Wellness Fads, Part III: Deepak Chopra

In this post, we address the wellness concepts popularized by Deepak Chopra, which are based on a mélange of mystical Eastern philosophy with pseudo-scientific interpretations of quantum physics.

Dr. Deepak Chopra is one of the best-known physicians in the U.S.  Chopra was born in October, 1946 in New Delhi, India.  His father was a well-known cardiologist, who also served in the British Indian Army and was a medical advisor to Lord Mountbatten. After earning his medical degree in India, Chopra emigrated to the U.S. in 1970, where he completed a residency in internal medicine before specializing in endocrinology.

Fig. 3.1: Dr. Deepak Chopra

Deepak Chopra taught medicine at Tufts, Boston University and Harvard before becoming Chief of Staff at the New England Memorial Hospital (NEMH) in Stoneham, Massachusetts, and later opening a private practice in endocrinology.

In 1981, on a visit to India, Chopra met Brihaspati Dev Triguna, the head of the Indian Council for Ayurvedic Medicine.  Triguna convinced Chopra to take up Transcendental Meditation (TM).  Chopra self-reports that this practice assisted him in quitting his long-standing habits of drinking black coffee and smoking cigarettes.  [Note: I assumed this meant that Chopra no longer drank coffee.  However, in a recent interview for the New York Times magazine, Chopra asserted that he drinks three cups of coffee each day.]

Excited by the prospect of this movement and inspired by meetings with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Chopra quit his position at NEMH and became founding president of the American Association of Ayurvedic Medicine.  He founded a Maharishi Ayur-Veda Health Center that carried out various rituals and sold Ayurvedic herbal products.  In 1989 the Maharishi awarded Chopra the title “Dhanvantari of Heaven and Earth.”  That same year, Chopra published the book Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine.  The following year, he produced Perfect Health: the Complete Mind/Body Guide.

In 1993, Chopra moved to California and became the director of SharpHealthCare’s Institute for Human Potential and Mind/Body Medicine.  Chopra also became head of the Center for Mind/Body Medicine in Del Mar, California.  This marked a break from organizations associated with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and from Ayurvedic medicine.  Chopra has claimed that he became concerned about “a cultish atmosphere around Maharishi.”  This statement is somewhat ironic, given that Chopra himself has been accused of creating a cult-like atmosphere.  Chopra’s sense of estrangement from the Maharishi was mutual: at about this time, the Maharishi National Council of the Age of Enlightenment instructed their American TM centers to stop promoting Chopra, and Chopra’s name and books were removed from the movement’s literature and health centers. In 1994, Deepak founded the Chopra Center for Wellbeing.

In 1993, Chopra appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss his latest book, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old.  Chopra’s appearance on Oprah was transformative: his book began flying off the shelves of bookstores and he became an instant celebrity.   He currently resides in a ‘health-centric’ condominium in New York.

Deepak Chopra has managed to thrive in what were previously regarded as mutually exclusive spheres.  While he continues to promote his mind/body ideology and his New Age health practices, at the same time he maintains ties with the mainstream medical community.  He is the supervisor of the Mind-Body Medical Group within the Chopra Center.  He is also a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.  He is on the staff of Scripps Memorial Hospital of La Jolla, California.  And he is currently a voluntary clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health.

Chopra has ties with business schools as well.  “He serves as an adjunct professor in the marketing division at Columbia Business School.  He serves as adjunct professor of executive programs at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He participates annually as a lecturer at the Update in Internal Medicine event sponsored by Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.”

In addition, Dr. Chopra is affiliated with a number of other causes.  In 2015, he partnered with businessman Paul Tudor Jones II in founding JUST Capital; this is a non-profit that “ranks companies in terms of just business practices in an effort to promote economic justice.”  In 2005 he was appointed a senior scientist in The Gallup Organization.

