Column: The Neurology of Ritual

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I was raised in a devout Catholic household. Catholicism holds to ritual like few other organized religions today.

The Catholic Mass, attended every single Sunday by observant members of the church, is an hour-long, painstaking re-enactment of ritual symbolism that culminates in literal, physical communion between the worshipper and the Divine. As a child I studied this ritual in detail, absorbing and benefiting from the minutiae of its symbolism, the “transubstantiation” by which a priest alleged that a communion wafer became, in literal reality, the body and blood of God.

Being told this, it’s small wonder that I wanted to be a priest as a child. That ambition died quickly: women are not allowed to become priests in the Catholic Church. That’s probably part of why I ended up where I am today: as a practitioner of Pagan sacraments, which embrace feminine as well as masculine power.

My life had another chapter, however, which informs everything I do and understand. After my breakup with the Catholic Church, I became a hardcore scientific skeptic. Throughout my college career, I was tutored by scientists who refused to accept anything that wasn’t proven to them by repeatable, airtight experiments. I learned the difference between “absence of evidence” and “evidence of absence,” and the many grey areas in which science cannot prove any absolutes, and therefore doesn’t say anything at all.

In the course of that training, I found something surprising: religious rituals really do work, even in an ironclad, sword’s-edge, repeatable kind of way.

Certain rituals, anyway. Rituals intended to produce physical change in the outside world, such as faith healings of people who don’t know they’re being prayed for, have shown mixed results at best in double-blind trials. But rituals designed to change or enhance the behavior, feelings, symptoms, and capabilities of those involved in them – those really do work, and they work really well.

They work so well, in fact, that the world’s most advanced psychiatric systems work hand-in-hand with religious practitioners of all stripes, and more than one tech-inspired startup company designs secular rituals for businesses and individuals, designed to create the change they desire.

Explanations given by Pagan teachers vary widely. From hard polytheists who cite the power of their Divine friends to atheopagans who state that they practice for strictly psychological reasons, to those in-between who speak of both the psychology of “circumventing the little voice that says you can’t,” and of the Divine power of Will to manifest new realities in the physical plane, the reasons why rituals work vary, but the fact of their efficacy is never in doubt.

The Cotswold Order of Druids at their 2016 Winter Solstice ritual [courtesy.]

What explanation would my science mentors give?

There is an aspect of ritual – indeed, an aspect of spirit – that is rarely spoken about, either by spiritual devotees or scientists. Perhaps it’s because both the rationalists and the religious are afraid of how close rituals brings their worlds to each other.

If scientists must admit that practices built on belief in the Divine can have real, concrete, life-changing benefits – what does that mean for their professional skepticism? And if spiritual practitioners must admit that the effects of their practices are validated – and possibly explained – by happenings entirely within their own brains, what does that mean for their relationship with a Divine which exists quite independently of themselves?

These questions are frightening. Yet it is the most frightening questions that we must grapple with if we seek the whole truth. And the answer is earthshaking.


My own area of study in college was neuroscience. This was in no small part an outgrowth of my religious experiences and of my experiences with religious disagreements. In neuroscience we study the hardware of the brain. We study its glitches and its calculations, its involuntary actions and its voluntary abilities, and what we learn is remarkable.

The human brain is full of flaws. It actively creates illusions which limit our perception of reality. But for the spiritual practitioner, this is validation: the idea that our everyday perception of the world is incomplete because of biological limitations validates the idea that reality, in its true nature, is more than the mundane world we perceive.

Perhaps most remarkable is what we can do. Like other animals, humans are largely driven by external stimuli. To survive, we must respond to our environments, to changes in our physical world, more strongly than we respond to our own, merely internal, abstract ideas and desires.

It’s easy to see this principle in neurologic action. In response to sights and sounds, scents and sensations, electrochemical signals travel along our peripheral nerves and penetrate the brain, where these signals may propagate and change brain activity in complex ways.

Emotions can be changed. Understandings can be changed. New pathways can be forged within ourselves – at the physical level. Old pathways can be severed.

For our animal ancestors, this was useful. They saw, heard, and felt cues for famine, predation, and other dangers. They changed their behavior, their worldview, accordingly. The most helpful behavior in a time of feast is not correct in a time of famine. Our bodies developed countless chemical and electrical signaling mechanisms to tell us what the world demanded of us, and what we were capable of.

Ancient rituals related to changes of season and life-changing events can be understood as a direct extension of those activities. By marking changes in the world around us in predictable, explicit ways, we can better tell our brains and bodies what it is that they must do.

We are unlike other animals in one way. We can create our own external stimuli. We can create sights and sounds, scents and actions, which produce electrochemical signals that travel down our nerves.

We can use symbols and psychoactives, words and actions, time spent in sacred space, to signal a change in the seasons of our lives.

We can create new pathways inside ourselves. We can sever old ones.

These changes are not accomplished through thought alone; a mere decision is not enough to end a famine. A decision is, often, not enough to change a lifelong doubt or habit.

In ritual, however, we command the changing of the seasons. When we create a change through action and sensation, through word and deed and symbol, we change more than a small loop of thought. We build a new reality in the only place that matters: within our brains, the filter lenses through which we perceive the world.

Catherine Carr is a writer, editor, and former clinical research coordinator. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Neuroscience from the University of Michigan, and has spent the last three years traveling North America to study the many ways in which we connect to the Divine. Her writings have appeared in Isis-Seshat: A Quarterly Journal of the Fellowship of Isis and in the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal.