical evidence that it is addictive.

Anecdotally, I have been told that some TM practitioners (particularly those that teach it) appear to be “addicted” to TM. As a consequence, I decided to do a little digging to see if I could unearth anything on the relationship between TM and addiction. This led me to a 2010 article by Michael Sigman in the Huffington Post entitled Meditation and Addiction: A Two-Way Street?” Sigman recounted the story about how one of his friends spent over two hours every day engaging in TM while in the lotus position. He then claimed:

“There are those few for whom meditation can become compulsive, even addictive. The irony here is that an increasing body of research shows that meditation – in particular Buddhist Vipassana meditation – is an effective tool in treating addiction. One category of meditation addiction is related to the so-called ‘spiritual bypass’. Those who experience bliss when they meditate may practice relentlessly to recreate that experience, at the expense of authentic self-awareness. A close friend who’s done Transcendental Meditation for decades feels so addicted to it, she has a hard time functioning when she hasn’t ‘transcended’”.

Obviously this is purely anecdotal but at least raises the issue that maybe for a very small minority, TM might be what psychologist Iain Brown calls a “mixed blessing addiction”. An article was published on the ‘TM-Free Blog’ entitled Addiction and transcendental Meditation” that (for purposes of balance and fairness) publishes “skeptical views of transcendental meditation and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi”. The article pulled no punches and opened with the claim:

“TM has addictive qualities. Acknowledging the addictive characteristics of TM and other practices, Carol Giambalvo and other cult experts founded ReFOCUS.org to help former cult members break their addiction to trance states… Some devout TMers on the monastic Purusha or Mother Divine programs behave as if in an autistic state. These participants meditate for many hours daily, sometimes for years”.

They also claim that because empirical studies have shown that TM can increase pain tolerance, that the body is producing its own morphine-like substances (i.e., endorphins). Therefore, the addictive qualities of TM may be due to increased endorphin production that creates a semi-dissociative blissful state. For those substance addicts that have been successfully treated using TM, it would be a case of ‘one addiction replacing another’ (which was basically Bill Glasser’s argument in his book Positive Addiction). The article also claimed that endorphin-induced trance states explain why individuals who attend long meditation courses have higher levels of receptivity.

In researching this blog, I did come across some self-reported accounts of people who thought that they might be genuinely addicted to TM. For instance:

“I sometimes worry about being addicted to meditation. I have a compulsive personality and usually think of meditation as a good addiction that not only improves life [and] replaces all other addictions (it was only after beginning to meditate that smoking and drinking dropped away for me). The fact remains, however, that there is an element of compulsive (and therefore possibly unconscious or unexamined) behaviour that motivates the desire to follow a strict twice-a-day-routine. Every so often I skip a session or, less frequently, a whole day. I have been surprised recently how quickly I seem to experience withdrawal symptoms. I just feel off as the day goes on. After meditating it is like all my settings have been returned to normal and I feel great again. Then I think: isn’t that, in essence, just the what the alcoholic or drug addict experiences? I have no plans to stop meditating but I wonder if there is an element that is beyond my control?”

An article in the Canadian newspaper, the Edmonton Sun reported that TM can be addictive based on an interview with former “TM guru” Joe Kellett (who now runs an anti-TM website). Kellett said there was “a compendium of 75 studies of TM technique in 2000 [which] found that 63% of practitioners suffered long-term negative mental health consequences from the repeated dissociation – or disconnection – with reality caused by going into a trance-like state”. I haven’t located the study Kellett referred to although many TM websites claim that there have been over 600 empirical studies highlighting the positive benefits of TM, particularly in relation to various healthcare outcomes. Kellett went on to claim in his interview that:

“Dissociative ‘bliss’ is often an easily produced substitute for true personal growth. As teachers we memorize almost everything we are to tell students. We were very careful not to tell them too much less they become ‘confused’ by things that they ‘couldn’t yet understand. Only after they had the ‘experience,’ could we start very gradually revealing TM dogma in easy, bite-sized chunks, always after they had just finished meditation and were therefore likely to be still in a dissociative state”

Obviously, it is difficult to answer the question of whether TM is genuinely addictive given the complete lack of empirical evidence. However, from both a psychological and biological perspective, I think that such a concept is theoretically feasible but we need to carry out the empirical research

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Allegre, B., Souville, M., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Definitions and measures of exercise dependence, Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 631-646.

Berczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M.D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance Use and Misuse, 47, 403-417.

Edmonton Sun (2006). Dissociative bliss becomes addictive. April 17. Located at: http://www.religionnewsblog.com/14345/dissociative-bliss-becomes-addictive

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions, Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Exercise addiction: A case study. Addiction Research,  5, 161-168.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Behavioural addiction: The case for a biopsychosocial approach. Trangressive Culture, 1, 7-28.