Deepak Chopra is in high demand on the lecture circuit, where he regularly receives between $25,000 and $50,000 for presentations on health issues.  His clinics cater to relatively wealthy, predominantly white clients who also purchase his wellness products.   Ever since his appearance on Oprah Winfrey, Chopra’s books have sold extremely well (as of Dec. 2018, Chopra was working on his 89th book!).  Combining his invited lectures, his book sales and revenue from his clinics, Deepak Chopra’s net worth is estimated at about $80 million.

Dr. Chopra’s Mind-Body-Wellness Activities:

Deepak Chopra is a widely-known and influential advocate of theosophical ideas on the mind-body problem, consciousness and Eastern mystical thought.  We want to acknowledge the many aspects of Chopra’s wellness theories that produce beneficial effects that are buttressed by respected scientific research.  Unfortunately, for Chopra these are accompanied by philosophical notions that lead to extravagant and unsubstantiated claims that can in some cases be dangerous.

So what are Chopra’s theories about mind and wellness?  First, he rejects mechanistic theories of consciousness.  Chopra begins by pointing out that our current understanding of neuroscience can describe neuronal processes in the brain, but this does not give us a full understanding of thought and consciousness.

Chopra continues by considering the highly sophisticated regulatory processes that take place in our body.  When Chopra reviews the precise timing and exquisite coordination that characterize processes such as hormonal function and blood flow, he argues that the brain and all other organs must be acting in a cooperative manner.  Following this line of thought, Chopra concludes that the brain must be equivalent to the organs, rather than that the brain is ‘directing’ bodily functions.  From this he infers that all organs in the body must possess ‘consciousness,’ not just the brain.  Continuing this line of thought, Chopra goes on to assert that consciousness must be a property shared by all human cells.

Chopra thus rejects a mechanistic view of consciousness in favor of a mystical notion that “mind comes before matter.”  In Chopra’s viewpoint, consciousness exists in a realm of its own, potentially separate from the body.  If this is the case, then how exactly are mind, body and consciousness related?  Here, Chopra has been influenced by ideas derived from his decidedly fuzzy understanding of quantum physics.  He notes that in quantum physics, there are connections between waves and particles that defy the classical notion that “waves” and “particles” are separate and distinct properties.  Furthermore, in “entangled” quantum systems certain measurements can be interpreted as implying non-causal connections between different events (entanglement is reviewed in more detail in the following section).

Chopra presents the following “explanation” for wave-particle duality in entangled systems.   He asserts that there is a “Newtonian” frame where a wave and particle appear to be distinct.  However, in Chopra’s interpretation quantum physics connects the Newtonian regime to a “hidden” region where space and time are unified.  This is pictorially described in the simplistic cartoon of Fig. 3.2.  In that picture, the region above the horizontal line represents the Newtonian region, while the region below the line represents the hidden region.

Fig. 3.2: A cartoon from Chopra that purports to explain wave-particle duality.

To Chopra, the connection between the Newtonian world and the unified region provides the relationship that connects wave and particle properties.  Chopra then asserts that an analogous relation exists with respect to mind and body.  In a “Newtonian” world, these appear to be separate; however, there exists a “hidden” region where mind and body are unified, along with space and time.

Chopra extends his arguments to analyze a number of phenomena that don’t appear to have rational explanations.  First, he considers Indian holy men or sadhus who spend a great deal of time in meditation.  There are examples of sadhus who achieve exceptional control over various aspects of their autonomic nervous system.  For example, they can dramatically slow down their breathing or heart rate.

One can also consider incidents of spontaneous remission of disease.  For example, there are rare cases in the medical literature where cancerous tumors that were considered to be irreversible have inexplicably gone into remission.

To Chopra, both of these (apparently unrelated) situations are examples of results that occur when people are able to access the “hidden” region where mind and body are unified.  He concludes that once people develop the ability to access this regime, they will have discovered the key to “perfect health.”  For example, Chopra argues that a spontaneous remission of cancer occurs because the patients “apparently jump to a new level of consciousness that prohibits the existence of cancer.”

