Dimitris Xygalatas: Rituals, Habits, Culture, Religion, Society, Marriage, Death, Music, Burning Man
Full episode transcript below. Beware of typos!
Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas, thank you for joining me.
Dimitris Xygalatas 6:20
Pleasure to be here.
Nick Jikomes 6:22
Can you start off by just telling everyone a little bit about who you are? And what kind of background you have?
Dimitris Xygalatas 6:27
Yeah, I am an anthropologist, and I'm also a cognitive scientist. I'm one of those rare hybrids. I work at the University of Connecticut, where I'm affiliated with both the anthropology and the psychological sciences department, and I run the experimental anthropology lab.
Nick Jikomes 6:45
Yeah, so what, what we're going to talk about today is going to be a lot of ideas and concepts that you explore in your new book called ritual, how seemingly senseless acts make life worth living. I read it in the past week or so. And, you know, I just wanna start by saying, I love the book, I thought it was excellent. I, I've had several guests on who have a new book, or just published a book on. And I usually read parts of those books, this is only the second time that I actually finished the entire book, because it was just so fascinating. One of the things that was fascinating about it was, I mean, you cover a lot of ground. And there's a lot of areas where my understanding of something was pretty much turned on its head, or I started to see things from a brand new vantage point. But you know, as the title suggests, the book is all about ritual. And we're going to explore lots of lots of stuff related to ritualistic behavior, and human cultures. I thought we would just start with some of the basics here to get people grounded. Can you start off by describing the difference between habits and rituals, and what characterizes each of these things?
Dimitris Xygalatas 7:52
So obviously, there are a lot of similarities between habits and rituals. Both involve repetition, something that becomes habitual. But if you look at the kinds of things that people consider to be rituals, versus the ones that they consider to be habit habits, you will see that ritual involves a sense of specialness, even sacredness, and then this doesn't have to be in a religious sense. So one way to put it is that habits are one way of taking something useful, and turning into a routine that we can execute mindlessly. Rituals, on the other hand, take something that is that appears to be non utilitarian or useless, and turn this into something special. So a lot of people when I ask them to define ritual, or to give me examples of their daily rituals, sometimes they will say, Oh, brushing my teeth, is a ritual. Now, of course, in the, in the study of ritual, we say that there are as many definitions of ritual, as there are rituals, scholars, so we don't all agree on our definition. But for me, my definition, you know, in my book, brushing your teeth is not a ritual. Why? Well, because it serves an obvious purpose. It is a utilitarian action, that you just turned into something habitual just so that you're able to perform it and as a tool. Now, if you were to wave your tooth person there three times every morning, with the belief that this will cleanse your teeth, or with no belief at all, just because it's part of your tradition now that it would be a ritual and if somebody came into the bathroom while you were doing this cleansing ritual and interrupted, then you're also feel morally upset. That's another thing about our rituals, we feel very personally invested in them. And the studies show that when when our rituals are interrupted when You feel upset, and we find it morally important.
Nick Jikomes 10:04
You make this distinction between habits being causally transparent. And rituals being causally opaque what what does that mean?
Dimitris Xygalatas 10:14
It means that when I perform a utilitarian action, there's a clear connection between the actions that I'm performing, and the outcome. If I use a knife to slice a loaf of bread, the outcome is very obvious, it's it will, it will allow me to eat the bread. But if I use a ritual, knife to cut a rich a loaf of bread, then you have no way of predicting what I'm going to do with. If I perform a rain dance, my moving about, there's no causal connection to rain falling from the sky. And this is a very important distinction. studies actually saw that we perceive non utilitarian actions differently, we perceive ritualized actions. Intuitively, we see those types of actions as as being socially important. And we see them as being special. So there are studies whether they've shown people the same type of drink. And in one case, there was a sequence of actions performed, which was very utilitarian. So somebody was cleaning the glass, and checking it for any faults and then drinking from it. And in the other condition, the somebody was raising the glass and bowing to it and performing all sorts of other attractions. And when they asked people whether they thought, those two different drinks were really different, I say, No, we're not. But then when they asked them to choose one of them, then people would choose the special drink. And when they asked them to say whether one of them was more special, they will choose the one that had been ritually acted upon. And especially when we told them that these were the types of rituals or the types of actions, or they didn't describe them as rituals found in some remote place like Gabon, when they were even more likely to choose that special drink because you carry the weight of tradition.
Nick Jikomes 12:09
So So habits are causally transparent. They're utilitarian, right? When I pick up my toothbrush to brush my teeth, this is a device specifically designed to clean my teeth, I'm performing an action that serves that very concrete function. But when we talk about rituals, there's this causal opacity, as you call it. And an important component of this is symbolism. The The ritual is involving behaviors that symbolize something else. And so what is the importance of symbolism and our ability to think, symbolically when it comes to rituals?
Dimitris Xygalatas 12:42
We will people have called us humans are a symbolic species. So symbolism plays a huge role in our lives. And this is one of those one of the reasons why ritual is so tremendously important in our lives. Think for example, funeral rites. If you think from a utilitarian perspective, from a rational perspective, there's no reason why we would even care about taking care of our dead. Well, we just dump them or best bury them without any kind of paraphernalia. But for example, the recent COVID situation, the pandemic showed us how important those which was where when people were prevented from engaging in those symbolic behaviors. They people around the world, they risked their lives, they risked infection, they're receiving funds from the police. In some countries, they even risk receiving beatings and other corporal punishments in order to go there and to perform these symbolic actions towards the people that had lost. And of course, from one perspective, you might think that those death rituals are about the deceased, but they're really not they're really about the living. They allow us to fully express ourselves, they allow us to, to cope with the reality of death. And the way to do that is through these symbolic actions.
Nick Jikomes 14:09
So can you just define for everyone, what is a what is a symbol? And how does you know what's special about the mind of a human or the mind of other animals that allows us to think symbolically rather than in other ways,
Dimitris Xygalatas 14:23
symbol is something that stands for something else, something that there is not, there's not necessarily an index. So if I see scratch marks on a tree that might tell me that some, some large animal has been there. That's, that's an index that's very clear. There's, again, there's a causal connection between the image I'm seeing and something else that caused it. But a symbol was arbitrary. And by virtue of being arbitrary, that allows us to do all sorts of things. It allows us to, for example, use the symbols as special and unique group markers because then maybe all societies have, let's say, wedding rituals or mortuary rituals, or initiation ceremonies, but our society doesn't this particular way. And there's no reason, no intrinsic reason why it has to be done this particular way. But the fact that this these symbolic ways of doing it allows us to do it in an infinite number of ways. That also means that they allow us to do it in ways that are unique and specific to our own tradition. And that has a lot of weight has a lot of power, and has a lot of implications, while far reaching implications for us human beings and the societies in which way are we live?
Nick Jikomes 15:38
Yeah, so So a symbol is something that stands for something else. But more than that, it's different from something like an index. So if I, if I go to the index of your book, everyone knows what an index is, it will tell me specifically this word, or this phrase happens on this page. So there's a very clean arrow that points from one thing to the other. But symbols have they stand for something else, but they have this arbitrary character to them. And I think this ties into things that we'll talk about, you know, when something is symbolic, because of this arbitrariness, you really have to pay attention and focus your mind on the meaning of the symbol in a way that's very different. And I think more demanding than you would for a simple index. And so can you talk about that a little bit more and start to talk about, I think you call it the three R's of ritual behavior, rigid, rigidity, repetition, and redundancy? What are those? And how does this tie into the ability to think symbolically.
Dimitris Xygalatas 16:34
So when we're looking at ritual behavior across different domains, and those domains can vary tremendously. So scholars are not the first one to notice this. For scholars for a long time. Of course, separate fields have noticed that there are these very different domains of behavior that have a lot of structural similarities. And those include animal behavior. They include certain conditions like obsessive compulsive behavior, they include individual ritualization. And they include cultural rituals. All of those things have some structure, features in common. And those are things like repetition, rigidity, and redundancy. What does that mean? Ritual actions are repetitive. When Orthodox, Greek, Greek Orthodox Christians passed by a turret, it's customary to cross yourself three times, not once, but three times. That's internal repetition. A lot of rituals, there are some Hindu rituals that involve repeating a mantra hundreds of times 1000s of times, there is also periodic repetition to some rituals, most rituals will be repeated once a week, once a month, once a year, once per generation. Rituals are also rigid, there's a sense that they have to be performed in exactly the same way. So there are these patterns of actions. And those pattern actions must not be altered, even when they are, the general sense is that they're not and that they shouldn't be altered. So that's rigidity. And of course, we have redundancy. And that refers to the fact that even when ritual actions resemble some utilitarian actions, let's say you're performing a purification ritual, so washing my hands, is a is a is a is an act that has a clear, utilitarian purpose, cleaning them, alright. But if I have to wash my hands in the context of a ritual, sometimes I might have to do it for hours, or whatever else I'm performing, they go far beyond the functional requirements of the action.
Nick Jikomes 18:51
I see. Yeah. And that immediately, reminds one of, you know, psychiatric conditions that involve, you know, excessive ritualization of behavior. So for example, OCD, someone might wash their hands to the point that they actually cut themselves and wear down their skin, they might, you know, perform something over and over and over again for hours on end to the point where they're actually it's problematic for the rest of their lives. So there seems to be kind of a predisposition for this kind of behavior, perhaps in various other animals, but especially in human beings. Is that your perception?
Dimitris Xygalatas 19:25
Indeed, so we see, people are pointed at this connection between OCD and cultural rituals. And we'll get to that, but throughout our lives, from a developmental perspective, we see that I have a two year old and you might actually be hearing some, some of his crying in the background. around this age, you really see that children start to become very ritualized, they have their they have these obsessions with repetition with routine with regularity. They want the exact same thing done the exact same way. If he sees me taking my shoes in a different way, he'll feel just objective, he wants me to do things in the exact same way as they should be done. And we'll see that this reliably, this tendency towards repetition and redundancy and rigidity comes when we're very young, it will often surge in certain times that are related to anxiety, for example, there's the OCD will will surface around the time of pregnancy and early parenthood. And this might have some functional role to play. So typically, when when something when there's a new situation, when there's a new baby, for example, or a new baby's coming, it's a pretty good idea to be obsessive with rules with especially with precautions, that's a pretty good idea to stick to what you know, you don't want to try new foods, you're going to want to try new recipes. This is this is the time of of life, to stick to what you know. And we see that in other stressful situations like warfare, like illness, like sports, ritual, again, tends to surge. So we'll see both in our lifespans of the times the periods in our life that ritual behaviors, certs, but also the kinds of contexts where, where it's really prevalent. And there's a lot of discussion about whether the What the What is really the connection between OCD, and those cultural rituals. So some people have argued that rituals are just one yet another manifestation of, of our, of OCD. So it's just a mental glitch. It's your your hazard precaution system. So your your your need to make sure that everything is neat, and everything is clean, and that you're safe, somehow misfires, and you're not getting the feedback that you actually locked the door. And you go back and check again and again and again. So they see ritual as being a mental glimpse of this sort. Yeah, another perspective says that, Rachel is is actually with us, it's a human universal, because it fulfills deep human needs that go back all the way to the beginning. So to the dawn of our species, and that OCD is simply an exaggerated form of this. So ritualization running wild.
