Sure, you might have a tongue piercing. But would you consider something far more extreme for a bump on the social ladder? In episode 62, we’re joined by Dimitris Xygalatas from the University of Connecticut, who talks with us about how extravagant and painful rituals can foster greater subjective health and social standing. His open access article “Effects of Extreme Ritual Practices on Psychophysiological Well-Being” was published on August 30, 2019 in the journal Current Anthropology.
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Hosts / Producers
Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins
How to Cite
Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Xygalatas, D.. (2019, November 12). Parsing Episode – Ritual Pain for Social Gain. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.10302101
What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers
Dimitris Xygalatas: A lot of what creates pleasure, happiness, or meaning in our lives sometimes has to do with things like suffering.
Ryan Watkins: This is Parsing Science: the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Ryan Watkins.
Doug Leigh: And I’m Doug Leigh. Today, in episode 62 of Parsing Science, we’re joined by Dimitris Xygalatas from the University of Connecticut’s Department of Anthropology. He’ll discuss his research into the kavadi: an extreme ritual involving pain and suffering, which not only has no discernible long-term harmful effects on its participants … it may actually improve their social status and psychological well-being.
Leigh: Here’s Dimitris Xygalatas.
Xygalatas: Hello, I’m Dimitris Xygalatas. I am an anthropologist and a cognitive scientist. I originally come from Greece, but have lived in seven different countries. I’ve now been in the United States for five and half years, and I work at the University of Connecticut. My background is both in anthropology and in cognitive science. So, I did my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast at the Institute of Cognition and Culture. And I also did part of my graduate studies at Aarhus University in Denmark, where I later became a faculty member. And later I went on to become the director of a research institute in the Czech Republic at Masaryk University which is called LEVYNA. It’s the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion, and this was the first Institute in the world to be exclusively dedicated to the experimental research on religion. And in fact this study originated when I was at Masaryk University.
And this is something beautiful about the scientific process, and the way the scientific community should – in principle – operate. So what happened was a colleague of mine sent me a paper that Sammyh Khan had coauthored, and cc’d the author. And I responded with some criticism; some methodological criticism. And Sammy wrote back, and he was very open to discussing this. So we we started this very interesting email exchange, which eventually led to me inviting him to give a talk at my institute, and eventually led to us applying and getting a grant that allowed us to to buy the equipment and recruit the team to do this study. So we ended up working together. And we went to Mauritius, and that’s how this study came about.
Leigh: While we might refer to our daily self-care routines as “morning rituals,” most of us nonetheless recognize that cultural rituals occur within the context of the traditions of a particular community. Some – like rites of passage – may provide access to such communities, while others may symbolically reaffirm our membership in them. We began our conversation by asking Dimitris to explain what rituals are, and how the extreme rituals he studies differ from our more typical ones.
What rituals – and extreme rituals – are
Xygalatas: So, by definition, “ritual” doesn’t have any directly obvious goals … or, at least, the goals are disconnected from the means. Meaning if I dance around, you know, in a rain dance, there’s no direct connection between my movement and rain falling from the sky. At the same time, rituals are universal. We really see ritual in every society we’ve ever known, past or present. So this creates a puzzle: why is this behavior so widespread historically and cross-culturally? And if you want to see a domain where this puzzle is even more pronounced, then we look at extreme rituals. So that puzzle is much more salient when it comes to these rituals.
Now, by extreme rituals, I don’t mean that it’s anything abnormal. There’s no machinations here that there’s something wrong with the people who are doing these rituals. If anything, actually, they’re attended by a very representative part of the population: you have illiterate farmers, as well as university students. All members of the community do these rituals. So, by “extreme ritual,” what we mean is that if you were to somehow measure the intensity – whether this is psychological arousal, or the effort exerted in those rituals, or the pain and suffering that they involve – these results will be outliers. So, things like walking on fire, some of the Shia Muslims’ rituals that are performed on the Day of Ashura that involves slashing the skin with razors, or self-flagellation. Tamil Hindus around the world perform a lot of these rituals like the kavadi that involve piercing the skin, or walking on fire, and so on and so forth.
And a lot of these very extreme rituals that involve a lot of pain and suffering – and a lot of behaviors that might be seen as posing direct risks to health – things like the possibility of infection, or physical trauma, or psychological trauma, and so on and so forth: a lot of them are actually culturally prescribed remedies for a number of illnesses, and especially those illnesses that don’t have clear physical manifestations. So things like mental illness.