Now that we have come this far, this line of reasoning can be extended to “explain” any number of phenomena. For example, a broken limb mends through a series of sophisticated processes that are regulated by the body.  However, when considered from a viewpoint where the body is ruled by an external conscious agent, and where every cell in the body is imbued with consciousness, Chopra advocates for a rather different understanding of the recovery of a fractured limb.  “The broken arm mends because consciousness makes it mend, and the same holds true for the miraculous cancer cure, the long-term survival of AIDS, the healing by faith, and even the ability to live to a great old age without falling prey to disease.”

So, miraculous recovery from disease, faith healing and longevity are all events that are ruled by consciousness, and a properly-trained individual should be able to access their consciousness and thus control their health.  We might as well keep going – why stop now?  Once we cross through the Looking Glass, there is apparently no limit to what one can accomplish.  For example, since every cell in the body possesses consciousness, a person should have the power to alter his/her own DNA.  According to Chopra, “Genes express whatever a person desires.  They operate through switches that the mind can access.”

Chopra offers up a number of different “proofs” of his assertions.  First, there are references to scientific data; some refer to experiments that are generally accepted (although frequently with “conclusions” that do not represent mainstream scientific thought), while others refer to dubious or unreproducible results.  These are combined with appeals to Eastern mystical literature and to Ayur-Vedic practices.  Finally, Chopra draws on personal stories or folk-tales that refer to miraculous events.

These claims are appealing to New Age devotees, who are presumably impressed by references to “ancient modalities” and Eastern mystical thought.  Conversely, mainstream scientists and medical practitioners respond very negatively to assertions that people have the power to consciously alter their own DNA, or to stop and even reverse the aging process.  We should emphasize that Chopra’s claims in this area are not buttressed by anything resembling legitimate clinical trials.

Let us start by reviewing in detail Chopra’s insistent use of “quantum” to describe his mind-body theories.  We will review some properties of quantum physics.  We will then discuss the analogies that Chopra claims allow him to understand the connections between mind/body and consciousness.  Are there legitimate analogies to quantum physics that would help us understand the connection between the classical and “unified” regions, and does quantum physics provide the mechanism whereby Chopra could access the “hidden” regime that connects these processes?

1. Chopra and Quantum Physics:

Deepak Chopra’s books are heavily loaded with references to “quantum” processes.  Here we will examine the connections (if any) between his theories of mind, body and consciousness and the properties of quantum physics.  As is well known, one of the basic postulates of quantum physics is that every particle has wave-like properties and conversely, that waves also possess attributes of particles.  This relationship is referred to as wave-particle duality.

The relationship between wave and particle properties is expressed by mathematically precise equations of quantum field theory (for example, see the book Quantum Field Theory by Itzykson and Zuber).

In his book Quantum Healing, Chopra refers to wave-particle duality by invoking the graph of Fig. 3.2.  He “explains” that the region above the line represents Newtonian space-time, the classical regime where space and time are unconnected and where ‘time’ is absolute.  The region below the line represents a “hidden” quantum domain where space and time are somehow unified.  So in the Newtonian region the particle and wave descriptions appear distinct, while they are related because they are connected in the hidden “unified” region.

We might ask, what is the relationship between Chopra’s diagram and the mathematical equations that express wave-particle duality? The answer is that there is absolutely no connection.  Chopra’s diagram may have some visual appeal, but it expresses no insight into quantum wave-particle duality.  More importantly, Chopra’s ‘diagram’ provides absolutely no mechanism for extending this duality to any other processes.

In fact, Chopra is quite likely confusing wave-particle duality with a separate but related issue in quantum physics, which is the quantum measurement problem.  I recommend two discussions of this issue.  The first is a New Yorker article by Lawrence Krauss.  The second is an extended discussion of quantum measurement by Sean Carroll.  [Be advised – while Krauss’ article is aimed at the general public, Carroll’s discussion requires a rather sophisticated understanding of both mathematics and physics, and is not recommended for the casual reader.]