Nick Jikomes 22:27
Yeah, I mean, I'm definitely inclined towards the latter view. If you think like an evolutionary biologist about something like this, you notice that, you know, a, from a developmental perspective, children readily learn rituals from others, they also spontaneously come up with their own rituals very early on, in their cognitive development. And to as you just alluded, ritualistic behavior is universal. So all human cultures have ritualistic behaviors of various kinds. And those two things, I think, together really point to some sort of adaptive function there. Because if it was just a mental glitch, natural selection is quite efficient. And glitches aren't allowed to persist for so long across so many different populations. If they're expensive, they will be weeded out by selection. So can you talk a little bit more about this about how we think about the potential adaptive value of ritualistic behavior and the fact that it does seem to be a human universal?
Dimitris Xygalatas 23:20
So what do you describe this is exactly my my line of reasoning. It's exactly my perspective, when we see some types of behaviors that are, they're human universals, and they're not anthropologist, debate about human universals all the time. There's rarely any aspect of our lives. That hasn't, that hasn't been challenged as a potentially universal feature. But everybody, I think, would agree that ritual is a true human in ritual. We never, we have never known of any human society, whether past or present, that doesn't have the socialist stipulated repetitive kinds of rituals, the kinds of behaviors that we call rituals. So it's a human universal, it's been for us for as long as we know, we can find in files going back, we can find it in other apes we can find in other mammals. It is omnipresent throughout the animal kingdom. Typically, we don't expect natural selection to allow these things to be as prevalent if they're useless or or harmful. Now, that's just the starting point. Of course, that doesn't, that doesn't prove anything that doesn't show that Rachel is negative, the next step for me, and that's where that's how I started. That's why I got into virtual studies ever since I was a graduate student. This was the the question for me, this was the puzzle. If those things are indeed wasteful, and they're pointless, as they appear to be to an outsider, then why have they persisted for millennia? Then why do we find them in all human societies? And by doing this return research so over two decades sort of doing this type of research, have been able to identify very important functions for those behaviors both at the individual and at the social
Nick Jikomes 25:08
level. And so, you know, one of those functions that I think you alluded to a few moments ago is related to, well, it comes up when you think about when you see ritualism. And when you see it expressed most strongly. And as you stated, you know, a new parent war time, you know, whenever there's uncertainty, and the stakes are high, or there's some sort of anxiety provoking situation, you tend to see ritualistic behavior most prominently. And I wonder if there's this connection here, between negative affective states like anxiety that come that are most commonly provoked by uncertain and stressful circumstances, and ritual behavior, I did a recent podcast episode with the neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux. And we were talking about anxiety, and, and consciousness and things. And, you know, he basically said, well, anxiety may be the price that we pay for having such a large prefrontal cortex that allows us to plan for the future and anticipate things and perhaps even think, symbolically. So is there a relationship here between ritualistic behavior and affective states like anxiety that our brains might specifically predispose us to?
Dimitris Xygalatas 26:19
Absolutely, I'm glad you brought this up. So in recent decades, neuroscientific use of the brain have changed, we used to think that our brains work, like computers for at least like what computers used to be. So just information processors input in output out. Today, we think that our brains work like some very modern computers, and then there's, This is no accident. That's because we've always tried to build computers based on our current understanding of our own brain. So now, computers are all about prediction. And in our current understanding of the of the brain is also that it's, it's not just a data processing machine. It's a predictive machine. Some people call it the Bayesian brain, that means that our brain constantly tries to make guesses to make informed inferences about the future. And it does that on the basis of contextual information on the basis of prior information. So experience. And this is very important, because from an evolutionary perspective, any kind of computational device device will inevitably evolve towards this predictive capacity. Because unless you have, because computational machine the has the capacity to use prior information to learn from experience, in order to predict what's going to happen, we'll have an edge. So that's how our brain works. This might sound too abstract. So let's, let's turn into something more concrete. So one very specific example was the blind spot and our vision. Many people might not even know this, but because our optical nerve goes through our retina, there's actually a tiny spot in each of our eyes, where we actually don't see anything from the optical from our field of vision that falls onto that spot. And that's something that we don't notice, we have to learn that this is true. And there's a there's an interesting test that you can do to to prove it. But the reason we don't notice it is because our brain fills in the missing information, just like it does when we're looking at the world through a window that has bars, our brain predicts what's missing from the picture in a way that we are singles picture of it. Another way to demonstrate this is to think that and that's one of the examples I've given my my book, let's say you live in San Francisco, and you wake up in the middle of the night because you're better shaking. It's a reasonable inference that there's an earthquake happening. So you run your your instinct is to run out of the house as quickly as possible. But now think that you're living in New York, and there's a there's a train line going by your apartment. So wake up in the middle of the night, and there's some shaking, happening. The first time you might be alarmed, you might run to the hallway, in your underwear just to find yourself embarrassed. But soon you will come to know that this is an earthquake. So your brain will be able to predict to infer what's happening based on prior knowledge. And this how our brain works all the time. It's trying to actively predict what's going to follow we see this from there's evidence from linguistics. Our brain just Finishing Sentences for us fills in the gaps even if they're if they're letters missing in a word and so on, so forth. endless examples. Now, as I mentioned, this is a more efficient cognitive architecture, but it does have some side effects. One obvious side effect is that when but we don't have full predictive capacity. In other words, when there's uncertainty when we don't know what's going to happen next, we experience anxiety. We want to be in control human beings just our brain craves control, it craves information. And when it's lacking information, when it's lacking a sense of control, when it when there's uncertainty, we get stressed. And that's when ritual comes in. So it's a very efficient mental technology. And by extension can be used as a cultural as a social technology in this respect, because what it does is it provides our brain with a sense of control, a sense of regularity, a sense of structure, because if ritual was anything it is structure, we talked about the tweeters, repetitiveness rigidity, you know exactly what's going to happen in a ritual, there's redundancy, you do it over and over and over and over, so becomes very predictable. And that gives her brain a sense of control, that helps us reduce anxiety. And from this perspective, it doesn't matter whether this sense of control is illusory. And one way to put it in the book is that our brain did not evolve to be accurate
in processing stimuli that evolved to be efficient. So if this helps us deal with anxiety, then it's something that will become will be adaptive.
Nick Jikomes 31:23
Yeah, I mean, it's a very interesting idea if, you know, certain animal species, and especially humans, have brains that allow them to think symbolically that allow them to engage in complex social interactions, you know, the network's underlying that are going to be such that, you know, these aren't inherently complicated in uncertain ecological circumstances that such an organism as in, right, if you have to deal with a whole bunch of people in different relationships, it's just inherently uncertain. And if you think about emotional states as information states of the bodies, alright, so anxiety, you know, a lot of people like to think about anxiety is essentially, your brain and body telling you that something is unknown, something is uncertain. And then bias is your behavior to mitigate that, you know, if you don't know what's going on, and things are at a high uncertainty state, you have to pay attention, and you have to sort of bring order and certainty to the situation. And I think what you're saying is, the ritualization of behavior is a very common and universal like, sort of behavioral motif that acts as a kind of buffer to that anxiety, even when it doesn't actually bring, like true information, all certainty to the picture.
Dimitris Xygalatas 32:36
Exactly. And one way to put it, is, when we look at the animal world, we might, from my perspective, we might expect that it will be let's just say the dumbest animals that perform so many rituals that are less efficient, less less rational. So you would expect that as as we become more and more intelligent, so animals that have a prefrontal cortex, for example, they would, they would have no need for these pointless actions, they will cut to the chase, they will be perfectly rational. That's not at all what we find if anything is the opposite. We see that smarter animals tend to be more ritualized, not because they can help it but because they can afford it. So they have the mental surplus, to dedicate to those sorts of mental technologies that allow us in a sense to to outsmart ourselves.
Nick Jikomes 33:27
Yeah, and one thing that's interesting is, you know, we talked about how one way that rituals are distinct from habits is that they're causally opaque, right? The actions are symbolic. They have this arbitrary character to them, there's, there's no obvious reason why the components of a rain dance should be expected to actually affect the weather. And yet, people tend to believe that rituals are causally efficacious that they actually do something. So can you unpack that a little bit? How do we sort of square that circle with the causal opacity on the one hand, characterizing ritual behavior, but the strong belief that people often have that the rituals actually do cause things to happen in the world?
Dimitris Xygalatas 34:06
Yeah, so it's a very interesting phenomenon. If you if you ask people, even those in the context of religious rituals, if you ask people, whether they think the rituals work, you might get a mixed bag. If you're sexual people, they certainly are prone to saying that they don't work. They don't do anything. But in fact, we have done studies in my lab that show that we have intuitions about ritual efficacy. For example, we did a study where we showed people videos of basketball players, so in free throws, and we showed those videos to athletes. We showed them to fans, and we showed them to people who have no clue about basketball so we could barely understand what was going on. So what we did as a result of these videos, each player was shooting a free throw then before the ball. After ball left the player's hands. The video stopped so you couldn't see the outcome of the shot. If you had to predict the outcome of the shot, that was a task. And we had two conditions, in one condition, people could see that the player had done a pre shot ritual, something like spinning the ball or kissing the ball, those are very common among basketball players. And those were the actual, this was real footage from real basketball games, all the shots that we showed them were actually successful, but they didn't know this, they just had to predict the outcome. And in the other condition, they just didn't see this virtualized moment, the camera would switch to another angle. So they didn't see the ritual. And we're finding that when player had performed the price of ritual, the spectators have an expectation that this shot is more likely to be successful. And this effect held for all three of our groups. So for the naive participants, who didn't know much about basketball, for the fans, and even from players themselves. So we seem to have this steep and if if you ask these people, whether they believe that these priests or rituals actually influence the outcome, I'm pretty sure they would say no. But in tour intuitively, we have these expectations and rituals do something. This because it's it's very human to think that doing something is better than doing nothing. When we feel. Again, it's another way of getting a feeling of control. When we're when we feel helpless. When we're in the casino, for example, and we're gambling away, or car or house, then there's nothing that you can do about it, it just the game of dice, or the light, right? The you have zero control, performing these repetitive actions. So that's why we see that casino goers are one of the most superstitious and ritualist groups
Nick Jikomes 36:50
do you ever find. I mean, this is this is super interesting, because when you think about the performance of the ritual, and the fact that it has this arbitrary character, so let's take the the free throw shooter in a basketball game as an example. You know, maybe they spin the ball, maybe maybe they you know, dribble the ball two times, or three times something very specific, maybe they do something truly arbitrary. Maybe they adjust their socks every time and then dribble the ball twice, and then spin it. You know, what you're basically saying I think is, on the one hand, this all seems very arbitrary. But when you stop and think about it, actually, from basically a cognitive science or neuroscience perspective, you're trying to actually perform an action with a goal, in this case, to make the free throw, you're always going to be at a stereotype distance from, from, you know, the, the net, everything is standardized. And, you know, when you're talking about motor behavior like this, you want to execute it consistently in order to achieve the goal. And by actually performing a ritual, no matter what the ritual is, in the same way, every same, every time you do this, right before you throw the shot, what you would actually be doing there from a neuroscience perspective is putting your brain and body into the exact same or very similar physiological state. So you're basically giving yourself a constant physiological baseline to work from. And that should actually allow you to become more consistently accurate in your freethrow. And if we extend that further, and we think about something like the rain dance, or some ritual related to gambling, where, you know, you truly have no control over the dice the same way that you have control over the basketball, even though there's no no actual causal connection there from doing that behavior, at the very least, you're mitigating the anxiety that's going to be inherent in the situation. And so it's adaptive In either case, it seems.