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Ritual in the animal kingdom
Watkins: From courting potential mates to mourning the death of members of a group, some in the animal world also seem to engage in ritual-like behavior. So Doug and I were interested to learn if these types of activities are indeed rituals and, if so, how human rituals differ from those of animals.
Xygalatas: One useful distinction is that between ritualization – or ritualized behavior – and then things that are there essentially cultural rituals. But, even there, the boundaries are hard to draw. By “ritualized behavior” we mean automatic, hard-wired responses to things like environmental stressors, or things that have direct outcomes – such as mating – which, of course, birds are a good example of. There are many other species that have a rich ritual life, and we only recently began to know more about these types of rituals. For example, recent studies conducted by scientists at the Max Planck Institute have shown in recordings – in many parts of West Africa – they show chimpanzees visit hollow trees, and sometimes they travel significant distances to visit those trees. They carry stones with them, and they use them to drum on those trees. Or they deposit them inside the trees. And in that paper the scientists saw a comparison between the cairns that you see in many parts of the world – so humans stacking rocks one on top of the other – it seems to have some kind of ritual significance, and this is a very ancient human behavior. Chimpanzees seem to be doing the same thing.
Elephants, they have their own types of rituals. So they will travel for days to visit the bones of their ancestors, especially when it’s a matriarch … an important member of their society who has passed away. They will they will travel to their remains every year, and they will pick up the bones and examine them, and they will trumpet together. So, there are a lot of behaviors out there that are very similar to what we do. Now, at the same time, there is no other species that performs rituals as compulsively and as intensely as we do. And especially when it comes to culture rituals: when it comes to collective ritual, then we are definitely the ritual species.
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How the kavadi progresses
Leigh: One of the annual traditions I always enjoyed when I lived in Pasadena was the decoration of the elaborate floats entered into the Rose Parade … a tradition which, since 1890, has celebrated New Year’s Day. In the days leading up to the parade, volunteers meticulously cover floats in natural materials … which – if you’ve ever watched the event on TV or in person – include ample amounts of roses. While, at least by Western standards, the Thaipusam Cavadee festival in the town Quatre Bornes on the island of Mauritius culminates in a much more shocking fashion, the two events share more than a few similarities, as Dimitris describes next.
Xygalatas: A lot of these rituals are so old that their traces are lost in time. Specifically, the kavadi ritual, we know that it’s already mentioned in the Vedas, so it’s very … it’s several thousands of years old. And today you will find it pretty much everywhere where we have significant numbers of Tamil Hindus in the world. So not just in southern India and other parts of India, but also wherever you have members of the Tamil diaspora, which is Singapore, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and beyond. But even a lot of Western cities, like New York, or Montreal. Toronto, Copenhagen, London … wherever you have members of the Tamil diaspora, you will find the kavadi.
So, the kavadi is part of a larger festival, and it culminates on the the full moon of the Tamil month of Thai, which is around January to February, depending on the year. And this festival includes a lot of milder hardships such as fasting, or abstaining from meat – which most people do anyways [as] they’re mostly vegetarians – but abstaining for other any other kind of pleasure. Perhaps chocolate or sugar, and obviously from sexual activity. Some people would sleep on the floor for those 10 days, and they will spend a substantial amount of time during those 10 days building their kavadis.
And the kavadi – what gives the the ritual its name – is this structure which is called the “kavadi,” and it literally means “burden” in Tamil. It’s a miniature shrine. And this is built a skeleton of wool or wood, and decorated with flowers and peacock feathers, and religious symbols. And those kavadis can weigh, sometimes, up to 80 [or] 90 pounds. They can be very heavy. So participants will spend several nights building those kavadis, and on the day of the procession they will all bring them to a riverbank. And everybody comes to admire these kavadis. And, meanwhile, the participants will go into the river and perform some cleansing rites. And after these rites are done they will start getting pierced.
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The extreme burdens of the kavadi
Watkins: We’ll hear about this dramatic conclusion of the ritual after this short break.
Watkins: Just a heads up: this clip contains some graphic descriptions of the kavadi, so if you’re with kids, or just aren’t in the mood, you might want to skip the next two and a half minutes. For everyone else, here again is Dimitris Xygalatas.
