From fire-walking to meditation, and from graduation ceremonies to wine toasting, rituals are everywhere. But what purpose do they serve? Dimitris Xygalatas combines anthropology, science, and technology to answer this question.
Congratulations to our graduate student Martin Lang, who has been awarded a summer fellowship at the Connecticut Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences (IBACS)! The project entitled “Effects of predictable behavioral patterns on anxiety” will examine the mechanisms by which ritualization might soothe anxiety, and may reveal better ways of stress-management and coping with anxiety.
UCONN Anthropology graduate student Martin Lang with a collective of authors including Dimitris Xygalatas just published a new article in Cognitive Science about their research on rhythm and motor coordination.
Lost in the Rhythm: Effects of Rhythm on Subsequent Interpersonal Coordination
Martin Lang, Daniel J. Shaw, Paul Reddish, Sebastian Wallot, Panagiotis Mitkidis, & Dimitris Xygalatas
Music is a natural human expression present in all cultures, but the functions it serves are still debated. Previous research indicates that rhythm, an essential feature of music, can enhance coordination of movement and increase social bonding. However, the prolonged effects of rhythm have not yet been investigated. In this study, pairs of participants were exposed to one of three kinds of auditory stimuli (rhythmic, arrhythmic, or white-noise) and subsequently engaged in five trials of a joint-action task demanding interpersonal coordination. We show that when compared with the other two stimuli, exposure to the rhythmic beat reduced the practice effect in task performance. Analysis of the behavioral data suggests that this reduction results from more temporally coupled motor movements over successive trials and that shared exposure to rhythm facilitates interpersonal motor coupling, which in this context serves to impede the attainment of necessary dynamic coordination. We propose that rhythm has the potential to enhance interpersonal motor coupling, which might serve as a mechanism behind its facilitation of positive social attitudes.
The study found stress can result in action that could help as a coping strategy to reduce anxiety, a determination that may lead to a better understanding of psychiatric disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and autism spectrum disorders.
Advances in motion sensing technology offered researchers a new way to test for a link between ritual and anxiety. Although the link has been theorized for many years in social science research, the study is the first hard evidence of a relationship between the two, according to Martin Lang, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at UConn who led the study….
UCONN graduate student Martin Lang with a collective of authors including Dimitris Xygalatas publish in Current Biology about their research on anxiety and ritualized behavior.
Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior
Martin Lang, Jan Krátký, John H. Shaver, Danijel Jerotijević, & Dimitris Xygalatas
Environmental uncertainty and uncontrollability cause psycho-physiological distress to organisms [1, 2 and 3], often impeding normal functioning [4 and 5]. A common response involves ritualization, that is, the limitation of behavioral expressions to predictable stereotypic and repetitive motor patterns [6, 7 and 8]. In humans, such behaviors are also symptomatic of psychopathologies like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) [8 and 9] and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) [10 and 11]. Although these reactions might be mediated by different neural pathways, they serve to regain a sense of control over an uncertain situation [12, 13, 14 and 15] by engaging in behavioral patterns characterized by redundancy (superfluous actions that exceed the functional requirements of a goal), repetitiveness (recurrent behaviors or utterances), and rigidity (emphasis on fidelity and invariance) [ 8, 9, 16 and 17]. We examined whether ritualized behavior will manifest spontaneously as a dominant behavioral strategy in anxiogenic situations. Manipulating anxiety, we used motion-capture technology to quantify various characteristics of hand movements. We found that induced anxiety led to an increase in repetitiveness and rigidity, but not redundancy. However, examination of both psychological and physiological pathways revealed that repetitiveness and rigidity were predicted by an increase in heart rate, while self-perceived anxiety was a marginally significant predictor of redundancy. We suggest that these findings are in accordance with an entropy model of uncertainty [ 18], in which anxiety motivates organisms to return to familiar low-entropy states in order to regain a sense of control. Our results might inform a better understanding of ritual behavior and psychiatric disorders whose symptoms include over-ritualization.
Maria Konnikova from The New Yorker covers work of UConn Anthropology faculty Dimitris Xygalatas:
Last year, Dimitris Xygalatas, the head of the experimental anthropology lab at the University of Connecticut, decided to conduct a curious experiment in Mauritius, during the annual Thaipusam festival, a celebration of the Hindu god Murugan. For the ten days prior to the festival, devotees abstain from meat and sex. As the festival begins, they can choose to show their devotion in the form of several communal rituals…
During Fall semester 2015, we conducted an interview with Ann Taves on various topics regarding the cognitive study of religions.
Ann Taves is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara; past president of the American Academy of Religion and president elect of the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things, winner of the 2010 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James, inner of the 2000 Association of American Publishers Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Philosophy and Religion. She is currently working on a book entitled Revelatory Events: Unusual Experiences and New Spiritual Paths and supervising the interdisciplinary Religion, Experience, and Mind Lab Group at UCSB.
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