In certain precisely-prepared quantum states, two distinct particles may be produced with intrinsically correlated properties.  Although a measurement made on one of these particle’s properties may reveal, apparently at random, any one of a number of possible results, an essentially simultaneous measurement on the partner particle will give a result consistent with the first measurement. This remains true even if the two measurement devices are a large distance apart and the time interval between the two measurements is too short for any signal to propagate at light speed from one device to the other.

One such situation would occur if a spinless particle at rest decays into two particles with spin that then travel in opposite directions.  Subsequent measurements of the spins of those two particles requires a connection between the particles called “entanglement.” The situation is somewhat analogous to a pair of identical twins, separated at birth and unaware of each other’s existence, simultaneously beginning to show symptoms of the same disease to which they each have a 25% genetic predisposition.

One way to understand entanglement is to require non-local connections between the final-state particles; however there are alternative ways to describe the entanglement problem.  The phenomenon of entanglement was first pointed out by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen (EPR) (Physical Review 47, 777 (1935)).  EPR outlined a thought experiment that would obtain a paradoxical result.  They concluded that the quantum-mechanical wave function predicting the probability of various measurement results could not provide a complete description of physical reality, unless one was willing to accept “spooky [i.e., faster-than light communication] action at a distance.”    However, in subsequent years physicists have been able to carry out thought experiments analogous to those described by EPR. The outcomes of those experiments, although counter-intuitive, are successfully predicted by quantum mechanics, and are incompatible with any local (no spooky action at a distance) theory that attributes the particular measurement results not to inherent randomness, but rather to the existence of “hidden variables”.

In any case, in Quantum Healing Chopra purports to show the “quantum” connection between mind, body and intelligence, using the diagram in Fig. 3.3:

Fig. 3.3: The “quantum connection” between mind/body and intelligence, according to Chopra.

In Fig. 3.3, the space above the line is claimed to represent “Newtonian space-time,” while below the line is a region where “the body as a whole is organized and correlated.”  In this hidden regime intelligence can “choose” to be represented as either mind or body.

There is no rational basis for the “connection” asserted by Chopra between wave-particle and mind-body dualities.  The metaphor outlined in Fig. 3.3 (whatever that is) bears absolutely no relationship with the “quantum” in modern physics.  I have viewed several videos where Chopra appears on a panel with one or more mainstream scientists.  In these panels he is challenged to provide more precise statements about “quantum” processes, or to quantify his mind-body-intelligence assertions.  Not only does Chopra not clarify his statements, but he never even attempts to back up his claims with scientifically valid arguments.  Noted physicists such as Sean Carroll, Lawrence Krauss  and Brian Cox have analyzed Chopra’s “quantum” assertions in detail, and they unanimously agree that Chopra’s statements about quantum processes and health have no connection with modern physics.

The mainstream physics community shares the low assessment of Deepak Chopra’s “quantum” theories.  For example, Chopra was a recipient of the Ig Nobel Prize.  These prizes, parodies of the Nobel Prize, are given for pseudo-scientific claims, or occasionally for genuine scientific advances that seem bizarre (the term conflates the Nobel Prize with the word ignoble, meaning “characterized by baseness, lowness or meanness”).  The prizes are awarded by a panel assembled by a scientific parody publication the Journal of Irreproducible Results; in recent years the prizes have been handed out by actual Nobel Laureates at the Sanders Theater of Harvard University.  Dr. Chopra was awarded the 1998 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics, for “his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness.”

There are a few physicists whose ideas about quantum physics and consciousness are similar to Chopra’s, and Chopra’s views of quantum physics may derive from the work of these scientists.  One of these is Fritjof Capra, who authored the 1975 book The Tao of Physics.  Another is Amit Goswami, author of The Self-Aware Universe.  These and other scientists all attempt to posit a deep connection between quantum physics, consciousness, and Eastern mystical thought.

Another physicist who has written about physics and consciousness is John Hagelin.  We will spend some time reviewing Hagelin’s work, in order to demonstrate the standing of his theories in the physics community.

