To watch people performing rituals can look very strange if you do not know the background and the meanings behind them. It might even look funny, scary or just confusing. Experiencing different cultures can sometimes force us to deal with habits we find hard to relate to. A socialist brother’s kiss can seem odd to western minds like it can be obnoxious to Muslims if a catholic woman does not cover her hair. It can look brutal if indigenous people in Africa pierce their lips with spits of wood for initiation ceremonies like it will probably seem weird to them to watch a typical German marriage. The latest discussions about circumcision in Judaism have shown clearly how heated a debate can get about maintaing a religious tradition on one side and factual bodily harm on the other.
Ritualistic behavior can even appear in a pathological form as a compulsive disorder. To feel the urge to wash your hands every time after you have touched other peoples things or to count the steps of every stairway your walk up or down or to return to your apartement to check if you have really switched of the iron can either be a little quirk or turn into a heavy burden. Compulsive behavior can occur as a failure of coping with a too high amount of emotional impulses.
Sometimes we are not even aware of rituals we perform every day. The order of actions you perform before you leave your house, the fact that you turn the key twice instead of once or the habit to kiss your partner on the forehead before he or she leaves the house is already a kind of ritualistic behavior although it might lack the sphere of “not-part-of-daily-reality”. The latter is often emphasized in religious or spiritual rituals and in fact the whole setting in which ceremonial rituals are performed serve the purpose of raising the ritualized event above the daily routine. Special clothing, ritual items, certain music, candle light, decoration, scents are all part of this ceremonial act. Rituals have a spiritual, a social, and last but not least a neurological dimension.
I am sure the spiritual dimension will find attention by my fellow KRT posters so I would like to concentrate more on the neurologic dimension and add the psychological and sociological one.
The fact that humans perform rituals is actually determined by our brain functions and – like everything about anatomy and physiology – nothing ever occurs without a complex meaning. Rituals or ritualistic patterns are absolutely natural and they are essential for us to function as human beings.
Brain and ritual
To understand the neurological side of rituals we need to take a closer look at the brain areas involved into establishing and performing ritualistic action. A very important brain section is the long-term memory consisting of procedural memory, episodic memory, autobiographical memory, semantic memory and others which are less important for this purpose. Another important brain area is the most aware part of the brain the prefrontal cortex which deals with planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and social behavior. It is the location of our daily awareness and the brain activity we identify most with. This is already an interesting phenomenon because the prefrontal cortex belongs to the evolutionary youngest parts of our brains and therefore usually has the lower priority. This is why we can sometimes successfully boycott ourselves with impulses from “older” brain sections (mid brain) which usually stay beyond awareness but violate our conscious decisions by activating complex emotional patterns. By performing rituals we actually refer to a lot more brain sections than just the prefrontal cortex which can help us to bring all our different brain areas into line.
The long-term memory is assumed to be located in the medial temporal lobe so basically the brain area which lies exactly below the temporal bone. This part of the brain is the information storage place and it is closely connected to the hippocampus which lies in the center of the brain. The hippocampus decides if and how data will be stored.
The procedural memory controls processes beyond awareness which include performances we have once learned and which can also include motoric actions like riding a bike or playing an instrument. Many rituals include movement so be performing those movements repeatedly we refer to our long-term memory, stimulate it and can recall the information that lies within this brain section.
The episodic memory stores what has happened when and where. So the episodic brain can create a mental connection to the past and former circumstances to presence. This is of high importance for personal identification. Especially in connection with the autobiographical memory.
The autobiographical memory contains information of high emotional quality. This works both ways because the emotion itself can be recalled later and the amount of emotion also determines how well an event will be remembered. Events that are emotionally highly charged will be remembered more clearly together with the emotional coloring. Since this memory is autobiographical it is also of high importance for a sense of personal identity. By performing rituals this brain part is also stimulated and the brain sections of daily awareness recall the emotional information stored in the autobiographical memory. Another brain area participating in this function is the amygdala. The amygdala is also involved in cognitive skills. The meaning of the emotional state shows in the fact that positive excitement (induced by the dopamine system) evidently has a supportive effect on the process of learning.
Another important memory involved in ritualistic actions is the semantic memory which also belongs to the long-term memory and contains meanings. Those meanings can either refer to linguistic meanings but also to symbolic meanings. So by including speech or symbols into rituals these brain parts will be activated as well.
Our neurological “living room”
The brain part of our daily awareness – which we identify most with – is the prefrontal cortex. It takes care of the rational information processing and is the interface between our inner processes and what takes place outside us. Every interaction with the world that surrounds us passes this important brain area. The prefrontal cortex is also regarded as a gating or filtering mechanism that controls goal-directed actions and irrelevant actions and is therefore an essential brain center for cognitive processes and executive functions. Dysfunctions in this area can e.g. lead to inappropriate erratic behavior as known for ADHD patients (also refered to as “strioatofrontal dysfunction” a part of the prefrontal cortex).
