How the DHARMA Initiative Works


Learn about the DHARMA Initiative, its history and what might be going on at its island research center. See more TV show pictures.
Photo copyright © 2004 ABC, Inc. / Mario Perez

Editor's note: The Lost Experience alternate-reality game uncovered new clues. What follows are our theories from the first two seasons of Lost. If you have not seen these episodes, this article contains spoilers.

For such a secretive organization, the DHARMA Initiative has left lots of evidence of its activities. Not only has it populated an island with territorial polar bears and sharks, it has defended its territory with a menacing monster that looks deceptively like black smoke.

Details about the group are a little sketchy. But it's pretty clear that members of the DHARMA Initiative -- or perhaps a group of its test subjects -- have made a habit of kidnapping and murder. This group, known as the Others, has threatened, intimidated and killed survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, which went down en route to Los Angeles, California from Sydney, Australia. For whatever reason, no one thought to ask the Others who they are or what they want.

So, who are the Others, and what do they want? How are they related to the DHARMA Initiative? What do they have to do with the black smoke, the polar bears and the bunkers scattered around the island? In this article, you'll learn about the DHARMA Initiative, its history and what might be going on at its island research center.

 

'Lost' DHARMA Initiative Project

This Dharma Initiative station was originally built to study electromagnetic phenomena.
This Dharma Initiative station was originally built to study electromagnetic phenomena.
Photo copyright © 2004 ABC, Inc. / Mario Perez

The DHARMA Initiative started as an ambitious science project in the 1970s. Its founders, Gerald and Karen DeGroot, aspired to create a large island research compound. They planned the construction of six underground and underwater research stations.

The stipends of two PhD students, even if used wisely, couldn't possibly cover the cost of building and maintaining such a large facility. So the DeGroots turned to Alvar Hanso and the Hanso Foundation. Since the 1960s, the Foundation "has offered grants to worthy experiments designed to further the evolution of the human race and provide technological solutions to the most pressing problems of our time."

Hanso has funded research on:

  • Life extension
  • Electromagnetism
  • Extra-terrestrial intelligence
  • Mathematical forecasting
  • Cryogenics
  • Juxtapositional eugenics
  • Psychic remote viewing

Some of these experiments have been successful. In 2005, the Foundation celebrated the 105th birthday of an orangutan called Joop. Joop had been the subject of life-extension experiments. Orangutans typically live to be only 60 years old, so the Foundation declared the experiment a success. It did not disclose whether the orangutan acquired other skills, such as the ability to read or run a library.

Not long after, though, the Global Health Organization (GHO) reported an outbreak of meningococcal disease in villages near the Foundation's Zanzibar research center. According to classified documents retrieved from the GHO, tests suggested that the disease originated in monkeys. The GHO theorized that it jumped the simian/human barrier and ordered the Foundation to terminate its operations. Although the GHO later reversed its decision, the event made Joop's longevity controversial. The Foundation's sizeable contribution to the GHO's defense fund also may have affected this reversal. It is still unclear whether Hanso Foundation experiments created or led to the spread of the disease.

Hanso's donation to the GHO and his research funding came from money from weapon sales. During World War II, he provided munitions to various European resistance groups. After the war, he provided high-tech armaments to NATO.

The DHARMA Initiative's distinctive name and logo seem to be at odds with funding from an arms dealer. We'll look at how in the next section.

The Name and Logo

A bagua, the source of the DHARMA logo
A bagua, the source of the DHARMA logo
© 2006 HowStuffWorks

Like many very old words, "dharma" has more than one definition. It's used in several Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Its primary meaning relates to a person's duty or role in relation to the universe. It can also mean:

  • The collective teachings of Buddha
  • The principle that governs the universe
  • Individual conduct within society
  • Knowledge

The DHARMA Initiative uses the word as an acronym. Although the Initiative has not publicly revealed what the letters mean, the first two likely stand for the names DeGroot and Hanso. The Initiative's use of the word suggests that its principles are based on Eastern spiritual practices. These practices generally promote nonviolence and ethical behavior.