Sigman, M. (2010). Meditation and Addiction: A Two-Way Street? Huffington Post, November 15. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-sigman/meditation-and-addiction_b_783552.htm

TM-Free Blog (2007). Addiction and transcendental Meditation, February 23. Located at: http://tmfree.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/addiction-and-transcendental-meditation.html

Turnbull, M.J. & Norris, H. (1982). Effects of Transcendental Meditation on self-identity indices and personality, British Journal of Psychology, 73, 57-68.

Altered states: The psychology of distraction in gambling

I’m sure that most of you are aware that nearly all casinos around the world do not have clocks or windows. Casino operators don’t want their customers to think about time or give them external cues such as whether it’s night or day. By doing this, a gambler’s temporal perception is altered and gamblers may lose track of time and reality (and hopefully spend more money!). Although this may not be good from a financial perspective, from a psychological perspective, losing track of time and reality may not necessarily be such a bad thing.

Psychologists believe that gambling is an excellent  ‘distractor task’. What we mean is that playing slot machines, roulette or poker, has the capacity to engage much of a gambler’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity that is needed. Continuous gambling also allows the possibility to sustain achievement because of the level of difficulty and skills involved in most games. In short, they provide a challenge that uses a lot of mental energy.

One positive benefit of gambling may be a temporarily higher pain threshold. Research studies have shown that cognitive and attentional distraction has the capacity to block the perception of pain. The reasoning behind this is that distractor tasks (such as gambling and videogame playing) consume some degree of the attentional capacity that would otherwise be devoted to pain perception. Although gambling has never been tested in this way experimentally, research into videogame playing and pain perception has shown that those who play videogames after treatment for things like chemotherapy need significantly less painkillers than those who don’t play videogames. However, one of the problems with this type of “snapshot” research is that there has been no long-term follow-up and it is unclear whether players eventually tire of such games. Therefore other factors need to be explored such as novelty of the activity, game preference, and relative level of challenge.

There has also been an increasing amount of research showing that gamblers who play for long periods of time can enter “dissociative states” of mind. Dissociation is a form of altered state of consciousness. These behaviours lie on a continuum and range from losing track of time, feeling like your someone else, blacking out, not recalling how you got somewhere or what you did, and being in a trance like state. In its most extreme form it can include multi-personality disorders.

Dissociation also needs to be differentiated from distraction although it could be the case that they are at opposite ends of the same continuum. For example, a person may use gambling as a distracting activity but over time may progress into a dissociative one. Distraction usually involves a person’s attention being pulled somewhere other than where he or she wants it to go although some people may deliberately engage in some activities (like drinking alcohol, gambling, smoking etc.) as a way of shifting their thoughts away from something they do not want to think about. Distraction can be born out of boredom, lack of interest, melancholy and creativity. More generally it can be viewed as a low-level state of avoidance. It may also be a symptom of depressive or mood disorders and high levels of stress. On the whole, losing track of time because of distraction is normal when you are having fun. Blacking or going into a dissociative trance like state is not!

There is also the possibility that the medium of gambling influences distraction capacity. For instance, some of my own research has suggested that the Internet may provide immersive and dissociative feelings for its users and may facilitate feelings of escape. I also believe that the anonymity of the Internet allows users to privately engage in activities like gambling without the fear of stigma. The anonymity may also provide the gambler with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of the online experience.

Anonymity can also increase feelings of psychological comfort since there is a decreased ability to look for, and thus detect, signs of insincerity, disapproval, or judgement in facial expression, as would be typical in face-to-face interactions. For activities such as gambling, this may be a positive benefit particularly when losing as no-one can actually see your face. However, one of the consequences of technology and the Internet has been to reduce the fundamentally social nature of gambling to an activity that in many cases is asocial. Most problem gamblers report that at the height of their problem gambling, it is a solitary activity. Gambling in a social setting has the potential to provide a kind of “safety net” for over-spenders as friends will often notice excessive and  ‘out of character’ behaviour. This is lost when gambling alone on the Internet.

The interactivity of the Internet may also be psychologically rewarding and different from other more passive forms of entertainment (such as television). Psychological research has consistently shown the increased personal involvement on a gambling activity can increase the illusion of control that in turn may facilitate increased gambling. The interactive nature of the Internet may therefore provide a convenient way of increasing such personal involvement.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005).  The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies. pp. 161-171. Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling psychology: Motivation, emotion and control, Casino and Gaming International, (3)4 (November), 71-76.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Casino design: Understanding gaming floor influences on player behaviour. Casino and Gaming International, 5(1), 21-26.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction on the Internet. In K. Young & C. Nabuco de Abreu (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook for Evaluation and Treatment. pp. 91-111. New York: Wiley.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed.), Gambling: Who wins? Who Loses? pp. 277-292. New York: Prometheus Books.

Griffiths, M.D., Wood, R.T.A., Parke, J. & Parke, A. (2006). Dissociative states in problem gambling. In C. Allcock (Ed.). Current Issues Related To Dissociation. pp.27-37. Melbourne: Australian Gaming Council.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Beyond illusion of control: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of gambling in the context of information technology. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 250-260.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, A. (2007). Experiences of time loss among videogame players: An empirical study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 45-56.