Dimitris Xygalatas 38:40
Yes. And we also have to think about, about the functional stress when we have this discussion. So stress is a good thing. At least most of the time, or some of them. It evolved to be a good thing. It's a very good thing actually. So it's like paying their actual motivators or behavior. When when something important is about to go down. A little bit of stress will will prepare you for for action. Your body will prepare if it's a fight or flight situation, your mind will prefer you will get this Funnel Vision, this focus. But give some one to one stress and it immediately becomes maladaptive, especially in Wales have to think that there are our physiology evolved in a context that was radically different from the one we currently live in, or modern world is much more stressful. People live in. Many people live far away from their social support networks, their core family and friends. They don't have those ways of mitigating anxiety, anxiety that they would have in the past. The the pace of life is much faster today. Things like social media. Also, exaggerate those stressors. would have been present in, in early societies. So we need more than ever, we need those kinds of ways of mitigating stress. And ritual is one of those types of activities that can provide that. So think of professional sports, for example, that's not something that you would have seen. In early human societies, you would have seen things like warfare, which can be very, very similar. So now we have new new needs new reasons to be stressed. And I think today, more than ever, we rely on ritual and virtualization for coping with situations whether we realize it or not.
Nick Jikomes 40:37
Yeah, no, this this inverted U relationship between stress level and performance level is very interesting. For those that don't know, the idea is that, right? You sort of want a medium amount of stress in order to optimize performance. If you're at a very low stress level, or a very high stress level, it's actually going to degrade your performance. You know, anyone who's experienced performance anxiety has experienced their performance go down when they're too stressed out. And when we start to put some of these things together, it's really making a lot of sense to me. So if you imagine the first game of the season, in a basketball season versus the championship game, the championship game is inherently more stressful than as I think you pointed out in the book, you know, when when the stakes are higher in sports, when the game is more meaningful, like in a championship game, you see more frequent and more intense ritual behavior. And it all really seems to fit together, right? If you're in the championship, game, stakes are highest stress level is going to be highest. And you're going to want more intense ritualist ritualistic behavior, because you're going to move yourself from that super high stress, low performance part of the curve to that more medium level part of the curve by by having the ritual actually take down your anxiety levels to that sort of middle middle ground where performance is going to be highest.
Dimitris Xygalatas 41:51
Exactly. And another related thing that you'll see, which is also very interesting, very telling, is that studies show that top level athletes, they actually have more rituals, you might expect the opposite to be true. So you might think that the better somebody is, in whatever it is that they do, the less stress there will be or the more they will rely on personal skill and less on superstition, or whatever you want to call it. But in fact, studies show that top athletes have more rituals. Why? Well because they compete for higher stakes. So very famous people like Rafa Nadal, I spent the my book I think, a full page describing his pregame, or the rituals that he performs pre and during the game, which, if somebody only described this behavior outside of any context, you would think that this medical description of somebody suffering from OCD. But it seems to work for him.
Nick Jikomes 42:46
Yeah. And so So earlier, we talked about the three R's of ritual behavior, rigidity, repetition and redundancy. You also said something interesting that I want you to unpack for people, you refer to rituals as a kind of social, or cultural technology. So what does that mean for something to be a social technology,
Dimitris Xygalatas 43:03
it means that groups of people or societies, they take advantage of those mental capacities or propensity towards virtualization, in order to turn them into tools, and mechanisms that help collective goals. So they help people coordinate their actions, we help them bond with each other, and we help them act as one. So they're more efficient teams.
Nick Jikomes 43:32
And, you know, when we think about group ritual behavior, so ritual behavior is a human universal. In general, in the abstract, there's always ritual behaviors in every single culture we look at, but they can be very different from each other. Nonetheless, right? There are some common, more specific forms of ritual behavior, especially around things like marriage and death. So can you can you maybe let's just start with marriage, why is why are marriage rituals so powerful, and so pervasive and common across all human cultures, even though they vary in their details.
Dimitris Xygalatas 44:06
So this is a very good observation, you will see if you look at what how the various rituals, then always diversity that we're seeing across cultures and in rituals, how they vary and how they're similar, you will see that they tend to vary in their forms. But they're very similar in terms of the kinds of needs and kinds of problems that they address. So as you mentioned, every society pretty much the way we know has some form of marriage ceremony. Those are very important because they create a sense of fictive kinship, which in turn allows well it's very important for the core family, of course, for establishing pair bonds, and for helping this couple who are presumably going to be raising children together actors as one unit, but they also establish relationships between groups of people. between families. A wedding ritual doesn't bring together only a couple, it also brings together to extended families who now become kin. They have this sense of fictive kinship. And sometimes this can be explicitly said. So when you pronounce somebody's husband and wife or or whatever, you explicitly create this sense of fictive kinship, or a final kinship in this in this case, but by extension, you create those bonds between groups of people. In my home country, fictive kin networks have been very important as they have been, let's say, in parts of Latin America and many other parts of the world. There are a lot of anecdotes in Greece about politicians who used to create these fictive kinship networks, by baptizing 100 hundreds of children. And by that I don't mean that they became priests, certainly, they just attended their baptism. And they were the ones performing the ritual, because that made them grandfathers and grandmothers, or they became best men and best women in a lot of people's weddings, officiating there. And that meant that they had established those kinship ties with all those kinds of families. And by doing that, of course, they undertake certain obligations, which is when I'm in power, I'm going to get your, your kid a job, perhaps. But that also means that they they ensure the loyalty of the of this family, so this family's going to vote for that person from now on and forever, because they have established this fictive kinship relationship. And this is something that in a contemporary context, it might sound funny, but in the course of our of human history that has, that has been one of the main ways of groups of people and extended families of relating to each other, in history is full, full of those examples with how even different countries would change their entire diplomatic relationships based on one wedding of offshore oil offering, or how tribes would come together and manage to avoid bloodshed by by performing a wedding ritual. So they have been played a tremendous role in human history.
Nick Jikomes 47:26
Yeah, it would seem that the the capacity, the capacity for symbolism, and to think symbolically, is necessary to actually carry out these forms of ritual and to create these sort of fictive kin networks. You know, again, if we think in evolutionary terms, you know, if we think in strict evolutionary terms, animals will pretty much always devote more resources and expend more effort protecting and cooperating with their genetic kin, literally the people that you're genetically related to. But in humans, especially, we have these large scale societies that were formed, we have these very, sometimes very large, non kin networks. And it seems to be related to what you're just talking about, even though I might not be genetically related to you with the same distance, the same level of closeness as my actual brothers and sisters, and fathers and cousins, I can create a fictive sense of kinship by engaging in rituals. And all of this requires whatever the brain networks are in the human being that allow us to think symbolically. And that really opens up the the adaptive gates, if you will, because now I can cooperate with a much larger number of people, because I'm not strictly limited to those that I'm very closely genetically related to, is that how you maybe start to think about it?
Dimitris Xygalatas 48:43
Absolutely. So that's one of the main ways of, of rituals bringing those cohesive effects about is by by promoting what we call phenotypic matching. That means that phenotypes and genotypes they tend to be highly correlated. So two individuals that look very similar to each other, they're more likely to be genetically related the two individuals who look very different. We make those inferences all the time. And we're not the only animal that makes us differences. There are studies for example, showing that parents, especially fathers, they favor children who look more physically like them, compared to those who don't. So originals have a host of ways of host of mechanisms to induce this sense of phenotypic matching in us think about the way people take part in a collective ritual. And when they do, the first thing you see is that those people will tend to look similar because they're all wearing the same clothes or wearing the same masks that were in the same body paint or whatever symbolic insignia they might have. Because they Move in similar ways, so they move in synchrony, or because they go through the same experiences. And sometimes those can be very emotionally arousing experiences. And again, the people in our the course of our lives with whom we go through the most arousing experiences, so the highs and the lows, from the happiest day of your life, to the biggest tragedy you've ever experienced, the people you share those things with, typically are your close family. So by taking a group of people through those experiences, together, rituals, managed to induce this sense in our minds, that we are actually family. And this is why it's an it's not an accident that you'll see in so many ritual traditions. People call each other brothers and sisters.
Nick Jikomes 50:47
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You know, it's also striking that, you know, whether we're talking about marriage rituals, or death rituals, or rites of passage, passage, the rituals seemed to always, not always, but often in most strongly be tied to periods of transition in life, it could be a very clear sort of pure biological transition going from being alive to being dead. It could be a social transition, like going from being single to being married, or it could be a developmental transition, like entering adolescence and becoming reproductively viable. But what they all have in common is they're the these kind of developmental social transition points, which are going to come with a lot of change, and presumably a lot of uncertainty. And they're all highly ritualized. So how do you start to think about the fact that that it's the sort of developmental transition points where we see ritualization, the most does that tie back into what we were talking about previously about uncertainty and change and anxiety mitigation?
Dimitris Xygalatas 51:43
Absolutely. So again, so accidental, most human societies have the these sorts of Rites of Passage, as they're called that Mark transitions from one stage to another. So you're, you know, you're no longer a child, you're now an adult, you're no longer single, you're married, you're retired, or you're divorced, you're dead. Transitions tend to be long, stressful and painful. You don't become a child, an adult from one day to another, it's a long process, it involves a lot of uncertainty. It's it's one of the most challenging periods of our life, adolescence, for example, from the hormone level, to the psychological level. So what these rituals do is that they provide a clear demarcation, there's a clear passage, there's, there's a clear moment in time where you go, you walk into this ritual as one type of person, and you walk out as a different type of person. And this is what our policies are called from help, has called rites of passage. And he's he sees those as having three different components, three parts, all kinds of Rites of Passage can be seen as this in the first part, you walk into the ritual, and you said your previous identity, now you see it. And this can be done symbolically in many different ways. You move to a different place, you shave your head, you give up your hair, your clothes, or your name. And then you go into a state that is called the liminal states. And this is the stage where you're, you're between in between. So you're neither a boy, nor a man, or neither, during a wedding ceremony, you're sort of neither single or married. And until a child has been named in some traditions, they're not really considered to be alive. Until the proper funerary rites have been performed, somebody is not considered to be an ancestor, and so on and so forth. So that's the first thing is when you come out of this ritual, you know how a new identity, you might be, often given a new name, you might be given new clothes, you might have a new title, but you're a different person than everybody else knows that, then we'll treat you as a different person, you come out, and now you're a man, now you're a woman. You're an adult, you're a married couple, people are not going to approach you sexually they're supposed to, and everything else that is that is in place.
Nick Jikomes 54:14
And so one thing I want you to talk about now is how rituals work in the sense that, you know, I think, you know, we've hinted at it quite a bit. But, you know, to what extent are rituals engineered? To what extent are people sitting down and saying, We need a ritual for something, it needs to serve this kind of purpose, and we're going to come up with some sequence of things that people will do at this particular time, versus how, how much do they evolve organically.
