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The Science Of Ritual: Why We Seek Help And Healing In Repetition

Devotees take part in rituals and offer gifts in celebration of Yemanja Day, in Salvador, Bahia state, Brazil, in February.
Ricardo Cardosa
DPA /Landov
Devotees take part in rituals and offer gifts in celebration of Yemanja Day, in Salvador, Bahia state, Brazil, in February.

A few days ago, I found myself sitting in a room full of cross-legged yogis with my sweaty hands resting on the sweaty knees of the people beside me, bellowing a mantra in unison over and over again. What united us at that yoga studio was empathy for yoga instructor Michael Joel Hall, who was savagely beaten as he walked home earlier that week with his boyfriend. The insurance-less Hall landed in the hospital with significant medical expenses, and yoga studios across Washington, D.C., swiftly organized fundraisers and special events to help him out.

As we sat there repeating a simple combination of Sanskrit words, I imagined our voices floating out the window, down the street and into the hospital room of Hall (whom I've never met). After six minutes, we stopped. Though reason told us our efforts did nothing to speed Hall's physical recovery, a resounding feeling of accomplishment nonetheless lingered in the room as we made our way out.

That urge to engage in specific, repetitive ritual when there's something we want but aren't sure how to get — in this case, the healing of Hall — has long fascinated Cristine Legare, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Lately, Legare has been studying rituals like the one I participated in because she wants to understand why people are so quick to ignore physical causality — for example, the fact that voices alone are unlikely to cause the healing of someone's wounds — in favor of what she calls supernatural reasoning.

"Ritual is a huge part of human culture, but a lot of this behavior is opaque; we don't know anything about this from a psychological perspective," Legare tells Shots.

In a paper out this summer in the journal Cognition, Legare finds that there are a few key ways in which people of various cultures come to trust their rituals. What makes a ritual feel effective is the same from ancient Egypt to modern-day Brazil and the United States, she says.

So how are simpatias — Brazil's ubiquitous, formulaic rituals for curing ills like impotence or deterring an adulterous partner — like the praying, chanting or palm readings we might do here in the U.S.? Legare found in four separate studies that what ties these rituals together, at least in terms of why people believe them to be effective, is repetition and having lots of little steps.

Here's one simpatia Legare came across in Brazil that's meant to help you attract a partner:

Buy a new sharp knife and stick it four times into a banana tree on June 4th at midnight. Catch the liquid from the tree on a crisp white paper, folded in two and it will form first letter of name of your future partner.

"There's no natural explanation for how this would help you find a partner, but it doesn't deter people from using them at all," says Legare. "You wouldn't spend time getting a special knife and reenacting an entirely nuanced procedure if you didn't think there was some potential it would work."

Ultimately, Legare argues, these rituals reflect how our minds work. The vast majority of us, she argues, don't approach life the way scientists do — demanding rigorous evidence to establish cause and effect.

"We don't actually know how most things work," Legare says, "so we do a lot of imitating." At essence, she says, rituals offer the same type of satisfaction that we get from daily routines that we have better evidence of being effective — for example, daily teeth brushing.

In a chaotic world, she says, such repetition seems to offer us the illusion of control over what we want to happen. So whether it's a knife in a tree or a room of chanting yogis, Legare says ritual is definitely here to stay.

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