The logo is a bagua, an octagonal symbol that incorporates symbols from Taoism and Confucianism. In a bagua, the eight trigrams of the "I Ching" surround a yin-yang. The yin-yang is a well-known Taoist symbol that represents change and balance. Trigrams are simply three-line combinations of whole and broken lines.

The "I Ching," also called "The Book of Changes," is an ancient Chinese text that interprets hexagrams, or pairs of trigrams. These interpretations are used for spiritual guidance and fortune telling, as well as in feng shui. There are eight possible trigrams and sixty-four possible hexagrams. You can learn more about the "I Ching" and hexagram interpretation by reading this online version of the text.

In addition, DHARMA Initiative communications often close with "namaste," a greeting used in Eastern cultures. Like "dharma," "namaste" can be difficult to define precisely. It generally means "I salute the divine within you." People say it, often making the accompanying mudra, or hand gesture, to show respect for elders or in the context of spiritual meetings or yoga practices.

Eastern spirituality may have even made its way into the infamous series of numbers that appears in a range of contexts surrounding the Initiative. The numbers -- 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42 -- add up to a total of 108. Two of the central tenets of Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path. The "Dhammapada," the collected writings of Buddha, has 423 verses. There are also 108 beads in a Hindu or Buddhist mala, or rosary, and 108 names for Hindu gods. Check out the sidebar on this page for other interpretations of the numbers.

A Buddhist mala and the Dhammapada: 108 beads and 423 verses

It seems clear that Eastern spiritual practices, which generally promote nonviolence, simplicity and ethical behavior, are important to the DeGroots and the DHARMA Initiative. So why would such an organization align itself with a well-known arms dealer? There are two primary possibilities:

  1. They had no other choice. No matter how idealistic the DeGroots may have been when they started the DHARMA Initiative, such a project requires a lot of money. The people most likely to have that kind of money aren't typically devoted to spiritual practices that discourage the hoarding of wealth.
  2. It's all spin. The focus on pacifist spiritual practices may be a devious attempt to disguise unethical or dangerous experiments.

The DHARMA Initiative's motives for building a research center on an island are unclear, as are its current activities there. But they have left a few clues. We'll look at those next.

The Initiative and Eastern Spirituality

A Buddhist mala and the Dhammapada: 108 beads and 423 verses
A Buddhist mala and the Dhammapada: 108 beads and 423 verses
© 2006 HowStuffWorks

Eastern spirituality may have even made its way into the infamous series of numbers that appears in a range of contexts surrounding the Initiative. The numbers -- 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42 -- add up to a total of 108. Two of the central tenets of Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path. The "Dhammapada," the collected writings of Buddha, has 423 verses. There are also 108 beads in a Hindu or Buddhist mala, or rosary, and 108 names for Hindu gods. Check out the sidebar on this page for other interpretations of the numbers.

It didn't take long for those numbers to start giving people the creeps. They've driven some people crazy, while cursing others. Along with multiple warnings about opening a box, their presence on the Station 3 hatch has led some people to believe that the station is evil.

The sequence 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42 appears in full on the injectable substances used in Station 3 and the medical bunker. Numbers from it also appear often in the lives of the Flight 815 survivors before and after the crash. They have a mystical quality that cannot fully be explained, but they also have some interesting parallels:

  • The periodic table: The elements beryllium, oxygen, phosphorous, sulfur, vanadium and molybdenum appear at the positions that correlate to the numbers.
  • The "I Ching": The hexagrams that correspond to the numbers represent enveloping, grouping, humbling, providing for, stripping and augmenting.
  • The globe: Entering "4.815 162.342" into Google Maps displays a point in the ocean northeast of Australia and southwest of the Marshall Islands. Check out the forums at www.4815162342.com, The Fuselage, and Lost-TV for more theories on the numbers.

