People, ritual and wellbeing

Occasionally I read a book that changes my point of view, one of the reasons that I think it’s important to read. One book that did this was Life of Pi, I read this a few years ago now, just after it won the Man Booker Prize. The book advertises that it will make you believe in God. Well as not believing at the time I thought it might be an interesting read, although it didn’t get me to believe in God, it did change my perception. The book quite brilliantly tests why we might believe.

Also over the last ten years there has been quite a lot of talk about why belief might exist, and in particular it there might be evolutional benefits to having a religion. One example of this is the recent experimentations with a placebo effect. New scientist and the BBC have both published information recently on this. One experiment features a knee surgeon, who reluctantly performed (with consent) the correct knee procedure on fifty-percent of his patients. All patients went under the general aesthetic, but only some had the real operation, in the other cases the surgeon opened up the knee but did nothing. What is startling is, all patients reported real improvements and responded as though they had the real operation. The expectation of being cured, in some cases caused them to cure themselves. Another study, on Parkinson’s disease, produced results just as amazing: Some of the group receiving the treatment were actually injected with saline; which ought not to have any affect. However, on scanning the patients’ brains after treatment both groups--- those who were really treated, and those who received salt-water, exhibited increased dopamine production. Parkinson’s apparently is related to dopamine not being produced in the mind. The researchers in this case however take their conclusions one step further. Dopamine has a role in expectation, and they think that this brain chemistry might have something to do with the placebo effect itself.

This research and how expectations colour our actions illustrates the need for ritual in society. Culture and religion, rather than being irrelevant sideshows to evolution as some scientists might want you to think, may be very important to the fabric of society and people’s real needs. I had a conversation with a doctor recently; she said that being a doctor was less about medicine than most people think. Often it is about conversation, reassurance and many other human aspects. Another doctor noted, quite recently on radio, that to treat some people you must understand them. I think it was in relation to his book Suburban Shaman. He recounted a story where one businessman was reluctant to take his prescribed tablets until he struck a deal in a business-like fashion--- it was a language that the businessman could understand.

Ritual, although it may seem unnecessary may be key to people’s fulfilment and improve lives, as belief, belonging and status are powerful emotional forces.