How Rituals Rewire Your Brain

How Rituals Rewire Your Brain

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While rituals may define us, we have a hard time defining them. Dig into the science of ritual.

You can spend weeks trying to find a single, satisfying, comprehensive definition of the word ritual, but we simply don’t have one. We can claim that rituals are sacred, public, symbolic performances or private, mundane daily activities, but the truth is that it’s a fuzzy concept.

That’s an interesting quandary since researchers from business psychology to neuroscience have shown that rituals have social, psychological, and even physiological effects on us, making us less anxious and more resilient. And this effect is measurable. In fact, researchers from Harvard Business School found that performing a task we believe is a ritual can lower our heart rates, ease anxiety, and help us perform better.

Generations of anthropologists, sociologists, and theologians have argued about the origins of human civilization. The argument used to be that it was agriculture that got us to settle down into communities. Now, many researchers believe that sharing rituals was the key—ritual gathering places are older than farming sites.

Catherine Bell, the late scholar of religious studies who wrote the book on ritual (actually, she wrote two), concluded that strict definitions leave out many important aspects of ritual activity. Ronald Grimes, who founded the field of ritual studies, has pointed out that even trying to classify rituals into types is a recipe for failure because it is “not a precisely delineated analytical category.”

So while rituals may define us, we have a hard time defining them.

One way to look at rituals is a series of activities prescribed as part of worship. And indeed, religious rituals have been found to create social bonds, which can lead to increased feelings of belonging and, subsequently, an increase in wellbeing. These rituals can reduce feelings of isolation and even symptoms of depression. Public religious ceremonies have even been found to affect the brainwaves of both participants and observers, stoking emotional reactions that bind people together and make them more likely to believe in the efficacy of the ritual being performed.

Recently, research has shown that ritual gatherings can have the same effect even if they are secular (or at least not part of an organized religion). Being a believer is not necessary in order to benefit from the social support and wellbeing boosts that ritual has to offer—but direct personal engagement appears to be.

Performing Rituals to Enhance Performance

Neuroscientists have found that preplanned and repetitive behaviors can have a calming effect on us, helping to reduce our anxiety and improve our focus, concentration, attention, and subsequent performance. That explains why baseball star Nomar Garciaparra took the time to step out of the batter’s box and adjust his gloves between each swing (regardless of how much it annoyed the crowd). He didn’t end every at bat with a hit, but evidence shows that rituals can regulate our brain’s response to failure, making us more resilient in the long run.

Interestingly, the more you stress someone out, the more likely it is that they will double down on ritual behavior to soothe themselves. This is where rituals start to get conflated with superstitions. Sometimes there’s very little to distinguish them. For example, Serena Williams ties her shoes the same way before every match. That’s a ritual. She also wears the same unwashed socks for each match during a tournament. That’s more of a superstition. One action has a calming effect, while the other is simply a means of trying to hold onto a bit of good luck. (But good luck if you try to find a reliable way to show that the latter is not a ritual.)

Lest you think an athlete’s ritual is purely for the athlete’s own benefit, consider LeBron James’ old pregame chalk toss at the scorer’s table. Originally a practical way to help keep his hands dry, fans eventually expected to see him grab talcum powder before each game. He turned it into a ritual by throwing it into the air just before tip-off to get the crowd involved and excited. When he returned to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers after a turn with the Miami Heat, all of the fans joined him in the ritual before his first home game. This kind of behavioral synchronization has been shown to release endorphins.

The Benefits of Rituals, From the Business World to the Bathtub

Rituals can modulate our heart rates to soothe anxiety, offer us some sense of control over the world, lead to pleasant feelings through the release of chemicals, offer social benefits, and even improve our cognitive and physical performance. So it’s only natural that we would want to cultivate them. It’s also no surprise that ritual is now a big business. Marketing executives learn how to understand their customers’ engagement with rituals and write about how this is the key to lasting brand engagement. Some rituals were even created by the marketing industry—for example, Kellogg’s made eating cereal a morning ritual for millions of people.

[Read: “Create an Intentional Morning Routine.”]

Researchers from the University of Minnesota and Harvard Business School found that associating products with rituals increases our consumption of those products. They proved it quite literally with chocolate. In one experiment, subjects who engaged in ritualized behavior while eating chocolate “evaluated chocolate as more flavorful, valuable, and deserving of behavioral savoring.” Random gestures didn’t have the same effect, only prescribed rituals that involved specific instructions on how to unwrap the bar and break it up in a specific way. You can do the same thing with a carrot—add a ritual, and people report that the carrot tastes better.

The business world has managed to turn this ritual manipulation back onto itself as well—that’s how alluring rituals are. Companies spend big bucks instituting rituals in the workplace for team building and to increase employee loyalty.

Harnessing the Power of Ritual for Health

Ted Kaptchuk is professor of medicine and professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School and the director of Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS) at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He has studied the relationship between medical placebos and ritual, which makes a lot of sense when you realize that medical encounters contain a lot of ritual elements (some might even say theater).

Kaptchuk points out that rituals have neurobiological effects that can result in healing (such as stimulating the production of neurotransmitters that can affect the body’s immune response).

But even mainstream biomedicine “with powerful medications has a ritual component that is clinically significant.” That’s not to say we should abandon pharmaceuticals in favor of chanting, but, as Kaptchuk says, simply to point out that “it seems that if the mind can be persuaded, the body can sometimes act accordingly.”

If you want to harness the power of ritual for yourself, the most important thing to know is that your actions must be meaningful to you. Your ritual need not be public, social, or even celebratory. You can just set an intention, choose your ritual actions, and repeat, or you can take something you already value and enjoy and deliberately make it part of your day. Every day.

Read more about how scientists are using ancient rituals to unlock the mysteries of the human brain.

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