It seems clear that Eastern spiritual practices, which generally promote nonviolence, simplicity and ethical behavior, are important to the DeGroots and the DHARMA Initiative. So why would such an organization align itself with a well-known arms dealer? There are two primary possibilities:

  1. They had no other choice. No matter how idealistic the DeGroots may have been when they started the DHARMA Initiative, such a project requires a lot of money. The people most likely to have that kind of money aren't typically devoted to spiritual practices that discourage the hoarding of wealth.
  2. It's all spin. The focus on pacifist spiritual practices may be a devious attempt to disguise unethical or dangerous experiments.

While the DHARMA Initiative's motives for building a research center on an island are unclear, as are its current activities there. But they have left a few clues. We'll look at those next.

DHARMA on the Island

The entrance to the medical, or Caduceus, bunker.
The entrance to the medical, or Caduceus, bunker.
Photo copyright © 2004 ABC, Inc. / Mario Perez

The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 know very little about the DHARMA Initiative's activities on the island. They know only that they must enter the sequence 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 into a computer every 108 minutes, ostensibly to prevent an unnamed disaster. A 540-day tour of duty at the station would involve pushing the button about 7,200 times.

This exercise appears to be part of a B.F. Skinner-style psychological experiment, originally observed from a central DHARMA Initiative station known as "The Pearl." However, it also appears that failing to enter the numeric sequence can have disastrous effects.

The DHARMA Initiative is secretive about its activities, but a drawing on the blast doors of Station 3 provides several clues about the facilities. You can see an annotated version of this map and the graffiti around it at Cubit.net.

We'll refer to the drawing as the map, and we'll refer to the artists -- the previous residents of the hatch -- as the mapmakers. We'll also work on the assumption that the mapmakers are at least mostly sane as well as honest. In other words, we'll assume that the drawing isn't a fake or the quirky scribbling of a person driven crazy by psychological experiments.

Unlike the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, the mapmakers took an interest in the DHARMA Initiative's facilities and activities on the island. The mapmakers explored the island systematically, making sure to travel only as far as the 108-minute limit would allow. In this way, the mapmakers could explore the island while still pressing the button. The mapmakers then manipulated the station's wiring to activate the blast doors, and they documented their discoveries there.

The mapmakers identified four stations:

  • Flame
  • Swan (Station 3)
  • Arrow
  • Staff (Caduceus)

Two other bunkers, possibly located underwater, may also exist, in addition to the central station known as the Pearl. The Flight 815 survivors have seen a shark marked with a DHARMA logo and at least two polar bears on the island, making it likely that a full-scale animal research facility existed at some point.

An intranet, called Dharmatel, connects the compounds, although the mapmakers' notes detail system-wide outages on several dates. The notes also refer to Cerberus, named for the three-headed, mythological beast that guards the entrance to Hades. Cerberus is likely the island's "black smoke monster." Its purpose is unclear, although Danielle Rousseau has called it a security system. However, no one knows precisely what it protects and from whom, or whether it existed on the island before researchers arrived. Some speculate that the survivors of the tail section of Oceanic Flight 815 had increased encounters with the Others because Cerberus was not present on their side of the island.

The map also specifies the slave ship "Black Rock" as the final resting place of Magnus Hanso, likely either a relative of or a nickname for Alvar Hanso. Its notations suggest that the unspecified incident that led to the Station 3 button pushing took place in 1985. This incident probably involved Alvar Hanso and one or more of the DeGroots.

Of course, all of the facilities noted on the map may be part of a grand façade, an attempt to experiment on the researchers themselves rather than on their subjects. We have a few theories about what's going on, which we'll look at in the next few sections.

