Lessons From Extreme Rituals: An Interview With Dimitris Xygalatas, PhD
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Why do so many ordinary people regularly participate in painful religious rites? Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas explores the answer.
Dimitris Xygalatas, PhD, runs a unique lab at the University of Connecticut that gathers data from around the world to answer a very big question: Why do so many ordinary people regularly participate in painful religious rites?
We caught up with Dr. Xygalatas while he was doing research on the island of Mauritius, a remote former British colony where devotees of the world’s major religions go to extremes.
Your Experimental Anthropology program sounds like a lot of fun.
I think so. We work both in and out of the lab. The purpose of the lab is to develop the methods and the technologies that we can apply in real-life situations. We have done studies in football stadiums in Brazil, basketball stadiums in the US, at fire-walking rituals in Spain, and at religious temples in Turkey—and of course lots of studies here on Mauritius. I have a big team of students with me now, both an educational program for undergraduates to learn the methods and a group of graduate students doing research.
I did my doctoral fieldwork in Greece and Spain on fire-walking rituals. In Greece, they dance for the better part of three days at the brink of collapse, and at the end of that they walk on fire—repeatedly. It’s extremely stressful. When I placed physiological monitors on these people, I saw heart rates of 240 beats per minute before going into the fire. So, 240 beats per minute was just the anticipation—which seems crazy.
After that, I wanted to explore rituals that were even more extreme, more painful. I wanted to find the most extreme rituals because of the biggest question I was asking: Why do people engage in things that appear to be pointless, wasteful, or risky? This is a puzzle for any ritual you look at, but it’s a bigger puzzle with a very painful ritual. Why do people do things that involve so much suffering and that might be dangerous?
I scanned the ethnographic record and came across all kinds of painful rituals, but I decided on the Hindu Thaipusam Kavadi festival, because it is one of the most widely performed extremely painful rituals in the world. People put needles and skewers through their cheeks. They build enormous altars called kavadi that can weigh up to 100 pounds and put them on their shoulders. Then they walk barefoot under the scorching sun to the temple. You find it wherever you have members of the South Indian diaspora.
Then I started picking sites. I didn’t choose India because those rituals are massive there. Instead, I wanted a small place that was relatively isolated so that I could go back and meet the same people again and again and again. I came here first in 2009 and have been back every year, and I do meet the same people. So that’s one of the reasons I chose Mauritius.
The other reason is that it’s one of the most diverse societies on the planet. All of the major religions are represented here, and often in their extremes. If you’re somebody who studies ritual and religion, you can observe a different ritual every day for a whole year. You’ll never be bored.
It sounds painful to watch.
To be sure, these are not easy spectacles to watch. Over the years I have seen students and members of my research team feel sick, cry, or collapse at the sight of these piercings. … I often have to resort to looking through my camera: the lens provides a sense of distance. But these people are just like you and me, and they do this very seriously.
Is there a competition to see who has the most extreme ritual?
It’s not explicit, but I clearly see this happening. If you ask people, they’re never going to say, yes, we’re competing. But they comment on these things. They watch YouTube, for example, and take pride that their kavadi are bigger than the ones in Singapore. I saw the same thing in Spain. The fire-walking community sent a delegation to Greece and when they came back they were very proud to announce that their own fires are bigger and burn at a higher temperature. Their fires are fiercer.
And the reason for this is social cohesion?
That’s one reason, or at least one outcome. Anthropologists have known about this for over a hundred years, but a lot of these things have never been quantified. My approach has been to bring the lab into the field. So, when we talk to participants in these rituals and they say that their rituals make them feel like one, we measure that feeling of oneness by looking at their physiological states. And what we’re finding are not just extreme heart rates among the participants but synchrony with their loved ones, who suffer vicariously because they see their loved ones in pain. And in other studies, we are finding that the heart rate synchrony is predictive of how meaningful the experience is for them, and also how close they feel to each other—how much social cohesion there is among the group.
We’ve also looked at rituals at the behavioral level. We’ve done studies where we set up some charity task, and we’ve found that when people take part in a collective ritual, they become more generous. They give more money to charity. And when they take part in a very painful ritual, they’re even more generous—and it applies to their loved ones as well. So, on the day of a very painful ritual, the entire community becomes more generous.
We’re also seeing that this effect is exclusive to the community. It’s not like some foreigner can just walk in and take part in this ritual and suddenly bond with these people. Outsiders do not have the same journey in their emotions. They do not have the same level of bonding. You have to be a member of the community to fully experience what it means to perform the ritual.
You also used a dating app to show that the people who went through the most extreme rituals were considered the best prospective partners.
Yes. It’s much like male birds that signal their fitness with flamboyant feathers and rituals so the females will choose them. But human rituals signal other things as well. One of the most important things they signal is adherence to the norms and the mores of a community. The idea here is that if I’m willing to put a skewer through my face or to walk on fire because that’s what this group does, then I must be truly committed to this group. And that allows other members of the community to judge who are the most committed individuals. Several previous studies have shown that this is the case when people pick cooperative partners, but no other study had examined perceptions of mate value. So, we created these dating profiles.
We did a photo shoot with young men, and we changed the background to suggest that they had taken part in a painful ritual, a non-painful ritual, or no ritual at all. And we showed the pictures not just to young, unmarried girls, but also to their parents because marriage has traditionally been used as a tool for strategic alliance building. In other words, it was the family who decided on who their children were going to marry. This was true even for my parents’ generation in Greece, and it’s true today in Mauritius. Using the dating app, we found that participating in collective rituals raises one’s status as a potential mate, not just to the opposite sex, but also to their parents.
In your book, you write about Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, and the idea that ritual was the spark that created civilization.
