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The Launch of Scientific Research on Enlightenment
by David Orme-Johnson, Ph.D.

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10 July 2017

This is the continuation of an article, ''A Scientist's Quest for Enlightenment,'' in which renowned researcher David Orme-Johnson, Ph.D., shares his personal journey toward uncovering the science of higher states of consciousness. After earning his doctorate in psychology and learning Transcendental Meditation, in the early 1970s Dr. Orme-Johnson became interested in the emerging field of scientific research on physiological correlates of reduced stress, increased happiness, and other benefits resulting from TM practice. Realizing that the descriptions of higher states of consciousness given by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation programme, were ''research hypotheses that could be tested in the laboratory,'' Dr Orme-Johnson soon became one of the foremost contributors in a new, groundbreaking field of scientific research. Click here to read Part 1 of the article.

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The Launch of Scientific Research on Enlightenment—Physiological Markers of Transcendental Consciousness

Dr. Orme-Johnson explains his research on TM and autonomic stability
to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Fiuggi Fonte, Italy in June 1972,
with (left to right) Peggy and Vincent Snell and Dr. R. Keith Wallace.

Maharishi used the word ''habituation'' to describe how Cosmic Consciousness develops. He said that repeated experience of Transcendental Consciousness (TC) ''habituates'' the nervous system to maintain TC more and more in activity, outside of meditation.

Habituation was a term that I, as a scientist, could relate to. In the laboratory of my own experience, I was feeling that the blissful effects of meditation were indeed lasting into activity. Maybe the mind could not be directly measured in the laboratory as psychology had found, but perhaps physiological changes associated with transcending and Transcendental Consciousness could be. But what were the effects of TC?

The answer came on March 27, 1970, two weeks after I learned TM, in the historic publication in Science, the flagship journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of Robert Keith Wallace's paper 'Physiological effects of Transcendental Meditation.'(4) This research was based on Dr. Wallace's doctoral dissertation at UCLA, in which he showed that Transcendental Consciousness has a unique physiological pattern that distinguishes it from waking, dreaming, and sleeping. It was a fourth major state of consciousness, just as the ancient Vedic literature had said.

Dr. Wallace found TC to be a state of restful alertness, combining characteristics of sleep and waking states. It was similar to sleep in that breathing and heart rate slowed down, metabolic rate and plasma lactate decreased, and skin resistance increased, but these changes occurred much more quickly during TM than sleep. Even more importantly, the brain waves indicated a state of inner awareness, not sleep, specifically, frontal dominant 9 Hz alpha1 EEG increased. This was the first time such a state had been scientifically described.

In one stroke, the 500-year-old world of Western science had begun to catch up with the thousands-of-years-old wisdom of Vedic India. Dr. Wallace quickly nailed the point home by publishing papers in two more of the world's top scientific journals, the American Journal of Physiology(5) and Scientific American.(6) Scientists had already worked out the physiology of waking, dreaming, and sleeping, and now here comes a fourth state of Transcendental Consciousness to be added.

Science was now expanding to embrace enlightenment into its fold. Maharishi's descriptions of higher states of consciousness were research hypotheses that could be tested in the laboratory. Moreover, as Dr. Wallace pointed out, because TM was taught in the same systematic and effective way worldwide, subjects were available everywhere. Dr. Wallace's lead was being followed around the world with research springing up in 33 countries. We were off and running in a global scientific exploration of enlightenment!

The First Scientific Hints of Cosmic Consciousness: Autonomic Stability

At the time, I was teaching experimental psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso, and some of my students were TM meditators. I found an old lie detector machine in the department storeroom, fixed it up, and did a class demonstration on habituation of stress to loud tones. I was studying the startle response and measuring the skin resistance response (SSR). The meditators startled alright, but not untilĀ I blasted them with a 100 db 1,000 Hz tone—as my wife Rhoda can attest.

But with repeated presentations of the tone, the TM meditators soon stopped responding, whereas the non-meditators in the class tended to keep on showing stress responses over and over again. We were seeing more rapid habituation of the stress response among people who practice TM. This was the first evidence that meditation of any kind could change the way a person responds to stress.

Then I found something else as well. If you increase the sensitivity of the measuring apparatus, there are spontaneous skin resistance responses (SSRs), which occur independently of ambient noise or movements by the subject. I began to read everything I could find on the subject and discovered that the frequency of spontaneous SSR is one way of defining the stress level of an individual. Studies showed that when a person is angry or fearful, or when levels of the stress hormones adrenaline or noradrenaline increase, the frequency of SSRs rises. Moreover, some individuals consistently show lower frequencies of SSRs than others. We all know people like that—calm, collected, happy.

