From one perspective, rituals are pure silliness. They might involve us waving our hands in a certain way and saying these exact words, in this exact order; we might put on a funny costume, or eat specific foods, or even subject ourselves to considerable amounts of pain. And we don’t just perform these rituals once either—we tend to do them over and over again, year after year. Seen in this way, rituals are frivolous, expendable, and mind-numbingly repetitive. And yet they’re also central. Rituals are found in abundance in all human cultures; they’re a fixture of every historical period. So what’s the story? How can we reconcile the apparent silliness of rituals with their centrality to our species?
My guest today is Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas. He is Associate Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Psychological Sciences at the University of Connecticut. He’s also the author of the new book, Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living. In the book, Dimitris makes the case that rituals are far from extraneous sideshows: they’re enormously valuable, both for individuals and for groups, and they form a core part of what it means to be human.
Here, Dimitris and I talk about some of the extreme rituals that he’s studied, in particular, fire walking. We discuss the methods he uses to study these kind of traditions, especially unobtrusive physiological measures like heart rate monitoring. We also touch on: ritual-like behaviors in other species; what OCD behaviors have in common with certain ritual behaviors; why collective traditions often involve pain and synchronized movement; and how rituals serve to strengthen social bonds and enhance our well-being.
If you enjoy this convo, be sure to check out Dimitris’s book—I can recommend it heartily. And if you’re enjoying Many Minds, perhaps consider posting a review or leaving us a rating. Or maybe telling a friend, or three.
Alright folks, on to my chat with Dimitris Xygalatas. Enjoy!