Hippocampus – an information filter
The prefrontal cortex is not directly tied to the long-term memory brain parts and therefore stores information only for a short time. What reaches the long-term memory will be decided by the hippocampus and relates to the number of repetition of single actions as well as to the amount of emotion connected to this data. Once a process pattern has reached the brain parts of the long-term memory it remains there and can be recalled over and over again. Specific synaptic connection are being established and the brain builds it’s own functional information networks depending on which actions and information pathways are needed for the individual human being.
The hippocampus together with the aforementioned amygdala is also part of the limbic system which is primarily important for emotional life. The limbic system supports a variety of functions such as emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory, and olfaction. The reward system, the centers for sexual arousal, the “flight-or-fight-system”, and important control centers for the hormone system are located here. So by performing rituals we do not only refer to our rational aware thinking but also to our emotional sphere and to what can be described as intuition or “gut feeling” – the latter is actually located in the brain but since the autonomic nervous system is closely related to our inner organs and both in the thorax and the abdomen it is often projected there and referred to as the “gut feeling”. So by feeling our heart rate increasing, our breathing getting heavier or our intestines getting “nervous” we actually realize the effect of our autonomous nervous system which stimulates our inner organs.
Neuroplasticity and rituals
Establishing those functional networks takes place in a way that can be explained with “traces in the snow” as explained by Prof. Manfred Spitzer, Head of the Psychiatrical University Clinic in Ulm/Germany.
Imagine you are standing at a field in the morning which is covered by an evenly still untouched snow blanket. The day passes by and people come and go walking over this field. The first person to walk over the field will choose a certain route to walk depending on the floor conditions, personal walking preferences, things which attract his attention etc. The next person is likely to use the footsteps of the first person but might vary the route slightly. So at the end of the day you will find a certain network of routes across the snowfield. The paths that have been used the most will be the ones which are paved best by peoples feet and are more likely to be used than those only one or two persons have followed.
The same thing happens in your brain. The people walking over the field are the informations that are being processed in your brain and the traces they leave are the synaptical connections being set up in your brain between the single brain sections. The synaptical pathways which have been used most frequently will be quicker and more easily activated than those hardly used. This process is also called neuroplasticity or long-term potentiation (LTP). The human brain maintains this opportunity in order to allow individual adjustment to outer circumstances as much as possible without being determined by instincts and automatic behavior.
Neuroplasticity exonerates the aware brain parts which thus will gain a higher capacity for conscious processes needed for our daily interaction with our environment. So by performing repetitive rituals we actually shape physically our brain and our synaptic pathways. By including not only the brain areas for daily awareness and social interaction but also our long-term memory and emotional centers, we increase and improve the connections within our brains which leads to a deeper and more intense experience of reality and in the end, of course, spirituality. We connect to information of a high importance to our feeling of identity by connecting to the information stored in our long-term memory. Memories which form our individual personality and our very special way of thinking and acting.
“Rituals are necessary to connect the only implicitly
experiencable social realities to the sensory perceivable world”.
(Wolf Singer, Neuroscientist)
Sensory system and rituals
Senses perceive stimulation from outside and translate them into primary perceptions which are interpreted as objective and “real” impressions of the outer world but actually depend on which pathways the brain has established.
An important part in the brain that controls the sensory system for “touch” in a broader sense is the so called somatosensory system also known as the “homunculus”.
“Touch” in a medical sense is mostly replaced by “somatic senses” which includes a lot more than the fact that your skin can perceive being touched. It includes nociception, temperature, proprioception, mechanoception, haptic perception. The homunculus contains a “blueprint” of the current position and situation of the body and its outer influences.
So even movement, rough or soft touch, temperature, experiencing pain or the texture of the clothes worn during rituals has a high influence on the somatosensory system.
And our perception is anything but neutral. It is influenced and shaped by the information we have stored and the synaptic connections we have already build and basically all we do is compare the incoming information to our individual mental patterns and categorize it accordingly.
Rituals include movement, body language, repetitive actions and information (text, liturgies, songs etc.), scents, sound, light, social interaction if the rituals are performed by more than one person. So by also stimulating the sensory system while performing rituals we connect and stimulate a lot more brain sections than plain rational information processing.
Another important function located in the somatosensory cortex together with the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area and the inferior parietal cortex is empathy. These areas all contain neurons which are commonly known as “mirror neurons”. So the ability to read other people’s emotions, estimate their behavior, interpret facial expressions and imitate their performances lies here and is closely connected to the sensory system. By interacting with other people while performing rituals the sensory system together with the mirror neurons provide an enormous possibility of using a nonverbal, intuitive communication which also has a deep impact on our emotional brain centers and personal identification.