Dimitris Xygalatas 54:42
There's clearly a mix of both and from, there's no doubt in my mind, the ritual people tend to attempt to engineer rituals all the time. They do it in contemporary, let's say, corporate team building rituals. And they've done they've done it throughout history. But at the same time, there's a there's a sell So selective pressure, and the rituals that will survive, they're the ones that are there actually make it through that pressure through the process of selection. Every day, there will be 1000s of rituals that are invented throughout the world, very few of them will, will survive. And a lot of the time, you will see that even when they try to engineer a ritual people, the first their first inclination is to define the different ritual that has already worked in some context to refer to a particular tradition. And even when they make something, they make up a new ritual, they will often intentionally try to tie it to tradition to make it look like it's older to make to give it this gravitas that the tradition has. But yeah, for the most part, I think that the ritual that we see around us today, there might be just slight variations of over rituals that have survived for 1000s of years, and have been selected through a process of cultural selection.
Nick Jikomes 56:02
Yeah, so I think what you're saying is that, yes, we engineer rituals all the time, we consciously put them together, at least to some extent, and this is quite common. But there's a selection process here. And again, by analogy with biological evolution, right? The way it works is, evolution creates an overabundance of things, there's variation in that abundance, and you don't know what's going to work ahead of time, you just have to use it. And you weed out the things that don't work through a natural selection process, and you retain the things that do work. So I think what you're saying is we engineer new rituals all the time, most of them don't really make the cut, they don't do the thing that we need them to do, they don't have the adaptive value that some rituals do. And so there is this organic selection process, and you end up with rituals that persist that that kind of do have this arbitrary character, because we didn't know which ones were going to work ahead of time. Yes,
Dimitris Xygalatas 56:57
absolutely. And you can see this in many different domains of life, I'm sure that if you if you look at how different culinary recipes work, what are the most some of the most popular dishes around the world, of course, at some point, every recipe has, has been engineered, but then only the ones that are that are the most popular will survive.
Nick Jikomes 57:19
And so I think, you know, this is starting to bring me to thinking about, okay, when we think about the birth of new rituals, and we think about the selection of ones that work, and we think about where rituals come from, and how they manifest in different kinds of societies, right? So large scale, sedentary agricultural society, you know, what we typically call a modern civilization. And then you can also think about them in the context of traditional hunter gatherer societies. And this was a fascinating part of the book for me, because this was, this is one of those places where my understanding of certain things got turned sideways, or even completely upside down. So when we think about when we think about the transition from hunter gatherer to agricultural societies, Small bands of people, you know, living off the land in relatively small groups, and then the large scale societies that we call modern civilizations characterized by you know, agriculture, and very, very large numbers of people, and farming and all of this, you know, the standard view that I think most people have is, well, civilizations and improvement, right? Things got better. When we went from being nomadic traditional hunter gatherers, to sedentary farmers, who could create surpluses of food, and raise animals and create what became modern civilization. While obviously things got better. And you kind of kind of changed my my view on how that history transpired. Can you talk a little bit about that transition from hunter gatherers to the earliest forms of sedentary agricultural lifestyle and some of the problems that actually came with that? So
Dimitris Xygalatas 58:54
one of the things to note here is that you often hear the phrase, evolution has no foresight. So yes, if we look at contemporary societies, we might at least most of us will be in agreement that there are a lot of cultural achievements that make life so much better today than let's say 10 or 15,000 years ago. So we have things like healthcare, at least in most societies, we have technology. We have labor saving devices. We have protection, we have policing systems, we have all sorts of things that our ancestors couldn't enjoy. But of course, in order for us to be able to enjoy those things today, there have been if we're looking at what happened in all of those 10,000 years that preceded you will see that it's only very recently that we've been able to reap the benefits of living large scale societies. For the vast majority of of the existence of our societies. It was just a handful of industry. Always typically kings and queens, that were able to enjoy the benefits, and everybody else would suffer. For that to happen. People often think that hunter gatherers lived a very miserable life that they had a low life expectancy that they were at the mercy of predators and the weather. And they were full of their life was full of stress. Some of that might be true, but overall, historical evidence suggests that actually, hunter gatherers were able to work much less to procure other nutrition, they enjoyed a better lifestyle, that was less stressful that all of the close social support networks close to them. They had ample free time, they had time for entertainment and a lot of virtual activities. They exercise more, and they actually live longer. As soon as people settled down and started growing crops, then what you see is that there first of all, the nutrition worsens, by paying a lot with archaeological evidence suggests that they're there, they start losing the the enamel of their their teeth, because their diet is now much poor, they rely on grain, or other crops too much. The average height dropped by about 10 centimeters and actually didn't bounce back until the beginning of the last century. You see all of all kinds of viruses, jump jumping to humans from other animals, because now they live in close proximity with those animals. Sometimes they share the household them, which means also that they, they're exposed to their feces, up until just a few centuries ago, London was was full of excrement and the teams and other big rivers and major cities were full of excrement. And people, once they build strike, and everybody would just throw their, the bucket outside the window. That's how that's what life in those early industrial cities was, was like. Burning coal created so much pollution, and so on, so forth. So they were. Another major thing that happened is that for the first time, now, you had ways of producing and storing a surplus. So you can produce a lot of grain hunter gatherers, obviously didn't have any food surplus, because they moved around agriculturalists now could have a surplus. But the first thing that means is that once you have that surplus, then now you need to defend that surplus. In order to defend that surplus, you need to produce more and more to feed militaries to fill those who are going to build walls and weapons, to have a permanent military. And of course, you're under constant threat of raiding and invasion. And I think what happened is that people could started having many more children, just because they could they could afford to because they were more or less mobile, but very few of them made it into adulthood. So child mortality increased terribly. And so this, this idea, this romantic idea that suddenly our ancestors switched to a sedentary lifestyle. And this set them up to enjoy all the benefits of civilization. That's, that's a myth. It took us about 10,000 years to to reach a point where we can actually enjoy the sacrifices of so many generations that are to whose lives were really became much more miserable by living an agricultural life.
Nick Jikomes 1:03:45
Yeah, I mean, it was it was striking for me to learn about some of the immediate physical and physiological deficits that people experienced when they transition to those earliest forms of sedentary agricultural life. You know, you mentioned that the average height dropped by something like four inches, there were literal, morphological changes to the human form, health and exposure to disease got worse. And, I mean, it was it was striking, partly because, you know, we look at like American and so called developed societies today, we see you know, obesity rates on the rise, diabetes rates, diabetes rates on the rise, more cardiovascular disease, and we think of that as a very, very modern thing. Like it's the result of, you know, eating too much processed food and stuff. And that may be true. But what I didn't realize is that whole thing, that whole sort of trajectory of negative health consequences started right from the beginning of sedentary life.
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:04:38
Absolutely. So this now creates a another big puzzle, which is why why would people give up the comforts or Well, again, I don't want to idealize hunter gatherers and to say that they they enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle. No, they had their own stressors, and of course, they had to deal with a lot of environmental challenges and a lot of uncertainty themselves. But all evidence points to the fact that agricultural life was was once worse. So why why did people do this?
Nick Jikomes 1:05:08
Yeah, one of the things I would love to talk about now is that transition from hunter gatherer, nomadic sort of traditional lifestyles, to sedentary agricultural, birth of civilization stuff. And what was actually driving that. And this is not my field of study. But it's fascinating. I think most people are fascinated by it, like, Why did civilization started? Why did it grow into what it is today? And I know that there's a lot of diversity of thought and debate here, you know, in terms of which way different causal arrows point. So for example, did we need to come up with new religious rituals and develop monotheism for large scale societies to develop? Or did large scale societies develop for some other reason, and those sort of religious changes, were a consequence of that just give one example. And at this part of the book, you quote, a man named Klaus Schmidt, who takes an interesting view on this, and the quote that I love this, he said, First came the temple, then the city, implying that there was some kind of group ritual religious thing that happened that enabled civilizations and cities to grow only after that first step happened. And I would love if you could unpack that quote for us, and perhaps talk about talk about that in the context of Gobekli. Tapie. Yes,
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:06:26
so the established wisdom for a long time has been that it was the the material base that came first. And all of these other heretics followed in the transition towards a sedentary lifestyle, meaning that nomadic populations, at some point, figured out that by growing their crops and staying nearby to tend to their crops, they can have a surplus of food, and therefore they can prosper. And that allowed them to just sit back and enjoy some other privileges. And let's say afford to have a permanent clergy, or things like artists and philosophers and from that fall all sorts of other things. So that was what allowed them to have these large scale rituals, those religious beliefs, and so on. Now, this view was, was seriously challenged when a group of archaeologists led by Kleinschmidt, an earth Gobekli. And this is a Neolithic site in, in present day Turkey close the Syrian border. What seems to be something, it appeared to be something unique, and now we know more sites like it. What they found there, at some point, this was discovered and then abandoned as they thought it was a Byzantine cemetery, because they found these the tops of these gigantic pillars, but they just thought they were tombstones. But then when Smith, the German archaeologist came across it, he realized that he had found something much more important. So what happened at the site is that you have at least 20, large circular sites that could be described as temples, and each one of them has these T shaped pillars that are just enormous. Each one of them can weigh up to 20 times 20 times. They are very ornate, they're carved with an exquisite detail with all those wild animals and fantastical creatures that sort of jumped out of their reliefs. This was clearly a monumental site, it was clearly a ritual site. The amount of work and effort that went into building the site is just mind boggling. People are, these are these are monoliths, that would have required hundreds of people to work in order to to extract them from a nearby query and transport them there and then build this site. This site is the oldest human structure known to it's about 12,000, maybe 13,000 years old. So it predates the pyramids. It's three times as old as the pyramids, it's it's twice as old as Stonehenge, that predates any other structure that we know not just religious structure. And the most important thing about it is not the monumental architecture, it's not the beauty of the carvings. It's not the size. It's the it's the date and what's happening around it, which is not much. Because this this site, as far as we know, at the time, there's no permanent settlement anywhere near there. So it appears that this site was built by nomadic populations. It was built by hunter gatherers who traveled hundreds or even 1000s of miles to visit it. So Smith says that there are people coming all the way from present day Israel and Jordan, on pilgrimages to visit the site and perform those collective ceremonies that they would have been performing in that site. And it's only about 500 years later, that we found. We find them the same area. The first evidence of agriculture. So people are starting to corral animals and plants and crops. So Smith's idea, which is a really grand, it's a really radical idea is exactly what you said is that First came the temple, then the city. Now this is through the changes everything we thought we knew about human history, that means that it wasn't permanent settlement or allowed for these large scale ceremonies to happen. It was the other way around, there was this motivation, it wasn't a hunger for food that led people to, to settle down, it was first for ritual. So people were visiting those sites from long distances. And eventually, they became so large, that they had to support not just the many pilgrims, but they also had to support some sort of clergy. So then cities will build around them to be able to sustain those large scale rituals.
Nick Jikomes 1:10:53
Yeah, and obviously, all of the know how, in all of the behavioral and cognitive capacity to build something like a civilization must have basically been there already, when they were building these monumental structures that could likely Tapi
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:11:08
Absolutely, there's there's evidence of art and ritual way before. For example, long as our species goes, and, and, and substantially farther back.
