It is now widely accepted that practising meditation can change the physical structure of the brain. Even if you are not familiar with the nuances of neuroscience, this phenomenon is fairly easy to grasp.
When you enter the meditative state, your brain switches to a specific mode of operating. This mode is different from the one guiding the typical reactivity of daily life. If you put your brain in the meditative state on a regular basis, this ignites particular neural connections — and those connections get strengthened over time.
As a result, your brain changes its physical structure.
This is the basics of how neuroplasticity works. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change over the course of its entire lifetime. When you become intentional about how you want to shape your brain, you engage in self-directed neuroplasticity.
It is fairly easy to accept that we can intentionally shape our own experience through the above-described mechanics. But there are also studies suggesting that when individuals engage in group meditation, they do not only affect themselves.
They can influence whole societies.
The Maharishi Effect shows that a bunch of Transcendental Meditation practitioners meditating together can improve well-being and decrease crime rates in whole countries and nations.
The invitation to the new paradigm
“The many replications of the Maharishi Effect on the city, state, national, and global scales in several different cultures, using a variety of major social indicators, controlling for many demographic variables, and utilizing conservative time series and causal analyses, provide more extensive evidence than has ever before been available in the social sciences that we now have in hand a truly effective means of achieving world peace.” — David Orme-Johnson
This may of course sound crazy to you — especially if you are particularly attached to the paradigm in which matter creates consciousness, but not the other way around. I mean, we are all attached to this paradigm. But some of us may find it more difficult to consider the idea that consciousness can directly impact what happens in the physical world.
The Maharishi Effect-related research suggests that it can, indeed. And, bear with me, it does look like valid research, rather than pseudoscience. It is too easy to classify as pseudoscience something that doesn’t fit the current paradigm. But while remaining critical, we also need to remember that paradigms are subject to change — just like any other human way of describing the world.
We are already aware that the current scientific paradigm has its flaws. So if we are not open to improving upon this paradigm, we cannot move forward.
The Maharishi Effect refers to the phenomenon that when a square root of 1% of a population practices Transcendental Meditation together, this causes an observable decrease in this population’s crime rates and increase in overall life quality. The hypothesis that this is so was first put forward by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1960. Since that time, 40+ independent studies have been carried out and consistently showed that this indeed seems to be the case.
To make the numbers more concrete, it means that a group of just 1,813 meditators could positively influence the whole population of the U.S.
1,813 x 1,813 x 100 = 329 million, which is roughly the population of the country.
One of the most recent of the mentioned 40+ studies has found it to be the case. During an intervention period in the years 2007–2010, the homicide and violent crime rates in 206 American cities were dropped significantly. In their paper, Societal Violence and Collective Consciousness: Reduction of U.S. Homicide and Urban Violent Crime Rates, Michael C. Dillbeck and Kenneth L. Cavanaugh postulate that this was likely the result of a sustained effort of the largest TM-Sidhi meditation group in the country.
Interestingly, there were several factors during that period that normally are considered to heighten, rather than lower, crime rates in society. The economic crisis, increased unemployment and decreased incarceration were all such factors present in the years 2007–2010 in American society.
In May 2011, Richard A. Oppel wrote in The New York Times:
“The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years, a development that was considered puzzling partly because it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession.”
Isn’t it all baffling? A group of meditators improving the whole country’s safety by doing something with their minds? Could it be nothing but a coincidence?
It could be. However, the above-mentioned experiment was one of many that seem to be showing a very similar correlation between group Transcendental Meditation and a decrease in crime and societal violence.
Additionally, there are numerous voices from well-established, world-class academics that validate much of the Maharishi Effect research as statistically and methodologically sound.
The surprising amount of expert validation
Huw Dixon from the York University in the UK, described as “one of Europe’s leading young economists,” openly expresses his appreciation of the research on Maharishi Effect. He sees the consistent findings as an important signpost for solving many of our societal problems:
“I have been following the research on the Maharishi Effect as it has developed over the last twenty years. There is now a strong and coherent body of evidence showing that [this approach] provides a simple and cost-effective solution to many of the social problems we face today. This research and its conclusions are so strong that it demands action from those responsible for government policy.”
As he mentions, the studies on the Maharishi Effect have been underway for a few decades already. The first one was published in 1981 and involved monitoring 24 US cities in which at least 1% of the population have learned Transcendental Meditation. Each city was paired up with an analogical, control city with no meditators.