The implications were huge! Studies show that people with fewer SSRs are better able to withstand stresses of various kinds, such as g-force acceleration in a human centrifuge in a U.S. Air Force study. They also score higher on Barron's Ego Strength scale, a psychological test that measures the general ability to cope with environmental pressures. Other research showed that they are less impulsive on motor tasks and more field independent, a measure of the ability to quickly find a target stimulus camouflaged in a complex background.

Other studies correlated people with greater autonomic stability, defined in terms of the frequency of SSRs, with being more self-organizing and clear-thinking, as well as with being leaders, not followers. They were also found to be less prone to aversive conditioning—that is, they could not be pushed and pulled around as much by threats. This corresponded to my experience that I no longer felt compelled to clean my plate when I felt full. This was a small experience, but it was just the tip of the iceberg of a total transformation that was going on.

Rapid recovery from stressors and fewer SSRs were just two different ways of measuring the stability of a system. It made sense. The amount of stress people carry around with them interacts with how they respond to the environment. If we are feeling harried and our computer breaks, we are much more likely to throw a tantrum than if we are well rested and calm when it happens.

I expanded my classroom demonstration to a full study and published it in 1973 in Psychosomatic Medicine, the oldest and most prestigious journal on mind-body medicine.(7)

I now saw in autonomic stability that my personal experiences, the traditional knowledge of enlightenment (such as equanimity in pleasure and pain), and the scientific research (becoming more independent from one's conditioning history), all began to converge on something that was measureable in the laboratory: autonomic stability. Autonomic stability was a way to measure reduction of stress in a person and the growth of the stability aspect of Cosmic Consciousness—Nirvana. It was also a way to track the progress towards ''he whom these contacts do not disturb,'' as the Bhagavad Gita puts it.(2)

The Science of Enlightenment Begins

One day I had all my reprints spread out on a big conference table and my office mate, a graduate student in literature, asked me what I was doing. I explained and then boldly told him ''this is the beginning of the end to psychosomatic disease.'' His eyes widened, and he was impressed.

Two years later, while on my TM Teacher Training Course in Fuiggi Fonte, Italy, I had an opportunity to present this research to Maharishi along with Dr. Wallace, who by that time had become my good friend Keith. Maharishi was very impressed that autonomic stability was correlated with so many benefits. He commented that I had grabbed the eagle of enlightenment by the toe; if you've got it by the toe and pull it, the whole thing comes along with it.

By that time several young Ph.D. scientists had gathered around Maharishi. Collectively we would go on to establish two universities: Maharishi International University (now Maharishi University of Management) and Maharishi European Research University, both dedicated to the experiential, theoretical, and empirical study of enlightenment.

In the next part this story, I will take you on a whirlwind tour, from my bird's-eye-view as director of the research,* through the next 45 years and over 600 studies. I'll highlight our key findings, the scientists who made the discoveries, and our interactions with Maharishi—who informed the research, ever expanded our minds, and kept us laughing, as the science of enlightenment unfolded at a rapid pace.

I didn't have to become a rock star after all.

* I served as Director of Research of the International Center for Scientific Research, and Vice Chancellor of Maharishi European Research University; and at Maharishi University of Management, I was Head of the Psychology Department, Director of the Doctoral Program in Psychology, Co-Director of the Ph.D. program in the Physiology of Human Consciousness, and Dean of Research.

SOURCE: Enjoy TM News


1. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Science of Being and the Art of Living. New York: New American Library Inc.; 1963.
2. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. On The Bhagavad-Gita: A New Translation and Commentary: Chapters 1-6. Baltimore: Penguin Books Inc.; 1969.
3. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Transcendental Meditation with Questions and Answers. Vlodrop, The Netherlands: Maharishi Foundation International, Maharishi Vedic University; 1967/2013.
4. Wallace RK. Physiological effects of Transcendental Meditation. Science. 1970;167:1751-4.
5. Wallace RK, Benson H, Wilson AF. A wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state. American Journal of Physiology. 1971;221:795-9.
6. Wallace RK. The Physiology of Meditation. Scientific American. 1972;226:84-90.
7. Orme-Johnson DW. Autonomic stability and Transcendental Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine. 1973;35:341-9.

Copyright © 2017 Maharishi Foundation USA

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