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Group therapy: The psychology of the Beatles

Although I love many musical groups and singers, the Beatles have always been (and always will be) my all-time favourite band. Being an obsessive fan of the group is not cheap because there is almost a never-ending supply of products that can be bought including records, CDs, DVDs, books, and other merchandise such as mugs, t-shirts, coasters, and games. I’m a sucker for it all and as a record collecting completist, I have to have every single track they have ever recorded on both official releases and bootlegs (my latest acquisition being the 6-disc collector’s edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). It’s both fun and expensive (but thankfully I have few vices) and the Beatles are one of the few artists that I have spent thousands and thousands of pounds indulging my passion for their music (others include David Bowie, Adam Ant, The Smiths [and Morrissey], Gary Numan, Velvet Underground [and Lou Reed and John Cale], John Foxx [and Ultravox], Art of Noise [and other ZTT bands], and Iggy Pop [and The Stooges]).

Sgtpeppergatefold

One of the reasons I chose to study psychology at university was because John Lennon underwent primal therapy (a trauma-based psychotherapy) in 1970 with its’ developer (US psychotherapist Dr. Arthur Janov). I read Janov’s first book (The Primal Scream) in 1983 just because of my love of Lennon’s work, and psychology sounded far more interesting than the ‘A’ levels I was doing at the time (maths, physics, chemistry and biology). As the Wikipedia entry on primal therapy notes:

The musician John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, went through primal therapy in 1970. A copy of the just-released The Primal Scream arrived in the mail at Lennon’s home, Tittenhurst Park (sources differ about who sent the book). Lennon was impressed, and he requested primal therapy to be started at Tittenhurst. Arthur Janov and his first wife, Vivian Janov, went to Tittenhurst in March 1970 to start the therapy, which continued in April in Los Angeles. Arthur Janov went to Tittenhurst after giving instructions in advance about the isolation period and giving instructions to Lennon to be separated from Ono. Lennon and Ono had three weeks of intensive treatment in England before Janov returned to Los Angeles, where they had four months of therapy. According to some sources, Lennon ended primal therapy after four months…Lennon commented after therapy, ‘I still think that Janov’s therapy is great, you know, but I do not want to make it a big Maharishi thing’ and ‘I just know myself better, that’s all. I can handle myself better. That Janov thing, the primal scream and so on, it does affect you, because you recognize yourself in there…It was very good for me. I am still ‘primal’ and it still works.’ and ‘I no longer have any need for drugs, the Maharishi or the Beatles. I am myself and I know why’”.

Lennon didn’t undergo primal therapy until just after the Beatles had split up and it was his 1970 solo LP (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) that included many songs that were rotted in his primal therapy experiences including ‘Mother’, ‘My Mummy’s Dead’, ‘God’, ‘Working Class Hero’, ‘Remember’, and ‘Well Well Well’. Many describe this LP as Lennon at his most raw and the album is all the better for it.

At university, one of my favourite topics was Gestalt psychology and its basic tenet that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’ to me encapsulates The Beatles as a whole. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were all brilliant in their own musical sphere but little of their best solo work – with the odd exception – was ever as good as the best of their work with the Beatles. For whatever reason, the Beatles working as a foursome – even when the songs had been written individually – produced music as a group that was better than music on their solo LPs. The Beatles early solo recordings (1970-71) included songs that had typically been written while they were still in The Beatles. For instance, many of the songs on George Harrison’s brilliant (and best) album, All Things Must Pass, had been practiced and rehearsed during the making of the Beatles’ final LP Let It Be.

In previous blogs I have looked at celebrities’ use of illicit drugs (one on celebrities in general and whether they are more prone to addiction, one on David Bowie, The Beatles and addiction, and a third one looking at the use of psychoactive substance use on the process of creativity). My first awareness of illicit drugs was reading about the Beatles’ use of various substances in many biographies I read during my early adolescence. When it came to drugs, the Beatles appeared to have seen and done it all. In their pre-fame days in early 1960s Hamburg they all lived on a diet of pills, poppers, and stimulants just to get through their hours of playing every single day. Like many hard working musicians they used a combination of ‘uppers’ and ‘downers’ to regulate their day-to-day living. By the mid-1960s they were all smoking marijuana and taking LSD which may or may not have helped the creative juices to flow. By the end of the 1960s, Lennon was hooked on heroin and recorded one of his most infamous hits about its withdrawal symptoms (‘Cold Turkey’).

By the late 1960s, the Beatles (along with many of the big pop stars of the day) were also searching for other mind altering experiences and the ‘meaning of life’ which led them to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (‘Maharishi’ meaning ‘great seer’) and his teachings on transcendental meditation (TM). I myself dabbled in TM during the early 1990s, and over the last few years I have developed a new line of research on mindfulness meditation with my colleagues Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon (see ‘Further reading’). The Beatles (and George Harrison particularly) stimulated me to learn more about Buddhist philosophy. One of the Beatles most innovative songs ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – the final track on the 1966 Revolver album – was written by Lennon after reading The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. However, it was Harrison who was most swayed and his spiritual beliefs rooted in Buddhism stayed with him until his dying day. Although I am not religious in the slightest, the lyrics to some of Harrison’s best songs while he was in The Beatles dealing with Buddhist philosophy are simply beautiful (‘Within You, Without You’ and ‘The Inner Light’ being the best examples; arguably you could add Lennon’s ‘Across The Universe’ to this list).

When I first started listening to The Beatles at the age of around 5 or 6 years of age, it was the music and the melodies that I loved (particularly the 1962-1965 period). By my late teens it was the later songs (1966-1969) and the more sophisticated musical layers that I loved (and still do). Now when I listen to their songs I am most interested in what the songs are trying to say and their philosophical or psychological underpinnings. Any analysis of their songs over time demonstrates that they went from a repertoire dominated by songs about love and relationships (‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’, ‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’, and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, ‘Eight Days A Week’) to a much wider range of topics many of which covered psychological topics such as childhood nostalgia (‘In My Life’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, and ‘Penny Lane’), mind-wandering (‘Fixing A Hole’), domestic violence (‘Getting Better’), jealousy (‘Run For Your Life’, ‘You Can’t Do That’, ‘What Goes On’), casual sex/one-night stands (‘The Night Before’, ‘Day Tripper’), prostitution (‘Polythene Pam’, ‘Maggie Mae’), [alleged] drug use (‘Dr. Robert’, ‘A Day In The Life’, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, ‘What’s The New Mary Jane‘), running away from home (‘She’s Leaving Home’), homelessness (‘Mean Mr. Mustard’), insomnia (‘I’m So Tired’), depression due to relationship troubles (‘I’m Down’, ‘I’m A Loser’, ‘Help’, ‘Baby’s In Black’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘For No-One’), suicide (‘Yer Blues’), murder (‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’), and death (‘She Said She Said’, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’).

There were also those songs that were overtly political (‘Taxman’, ‘Revolution’), self-referential (‘Glass Onion’), and autobiographical (‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, ‘Julia’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Norwegian Wood [This Bird Has Flown]) to songs that were rooted in surrealism (most notably ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, ‘What’s The New Mary Jane‘) and the experimental avant garde (‘Revolution 9’, ‘You Know My Name [Look Up The Number]‘, and – the yet to be released and holy grail for Beatles collectors – ‘Carnival of Light’).

In short, repeated listening to The Beatles’ output brings me continued pleasure. I feel good when I listen to the Beatles. I can listen to The Beatles and create playlists to reflect the mood I’m in. I can simply read the lyrics to their songs and look for meanings that probably weren’t intended by the songwriter. In short, I am constantly rewarded by listening to (and analysing the lyrics of) The Beatles. For me, listening to The Beatles is quite simply “group therapy”!

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

The Beatles (1988). The Beatles Lyrics: The Songs of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr. London: Omnibus Press.

Davies, H. (2009). The Beatles: The Authorised Biography. London: Ebury.

Goldman, A. (1988). The Lives of John Lennon. W. Morrow.

Lewisohn, M. (1990). The Complete Beatles Chronicle. London: Harmony Books.

Janov, A. (1970). The Primal Scream. New York: Dell Books.

Janov A (1977). Towards a new consciousness. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 21, 333–339.

Janov, A. (1980). Prisoners of Pain: Unlocking The Power Of The Mind To End Suffering. New York: Anchor Books.

Norman, P. (2011). Shout! the Beatles in their generation. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sheff, D., & Golson, G. B. (1982). The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. New York: Penguin Group.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M. & Griffiths M.D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161–1180.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Current trends in mindfulness and mental health. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 113-115.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M.D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Does mindfulness work? Reasonably convincing evidence in depression and anxiety. British Medical Journal, 351, h6919 doi: 10.1136/bmj.h6919.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Mindfulness and Buddhist-derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction. New York: Springer.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for the self and psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, in press.

Van Gordon W., Shonin, E., Griffiths M.D. & Singh, N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6, 49-56.

Wenner, J. (2001). Lennon Remembers. Verso.

Wikipedia (2017). Arthur Janov. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Janov

Wikipedia (2017). Primal therapy. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primal_therapy

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.