Fig. 3.4: Physicist and TM advocate John Hagelin.

John Hagelin received his Ph.D. degree in physics at Harvard, where he was a student of Howard Georgi.  He subsequently co-authored a number of papers in particle physics.  Hagelin’s research was particularly focused on unified field theories of fundamental forces, in the area of string theories.  At the same time, Hagelin had developed an interest in Transcendental Meditation (TM).  In 1984, Hagelin became the chair of the physics department at Maharishi International University (MIU) (currently Maharishi University of Management (MUM)) in Fairfield, Iowa.   He subsequently became president of MUM in 2016.

After joining MIU, Hagelin began to publish articles on physics and consciousness (those papers were not published in reputable peer-reviewed journals).  He claimed that a unified field model he had developed for particle physics was identical with what Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had called “the unified field of consciousness.”  Hagelin contended that practitioners of TM could achieve a state of consciousness where “the observer, the process of observation and the observed are unified,” and that this state was described by Hagelin’s unified field of physics.

John Hagelin claims that his unified field theory “explains” how one can achieve various phenomena claimed by TM proponents.  The first of these is levitation (or yogic flying), and the second Hagelin termed the “Maharishi Effect.”   Proponents of Hagelin’s theory claim that meditation allows people to tap into the “source of all energy and intelligence – beyond any thought and at the same time the source of all thought” through the unified field.   At MUM, students take courses in meditation that include attempts at yogic flying.  Figure 3.5 shows a group of meditating students who claim to be “flying.”

Fig. 3.5: a group of students attempting “yogic flying.”

Note that the students are actually bouncing on a mattress.  All of the “yogic flying” photos I have seen involve people in mid-air a foot or so above a flat surface.  This “flying” behavior is indistinguishable from photos of people hopping on their butts.  Nevertheless, in 1999 John Hagelin held a press conference to announce that a fleet of yogic flyers would be capable of stopping the Kosovo War.  Hagelin requested $33 million from NATO to train an elite corps of 7,000 yogic flyers (he was not funded).

In 1993, Hagelin directed a project designed to demonstrate the “Maharishi Effect.”  Hagelin and other TM advocates assert that a group of people meditating in unison can bring about profound changes in the behavior of others.  In fact, they claim that the square root of one percent of the population of a country can bring about peace through directed meditation.  For example, in a country with a population of 1 million, 1% of the population is 10,000 people.  Thus, Hagelin would argue that in such a country, 100 meditators could bring about dramatic changes.  Approximately 4,000 people from 82 countries gathered in Washington, D.C. and practiced TM for six hours a day from June 7 to July 30, 1993.  The aim of this exercise was to cause the inhabitants of the area to refrain from violent behavior.  Hagelin and his collaborators claim that they compared the crime statistics in the D.C. area before, during and after the meditation process.

They concluded that the rate of homicides, assaults and rape in the D.C. metropolitan area decreased up to 23.3% compared to the control period.  Hagelin was subsequently awarded the 1994 Ig Nobel Prize for Peace.  Hagelin’s Ig Nobel citation read “promulgator of peaceful thoughts, for his experimental conclusion that 4,000 trained meditators caused an 18 percent decrease in violent crime in Washington, D.C.”  The findings of that study were strongly disputed by independent analysts, who concluded that crime statistics had actually increased during this period.  In his book Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness To Fraud, Robert Park termed the analysis “a clinic in data distortion.”

Deepak Chopra also asserts that the ‘Maharishi Effect’ is at least potentially valid.  “You know, the idea here is that if we quieten the turbulence in our collective mind and heal the rift in our collective soul, could that have an effect on nature’s mind, if nature has a mind? … So a critical mass of people praying or a critical mass of people collectively engaging in meditation could conceivably, even from modern physics point of view, through non-local interactions, actually simmer down the turbulence in nature.”

