Rituals Affect Your Brain
Have you ever wondered why rituals play such a significant role in religion? It turns out that the brain is designed to act out our thoughts, and we learn by combining movement with cognition. This is why we move our hands while talking. The same applies to religion because we have a biological need to act out our myths. But what exactly is the connection between rituals and the brain?
The Three Levels of Understanding
It’s important to understand that we have three levels of understanding the world around us: cognitive, visceral, and emotional. The cognitive process is probably what you think of when you hear the word “understanding.” But when you feel intense happiness or a sense of awe, that’s an example of emotional understanding. When you think about an experience in which you have truly felt something throughout your body – maybe you felt great happiness or joy, but it wasn’t just an emotion – that’s an example of visceral understanding. Rituals help us connect these visceral and emotional levels of understanding to the cognitive part of our brain.
Common Elements of Rituals
Many scholars have struggled with defining the term “ritual,” but rituals generally appear to have several common elements. For instance, rituals are structured or patterned behaviors that capitalize on repetition and rhythmicity. Most rituals have a very specific structure in terms of what is done, how it is done, what objects are used, and how it connects to a particular idea or myth. Think of holy communion in Christianity: a person typically walks to where the priest is standing, kneels or genuflects before the priest, receives the wafer, and drinks the wine. This is a very structured ritual, which combines physical actions with the notion of ingesting Christ’s body and blood, giving the concept a much more powerful emphasis.
Repetition and rhythmicity over generations reinforce the binding of rituals to associated ideas and stories, allowing for the synchronization of emotional, perceptual-cognitive, and motor processes within the central nervous system of individual participants. Moreover, the synchronization of rhythms through rituals connects one individual to another and even to entire communities. Rhythms physically affect the body with emotions that become tied to religious thoughts. This is why you may have felt those warm, fuzzy butterflies course through your body when participating in corporate worship services or when a group of people anoint you with oil and then lay their hands on you.
By combining cognitive processes with movements, rituals help people assimilate the visceral and emotional parts of the religion's mythology into their own bodies. As such, rituals offer a strong connection to myths and ideas with the potential to transform the way we think about our personal connection to those myths over time.