Xygalatas: So, the piercings take place right there at the riverbank. Some individuals might put a single needle through their tongue, or through their cheeks, or forehead. Some will put several needles all over their face. Some will go as far as to have 500-600 needles which covers the entire torso: arms, legs, and face. There are also other kinds of piercings: many of them will have hooks, especially on the back or in the chest. On those hooks you [will] have suspended lime fruit, or maybe bells, or other kinds of jewelry. Some of them will even have skewers and rods, and these rods can be often the size of broomsticks – both in thickness and length – or even longer. And those will be pierced through both cheeks. And sometimes these rods can be – they’re metallic – and they can be so heavy that the individual has to bite down at all times, otherwise they might rip the face off.
And once these piercings are in place, then they will take these heavy structures on the shoulders, and they start walking barefooted. Some of them even walk on shoes made of nails … of upright rusty nails. The rest of them walk barefooted, which is also very painful, because this is the midsummer tropical sun. Mauritius is in the southern hemisphere, so the asphalt is really excruciating. Being hot – for me it’s impossible to take a single step on that burning asphalt – and they will do this for six kilometres. And because the procession moves slowly and they stop at every crossroad, a lot of devotees might start dancing or falling into trance.
[So] this will take five or six hours to reach the temple. And even when they reach the temple, their ordeal is not over. Because there are 242 steps up the hill to reach the temple. And you have to carry your weight all the way to the top. Other individuals will also, in addition to all of that, drag large chariots – sometimes it can be the size of a minivan – they drag them behind them by hooks that are attached through the skin of their back. And this will be the only thing that stays behind them, because obviously the chariot cannot go up the stairs. But the kavadi will, so they have to carry their burden to offer it to the deity, which is Lord Murugan. And once they do that, they have their piercings removed, and only then they can get some rest. Throughout the entire procession, they will have no food, they will have no water: so this is really an entire day of self-imposed suffering.
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Failing to complete the kavadi
Leigh: Given the extraordinary pain and suffering that participants experience during the kavadi, Ryan and I wondered how often people commit to participating in the ritual, only to change their minds before climbing the hill to the shrine at the temple.
Xygalatas: There is no stigma associated with not doing the kavadi. There are some of these rituals that, in some communities, might be mandatory. So, when you look at the initiation rituals, for example: in many communities, if you don’t subject yourself to the suffering that the ritual requires, you might have no place in that community. You’re not seen as a suitable mate, you’re not seen as part of the society overall. But the kinds of rituals that I study are not like that. And the kavadi ritual, specifically, is entirely voluntary, and there is no kind of stigma associated with those who don’t do it.
Having said that, dropping out of the ritual might be seen as a major source of humiliation. And, in fact, in all of the years that I’ve been studying this ritual, I only saw one man who dropped out of the ceremony. This was somebody who had gone through the piercings. He was carrying a large kavadi on his shoulders, and did the entire procession – which lasts for five or six hours – and reached the final stage. Which is climbing 242 steps up to the temple of Murugan, and he was, maybe, three-quarters of the way through with it. And I could clearly see that he was really having a hard time: he just couldn’t bear the burden anymore. His family members – who were accompanying him – started getting worried, and they asked him to let them take his burden off him. And he refused. They even begged him to let them help him, and he kept refusing. But it was obvious that he wasn’t gonna be able to make it. So he went on his knees, trying to gain his strength. After maybe 20 minutes, eventually he gave up. And I could see that he was devastated. He started crying; he looked up the temple – and he was only a few steps short … But giving up was a major source of distress and humiliation for that man.
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Dimitris’ personal participation in extreme rituals
Watkins: Our interest piqued, Doug and I were curious whether Dimitris has ever been invited to take part in an extreme ritual himself … and, if so, how he handled the situation.
Xygalatas: I have, actually. It wasn’t the kavadi ritual, but it was a fire walking ritual. And the way it happened is that my informants essentially tricked me into doing it.
So, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the fire walking rituals of the Anastenaria – which is a community in northern Greece – who performed these rituals in honor of two Christian saints, Constantine and Helen. And I had studied the fire walking in Spain and other parts of Europe, and whenever I would give a lecture on this topic people would typically ask me … one of the first questions was: “Have you done it yourself?” And I would have to explain that it’s not just that I didn’t want to – which I didn’t – I also wouldn’t be able to do it in those communities. Because this is something only the locals do; do only insiders do. If I requested to participate, it would be seen as either as an intrusion, or I would have to pretend that I’m making a permanent commitment to the saints, and I would have to go back and do it every year. And when I eventually didn’t return people would be disappointed. So I didn’t want to do that.
