Our Brains are Wired for Ritual

Currently, there are many books out about how to break a habit or to make a habit. The idea is that if we can learn to build the habits we want to, we will have a life more like the one we wish to live.

Wired BrainThat’s not quite accurate. A habit is something that you do repeatedly in the same way without really thinking about it. Certainly there are habits that benefit you. One that I can think of right off is placing your car keys in that same place every time you come home. It is helpful but it doesn’t make my life that much more like the one in my wishes.

What you want to build are rituals that make you feel good and point out your life’s purpose. You may wonder about the difference because it is subtle. What is a habit for one person, may be a ritual for another.

For example, if every time I enter a catholic church, I dutifully dip my fingers in the holy water and make the sign of the cross and take my seat without another thought about it, I have repeated a habit and it has changed nothing except to get some water on my clothes and perhaps my skin.

If instead, I enter the church, dip my fingers thoughtfully into the holy water being keenly aware that a priest has taken the time and faith to pray a blessing over the water and that this water has been stored and carried with care and hope, you will be a different person when you take your place among the congregation.

You may find it odd that an atheist philosophy uses a religious example to show the difference between habit and ritual, but this is one thing that non-believers are missing out on. Rituals have real power when taken in the context of living mindfully.

We get more out of everything in life if we can do it mindfully. We actually live in the moment instead of waiting until something else happens before we can be fully involved.

For example, if I spend time at work meeting and greeting clients, getting to know something about them and helping them meet their needs, then I have not waited until work is over to live my life. I have been living it all day long. It is true that when work is over I many have more time to spend as I please, but I didn’t go through the day without interacting with the universe.

I live with a pack rat and I have a chronic pain disorder. Not to mention that we both have ADHD. Our house is horribly messy – even dirty. I am always reading books on getting organize and declutter. 

The most effective way I have found to make any progress has been to develop a ritual that gets me through a morning somewhat productively.

It goes like this:

At night before I go to bed, I make sure I have a beverage with which to take pills. Then in the morning I lean over and:

  • Take medications
  • Play with dogs
  • Make bed
  • Get dressed and ready down to the shoes – hair, face, brush teeth
  • Swish and swipe bathroom
  • Empty dishwasher
  • Sort a load of laundry         Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Then I have another little ritual that I’m trying to work in:

  • Declutter for 15 minutes
  • 15 minute walk
  • Clean this weeks “mission” area for 30 minutes.

I play with the dogs while my pain medication kicks in. Getting ready to my shoes is to help keep me from going back to bed.  These peculiar and custom activities put me in a particular state of mind and makes me feel a part of the greater society that gets things done automatically a characteristic that I don’t share with the rest of our culture. This ritual reminds me of who I am and make me feel a part of the greater society.

Rituals take an amazingly broad array of shapes and forms. They can be performed in groups or as individuals, such as my morning ritual. Sometimes they are made up of repeated actions and sometimes not.

We participate in rituals with a wide variety of expected results.

According to Gino and Norton, in an article published by Scientific American, research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Even simple rituals are amazingly effective. They even seem to be effective for people who don’t even believe in the ritual in which they are participating.

“‘Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Our research suggests they do. In one of our experiments, we asked people to recall and write about the death of a loved one or the end of a close relationship. Some also wrote about a ritual they performed after experiencing the loss…” Gino and Norton

Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton are behavioral scientists and professors at Harvard Business School. Francesca is the author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). Michael is the coauthor – with Elizabeth Dunn – of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Here is a ritual that will help you the next time you are distressed about something:

Take a piece of paper and draw how you feel about whatever has you upset. Take about three minutes. Now take that paper and tear it into the tiniest pieces that you can. Take the pieces and place them in a small fireproof container and burn it.

Research shows that those who perform such mundane rituals will cope with their distressed emotions better than those who have no ritual.

One study compares two groups of golfers.  One group was told that they had a lucky golf ball .The other just told to play golf. The group with the lucky golf balls played better than their own averages and beat the other team.

Research on the relationship between the brain and our experiences of prayer, meditation, story and liturgy is a step forward in the study of religion. Previously, religious behavior was thought to be purely cultural. Now we know there are biological reasons for many kinds of religious activities.

The brain has a built in tendency to turn all thoughts into actions, according to the researchers, Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene d’Aquili, both physicians at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Recently, the National Institutes of Health reported on a study conducted in Brazil where researchers studied people who perform simple rituals that are used for solving problems such as quitting smoking, curing asthma, and warding off bad luck. People perceive simplistic to be more effective depending on the number of steps involved, the repetition of procedures, and whether the steps are performed at a specified time.

While more research is needed, these intriguing results suggest that the specifics of hundreds of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals built altars and conducted funeral ceremonies. This behavior shows that as soon as hominid brains got big and complex enough for self-awareness, we began to wonder about the mysteries and problems of existence, and found some resolution in story and ritual.

It would be no surprise that the brain wills us to act out our stories. “The ideas these stories convey about fate, death, and the nature of the human life-force, would certainly get our attention.” Newberg and d’Aquili write in their 1999 book, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Fortress Press). Combine the neurological functions and the meaningful context, and we have the source of ritual’s power.

Humans feel uncertain and anxious in a number of situations beyond laboratory experiments and sports – like charting new terrain. In the late 1940s, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski lived among the inhabitants of islands in the South Pacific Ocean. When natives went fishing in the turbulent, shark-filled waters beyond the reef, they performed certain rituals to invoke magical powers for their safety and protection. When they fished in the calm waters of a lagoon, they treated the fishing trip as an ordinary event and didn’t perform any rituals. Malinowski suggested that people are more likely to turn to rituals when they face situations where the outcome is important, uncertain, and beyond their control.

As humans, we share a deep need for ritual and connection, especially at times of major change. Ceremony helps us embrace the stages of our lives in a positive and exciting way.

You can create and experience personal rituals where you can find strength and comfort in your life, gain perspective, and move deliberately into your future. Through meaningful ceremonies, you and your cohorts can make meaning from your lives.

Our brains are wired for Ritual!

If you have some ritual that you use to calm upsetting feelings, I’d love to hear from you. Use the Comment form below or email me at rituals@ritualhumanism.org.


Next is Your First Ritual.