(Note that this was before devising the intensive TM-Sidhi program, which allowed for a mere square root of 1% to influence the whole population. That’s why I am talking about 1% here.)
This was the first experiment that bore out the theory that a relatively small group of TM practitioners can influence a wider society with their meditation. Although the study is not accessible online, Hari Sharma and Christopher S. Clark sum it up in their book:
“Compared to the crime rate in the control cities, crime rates in the “one percept” cities fell significantly after the one perfect threshold had been reached, and stayed lower for the five subsequent years studied. The changes could not be explained by changes in other demographic factors that might be related to crime, such as percentage of families below the poverty level, percentage of people in the age ranges of 15 to 29 years, population density, median years of education, population turnover, unemployment rate and per capita income. “
After that initial research study of Maharishi Effect, many more followed. To date, “nine peer-reviewed articles, comprising 14 studies, have now been published that support this hypothesized effect.” And various independent experts point to the sound and complete methodology used to comprise the studies.
Raymond Russ, who is the Professor of Psychology at the University of Maine and former editor of the Journal of Mind and Behaviour, says:
“The hypothesis definitely raised some eyebrows among our reviewers. But the statistical work is sound. The numbers are there. When you can statistically control for as many variables as these studies do, it makes the results much more convincing. This evidence indicates that we now have a new technology to generate peace in the world.”
Of course, there are also many critics who point out the methodological flaws of the Maharishi Effect research. And I am in no position to judge who’s “right” and who’s “wrong” here. But in my opinion, if phenomena like the above-described were really observed, then we shouldn’t dismiss them only because they don’t fit the paradigm we are used to. I say that they should be criticized, tested and investigated further.
I think that the Maharishi Effect is only one of many phenomena that are forcing us to question whether our current way of understanding the relationship between mind and matter is accurate. We are used to thinking that consciousness derives from the physical world — and hence, it is secondary to it.
But I can’t help to keep asking myself the question:
Could it be that consciousness comes before matter?
Consciousness as a field
“The American philosopher William James said that on the surface we seem as separate from each other as islands in the sea, but, like islands, we are connected at the ocean floor — which he called, in our case, “a continuum of cosmic consciousness.” — Hari Sharma & Christopher S. Clark, Ayurvedic Healing
The ideas of consciousness such as the above were, until recently, regarded as new-age-y, trippy or, at best, purely religious, rather than scientific. But, from what I understand about the current state of science, they are now entering the discussion as real possibilities.
We know so little about the nature of consciousness that we have no strong premises to reject alternative ways of thinking about it. Additionally, experiments like those cited in the Maharishi Effect studies describe phenomena that demand us to at least stay open to new news of explaining things.
One of these “new ways” has it that the collective consciousness has the nature of a field.
The idea of collective consciousness is not a new one. The term was first used by Emile Durkheim in 1893 and since then, it has been widely used across social sciences. The Wikipedia defines collective consciousness as “the set of shared beliefs, ideas, and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society.”
While this suggests that collective consciousness is a real force influencing society, it is not the same as “field theory” of consciousness. The traditional Durkheim’s approach understands the collective consciousness as the aspects of individual consciousness that repeat in many individuals across specific social groups.
From this angle, the collective consciousness emerges as a mere sum of individual parts. It is built on the notion that human beings are separate from one another.
Conversely, in the “field theory,” consciousness is seen as a continuum that each person is “plugged into” — rather than a collection of independent elements. This is the view illustrated by the “island metaphor” in the quote you read a few paragraphs above. The illusion of each island being a separate entity is very strong, as long as you stay on the surface. However, it is enough to go deep enough in the ocean and see that, from the perspective of the seabed, all the islands are connected to one another.
The Maharishi Effect fits this idea really well. If our collective consciousness is the seabed, each person who seems to be an independent island must actually be connected to the same root. This makes it easier to explain how a group of people who coherently focus their minds in meditation can affect the whole seabed.
Then, the effect of altering the shared seabed can easily be imagined to manifest on other islands — for example, causing criminals and abusers to cease violent actions.
The field theory postulates that consciousness is something that exists prior to matter. Hence, the physical world can be directly impacted by altering the state of collective consciousness. Is this indeed how reality functions on the deepest level?
Is consciousness, by its nature, individual or all-encompassing? Does it precede the world of matter? Do we create it — or does it create us?
My head feels dizzy, as I obviously don’t have any good answers to such questions. And exactly because of that, I think that these are the questions worth not just asking — but also, worth treating seriously.