But when I went to Mauritius to study more of these extreme rituals, things were very different. So the members of the local community – as they were making the preparations for … this was the first high-intensity ritual I was going to witness in Mauritius. As they were making the preparations, one day the president of the temple committee called me and he half-jokingly said something like, “Well, now you’ve been here for a few months now. You’re one of us. So, you should also do the firewalk.” And my response was that, “I don’t want to pretend to be one of you. I’m here as an anthropologist. I’m here to learn about your culture, and it’s also important for me to be able to observe.” So, very politely, I refused … and I was a little bit worried about the reaction, but they were fine with it. They smiled, and they said something like “Well, if God wants you to do it, then you will do it.” And my response was that, “Well, trust me, God does not want one to walk on fire.”
But apparently that was not true.
So on the day of the ritual I was following the procession all day, and eventually – this is a procession that last several hours – and eventually you reach the temple. And in front of the temple there’s a pit which is full of burning embers: glowing red coals. And only those who are going to be walking on fire are allowed to be inside.
So, I had permission to be there, because I was taking photographs. And at some point somebody said, “This is a better place for you to be.” Then I moved closer … and it was a better place for me. And later, as I was looking through my lens somebody tapped me on the shoulder and I said “What?” He said, “Stand up. Turn around.” And I turned around, and I saw that the entire village was looking at me, waiting for me to cross the fire. So, at that point there was not really much left to think about. And I just said, “Please hold my camera,” and I went through it.
And it’s certainly very hot. You can feel the heat – even standing many feet away, you can really feel your face getting roasted – it’s like opening an oven. And walking on it, also, it was very, very hot. And there was one step that felt particularly painful, and I knew it was gonna blister, which it did. But that was it.
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Why people participate in the kavadi
Leigh: While it exposes participants to the risk of trauma, scarring, and infection, participation in the kavadi also has many tangible — although more indirect — effects, such as increasing bonding, influencing social hierarchies, and promoting prosocial behaviors. We wanted to hear more from Dimitris about the complex reasons why Tamils in Mauritius choose to take part in this extreme ritual.
Xygalatas: The kavadi ritual seems to have several functions for the members of this community. And we know from other studies as well that it can function as a signal of commitment to the group, and especially for for males. There’s a lot of male signaling and display that is going on there. We see that the average male has something like 17 piercings through their body, where the average female has maybe one. They carried larger structures. They participate more frequently than women. And there have been studies coming from India that show that those who engage more in those types of activity, they tend to reap social benefits. So, then, they are then perceived as more trustworthy. They’re perceived as more cooperative, or as more religious. And in fact we have a recent study, which has not been published yet, where we see that they’re even perceived as better mates.
So, it’s very interesting to examine the social dynamics of this ritual, because you see that different parts of the of the local population might have different reasons for participating in the ritual. They also describe their participation in different terms. Members of the upper castes, the upper classes, they’re more likely to say that the kavadis is performed as an act of devotion. They’re also more likely to say that the type of participation doesn’t matter. So you don’t have to have 500 needles through your body; just going through the procession is enough. On the other hand, when we look at people of lower socioeconomic status, we see that for them participation is often more likely to be connected to a vow; to a request. So they do it because they have specific needs, and those needs are typically connected with their social standing. Sometimes they’re connected with health issues: one of the most common requests might be for their children to do well in their academic life, for healing, and so on and so forth. So, there is this tension between two different perspectives with this ritual, where those who have more power in the community … they’re interested in maintaining this status quo. Whereas those who lack power, they’re interested in using their participation to move up in the social hierarchy of the group.
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Challenges of recruiting subjects
Watkins: Dimitris leads the experimental anthropology lab at the University of Connecticut. Their research promotes methodological innovation and integration in the study of human behavior by combining in-depth qualitative field research with experimental methods and advanced technological tools. He and his team’s aim while on Mauritius was to examine the effects of the kavadi ordeal on participants’ physical and psychological well-being, without disturbing the ritual itself. Here, Dimitris explains what was required to recruit residents into his study, which collected data for three weeks before the ritual – and another three weeks after it – as well as during their long and painful pilgrimage to the mountain temple itself.
Xygalatas: Some people have described participant observation – which is the key method in anthropology, so ethnographic fieldwork – as “deep hanging out.” And there’s there some truth to that. That means that in order to do these kinds of studies, you need to spend considerable time … sometimes anthropologists probably spend months, sometimes they spend years. I have spent a total of four years in the field combined. And this is necessary, because you need to get to know the people you’re studying. You need to to get to know their everyday worries and desires – and ambitions and everything else that is happening in their lives – to get a better understanding of what motivates them to do these rituals.
And also, importantly, you have to show them that you’re interested in getting your facts straight. So, you’re not just showing up there for a week to write a blog entry. You’re there to collect a lot of data to study their way of life seriously, and to provide a fair representation of what it is that you’re studying. This is also necessary in order to conduct any study of the kind that we did that involves getting people during their most sacred moments of their lives … well, to bother participating your study. Why would somebody allow you to to place a monitor under their their clothes as they’re doing their most sacred rituals? You have to at least convince them that you’re there to conduct and honor … the study that will result in a fair representation of the context, because they’re doing this voluntarily, to help you.
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Managing complexity in ethnographies
Leigh: As anthropologists are concerned with the interactions between people and relationships among them, they undertake fieldwork to understand the complexity of social life. The relationships they develop with participants are therefore essential to their research, and this necessitates that they themselves play an important part in the narratives they construct as part of their research. Due to the many challenges inherent to conducting anthropological field research, we followed up by asking Dimitris how he and his team managed the complexities of this study.
Xygalatas: These studies are really hard to do. They’re hard to do because they require an enormous amount of effort and labor, but also because they’re structured around the focal event … which is a massive event in a community of thousands of people participating in those rituals. And it’s one of the most sacred moments in their lives.
You know, the process of recruitment is not the same. Now, you can’t just post a flyer asking for participants in the study. You have to go door-to-door to individuals you’ve already met and interviewed before as an ethnographer, because the doors are the only ones we’re going to trust you and allow you to conduct these measures. And that necessarily means that there’s some level of self-selection in there, which is inevitable our sample. And, of course, all samples are self-selected, because they all come from those who have volunteered to take part in the study … we can’t force them to take part in the study. But this is a bigger issue when we’re conducting field studies. So sometimes you have to engage in snowball sampling, which means you find one participant and then you ask them if they know somebody else who might be willing to participate. That, too, does create some issues.
And other things that might happen in field studies: that you always worry that something go wrong on the day of the ritual, because there’s one day and everything depends on things going well on that very day. If there’s an equipment malfunction during the day of the ritual, then you’ve lost everything. Even if there’s a cyclone approaching the island – which one year, in one particular study, that was the case. So, it was likely that the study might have never happened. These are the kinds of things you have to worry when you’re conducting these studies in in real-life situations. And, of course, with regards to our study, there are also other issues. How do you measure things like religiosity? How do you even measure health? Health is a very complicated thing, so for us, we we conducted measures that were – a lot of them were – opportunistic.
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Quantitative data in mixed methods studies
Watkins: An interesting aspect of the study is that, in addition to collecting qualitative data through prolonged engagement with the people of Quatre Bornes, Dimitris and his team also unobtrusively collected various quantitative data points as well. This mixed methodological approach added valuable objective measurements on markers of participants’ autonomic nervous and immune system responses, allowing for a fuller examination of the ritual in its natural context.
Xygalatas: For this particular study, because we were interesting the health effects of the ritual, we used ethnographic data. We used psychometric data: standardized instruments that are meant to assess people’s subjective health and well-being and quality of life. And we also use physiological data: so we had medical monitoring devices. They’re wearable. They’re portable. And they’re very unobtrusive. They’re the size of a wrist watch, and they’re actually lighter than your average wrist watch, so people can wear them on the arm as an armband. Which means that they’re not visible to outsiders, and that’s very important as well. In the context of a sacred ritual, you don’t want to cause any interruption. Of course, just by virtue of us being there, we are aware that we’re always influencing people’s behavior to some extent. But we try to minimize this by using these devices that are so unobtrusive that people forget they have them on. And in fact every time we visited them we we often had to remind them to take them off.
So these devices will record things like sleep quality. They will record stress levels by assessing the electrodermal activity of our participants. And also to control variables like ambient temperature, as well as body temperature. And they can go for a week on a single charge. So every week we would visit them and would get the additional measurements – we would get things like blood pressure and heart rate – and we downloaded the data. And this was also the opportunity to conduct interviews and surveys. So we really had a whole arsenal of mixed methods for this study.
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Leigh: As you might expect, the data confirmed that participation in the kavadi is not only painful, but also extremely stressful … particularly on the day of the ritual, when it was far higher than any other day before or after it. But what were the impacts on participants’ perception of their physical and psychological well-being after the ritual? Here’s how Dimitris summarizes his team’s findings about those measures.
Xygalatas: Obviously, we wouldn’t claim that you can perform a ritual and magically be healed, let’s say, from diabetes.