Nick Jikomes 1:11:20
So So we're basically talking about before permanent, dwellings permanent cities and civilizations formed, you have these monumental places that we're steeped in ritual, like Rebecca tepee, and no one lived there permanently all year around, at first, at least, you had probably hunter gatherer bands of hunter gatherers that lived separately for part or most of the year, and they would periodically come together, I would guess, you know, at certain times of the year that they thought were special. And so the idea is you have these separate bands periodically coming together, and then breaking apart and coming together and breaking apart. And at one point in the book, someone comes up, you reference a lot of thinkers that have thought about these things throughout history, and a lot of them come up at multiple points. One who comes up at several points in the book is Emile Durkheim, the sociologist, and you talked about the observation he made in his time that Aboriginal societies and hunter gatherer societies often have these kind of two phases of life, they would live in the small bands and do the normal stuff of life and engage in all their habits related to getting food and raising children and surviving. But then periodically, they would come together, many bands, and they would engage in these larger scale ritualistic behaviors. So can you talk a little bit about who Emile Durkheim was, and and what that observation is, and how it ties into what we were just talking about.
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:12:41
So Milter came was this French sociologist was seen by many as the founder of sociology, but also one of the founding figures in anthropology. And he talked about a lot of interesting things that come up in the book, as you said, but one of them is this distinction between the sacred and what he called the profane. And for our purposes, we can, we can simply call the profane we call the secular. But he talks about these two different phases of life. And this can apply to our existence as well. Everyday life consists in two different spheres. So there's the profane, let's call it the secular, where we just go about doing menial things and just providing for farmers who work, we commute. And we do all these mundane things that don't have any deep meaningful sense for us. But then once every once a while, people get together, and they perform these ceremonies. So for us, this might be attending a concert, or going to a stadium or spending Thanksgiving with your family. If you think about it, some of the couples might might argue that the only time that a family and extended family is truly a family is during the performance of certain rituals. The only times you will see your extended family all together, it will be at some wedding. At some funeral, at some graduation, it's one of those rituals. And this goes way back. So for Durkheim, early human societies would have these, they would hunt them, they would fish, and they would gather but then every once in a while the whole tribe would get together, gather, presumably, we can imagine around the fire, and start singing and dancing and performing these high arousal rituals. And this was the only time where the group would cease to be individuals and they would feel like one they would feel like a proper group. And that for their kindness is fundamental, not just for the for human evolution, but also has great implications about the emergence of religion itself, because for their game, and I agree with him on this ritual comes first and ideology falls. In many branches of psychology, we can take it for granted, although it's sort of it's properly stated out there explicitly, but we seem to think for granted that we act because we believe we have certain beliefs and attitudes, and thereby, we act upon the world on the basis of them. Durkheim says that they very often it's the other way around. First we act in the world. And by acting, we kind of we produce inferences about our internal states about who we are as individuals, and who we are as members of groups. So our personal collective identities are forced through participation in those collective activities, like when we go to school with who we who we dance with, who we participate in rituals with. And from that follows ideology. So if you don't have those group rituals, you can have ideas about a group or a nation or a club, or whatever it is.
Nick Jikomes 1:15:51
Yeah, I mean, I'm fascinated by this idea that rituals are powerful in the sense that they are literally changing our physiological states, and they're literally in many cases, psychoactive experiences, they change how our mind is in the moment, we're participating in the ritual compared to the more ordinary modes of life, right. So again, the distinction between the sacred and the profane, when when we're engaged with the sacred when we're engaged in these communal ritual behaviors, it literally changes our physiologic physiology, and it literally has psychoactive effects. And I would love for you to talk now about how we actually study these things that start to understand what's going on physiologically when people engage in these group rituals. And a great episode in the book on that was your studies of heart rate synchrony in people engaged in these firewalking rituals? So can you walk people through that and how you actually conducted that type of study?
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:16:46
Yes, so this type of study was designed specifically to test some of their claims claims. for about 100 years, anthropologists have been talking about this feeling that they call collective effervescence that comes from Durkheim himself. And he describes how people would come together and participate in those collective ceremonies. And he said something like, just by virtue of, of being together, and acting together, people feel like they're, they act as one and they feel as one. And he described collective wrestlers as this feeling of electricity that permeates the members of a group, when they come together to enact those rituals. You might have experienced this when going to, let's say, a sports stadium, chanting together with 50,000 people, you might get goosebumps in the back of your your neck, that's for like the rehearsals, or when you danced together at a concert with a large group of people. And you experienced this as a transformational sort of ecstatic moment. If you take part in a massive demonstration, you're marching for a common goal, and you're all chanting together again, you might get goosebumps, that's the kind of feeling that came out of mine. And that's the kind of feeling that for him, transforms individuals into a single entity. So it's a feeling of oneness and togetherness. So I started wondering, what would it take to measure this really? How can we operationalize this togetherness? And that means how can we turn it into something we can actually measure? conceptually. And at the time, I was at the orange university, so I met up with a group of people from various different disciplines, we put together a team and we went to a small village and Pei in Spain where I was doing fieldwork, called sunbather on record. And in that village, this is a 600 people, community. And there's this one amphitheater at the top of the hill, which can host 3000 spectators. And this has been built specifically the host is one ritual that takes place once a year. And there's a firework, Aboriginal people will build a large fire made of oak wood, and we measured the temperature there, it was enough to melt aluminium. It was about 1200 Fahrenheit. And it takes several hours to to burn into a bit of coals. And everybody else has their doing that everybody else takes part in those dances and preparations that take place in the central plaza Central Square. And then they started marching up towards this amphitheater. Now once they get in, then everybody takes their seats and there's a group of 30 to 40 individuals who will walk on fire. So what they do is they take off their shoes, they go infect somebody, if somebody was very close to them, it's typically a family member or a loved one or a good friend, they they purchase them on their back. And with somebody on their back, they go through this 1200 degree firepit therefore it is there's something that has to be seen to be believed it but that is the ritual. So this was the context in which my colleagues and I decided to bring our measurements. And we thought, if their cameras, right, if people have this feeling of connectedness and by the way by through my ethnography through talking to these people, I could see this would, none of them had read Durkheim. But this will come up all the time. So I asked him to describe what it's like they will say, they will say things like, there are 3000 people there. But do you feel like you're one on one with a crowd? There's this feeling of togetherness, and they will talk about identity, they will talk about how, once you've done this, everybody becomes your brother. Even if they were your enemies before, you know you've been through this together. So it was this feeling of oneness and togetherness. So wanted to quantify. And we thought that this is if this is truly something that happens, it should leave a signature at the physiological level. So we should be able to measure emotional reactions by looking at the autonomic nervous system. So specifically looking at heart rates. So we took some heart rate monitors when we went into that site, and we placed them on both Firewalkers and spectators. So those walking across the coals and those just sitting there and watching people were involved in different activities as well. And we thought that if that game was right, then we should see that their heart rates would synchronize. And that's exactly what we see, we first of all, we see an extraordinary degree of synchrony there in the heart rates. But this was not indiscriminate. This did not happen for everybody.
When map the social network of the village, so we asked everybody in our sample, to list their, their closest people by genetic and social proximity, their closest friends, their, their relatives, and so on. And then we saw that the, the closer this social proximity, the the stronger the physiological synchrony. So if you looked at the set of brothers, one of them would be firewalking, the other one would just be sitting there walking, their heartbeats would be aligned to a very impressive degree. But if you look at some of the visitors, remember, 600 people living there and 3000 people attending, so most of them are actually the visitors, they just come and go, they're just tourists. Those curious spectators, they there was no synchrony for them. It was only for the group members. And in fact, that was related to the degree of of membership, or at least proximity to other individuals. And this is exactly what Darkin would have predicted, I think, because he says, somewhere in his, in his book, that these ceremonies, they don't necessarily create social cohesion out of thin air. What they do is that and these emotions of they produce, they bring those who share already share a common identity, they bring them even closer together. And other than there have been similar studies that actually show this at the, at the neurological level.
Nick Jikomes 1:22:56
Yeah, and one thing that was remarkable, one of your observations, I think, with this was, I think you said in the book that, you know, people would walk across the fire, and you'd ask them to describe their mindset, their mental state as they did that. And, you know, they basically described it as being in a flow state or something they were they were calm, they were focused, they were completely in the moment. And you mentioned their heart rates, but their heart rates were like through the roof to the point where if you saw this in another context, you would think the person was having a heart attack or something. So can you comment on that discrepancy? And what that might point to?
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:23:32
Yes, so there's this phenomenon called flow the there's the psychologists call me Holly, keep text me Holly Fish's name, it's impossible to pronounce. I'm sure have slaughtered it. But he came up with a concept of flow. And he talks about this feeling of being so immersed in an activity, that nothing else matters, we get this tunnel vision that when you get with fighter pilots, watch what they report. Sometimes when practicing a craft or even engaged in sexual activity, you might get so much sucked into the moment that you lose sense of time. Things either fly by or they slow down, it's like going in slow motion. We've all experienced something like that. Some people won't play video games and experience this. But I think that's what I discussed in the book that there's these collective activities with these flow states take part in a collective contexts and when they're sick, they their effects are a whole other level. There there are actually studies showing us that flow when experienced in the presence of others and insert tasks is a much more powerful feeling. So phenomenological which means that on based on people's lived experience, and what they describe, how they describe that experience that exactly fits this concept of flow, so they they describe this as But time slowing down for them as they walk through the fire, it lasts a few seconds but it feels like last four minutes. You don't see anything around you the you know the 3000 people around you, but to just you and the fire somebody told me, I actually did the firework myself. And that's that was exactly my experience, even though it was not a local time, slow down for me and I had this tunnel vision effect as well. And then of course, all the the physiological arousal even when we don't actually realize. So one of the interesting things that we found in Spain is that people wouldn't ask people to estimate their own physiological arousal if I knew what I meant, because they were wearing heartrate monitors. Everybody in my sample said, it was the calmest I've ever been. So it felt like a meditative state. Which is another point that sometimes hyper arousal and hyper arousal in the context of rituals can have similar effects. But our measurements found that seldom had 220 beats per minute, those were levels that I never thought were possible. 140 80% of them crossed the medically accepted level of arousal. So those were heart attack levels, and they felt as calm as ever.
