Category Archives: trance

The psychology of rituals

Subtitle: An integrative review and process-based framework, by Hobson et al. (2018), Personality and Social Psychology Review 22(3). The abstract:

“Traditionally, ritual has been studied from broad sociocultural perspectives, with little consideration of the psychological processes at play. Recently, however, psychologists have begun turning their attention to the study of ritual, uncovering the causal mechanisms driving this universal aspect of human behavior. With growing interest in the psychology of ritual, this article provides an organizing framework to understand recent empirical work from social psychology, cognitive science, anthropology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience. Our framework focuses on three primary regulatory functions of rituals: regulation of (a) emotions, (b) performance goal states, and (c) social connection. We examine the possible mechanisms underlying each function by considering the bottom-up processes that emerge from the physical features of rituals and top-down processes that emerge from the psychological meaning of rituals. Our framework, by appreciating the value of psychological theory, generates novel predictions and enriches our understanding of ritual and human behavior more broadly.”

Divine transport

From this article. Now if we can only interpret trance states postmetaphysically. The religions that formed around trance states in the article, though evolutionarily adaptive at the time, have solidified into metaphysical dogma and are no longer adaptive to our world today. It though does beckon us to create postmetaphysical rituals with music, dance, invocation, incense etc. so that we can bond together via embodiment instead of just intellectually.

“So there is a need for a new idea, and coming to the fore now is an old one revisited, revised and rendered more testable. It reaches back a century to the French sociologist Émile Durkheim who observed that social activities create a kind of buzz that he called effervescence. Effervescence is generated when humans come together to make music or perform rituals, an experience that lingers when the ceremonies are over. The suggestion, therefore, is that collective experiences that are religious or religious-like unify groups and create the energy to sustain them.”

“The explanation is resurfacing in what can be called the trance theory of religious origins, which proposes that our palaeolithic ancestors hit on effervescence upon finding that they could induce altered states of consciousness. Research to test and develop this idea is underway in a multidisciplinary team led by Dunbar at the University of Oxford. The approach appeals to him, in part, because it seems to capture a crucial aspect of religious phenomena missing in suggestions about punishing gods or dangerous spirits. ‘It is not about the fine details of theology,’ Dunbar told me, ‘but is about the raw feelings of experience, and that this raw-feelings element has a transcendental mystical component – something that is only fully experienced in trance states.'”

“Dunbar believes that a few hundred thousand years ago, archaic humans took a step that ramped up this capacity. They started deliberately to make music, dance and sing. When the synchronised and collective nature of these practices became sufficiently intense, individuals likely entered trance states in which they experienced not only this-worldly splendour but otherworldly intrigue. They encountered ancestors, spirits and fantastic beasts, now known as therianthropes. These immersive journeys were extraordinarily compelling. What you might call religiosity was born. It stuck partly because it also helped to ease tensions and bond groups, via the endorphin surges produced in trance states. In other words, altered states proved evolutionarily advantageous: the awoken human desire for ecstasy simultaneously prompted a social revolution because it meant that social groups could grow to much larger sizes via the shared intensity of heightened experiences.”

“Meaning-making, the transcendent, and openness to revelation and discovery are core parts of the human niche and central to our evolutionary success. […] The trance hypothesis is neutral about the truth claims of religions whether you believe or don’t, though it does suggest that transcendent states of mind are meaningful to human beings and can evolve into religious systems of belief.”