What does the mainstream physics community think of Hagelin’s work on physics and consciousness?  Peter Woit comments on Hagelin’s identification of a unified field of consciousness with a unified field of superstring theory, “virtually every theoretical physicist in the world rejects all of this as nonsense and the work of a crackpot”.  Nevertheless, Hagelin and his theories were featured in the movie What the Bleep Do We Know?  Theoretical physicist João Maguiejo critiqued that movie as consisting of “deliberate misrepresentations of science and ludicrous extrapolations.”  And James Randi described the film as “a fantasy docudrama” and “[a] rampant example of abuse by charlatans and cults.”

So, the mainstream physics community rejects Chopra’s claim that quantum physics allows one to understand the connection between mind-body and consciousness.  The “quantum physics, Eastern mysticism and consciousness” work of scientists such as Capra, Hagelin and Goswami is also rejected by mainstream scientists.  In fact, it is quite possible that Chopra’s beliefs about quantum physics and consciousness were influenced by Hagelin and/or Capra.  Currently, Chopra simply states that his use of the term “quantum” is a metaphor.   As mainstream physicists, we can assure the reader that there is no justification from modern physics for any of Chopra’s claims about mind, body or consciousness.

2. Chopra’s Theories on Disease and Aging

Chopra claims that he and his colleagues were providing AIDS patients with a treatment regimen that combined mainstream medical practices with Ayurvedic therapy, which included meditation and herbal remedies.  Although Chopra acknowledges that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus, he maintains that the effectiveness of the HIV virus is enabled by sound waves.  “Hearing the virus in its vicinity, the DNA mistakes it for a friendly or compatible sound.”  Thus, Chopra recommends using sound waves to correct this “sound distortion.”  What on earth?  Dr. Lawrence Schneiderman, professor emeritus of Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, categorizes Chopra’s theory as follows: “to put it mildly, Dr. Chopra proposes a treatment and prevention program for AIDS that has no supporting empirical data”.

If a person was otherwise undergoing a traditional HIV therapy, one can imagine that the use of sound waves would not be harmful; however, it would be dangerous quackery if one convinced a patient to forego mainstream treatment and replace it with sound-wave “therapy.”

Dr. Stephen Barrett has described the experience of one of the former clients of Chopra and Ayurvedic physician Brihaspati Triguna.  “In July 1995, Jonie Flint filed suit against Chopra, Triguna, and the Sharp Institute [Chopra’s employer at that time]. Flint’s husband David, who was suffering from leukemia, had consulted Triguna in April 1993. Triguna … concluded that David’s liver function was down and that he had “heat” in his spleen and bone marrow, “wind” in his stomach, and pressure on his nerves. Triguna recommended dietary changes, “purification” treatment, and various herbal products. David … also consulted Chopra, who performed pulse diagnosis and provided a mantra for ‘quantum sound treatment.’ … In December 1993, Triguna retested David’s pulse and declared that his leukemia was gone. It was not, however, and David died four months later.” [The resulting lawsuit never went to trial as Mrs. Flint lacked the resources to pursue it].   This example demonstrates the potentially lethal consequences that can ensue when one forsakes traditional medical treatment for New Age interventions.

As we have mentioned, Chopra also claims that by accessing the region where space and time are unified, a person may attain “perfect health,” a condition “that is free from disease, that never feels pain”, and “that cannot age or die.”  So, one can cure disease by jumping to this level of consciousness where it is possible to prohibit the existence of cancer, or for that matter any other disease.  This would amount to a state of perfect health.

Chopra has argued that the human body can be connected to a “quantum mechanical body” that is composed not of matter but of energy and information. As a consequence, Chopra argues that “human aging is fluid and changeable; it can speed up, slow down, stop for a time, and even reverse itself,” and that slowing down or reversing aging can be achieved through one’s state of mind.

Let us be as charitable as possible to Chopra and his theories of mind and health.  Patients coming to his clinics will be separated from a great deal of their money.  On the other hand, they will receive a healthy diet, take part in meditation sessions, and receive massages.  All of these should produce positive benefits, even if “perfect health,” resistance to aging, and DNA modification are out of reach.  Chopra reports that he once curtailed his coffee consumption and stopped chain-smoking cigarettes through meditation, and this almost certainly had a beneficial impact on his health.

Furthermore, there have been recent scientific studies, albeit on relatively small samples to date, that demonstrate benefits of long-term meditation practices on both brain development and resistance to heart disease.  For example, a neuro-imaging group from UCLA has carried out MRI brain scans of 50 long-term meditators and 50 control subjects that indicate (E. Luders, et al., Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 2012, 00034) a correlation between the years of meditation practice and the degree of folding in the cerebral cortex, which affects memory, attention, thought and consciousness.

Another research team has carried out a randomized, controlled trial (R.H. Schneider, et al., Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes 5, 750 (2012)) in which 201 African-American men and women with coronary heart disease were randomly assigned to either take a health education class promoting better diet and exercise or take a class on TM.  Over the ensuing five years, the group that took the TM class experienced significantly less overall risk of heart attack, stroke or death.  Although the latter study was led by a faculty member from the Maharishi University of Management, and may be suspected of a bias toward positive results, the results obtained are nonetheless consistent with anecdotal evidence that meditation reduces stress and anxiety.

The physiological effects of long-term meditation are worthy of further scientific study, without any need to justify them by vague arguments misrepresenting quantum physics or by outlandish claims of supposed benefits.  In addition, it is well-known that the placebo effect is quite powerful.  If patients believe that a particular treatment (e.g., a sugar pill) will be helpful, then a fraction of those patients will experience positive outcomes.  So, we expect that some patients undergoing “alternative medical treatment” at Chopra’s health centers will experience positive results through the placebo effect.

3. Chopra Organizes a Clinical Trial

In November 2014, Chopra published an article titled “Multi-Institutional Collaborative Clinical Trial to Examine Health Benefits of Integrative Lifestyle Practices at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing.”  Details of that proposed trial were critiqued by Dr. David Gorski, and we will summarize Gorski’s criticisms here.

The purpose of the trial is summarized by the authors (the Chopra Center and six other research institutions): “Such an in-depth clinically focused study is unique because previous research studies have typically examined the beneficial effects of individual wellbeing practices – such as meditation, yoga, or specific herbal preparations – few have taken anything like a whole systems approach which simultaneously includes a number of such practices to promote improved mind-body functioning. The Chopra Center for Wellbeing has been in the forefront of integrating whole systems approaches such as Ayurveda, meditation, yoga, massage, herbal treatments, and nutrition into programs for improving health and wellbeing.”

The Chopra Center proposed to admit a cohort of individuals for a week, who would be divided into two groups.  The first group would undergo the Chopra Center regimen, which includes “Ayurvedic massage … primordial sound meditation, mantra sessions, group sessions, yoga, and [presumably] a healthy diet.”  The second (randomized control) group would not receive this treatment.  Participants will be tested four times: prior to arrival at the Center; immediately upon arrival; immediately following the treatment; and one month later.  A series of markers will be tested, including an entire series of peptides, metabolites and hormones, the population of micro-organisms on the skin and in the intestinal tract, and cardiac function.  In addition, there will be tests of RNA expression, telomerase activity, and assessments of emotional and spiritual well-being.

So, what are the issues with such a clinical trial?  Remember that a scientific assessment begins with a hypothesis, and then designs a trial that will either validate or refute the hypothesis.  Note that in this trial, there is no hypothesis that is being tested, apart from the general belief that “the Chopra Center program is beneficial.”  “Old-fashioned” clinical trials that test only a single variable are designed to keep all other variables constant.  But here, an entire battery of elements is being varied.  Any positive changes in any of the tested variables will be ascribed to the “holistic program.”  For example, one can imagine that changes could be due to the improved diet, a result that would be neither surprising nor compelling.

