Why Do People Perform Ritual? It's an Excellent Method of Self-Improvement

Doing ritual, whether it's a religious ceremony or a simple greeting on the street, is a powerful way to break bad habits and improve our lives, says Harvard historian Michael Puett.

Michael Puett:  A lot of our philosophers have what would seem to us a very counterintuitive idea of how to break patterns. Among the key things they will say are rituals. Now we often find rituals to be a bad thing. Some of them are okay, you know, prayer ritual presumably is a nice thing and a family get together on a holiday. But the idea of doing lots of rituals over the course of the day strikes us as archaic. It’s things that traditional people used to have to do. And we tend to think it’s good for us that we don’t have to do it because if we’re going to be sincere and true and authentic to ourselves we don’t want rituals that tell us what to do. Well again let’s suppose for a second that perhaps our philosophers are on to something. That we are just these patterned creatures and these patterns are potentially very dangerous. So how do we break them? That’s why you do rituals. What rituals do is they force you for a brief moment to become a different person and interact with those around you in a different way. So for that brief moment suddenly you’re no longer repeating the same old patterns, you’re doing something else and what they argued was it’s that break that really matters. Let me give you an absurdly mundane example. Typical of one in America is we see someone that we sort of know and we say, you know, we’re going through the usual day, our anxieties, fears, angers, blah, blah, blah are typical patterns in this language.

And then we see someone and we say oh hey, how’s it going? And the other person goes oh pretty good. How are you? And we say oh yeah, I’m pretty good too and then we walk off. Now if you think about it you might think well it’s sort of silly that we do that because that’s inauthentic. I’m actually not feeling pretty good right then. But if you think of it as a ritual it’s actually a very good thing to do and we should even do it more fully. Because then what you’re doing is you’re breaking out of that standard set of patterns of the ways you’re going about the day. For that brief moment and I’ll use their language you enter a ritual space. You’re connecting with someone. Things are going well. You’re connecting with this person perfectly. It breaks you out of those patterns. And then if you’re doing that sort of thing, these little seemingly meaningless rituals over the course of a day consistently you’re breaking yourself out of these little patterns and opening up other possibilities. And they would argue that is why ritual matters. It breaks us out of patterns. We enter it to it as a space. We act as if we are a different person with a different set of emotions interacting with those around us in a different way and that is, over time, how you break these patterns.

So this may seem somewhat odd if we’re entering into a ritual which of course gives us different patterns of interaction. How is that actually going to improve the fact that we are doing other patterns outside of it. Well here’s there full argument. If we are going throughout our days they would argue simply repeating these same patterns – interacting with people based on our same standard responses, our same standard habits. What ritual will do is break those patterns. They will give you new patterns but the argument they would make is it’s not that the ritual patterns are the right one. It’s the break they care about. Now let’s go back to the greeting example. I see someone. Oh things are fine. I connect for that brief moment. Then of course that person passes and I return to my usual patterns. In their language I return – I leave the ritual space. But the point is you keep going back. In other words you keep doing these little rituals over and over again. The way you greet someone. The way you shift a language if you’re talking to someone. And it’s those little breaks, those little shifts that make a difference over the course of a day. Then where would that take you? Well where it takes you they would argue is over time you begin to get a sense of the ways that little things you do are affecting others. That these patterns we’re playing out or bringing out certain responses in those around us and you begin to gain the power to alter those.

So you have a standard argument that one always has with one’s partner. And that person says something. It makes me angry. That makes that person angry and we go through the same thing. We know this so well. So all you do is if you take these ideas seriously begin to slightly shift that, begin to slightly shift the standard pattern you fall into. And even if there’s not a set ritual that gives you the ability to do so you gain the same thing by simply doing a little break. So you hold your body slightly differently, use a slightly different tone of voice. You bring in something other than you would normally bring in. And you’ll notice immediately a slight shift in the other person too. And then you keep doing that. And over time, and it takes a while but over time you’ll see that this same standard pattern that you unconsciously are falling into with those around you begins to shift. And that’s what they care about. The rituals create the breaks. Over time this shifts how we are interacting in the world. And then over time what you gain is the ability to sort of work with these rituals or work with these patterns such that you are no longer simply repeating them. You’re able to shift them and alter them according to the circumstances. And they would say that’s how over time you learn how to build better interactions, how to build better relationships. Really and they’ll use strong language here how to create very different worlds because you’re acting in such different ways that you bring out very different responses from those around you.

Doing ritual, whether it's a religious ceremony or a simple greeting on the street, is a powerful way to break bad habits and improve our lives, says Harvard historian Michael Puett.

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Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.

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