Nick Jikomes 1:26:15
So you can get these profound physiological effects. And they, they're, they're bundled up with these profound psychoactive effects. People go into these mental states that they just don't ordinarily go into. I'm fascinated by the fact that, you know, participation, participation in these group rituals has these physiological effects, including psychoactive effects. One thing that immediately gets me thinking about is another kind of ritual that's very common across many human cultures, goes back deep in our history. I'm not sure you got into this in the book specifically, but there's a lot of very ornate rituals tied to the ingestion of psychoactive substances themselves. And I want to set up one example that I've been thinking about for people that don't know and kind of get your take on it. So as some people will know, in the Amazon rainforest for I think, 1000s of years. Shamans in different cultures there have been brewing ayahuasca and Ayahuasca is it's a brew, it's a cauldron filled with plant material that has various ingredients. The two key ingredients are one, a plant, which contains the psychedelic tryptamine DMT, which is a very potent hallucinogen. And key ingredient number two is a plant that contains a mono amine oxidase inhibitor, an enzyme that renders the DMT orally active such that when you swallow the brew, the DMT is not chopped up by enzymes in your digestive digestive tract, it's absorbed into your bloodstream, and you have this extremely vivid, extremely powerful hallucinatory experience. And there's, there's an elaborate ritual around it, right? You get together with a group of people, it's led by a shaman, they're typically singing certain songs, they're administering the concoction in a particular way. It's a highly ritualized thing. And people describe this as being very transformative, not only for themselves at sort of a psychological spiritual level. But you know, we know now that DMT and ayahuasca potentially have genuine medical value in this sort of modern Western sense. And these things are being studied in the clinic, in different ways today. Now, what's interesting about this, to me is that not only do you have this powerful psychedelic, and this powerful experience that people report extraordinary outcomes from with regard to, you know, depression, addiction, and just, you know, General, General life quality. But my understanding is that certain components of the Ayahuasca brew, probably also have another kind of genuine biological effect that would have clear adaptive value for someone living in the middle of the rainforest, and that is they have anti parasitic properties. Now, I'm a little murky on the details. But if that's true, you know, it makes a lot of sense why something like that would evolve and persist in a culture of located in the Amazon, where you've got a lot of jungle parasites and jungle bugs that you're constantly going to be exposed to. And so it would seem that if if somehow someone discovered that you mix these plants together, it has this amazing psychedelic effect, they created elaborate rituals around it, presumably, the cultures that created this have no direct knowledge that it has this anti parasitic effects, presumably, they didn't go and extract chemicals one at a time for plants and test them against different parasites and worms and things. And so it gets to this idea of causal opacity that people believe it has a causal effect in the world and in the Ayahuasca ritual, right? You talk about communing with ancestor spirits, and it's kind of got all of that flavor around it. And it's possible in this case, that you know, at the same time that you have that sort of ritual and that sort of religious or spiritual understanding that gets built up around why you do the do the ritual, you actually do have this other very concrete, adaptive biological function being performed it and those things sort of tied together to help out I think help us understand how something so elaborate, could evolve and persist that, that people have where people have no conscious awareness of the actual concrete adaptive value that it is, in fact serving. Does that make sense to you? And more generally, how do you think about rituals.
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:30:17
A lot of couples, especially in the materialist tradition, have have made certain claims to the kind that and here's what again, when we talk about cultural selection, it's now we're talking about cultural evolution, because it's. So perhaps in a in an environment, like the Amazon, somebody taking a drug that will that will have anti parasitic capacities will be more likely to survive. But that doesn't necessarily mean that there's been enough time to change our biological evolution. It does mean, however, that those practices that involve those components are more likely to be selected themselves. Similarly, if you live in the Middle East, some of the reporters have argued, maybe it's keeping pigs it's not the most efficient way of farming. Or maybe there are health issues involved with parasite transmission. So taboo against those consuming certain foods is the same, the same principle will eventually be selected in the course of cultural selection, and a lot of rituals, working in those kinds of ways. But he also bring up something, something else that I think is very interesting that Alicia, hallucinogenic drugs, and all kinds of other substances are very commonly found across many cultures. And they are selected for they have survived those practices, because they, they might have specific functions. But another interesting thing is that what can be induced pharmacologically. So in this, in this case, the ritual was just our people's way of, of ingesting something that has value in itself. But a lot of times, we see that what the same pharmacological effects can actually be achieved through physiological stimulation, in a lot of cases. So first of all hallucinations, when to the extent that people hallucinate, and then that might have effects such as increasing their faith, because they've had divine revelation, or increasing bonding, or perhaps increasing hope in the context of healing rituals, you can induce that through physiological stimulation. So I worked I did fieldwork among a Greek community called the Astoria and the context of our community who also have firewalking rituals, people have this annual festival where they dance for the better part of three days. So it involves a lot of exhaustion, they dance for a couple of hours, they stop the dance again, some of them collapse on the ground, then they'll pick them up, they'll continue. Though, they'll go to bed, and then the next morning, it's the same again and again, for three days, they keep dancing under a lot of heat. This is May 21, in continental Greece, where it can be brutally hot in a closed space. And by doing that, a lot of inexperienced illustrations, so a woman was telling me that she looked up in the ceiling was gone, all of a sudden, she saw the angel scene in the great book sold. Now that's a lot of things for that woman. First of all, it reinforces her faith in that in the in the religious narrative of this group, but also a lot of people who are attracted to those rituals. It had been documented that they they tend to suffer from specific types of maladies. A very common type is depression, anxiety, and other types of mental illness, people who are drawn to these rituals and I have found this in other contexts as well, in Mauritius, for example, people who were who suffer from those types of infections, they are more likely to take part in this very intense rituals. And in another study, we actually documented that those who do they they have the derive greater benefits. And the more intense their participation, the more intense this physiological stimulation, the more pronounced this benefits are.
Nick Jikomes 1:34:24
Yeah, and, you know, switching gears a little bit. One of the, one of the things that I thought was fascinating here, and that connects in to some other books that I love from from some other people, is the relationship between ritual, pre linguistic ritual behavior, and the evolution of language itself and human beings. So one of my favorite thinkers on the subject who I had on the show on Episode 20, or something like that, there's a man named Terrence Deacon who I'm sure you're familiar with. But if you haven't listened to that episode, and you're listening, I highly recommend that one I think it'll pair very well with This discussion we're about to have. And his book is called The symbolic species, one of his books that he wrote many years ago, and essentially argues that our capacity for symbolic cognition was one of the key prerequisites for us to actually develop and evolve language as we know it today. And he talks a lot about, you know, what symbolic cognition is, and how that's tied to different aspects of brain development and brain evolution. He talks about how certain human rituals I think one of his favorites to talk about here is marriage might be tied to or might have actually helped to bootstrap the evolution of language, and so on the subject of how language evolved and how it relates to things like behavioral rituals and group rituals. I want to read this quote from your book Demetrius and then kind of get get your take on the the evolution of language. So at one point, you write that Biological anthropologists suggest that group ceremonies could have played a key role in the transmission of cultural knowledge in pre linguistic societies, through the symbolic reenactment of collective narratives, ritual functioned as an embedded proto language that provided an external support system to an external support system to individual cognition, a crucial step on the road towards language itself. So unpack this idea for us, what is the sort of what is the idea here behind having some kind of embodied ritual that serves as a precursor to the development of verbal language?
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:36:28
So so if you look at this passage that you just read, I think that there are a couple of notes there will take you to the back of the book, I think Terrence Deacon is one of the people I cite here. And the other one is Marilyn, Donald, Canadian neuroscientists they have, they have proportional ideas about the role of ritual in the evolution of language. Now, we talked about the symbolic value of virtual and of course, to be able to have language to be able to have these arbitrary signals, arbitrary notes, or whatever you want to call them, things like words that stand for something else, you need the capacity for symbolic language. But before your development language. A more straightforward way of doing is by acting, and we talked about this idea that we act first. And by acting we we come to, to embody certain states. So a very simple way of thinking about is that I can I can tell somebody, I love them. Or I can just go and hug that person. And that conveys. And that act of hugging somebody might be actually much more powerful for somebody who's not a robot was a human being, you might be able to convey many more things that can be said with, with two words. Similarly, if I wanted to show that I'm part of a group, I could, I could stand up and make a speech about my allegiance to that group. Or I could just take part in a long term on the right dance together with this group, and I everybody wears the same insignia, we paint our faces, we wear the same clothes, we engage in the same actions. And by doing all that we convey to each other, that we're committed to this idea that we are all as one that we are members of this team. So there's a lot of things that can be, can be conveyed without the use of words. And I think ritual is one of the one of the most efficient ways that would have been available to our ancestors before the emergence of language.
Nick Jikomes 1:38:24
Yeah, so I guess the idea here is, we would have had symbolic rituals, maybe they were marriage rituals, maybe there was something else. But people were literally acting in them, they were performing certain acts and certain behaviors. It was all imbued with symbolism, and there's some kind of narrative arc to whatever, whatever the physical act of engaging in this ritual was, and the sort of units of symbolism in those physical act that out rituals may have potentially literally been the precursors to what became spoken words.
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:38:56
Yes. And something else you might have seen those rituals as the, the role of rhythm, for example, dancing in our capacity for rhythm, which is incidental, it's something we share with birds. And incidentally, birds are the, the, the other type of animal that is so highly ritualized. So our capacity to, to follow rhythm, to dance with each other, and to be perhaps begin coming with each other and, you know, a form of proto singing that's, that's actually that's also a lot of precursor to, to language, both in terms of allowing us to develop the sorts of vocalizations that we need for language, but also our, our ability to, to track rhythm and to mimic, to imitate to follow all of those things. So imitation is another key aspect of ritual. That's what Marlon Donald talks about. That's what virtual Central is performing a cultural ritual requires the ability to imitate very precisely, the actions of other people. and you need that ability also to develop language.
Nick Jikomes 1:40:06
Yeah, you know, language and, and rhythm and music or, you know, other other really interesting potential human universals. And, you know, it strikes me that, you know, I think music and dance are common in some form to every human culture that we know of. And they're often tied to these other ritual acts, they're often right, you dance at a wedding, you sing songs, at, at Mass and in, in other religious settings. And all of these things are tied together. And it's probably not a coincidence that, you know, the literal cadence and rhythm of those acts is tied to the cadence and rhythm of spoken language that we see as unique to humans.
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:40:43
Not at all. It's not a coincidence at all. I think that first of all, in my definition, in my view of ritual, dance is a quintessential ritual that fits all of the requirements. It's repetitive, it's rigid, it's redundant. It's totally opaque. There's no reason why we should answer, there's no utilitarian benefit that is direct, we just do it, because we would like it. And again, it can have measurable benefits for us in terms of social bonding, and investments, I think that music, there's a very good chance that music evolved, we evolved our musical capacities, just to be able to facilitate this, this dancing, and this coordination in the context of these rituals that are crucial to social
Nick Jikomes 1:41:25
thinking, thinking about how rituals evolved from a wider point of view. So when we think across species, and we think about the evolution of ritual behavior, and where the roots of this stuff really lies, I would love if you could talk about some of the other species that display ritual behaviors and some of the more impressive ritual behaviors that we see in different organisms. One of the things I remember from the book is, you talked about several examples of potential death rituals and other species. And I thought those were, you know, were quite evocative, quite striking examples. And I would love if you could walk people through some of those, and what that says about how deep the roots of ritual behavior go.
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:42:02
So first of all, I should say that there's this there's often this sense among social scientists, that human beings are so exceptional, that we're so different from the rest of nature. I think it goes back to a lot of there's a lot of baggage that comes from this idea. Of course, religious traditions have played a role in, in why people think, in this way that we're so special, because we're chosen by God. There are other reasons for it. One of the main reasons is that the lack of evidence because we just didn't look for it, we took it for granted. When Jane Goodall went to the field and observed chimpanzees using tools, for example, people were very upset, they didn't believe her. Part of the reasons because he was a young woman. She was ridiculed. She was she was told that using pronouns for chimps calling them he, he was just humanizing them. And that was a bad. So a lot of times behaviors that we're seeing other animals that, that we will merely describe us as, as let's say ritual or art in our species, we're afraid to do that. Sometimes with with good reason, it's good to be cautious because animals cannot tell us what they think. But the truth of the matter is that once we started looking, then we find an abundance of all the things that people once thought were unique, and in humans, and we're what makes us humans. Now we know they exist in other rooms, when other there's two of us to making another animals. There's some proto language, there's certainly a lot of ritualization. There's, there's this aesthetic appreciation, moral outrage, and all sorts of things that we have found in other animals. The more we look, the more we find. And it's the same with ritual. So the most, the best known examples come from bird mating rituals. But those are sort of we're all familiar with. Some of the more interesting examples can come from closer relatives. So you mentioned death rituals. Elephants have pretty elaborate death rituals, they seem to be one of the few animals that have an understanding of death. And they're also social animals. So they have these two things in common with us. They're also animals that live very long. And that means that this allows them to have this transmittable knowledge. So they have they begin to form traditions. And those traditions involve things like funeral rites. Elephants are commonly observed trying to bury that members of the species also that and also other species, even humans, there are anecdotal reports of people who have found dead or fainted or and elephants come in, they tried to bury them using branches and dirt and flowers. But another very interesting thing is that they seem to have what in humans we would call problems. So they sometimes travel 1000s of miles or 100. Some miles, led by a matriarch who has knowledge of the, of the topography. And they traveled to visit the bones of their dead ancestors, especially when those ancestors are matriarchal and also some important member of the community who perished years ago. And once we arrived there, they all fall silent. And then maybe they'll start trumping altogether. They touch the bones, they smell them, they really seem to, to be emotionally impacted by them. Of course, we don't know what's in their minds. But clearly there they seem, they have an understanding of death, they're able to, to understand that those bones represent their ancestors, and then they they traveled, visit them. Even some marine mammals, dolphins, for example, they seem to do the same thing. So when often there are reports of groups of dolphins who surround their their dead fellow members, and they maybe push them towards a boat, or they perform these dances around them, they seem to be doing something that suggests that there they are in sign of death. Similar, we see similar behaviors among ravens, who of course, are very highly intelligent, and all sorts of other animals. beyond death, of course, a lot of rituals are related to meeting. Some of them have very
obvious similarities with human rituals. Let me give you one example. There's a bird calls called Jackson's widow bird. That bird has a very long tail, which is about three times its body length, and has a peculiar mating ritual. So the male's will they gather in areas that we call Lex liquors some the side of a collective bird mating rituals. And the male's clear the grass, they each one of them establishes an individual dance floor, and then they start jumping up and down as far as they can, and the females gather around them, they they watch them. And if they like what they see them, they go from me to that male. Now almost the exact same ritual exists in among certain human tribes, for example, there are many African tribes that have this, these choreographed dances that involve jumping as high as up as you can, or lifting your leg, to the extent that it goes over your head, which is a very difficult thing to do, you need to be very fit to do this. And then members of the opposite sex you find those both as, as male and female rituals, together and pick their, their their favorite future partners. So there are a lot of interesting mating rituals as well. But one of the most fascinating things I think, that we've seen in recent research comes from chimps. throughout West Africa, scientists from the Max Planck Institute have set up cameras. And they were they documented in various places, they documented these behaviors among chimps, who they sometimes they go off course. So when they travel in an area, they will go out of their way, literally, to visit those hollow trees, for some reason, they'll seem special to them. And they either they drum on those trees, or they take rocks, and they pile them up inside the tree or in front of a tree. And if you look at a picture of those piles, they are indistinguishable from those carrots that, that humans in many cultures built as markers of some sacred site. So obviously, we don't know what's going on in their minds, we'll never know. But the most parsimonious inference here are the most obvious one is that these are rituals, which are just like we would would say if we saw them among living or, or prehistoric humans.
Nick Jikomes 1:48:53
Getting back to this idea that ritual behavior is a kind of antidote to negative psychological states like anxiety. And that it's actually, you know, the reason that you see rituals most frequently. And the most elaborate rituals in sort of the smartest and most social species is that having the kind of brain that allows you to be so smart and engage in social cognition is exactly the kind of brain that predisposes you to things like anxiety and other negative affective states. And you are inevitably going to experience that if you have such a brain if you're a human, if you're an elephant, if you're a chimp, or what have you. And ritual behavior is literally a kind of behavioral antidote to that. So with that stuff in mind, when when you look at the numbers, when you look at the charts in the modern, so called developed world, including the United States, you see things like you see many different psychiatric diseases that have been up into the right on the rise for many years now, including depression and anxiety. Where do you think this comes from? And do you think it could be tied to sort of the degradation of a lot of the traditional of religious and ritual structures that we have in society and their degradation is actually driving an increase in things like anxiety.
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:50:09
I think there are two things, things happening at two levels that are self reinforcing, creating a vicious cycle. On the one hand, the as I mentioned earlier, the pace of life is much faster today than ever before. Social media, certainly for for many reasons that we probably don't have time to get into, they create a lot of anxieties. We live in an environment radically different from what our ancestors lived even even a couple of generations ago. So our environment itself, and our existence today is much more stressful than it used to be like it should be. At the same time, some of the best tools that we wouldn't have that we should have for dealing with those situations. We are more deprived of those today than ever before. And I will point to two things, and they're they're related. One is our social networks. So we live more people live together, far away from their families, or their childhood friends than ever before in human history. I live in a different continent than the my relatives and my childhood friends. And most of us in let's say, in the United States, do not live within walking distance from our parents place as people would have learned for most of our existence. There are a lot of times that show that social networks are one of the main buffers against anxiety. The other thing is those traditional practices, rituals, that we tend to abandon thinking that they're there, they're outdated, or they're wasteful, they're pointless. But they have served our species throughout our existence. And as we discussed, somebody that has served us for so long, was probably probably had tangible functions for us. And of course, those two things are interrelated because those rituals not only help us to cope with anxiety as individuals, but they also help us do it as a collective, which means that they help us for it, social networks. So when traditionally, ritual participation was one of the main ways through its human communities were able to bond. And this is something that we're liking. Now, we don't entirely like this. So another thing you'll see is that as things like religious rituals are becoming less and less common in modern secular societies, you'll see that people are more and more likely to turn to other forms of spirituality that are also very heavily ritualized, and ritual based from things like meditation to things like yoga to things like participation in Burning Man, which is entirely ritualized for things like secular gatherings like graduation ceremonies, or secular weddings that are also ritualized just as much as religious weddings, they can be all of those things are ways of, of people reclaiming that the power of ritual or those social technologies. So in this sense, when you begin to look at ritual from Dalits, you realize that it's actually still omnipresent, it's just because of religious rituals are not around us as much as they used to, doesn't mean that we're not living ritualized lives.
Nick Jikomes 1:53:29
Yeah, one of the things that I want to tie into this that you talked about in the book that I think this may have even been like your PhD thesis, was centered on this notion of extreme rituals. And we have many examples in the book of rituals that are extreme in the sense that they require the participant to do something very, very physically demanding, or that is very, very painful and arduous. And I think oftentimes, these are tied to identity, right, some kind of formation or transition in your identity, you go through the ritual, and you come out the other end as a different kind of person, you come out of it as a warrior, or a priest, or a man or a woman, or what have you. Whereas when you entered it, you were something else. And so what's the connection here between pain and extreme physical exertion, and this identity transformation function that many rituals form?
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:54:12
So we're gonna look at a list of different aspects of this, we can we can talk about the way our mind perceives, and evaluates effort, and the kinds of inferences we draw from that. So studies show that if I do something that is more that requires more effort, I will come to appreciate it more from climbing a mountain to raising children, to doing something more mundane is in certain experiments, membership in a reading group where people have to go through a series of ritual to join the reading group, or they had to endure more severe electric shocks to be part of that group. They came to light the group more. So there's that that aspect that wins? Well, once you've invested so much, in a ritual that doesn't have to be in the form of intensity just once. It could be cumulative investments of time. So think about the fact Most people, the vast majority of human beings, the first time you take part in a collective ritual, it's not because you woke up and thought, maybe I should do that today. It's because you're a child and your parents take you. But through the process of socialization, as you go there every Sunday, or every Friday, or, or daily, you come to derive meaning from those rituals. And you come, listen, we discussed about how by by doing things. We enact our social identities. So you come to feel as part of that group, some things don't need to be said. The other aspect of it is the Spirit aspect of it. So we'll go through the ceremonies together. And especially in the case of extreme ceremonies, when when we like the people, and some people have told me you've been through this situation together, you've now become brothers. We are a ray makes this interesting is that if we have suffered together with those people, if we have laughed together, if we've experienced this very strong emotions, if we cry together, that means that we're closely connected, because typically the people you cry with you cry together with their members of your family, or your, your very inner circle. And these effects can be measured. So I've done studies, for example, in the island of Mauritius, where I do most of my research, this is an island in the Indian Ocean, that has a Hindu majority in front of the most diverse places on earth. So for a large positive study ritual, it's perfect because I can, I can observe the rituals of many different traditions, but one of the most intense and painful for those rituals is the type of sound comedy. And this is performed by Tamil Hindus in India and around the world. It involves a lot of hardships. It's a long day, all day long pilgrimage that involves walking barefoot on the burning asphalt and burning sand, carrying large structures on your shoulders. But also involves body piercings. And those can range from one needle to hundreds of needles throughout the entire body are even skewers pierced through the cheeks, and all sorts of other self imposed acts of torture. We have done studies there where we, for example, we looked at charitable donations, and what happens when people take part in different types of rituals. So we find that when people take part in a collective ritual, at the same temple, compared to a control group, they are much more likely to give money to charity. But when they take part in, in the painful ritual, they're even more in fact, way more likely to give money to charity to help an in group, they're less likely to cheat in certain economic games against fellow group members. And in fact, that increases as a function of pain. So the more they have suffered as individuals, the more pro social they become.
Nick Jikomes 1:58:00
Do you think it's possible that you know today, like right now, in real time, we're seeing new forms of ritual spontaneously evolve that have to do with that our kind of response to this rise in anxiety and other things that we're seeing in the rest of Western world? And that are tied to the intense preoccupation that more and more people seem to have with things like identity, and what they're called, and the physical manifestation and the physical change that some people actually actually do to their bodies?
Dimitris Xygalatas 1:58:29
Absolutely. First of all, there are new rituals being rented everyday, but as we as we discuss, some of them will make it some of them will just not last very long. But I can, I can point the two types of recent inventions. So one, are relatively recent. One is Friendsgiving. So Thanksgiving has been traditionally for North Americans, it's been time to meet with your family. We just discussed about how increasingly difficult this becomes. Sometimes your family might be around the continent. It might just be impossible. Sometimes you might have a global pandemic preventing you from traveling. So what do you do? Well, you you you reenact those rituals, with a twist. So in this case, it could be Thanksgiving with a group of friends so friends can Another example might be divorce rituals. So for the for most of our existence, because of patriarchal the patriarchal structure of most humans, all humans status and history. Divorce was an impossibility for the vast majority of the population. Especially for women, they just couldn't, they couldn't just leave their husbands even if they were being abused. So today we have more people are able to make their own choices and in less than most of the of the world and most of the time and with that comes a spike. In divorce rates, which is a good thing, it's an accomplishment, that means that people are actually able to get out of an abusive relationship, it means that they can have the means to support themselves. At the same time, this is the only major life transition that doesn't have an associated ceremony dedicated. Certainly, they will say that in response to that people are beginning to invent, divorce, surmise, we see it in the United States. We see it in Japan. And that goes back actually, a few centuries in Japan, there's there's a temple there that was dedicated to protecting women who have been abused by their husbands. And today, in modern Japan, it offers people an opportunity to perform a divorce, which often either by it happens in one place by by flushing your vows or your wedding rings, or just a note down the toilet, literally. Or in other contexts, that happens by smashing your wedding ring. And sometimes you will see or even both people, it doesn't have to be an abusive relationship, sometimes it just the end of a relationship. And it's consensual, but that, you know, you've lived with somebody for most of your life, you won't feel this, this gap, it's very hard to move on, you feel there's guilt and starting to date again and starting a new life. There are a lot of emotions and not having a dedicated ritual to allow you to make this transition is very difficult. So sometimes couples will go together and will smash their, their rings with a hammer. And they will come out presumably feeling much better about it.