Yes. This is a very provocative idea first proposed by the archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. Göbekli Tepe is 12,000 years old. This site is not just the oldest religious monument, but the oldest monument of any type that we have. And it’s enormous, with megaliths that weigh up to 20 tons. To carve these giant stones and carry them from the quarry and put them in place required hundreds if not thousands of individuals to work over many years. And at the time this was being built, there were no permanent settlements anywhere. These people were hunter-gatherers. The evidence suggests some pilgrims traveled thousands of miles to visit the place.
Before the excavation of Göbekli Tepe, the traditional narrative is that our ancestors first engaged in permanent settlement for agriculture, and that agriculture led to surplus food that allowed for cities with a dedicated clergy and the building of temples. But according to Schmidt, it may have been the other way around. Schmidt proposed the temple came before the city and before farming. Why? because people—like many other animals—have an innate thirst for ritual. People began building a ritual temple at Göbekli Tepe and it became so enormous and drew so many pilgrims that eventually they had to start growing crops and corralling animals in order to support the growing clergy and the large number of pilgrims. In other words, we evolved as a ritual animal and ritual led to modern civilization. That turns what we thought we knew about human history on its head.
You also write that human babies have an innate capacity for ritual.
Yes. This is yet another line of evidence suggesting that we evolved as a ritual animal.
Right now, I have a two-year-old son, and I can see he’s going through a phase of hyper-routinization: He wants everything to be done in a very specific way. He will go and fetch my hat and tell me to put it on, and I must in exactly the right way or he’ll get upset. He is obsessed with this kind of routinization and OCD-like repetition—and there’s a very good reason. It’s very important for us as social animals to imitate other people precisely. For example, there are studies that show that when you compare young children with chimpanzees and you get them to perform an action in which some of the steps are not necessary to achieve the outcome, the chimps will cut to the chase. The chimps will skip the unnecessary steps and just do what they have to do to get their treat. But young children don’t skip steps. They imitate precisely.
We imitate even more than monkeys?
Yes. That’s very important if you think about it. As a young child growing up in an ancestral environment, there’s danger everywhere. You don’t know what foods you’re supposed to eat and what might be poisonous. So, the safest thing is to do is exactly what other people are doing. And the same goes for adults. When we follow a traditional recipe, we typically don’t question the why of the recipe. We just do it because that’s how people have done it. And a reason for that, as anthropologist Joseph Heinrich notes, is that in some traditional recipes If you don’t follow one step, you might fail to deactivate a poison, and then you might die. You don’t have to know why. No single individual has to know why we do these things in this way. But doing them in this way sometimes can be a matter of life or death.
So ritual is a very efficient way of passing on a lot of knowledge?
Yes. We are all imitators. This ritual function comes very naturally. We see this across other species as well. We see it in birds. We see it in apes.
You write that the structure of ritual also helps reduce anxiety—and the reason goes all the way back to the way our brain evolved.
Yes. We used to think of the brain as a computational device: Input in, output out. Now, we tend to think of the brain as a predictive device that actively makes inferences about the state of the world. For example, the brain constantly fills in the blind spot in our vision. Our brain takes contextual information from prior knowledge and tries to predict what’s missing so we don’t even realize we have a blind spot. This sort of prediction happens in a number of different ways. It’s a very efficient cognitive architecture.
But a byproduct is that when we don’t have enough information to make those predictions, when we don’t know what to anticipate, when there’s uncertainty in our environment, we experience this as stress or anxiety. And that’s where ritual comes in. Ritual, by its very nature, is structure. It’s very repetitive, it’s very rigid. Ritual has to be done the same way, and it has to be done again and again. Its very predictability helps our brain so we can function better. So, when everything around you is collapsing, or when you have no idea what to expect, performing repetitive rituals gives a sense of control, a sense of repetition, a sense of predict-ability. Ritual action is typical in times of warfare or illness. It’s typical for gamblers and typical for athletes. It’s typical whenever there’s a lot of uncertainty.
This is not just a theory. We tested this theory in several steps. The first thing was to bring people into our lab and put them under stress while motion sensors measured their behaviors. What we saw is that stress caused the people to engage in action patterns that were repetitive. This tells us the first step that we needed to know. It confirms that when we are very stressed, we turn to ritual.
The next step to answer this question happened on this island five years ago. We went to Hindu temples and placed physiological monitors on people as they were going into those temples to perform their weekly prayers. And we found that when people perform these rituals, they have increased heart rate variability compared to a control group, which shows that they’re better able to cope with stress physiologically. The same was true of the self-report level. Their perceived anxieties were also lower than the control group.
We did another study in my lab in Connecticut where we collected saliva and hair samples, which allows us to trace cortisol levels both in the short term and in the long term as a test for stress. And once again, we saw that people who take part in more rituals had lower levels of stress and chronic anxiety.
We just finished another study in the lab that looked at components of ritual. We had people engage in a stressful task and then either engage in very repetitive motions and utterances or engage in the same number of actions and utterances that were less structured. And once again, we found that more structured—more ritualistic—actions and utterances helped people reduce anxiety.
So what about adding extreme measures to a ritual?
That’s one of the most fascinating things I found. It’s obvious why people meditate, for example. Or why they do yoga and all sorts of other practices that religious systems have developed over thousands of years. But it’s not just those soothing rituals that have benefits. It also works for rituals that seem at first glance to be directly harmful.
Again and again, we see that when people engage in these extreme rituals, it increases their wellbeing and their quality of life, both for themselves and for their communities. We especially see benefits in people who suffer from depression and anxiety. The other thing we see is that those people who suffer from depression and anxiety are more likely to engage in the more painful versions of the ritual. And the last thing we’re seeing—and we measure this by many different metrics—is that those who suffer the most reap the greatest benefits.