Scientific Proof of the Importance of Ritual?

It seems there’s something about the process of going through a multi-stepped procedure that provokes in people feelings of control, above and beyond the role played by any associated religious or mystical beliefs.

See the short review of recent scientific research on the power of ritual quoted above at: BPS Research Digest: Rituals bring comfort even for non-believers.

bstern-wgDkfjSIv70-originalI won’t argue here how theater likely arose from ritual; google “theater+ritual” and you’ll see the arguments for the emergence of theater from the rituals of the ancient Greeks, etc. Nor is there any need to belabor how Beckett and many other modern theater artists can be viewed through a ritualistic lens; google “Beckett+ritual” and you get plenty. Theater theorists and scholars in the 20th century mined this vein well, and made strong arguments. It’s worth looking into, but not my main point here, and I think most would stipulate that between the Greeks and Beckett are likely many thousands of examples of ritual in theater, ritual as theater, theater as ritual, and a mountain of evidence that theater and ritual remain bound together. For narrative artists working in front of an audience, there is plenty from ancient times through present day to tell us the value of ritual.

However, science is working to prove empirically the effect ritual has on us, and such proof may well expand our understanding of how best to employ it as narrative artists.

Over at BPS research (one of my favorite places to sift through advances in the behavioral sciences for how they might affect narrative science) Christian Jarret sums up some interesting new research on how ritual gives one a sense of control over their future — or more precisely, over things one cannot control, such as grief or loss. The ramifications are, again, pretty obvious for theater artists. It’s nice to see science proving something we practice in theater: catharsis. But can ritual prove to be a powerful tool for all kinds of narrative? My shoot-from-the-hip answer would be to point to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey argument and say: it’s hard to argue with Campbell’s extensive work showing that story itself is derived of ritual. From that point of view, it really doesn’t matter how story is conveyed to you; it could be a live performance in the theater, or words a page, or even in a haiku story that is tweeted and viewed on your iPhone and it would be a descendant of ritual as Campbell explains it. Again, google will tell us there is plenty of contemporary theory about ritual in all types of storytelling — novels and prose and poetry from all traditions, East and West, ancient and present. But what I’m tracking most here in the science is the why and the how. I already know ritual is important, but scientific proofs may lead us to more concrete answers for why ritual is important to us and how best to use it as narrative artists.

In the Brain: Reading Is Separate from Writing

At some point, if you are someone who has gone through a training program for creative writing, you are likely to have been introduced to some form of “automatic writing” exercise. When I was in training, I usually felt molested by in-class writing exercises that were about “freeing the muse” or “tapping into the visceral” as opposed to concrete exercises that explicitly demonstrated the mechanics or tactics of narrative craft. Automatic writing exercises never worked for me. More than once I was forced to sit and listen to Mozart and/or Van Morrison and/or Van Halen, or stare at a Picasso nude, and then told to write whatever comes out of my pen without controlling it. And furthermore, I was told the resultant mishmash might have real 24 carat gold hidden there… Yet nothing but pyrite or coprolites has ever appeared in my automatic writing, unfortunately. However, my own experience is simply anecdotal — not a very good way to judge the possibilities or mechanisms in the writer’s brain that might be at work in automatic writing. I know some (reasonable) people who find automatic writing-esque exercises (see this wiki, which gets the underlying theory mostly right) to be aces.

Don’t misunderstand: as a playwright, poet and fiction writer, I’m not without my own mysterious processes. I do have characters sometimes talk to me out of the blue, and I do sometimes sit down and let them talk on the page with no pre-ordained idea of plot or story. But this is not the same as automatic writing. At least, I don’t think it is, and it doesn’t match the definitions one can find for automatic writing.

So that’s my prejudice: I’m a skeptic when it comes to automatic writing, but willing to allow there might be something to it even if I cannot experience it myself. Then, a few months ago I stumbled onto this video above (courtesy of, 3 min, 5 sec) and asked myself: have I been missing something? If a man can lose his ability to read, but still have the ability to write — if the processes are that separate in the brain — perhaps there is something to it? It’s possible I’m conflating automatic writing with brain injury in an inappropriate way: tell me off in the comments, if you think so. But when you watch the video, ask yourself this: might your hand (or the part of the brain that moves it, really) know something you don’t? Yes, the example in the video is about a writer who lost his reading ability, but he still knew his plot; he’s not really doing a version of automatic writing as typically defined. But still: the hand knows… What else might the hand know? Can I be taught to talk to the hand?

The Writer Who Couldn’t Read from NPR on Vimeo.