Nick Jikomes 2:01:43
You know, when we think about modern day rituals, one pattern motif that I think is really interesting is this kind of organic rediscovery of ancient ritual motifs that were sort of that were spontaneously re engaging in. And, you know, so to tie it to our earlier discussion, you know, we spent some time talking about the birth of civilization, essentially, the transition from being nomadic hunter gatherers, to sedentary agriculturalists. And then the rise of what became modern civilization. And, you know, so we talked about things like Rebecca teki, our ancestors used to be hunter gatherers, they eventually started coming together periodically, perhaps once a year, perhaps multiple times a year to places like Gobekli, Teck, tapi, to engage in these ritual practices. Eventually, that turned into cities and civilizations. And eventually, you know, we got to the present moment, we could do a whole podcast on that stuff. But what's super fascinating to me, is today in the modern world, so called in the Western world, in the US and elsewhere, we actually seem to have gone back and sort of rediscovered some of those ancient patterns of coming together periodically. And one that super interesting, and near to my heart that you talked about in the book is Burning Man. So can you talk for people that don't know what is Burning Man? And can you tell the story of how that ritual spontaneously got started to do with the temple burning?
Dimitris Xygalatas 2:03:10
So Burning Man is this event for lack of a better word, but I'm saying this because many people call it the festival. But burners, they sometimes they will insist that it's our festival, it's something else they might call it community, for example, they might call it something else. It is essentially a makeshift city that is built in Black Rock, Nevada, every year, around August, September, up to 80,000, people will gather there, they will, they will set up a city from scratch in the middle of the desert. And a week later, they will just remove everything overnight, and leaving no traces behind. They're actually very methodical about this about how they go, collecting everything. Now, this is an event. It's a very interesting, real life experiment. Because it's an event that at first was all about fun and games, they was held on a beach and anybody could participate. And there wasn't much interest in in participating. And then they moved to the middle of the desert, and they have a very steep fee for participating now, and you need to do a lot of sacrifices. The conditions are not very pleasant, the middle of the desert. And nonetheless, they have more people than they could possibly accommodate. And they respond partner events around the world. So what happens there is people come in for a whole week they engage in those. They're free to engage in all kinds of artistic then ritual expressions. So you have art installations, you have very exuberant costumes and vehicles and all sorts of events and In all of those events, you will see ritual. This is not explosive, this is not intentional, or maybe it is a little bit intentional because the founders of Burning Man actually read a lot about religion in religious studies. So they took a page from from ritual design, so to speak. But a lot of things have emerged organically. And that's the most interesting part for me. Because if you look at they have their own census, and if you look at the census 95% say they're not religious. So according to one definition, if we're, you know, based on the census, we might say, this is possibly the least religious crowd in history, there's never been 80,000 people. Only 5% of whom would say they're religious in any context, maybe. Nonetheless, I look at this event, and I see spirituality, and I see ritual, everywhere. And one of the greatest examples is this temple. When it was built, it wasn't even meant to be a temple. So they invited an artist to build an installation. And during the construction, one of the workers died. So they got together and they thought, Okay, what shall we do, so we stop. So we continue, they decided that what what he would have liked us to do would be to continue to finish. And they finished the structure, and we gave it no name, and they gave it no purpose. It was just a large room. And then people heard about the story. And they spontaneously started bringing their own memories of somebody they lost. And at the end of the of the week, they they watch the temple burn, and this kind of cathartic effect on people. So the the next day, the next year, it was named the Temple of tears. And even later, when it was named the the Temple of joy, people still kept coming spontaneously, bringing photographs, memos, notes, letters of somebody that had lost somebody who had abused them. Somebody who broke their heart, and just putting them on the wall. 10s of 1000s of them. And then at the end of the, of the event, they gather together and as the table burns, everybody sings together, or they stay silent, and most of them weep. And this is what it burned down to the ground. And this seems like a very cathartic effect on people. So this is very high. This is a morning ritual that emerged spontaneously among a crowd that is self described as one of the least religious crowds ever. And yet their need for ritual, their need for symbolism is just as great as in any other city. We know.
Nick Jikomes 2:07:43
Yeah, it's fascinating that, that, on the one hand, it's a very secular event, in the sense that you, you mentioned 95% of people claim not to be religious in the traditional sense that we use that word. And yet they're doing all of these very quasi religious, religious ritual, ritual behaviors that that are quasi religious. And it's a fascinating dichotomy. I've sort of often toyed with the idea in my mind that, you know, thinking by analogy with physics, where you talk about conservation laws, right, energy is never created or destroyed, it's just transformed. Might there be some kind of analogous conservation laws that we can think about for psychology and sociology, like the level of ritual behavior in a society is, is actually a constant, not a variable, and the variable is just sort of the form that that behavior takes. And that's why you have things like Burning Man, where on the one hand, in one sense, it's secular, but on the other hand, it's just a different form of ritual behavior that we normally associated with organized religion. But in this case, it's just in a different kind of container.
Dimitris Xygalatas 2:08:42
So I've never heard of this analogy of did you come up with?
Nick Jikomes 2:08:46
I? Yeah, I think so.
Dimitris Xygalatas 2:08:49
I really like this analogy, I think it really captures something fundamental about, not just a little bit about human nature. So that's exactly the way I see those things. So when you look at human societies, across time and across space, you will see that at first glance, you have tremendous variability is the same process that every anthropologist goes through, when they visit the field site, at for and that's why early anthropologists, we didn't really visit the field sites, they just got reports from people who have been there for a week or a day. At first, they're shocked at the differences and they see the others as very different other people is very different. Once you come to notice people better you realize that we're all essentially the same, we are driven by the same fundamental needs, the same desires, the same goals. And we behave in similar ways even if those ways vary in their expression, in the forms of Express. So based on this, you would expect to you would predict and I think that's exactly what you what you find, there will there will be this preservation of energy in terms of every human society will have certain things like ritual Like music and dancing. And even in cases, even in societies where these are either discouraged or are thought to be abandoned, if you look deeper, you will find that they have there, they were still there, they have just taken different forms. And that's what we see today in more secularized countries. People don't have not abandoned ritual, they just turned to different forms of ritual, that might, we might not immediately recognize them, because we're just used to connecting ritual with religion, but they're just as ritual instance, as religious rituals are, and they serve some of the same functions.
Nick Jikomes 2:10:36
Yeah, and I think this also, another way to think about this is, you know, a lot of people have said things like, I forget where this originated, but the idea that there's a God shaped hole in the human heart or in the human brain, that even if you're not explicitly religious, and a member of an organized religion, the human mind is simply configured in such a way that we're all predisposed to thinking in, quote, unquote, religious terms, or to engage the world in ways that we ordinarily associated with religious belief. And so, you know, we talked about the Burning Man example, where on the one hand, it's mostly non religious people in the traditional sense. On the other hand, they're all engaged in the very same kinds of acts that we typically associate with religion. Another thing that I've, I've noticed, and many people have noticed is, you know, I think in American culture, in particular, a lot of secular people, people who don't identify with an organized religion, they're, they're sort of religious or ritualistic impulses just get channeled through other containers and institutions. So for example, you know, religion for a lot of people in America, I think, is politics and their political affiliations. And you see this kind of almost religious zeal that people have with their politics, and you often see it most strongly, not always, but oftentimes the people who would otherwise consider themselves to be totally secular.
Dimitris Xygalatas 2:11:51
Absolutely. And for that matter, you you also say the same thing at the level of the state. So in for much of human history, in much of the world, religion was the ultimate, de facto state. So religious leaders could dictate those rituals that everybody had taken part in. In, in most parts of the world today, you don't have that. But then the state has taken up many of the functions of, of those institutions. So we have state rituals. Everywhere we look, you go to a courtroom, and you'll see everybody rise and sit in synchrony. And you see the judge waving and Gable, and you'll see all of the, the the insignia and the clothing and the symbols, you go to a sports stadium in America, and you hear the the anthem, the national anthem at the beginning of each game. In many schools, people have to recite the pledge of allegiance. Universities, they held the whole graduation ceremonies, and every family holds birthday parties and all kinds of other gatherings that they're not the quintessential, there are the stereotypical thing that comes to mind when people ask you whether you perform rituals. I often do this with my students, I asked them Do you perform rituals regularly? And most of them being in Connecticut? They say no. But then we'll start talking about what ritual is. And when I asked when I started asking him, whether they raise their glasses to make a toast, or whether they attend birthday parties, or weddings, or graduations, of course, every single one of them regularly attends rituals.
Nick Jikomes 2:13:31
So given given everything that we've talked about, given the adaptive value, that you see rituals, having given everything that you've studied, have you created any new rituals or adopted pre existing rituals in and incorporated those into your day to day life specifically as a result of everything that you've researched?
Dimitris Xygalatas 2:13:53
So one of the things that I've seen in my life, for example, is that it's related to both the recent pandemic but also the the birth of my my son. Because these two events made made us realize how much we were missing our families and how much there was this need for connection? At a time where we couldn't travel, they couldn't come and visit us they couldn't meet their grandson. So we started doing these ritualized meetings. So for example, we would in the past, I wouldn't have a Christmas dinner with my family. Well, now these last few years, I did, and we did it virtually. And we we even sometimes cooked for the meal together, we engaged in the whole process together in the only way we could we did virtually. So these are the kinds of things that you do when changing circumstances when you're when you're missing aspect when you're highly stressed. Or when you're missing social connection, those are the times when you will turn to virtual.
Nick Jikomes 2:14:54
So, this has been a fascinating discussion. So thank you very much for your time. Again, I really Read the book, I, I read books in a very nonlinear way. I'm usually usually in the middle of seven or eight or 10 books at a time, it might take me weeks or months or even years to get through one. This is one of the first books in this year that I actually started and finished in less than seven or 10 days. And I think it's a testament to how fascinating it was and how you weave everything together. Can you just remind everyone one last time, who you are, what the book is when it comes out and all that stuff?
Dimitris Xygalatas 2:15:28
So I'm Demetrius galatas, anthropologist and psychologist at the University of Connecticut. The book was called ritual or seemingly senseless acts make life worth living. And it's coming out, it's already out with profile in most of the English speaking world, and in September in North America.
Nick Jikomes 2:15:47
Excellent. Well, thanks again for your time. I'll put a link to the book in the episode description so people will have it right there near the top. And I encourage you to check it out. And with that, yeah, thank you for your time.