A second problem is that the proposed “test” is not a double blind trial.  It appears that the people running the trial will know which group was participating in the activities and which was not.  And surely the participants know whether or not they are receiving the Ayurvedic massage, etc.  Such an oversight would doom any trial that had been proposed for peer-reviewed funding.  In this case, however, Chopra was proposing to have the trial crowd-funded.

One final troubling aspect of this proposed program was that Chopra proposed to charge participants in the control group the regular weekly fee for his “Perfect Health” program, i.e. $2,875.  It seems bizarre that one would charge the full fee for a program that would be denied to the control group.  Apparently the $2,875 would then appear as a credit towards either a later Perfect Health week at the Chopra Center, or a credit towards online purchases or activities such as massages.

4. Summary

Much like Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Deepak Chopra has impressive achievements in mainstream medicine.  At the same time, his theories of mind and consciousness represent radical departures from the norms of scientific thought.  He makes astounding claims: for example, that through conscious effort a person can achieve a state of “perfect health;” that in this state, they would be free of disease, never experience pain, and never age or die.  Furthermore, a person can also make changes in their DNA and alter gene expression by accessing their consciousness.

These are incredible, and frankly unbelievable, claims.  While many of the activities at Chopra’s Mind-Body clinics appear to provide positive benefits, these unwarranted claims are criticized by the mainstream scientific community, as well they should be.  It would be extremely unwise for anyone to forsake conventional medical treatments on the basis of assurances from Deepak Chopra.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Deepak Chopra:
Wikipedia, John Hagelin:
John S. Hagelin “Is Consciousness the Unified Field? A Field Theorist’s Perspective”, Modern Science and Vedic Science 1, 29 (1987).
John S. Hagelin, “Restructuring Physics from its Foundation in Light of Maharishi’s Vedic Science”, Modern Science and Vedic Science 3, 3 (1989).
A.Einstein, B. Podolsky, and N. Rosen, Physical Review 47, 777 (1935); see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EPR_paradox
Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Shambhala Publications 1975. 
Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World, Penguin Putnam 1993.
Dr. Stephen Barrett, A Few Thoughts on Ayur-Vedic Mumbo-Jumbo, Quackwatch
Deepak Chopra, “Multi-Institutional Collaborative Clinical Trial to Examine Health Benefits of Integrative Lifestyle Practices at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing,”  SFGate Nov 17, 2014
Dr. David Gorski, Deepak Chopra Tries His Hand at a Clinical Trial. Woo Ensues.  Science Blog Sept. 16, 2014.
Laura Blue, Strongest Study Yet Shows Meditation Can Lower Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke, Time Magazine, Nov. 14, 2012.
Mark Wheeler, Evidence Builds That Meditation Strengthens the Brain, UCLA Newsroom, March 14, 2012.
Sean Carroll, comments on Deepak Chopra’s Assertions about Quantum Mechanics.
R.H. Schneider, et al., Stress Reduction in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: Randomized, Controlled Trial of Transcendental Meditation and Health Education in Blacks, Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes 5, 750 (2012)
E. Luders et al., The Unique Brain Anatomy of Meditation Practitioners: Alterations in Cortical Gyrification, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 2012, 00034.
New York Times magazine, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2018: How Deepak Chopra, Wellness Expert, Spends His Sundays.
Deepak Chopra, Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine, Bantam Books 1989.
Deepak Chopra, Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide (revised edition), Three Rivers Press, 2001.
Deepak Chopra, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: the Quantum Alternative to Growing Old, Harmony, 1993.
C. Itzykson and J-B Zuber, Quantum Field Theory, Dover Publications, 2006.
Lawrence Krauss, Tangled Up In Entanglement, The New Yorker, Oct. 30, 2015.
Sean Carroll, From Eternity to Here: the Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time.
Twitter feed, controversy between Deepak Chopra and physicist Brian Cox.
Wikipedia, The EPR Paradox.
Robert Park, Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud, Oxford University Press, 2001.
What The Bleep Do We Know?, (2004, Samuel Goldwyn Films; a fictionalized story that pushes New-Age notions of spirituality, quantum theory and consciousness).