Learning by imitation
Imitation is the earliest form of learning a human being is able to accomplish. Before a baby is able to express itself via spoken language it will use sign language, facial expression, body language and refer to a more intuitive non-verbal form of social interaction. This kind of communication is still present in adult humans but is being masked by verbal language. Yet it still has a deep impact on our social interaction and the included emotions. To watch rituals being performed enables the observer to imitate those actions and learn them quickly and thus become part of the community by adopting their social markers. Since rituals are perceptible to far more brain centers than just the rational information processing social bonding is quicker, deeper and as such more stable.
Social meanings of rituals
Within a community rituals can be an effective tool to create a mutual social sphere that include sensory perception and emotional experience in which the specific religious contents – as provided my myths, texts, prayers, songs etc. can be embedded. Rituals allow to bring a larger number of human minds into line and work synchronically.
Since those functions include the memory centers a sphere of social identification and social memory can be established which creates the foundation for mutual spiritual activity as well as a spiritual group identity which can finally develop into an actual religious system.
Rituals offer a comprehensive social structure which provides the safety and stability to experience strong emotions, deep sensory perceptions, challenging spiritual experiences embedded into the coherence of a group. It will stabilize the individual being in his or her experiences and support the closeness of the group.
It is not surprising that events which create a high amount of emotionality or have a deep social meaning have a strong tendency to become ritualized and as such standardized within social groups. Birth and death, marriage, good-byes, initiation rituals, the shift from childhood to adulthood, etc. most of those events take place in a ritualized, ceremonial form to raise them from every days reality into a sphere of a higher consciousness and make them experiencable in a social setting. Humans are social beings by nature so intense experiences can overwhelm the individual und create the need to express and share them. A social surrounding participating empathically can provide a stable support and feeling of safety to be able to take the challenge of unsettling life events.
Social inclusion also for single practitioners
But also if practiced alone rituals can still create a feeling of belonging in a much deeper and intense quality than mere reading of texts could ever do. So even if a community is only virtual (e.g. on the internet) the regular performance of rituals can help to shape and support a feeling of community and improve the group identification. The more simplistic the rituals are and the more often they are being performed the better this works. A high frequency of performance together with consistency of how the ritual is structured creates a “trust capital” i.e. a feeling of reliability can be established within the individual in advance without needing rational “evidence” for it. The fact that certain rituals show consistency throughout time makes a non-verbal statement about the consistency of the group itself and will as such subconsciously be perceived by the individual participating in the group activity and social structure. So rituals can in the end be considered as social markers stating a group identity and demonstrating their consistency.
Ritual and religion
Religious and spiritual life is about experiencing the extraordinary, the challenging and the transforming. Both as a single practitioner or participating in a group (or even both) rituals are enormously helpful to provide the inner stability together with an open mind and a high consciousness to encounter the core of your believes. No matter if you believe in a concept of enlightenment, in one or more deities or into an inspirited nature a ritualized approach will help you to focus the full integrity of your awareness and personality on this experience. And this is anything but an unrealistic concept. It is actually physically taking place in your brain. Modern neurology and psychology has come a long way today and is able to explain and prove a lot of appearances our ancestors could only assume and describe from an empiric point of view. To neglect the importance of rituals only because their inner meaning does not reveal itself to you immediately would be very short-sighted and the overemphasis of a pure rational approach to religion would cut off important parts of spiritual experiences and the qualities a practised religion can actually provide. So even if rituals are simple and small their regularity already has an amazing effect on the integrity of your single systems of perception.
Life without rituals?
Our lives do not function without rituals – whether we want it or not. But by creating and performing daily rituals we can actually shape and train our brains and improve our perception for a deeper experience of our reality and spirituality. They can help us to develop more empathy and social competence. And they can provide us a reliable mental structure we need to encounter challenging and transforming experiences.
We can not only connect to our own past, we can also connect to the past of our ancestors and to the people who have lived thousands of years ago whom we consider as our religious soul mates follwing the same tradition. By performing rituals similar to those which have been performed in the past and adding the historical and mythical contents we can study with historical sources and literature we have an amazing chance to experience what people in ancient times have experienced living their very own religious believes and not only pass on empty actions but also the everlasting living faith which lies hidden within a tradition.
Rituals are a timeless container to preserve the unspeakable and unexplainable, and to encounter these phenomena by performing rites can be an almost magical, deeply spiritual experience. By including rituals into our daily practise we can open our very own little gateway into the immortality of the religion we follow and contribute our very own part in maintaining it.
SdW spezial 1/11:
Wolf Singer, “Ein notwendiges Produkt unserer Evolution”
Frank Schubert, Interview with Hannah Monyer “Rituale haben einen höheren Sinn”
Harvey Whitehouse, “Der Sinn von Ritualen”
SFB 619 Ritualdynamik
Martin Trepel, Neuroanatomie ISBN-10: 343741299X