So, when we did this study, we were indeed expecting that we wouldn’t see any physiological effects of the ritual. But we did expect to see psychological effects, because if people around the world have the similar experiences then I think, as researchers, we we shouldn’t just dismiss them. But we should take them seriously and try to put them to the test. So what we see in this study … first of all it’s very interesting to see who is drawn to those ceremonies. Just like I’ve seen in Greece, and just like I’ve seen in other parts of the world – and other anthropologists have seen – those individuals who are suffering from a number of stressors – let’s say things like chronic illness, and especially psychological illness – or social marginalization, so individuals have lower social status, socioeconomic status … they’re not only more likely to take part in the ceremony. So they do it more frequently. But when they take part, they engaged in more intense forms. At first, that might seem surprising, because if you’re already ill and frail, then you shouldn’t be putting dozens or hundreds of needles through your body. But that’s it exactly what’s happening.
And then when we look at how ritual intensity differentially affects psychological well-bing, we don’t see any physiological differences. We don’t see that this ritual actually causes a decrease – let’s say in blood pressure – but we do see that after performing this ritual, a few weeks later, participants perceive better subjected health and quality of life. And in fact, those individuals who suffer the most during the ritual … we know that the more piercings in their body and the more the more they’ve suffered the more pain they’ve experienced and the more stress during the ritual … the more pronounced the benefits. And we know this both because we have measures of stress – physiological measures of stress – which are orders of magnitude higher than anything that happens in their everyday life. And because we measured the number of piercings in their body. So, subjective health and well-being increases more for those who have suffered the most. And this is the most counterintuitive finding, I think, in our study.
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The practical utility of researching extreme rituals
Watkins: While many of us might be interested in rituals that take place in far-off and perhaps exotic locations, most of us are also unlikely to ever actually experience them ourselves … either as a participant or an observer. So we asked Dimitris what he sees as the value of understanding extreme rituals, though the majority of us will never encounter them ourselves.
Xygalatas: So the main thing we should take away from this is that when people make claims about their own lived experience that might seem paradoxical, we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss them without at least testing them. I don’t think there’s enough research of this kind: research that, as some philosophers have put it, “front loads phenomenology.” So, starting with some of the claims that our participants make about their lives. [Then] taking them seriously enough to actually turn them into testable hypotheses. In the case of ritual, specifically, because these extreme rituals are so widespread both historically and synchronically that gives us yet another reason to study them, and learn something about human nature.
And then there’s another line of research showing that we make assumptions about the value of our experience based on how much effort these experiences require. So, another takeaway is that human beings are complicated, and they’re definitely not the kind of hyper-rational “profit maximizers” that some theories of human behavior would have them be. Meaning a lot of what creates pleasure, happiness, or meaning in our lives … sometimes has to do with things like suffering. Because we derive value from suffering.
People go and they volunteer to run marathons. Why? If you ask me, a marathon is just self imposed torture. There’s no health benefit. If anything, definately if you’re not fit enough, running a marathon might be a health risk. People engage in things like bungee jumping. They seek extreme levels of arousal, even fear. And yet, when we come to evaluate these experiences, these will show up as being some of the most meaningful and important experiences in our lives.
In studying extreme rituals – in every society that I’ve been studying those – people unanimously, essentially, agree that these experiences – these painful rituals – are the most meaningful ritual events of their lives. Some of them will go as far as to say that there are the most meaningful events in their lives, period.
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Links to article, bonus audio and other materials
Watkins: That was Dimitris Xygalatas, discussing his open-access article “Effects of extreme ritual practices on psychophysiological well-being,” which he published with six other researchers on August 30, 2019 in the journal Current Anthropology. You’ll find a link to their paper at parsingscience.org/e62, along with bonus audio and other materials we discussed during the episode.
Leigh: Did you know that Parsing Science also tweets news about the latest developments in science every day, including many brought to our attention by listeners like you? You can follow us @parsingscience … and the next time you spot a science story that fascinates you, let us know! And we might just feature the researchers in a future episode.
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Preview of next episode
Watkins: Next time, in episode 63 of Parsing Science, we’ll be joined by Susan Gelman from the University of Michigan. She’ll discuss her research into the use of generic language in scientific papers, which is especially problematic if researchers are overgeneralizing from selective or limited samples.
Gelman: That’s the beauty of generics: you don’t have to say “all.” And, in fact, you have plausible deniability, because if someone says “Well, all people?,” you know, “blah, blah, blah.” You can say, you know, “I didn’t say all people. I just said ‘people.'”
Watkins: We hope that you’ll join us again.
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