Grand Unified Theories

Where did all of these supplies go when the Others abandoned the medical station? Were they even there to begin with, or was Claire hallucinating?
Where did all of these supplies go when the Others abandoned the medical station? Were they even there to begin with, or was Claire hallucinating?
Photo copyright © 2004 ABC, Inc. / Mario Perez

Plenty of armchair mad scientists have come up with theories about exactly what causes the strange happenings on the island and in the lives of the survivors before the crash. Whatever the mystery turns out to be, it's likely that the DHARMA Initiative will be involved in studying or causing the phenomena. Here are some of our favorite theories.

First Contact: A New Life Form

The black smoke monster seems to be sentient -- it could be a previously undiscovered form of intelligent life. It can read people's thoughts and display images from their pasts. It also behaves differently based on how people respond to it and whether they are a threat to the island. It seems to be intelligent or programmed to react in a specific way to certain stimuli. Maybe Television Without Pity recapper Dan Qua is right -- it's the Iron Giant, and he's decided that not being a gun is for saps.

Using the Force: Electromagnetic Radiation

Electromagnetic radiation (EM) powers everything from TVs to Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines. (It also powers Magnetic Resonance Imagining, according one survivor's flashbacks). Even visible light is part of the EM spectrum. The DHARMA Initiative supposedly built Station 3 to study strange electromagnetic fluctuations coming from part of the island. Electricity, static magnetic fields and various parts of the EM spectrum might explain:

  • The smoke monster: It could be a hallucination sparked by exposure to EM radiation, iron atoms suspended in a magnetic field or uniquely refracted visible light.
  • Locke's ability to walk: Some people have theorized that Locke has pins in his legs and that magnets are controlling them. According to some new-age theorists, all life vibrates on a certain frequency. Illness and injury come from that frequency being "out of tune." Medical science does not support this theory, but it is possible that EM radiation gave Locke (and possibly Jin) a tune-up.
  • The compass: The presence of a strong magnet would certainly cause an ordinary compass to point somewhere other than north.

Beaming Up: Worm Holes and Portals The island may be one of several "portals" that allow people to travel from place to place. Theories allude to the island's location in comparison to the Bermuda Triangle and other paranormal phenomena. This could explain:

  • The drug plane: A Beechcraft could not reasonably travel from Nigeria to the most logical location of the island. It could, however, accidentally travel through a portal off the coast of Nigeria and wind up in the Pacific Ocean.
  • The Others' comings and goings: Danielle Rousseau allegedly spent 16 years on the island without seeing the Others. Yet, the Others have caused a lot of trouble. They may be traveling from a different base of operations via a portal.

Scientist Death Match: The Others vs. the DHARMA Initiative The Others appear to use and possibly live in DHARMA Initiative facilities. Sometimes they look like doctors, and sometimes they look like mud-streaked hillbillies. Whether they're both or neither, they may be the subjects of DHARMA Initiative experiments rather than researchers. Or, they may have been experimental subjects who rebelled against the researchers.

Being the subjects of experiments could explain the Others' apparent cunning and stealth. Whether or not they are part of the DHARMA Initiative, they probably have a reason for abducting people from the island. It's possible that:

  • The vaccine has made them sterile
  • They hope to ransom their victims
  • They really believe that the people they kidnap are better off with them
  • They need specific genetic material for experiments
  • They're just mean

Read on for some of our other favorite theories.

More Theories

Survivors of a crash, or subjects of an experiment?
Survivors of a crash, or subjects of an experiment?
Photo copyright © 2004 ABC, Inc. / Mario Perez

Entertainment Weekly writer Doc Jensen theorizes that a dead psychic haunts the island. Hanso Foundation scientists were definitely studying a psychic phenomenon known as remote viewing. Scientists may be observing the island from elsewhere or even affecting events with their minds. What supports this theory?

  • Pretty much everything weird on the island: Psychics could make everyone see things that aren't there.
  • The whispers in the jungle: The sounds survivors hear in the jungle may not be the whispers of the physically-present Others. They may be the voices of psychics who aren't even on the island.

Blinding Us with Science

The events on the island might be pretty straightforward. The DHARMA Initiative could be scientists who really study what they claim to. Their experiments could include:

  • Meteorology: The sudden rains and abrupt changes in tides may be part of an experiment, although they could also be ordinary weather phenomena.
  • Psychology: The button-pushing routine in Station 3 may be a "Skinner box" designed to study operant conditioning. Or, it may be a test to see how monotonous tasks or interrupted sleep affect people. All of the food in Station 3 has a Swan Station logo, not a basic DHARMA Initiative logo - the food may also be part of the experiment.
  • Parapsychology: The voices in the jungle and the Flight 815 survivors' vivid dreams may stem from paranormal influences.
  • Zoology: The shark emblazoned with the DHARMA logo, polar bears and the bird that screams "Hurley" may all be part of experiments on animals.
  • Electromagnetism: There seems to be a strong magnet behind a wall in Station 3. The black smoke monster could also be part of an experiment.

DHARMA and Jalad at Tanagra Numerous books and records appear among the possessions of the Flight 815 survivors and in Station 3. Many people theorize that these are clues about what is happening. They point out that "Watership Down" is about rabbits searching for a new home, and "A Wrinkle in Time" discusses time travel and travel across dimensions. However, both books have more sinister themes. "Watership Down" describes a warren where rabbits are being fattened up to be killed. "A Wrinkle in Time" includes a struggle against evil and a being called IT that controls people's lives down to the smallest detail.

Other possibly important books include: "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, ""The Brothers Karamazov,""Green Lantern/Flash: Faster Friends Part 1, " "Rainbow Six, ""The Turn of the Screw," "The Third Policeman" and "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret."

Out of the Matrix: Mind Games

It's unlikely that all of the events on the island are taking place in one person's mind. But the memories of the Flight 815 crash survivors may not be reliable. The frequent appearances in one another's memories may indicate tampering rather than coincidence or predestination. They may be artificial memories that have been uploaded into the survivors' minds. After all, how likely is it, really, that Kate, Locke and Michael all had accidents involving the same gold car?

In addition, many of the Flight 815 survivors have seen people and objects in the jungle that should not -– or could not -– be there. This may be the result of a collective hallucination, mind control or other tampering with survivors' perception.

For lots more information about the DHARMA Initiative, "Lost" and other related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • "Big Theory: What Is the Island?" http://www.4815162342.com
  • "The Ultimate Theory (Revised, Expanded)." http://www.4815162342.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=7712
  • "MRI: A HUGE Missed Clue." http://www.4815162342.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=5622
  • Blast door map overlay http://lost.cubit.net/pics/2x17/blastDoorMapOverlay.jpg
  • Brown, Scott. "Locke Down." Entertainment Weekly. March 30, 2006. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/commentary/0,6115,1178442_3_0_,00.html
  • The Hanso Foundation http://www.thehansofoundation.org
  • LOST Commentaries: Episodes "Pilot Part 1," "Pilot Part 2," "Walkabout," "Collision"
  • "Lost in Translation." SFX Magazine. December 2005.
  • LOST Official Podcasts 1-12
  • LOST Season 1, Episodes 1-24
  • LOST Season 2, Episodes 1-17
  • Lost.cubit.net: Investigations http://lost.cubit.net/investigations.php
  • Oceanic Air http:// www.oceanic-air.com
  • Lost-TV Official List of Literature (book/author references) http://www.losttv-forum.com/forum/showthread.php?t=16085&highlight=books
  • Oldenburg, Ann. "Is 'Lost' a Literal Enigma?" USA Today. October 8, 2005. http://www.usatoday.com/life/television/news/2005-10-04-lost-literature_x.htm
  • "The Whispers and other hidden audio clues." TheFuselage.com http://www.thefuselage.com/Threaded/showthread.php?t=38199
  • Vaz, Mark Cotta. "The Lost Chronicles: the Official Companion Book." Hyperion, 2005.