The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Neuroscience, Magic and Firewalking

Our lives are replete with rituals, but why do we need them?

I spotted Max when I walked on the plane. Hair cut into a V in the front of his head, fumanchu beard, genie pants, and ponytail. I was on the way from LA to Spain for the first conference on neuromagic. I knew Max Maven was attending, though I had never met him. And, I knew he was considered one of the "deans" of magic and magic history. I would spend the next five days with Max and seven other of the best magicians on the planet, as well as seven neuroscientists to figure out why magic fools us, and why we like it.

My bigger interest, though, is in rituals. To do magic well, the magician must set the stage, tell a story, and bring the audience into the illusion. Rituals of all types do the same thing. Our lives are replete with rituals. But why do we need rituals?

A group of scientists lead by Andreas Roepstorff at Aarhus University in Denmark recently studied a fascinating ritual in rural Spain. In this religious festival, people firewalk while carrying a love one or friend. The physics of firewalking is well known, the sweat on one's feet and the ash of the coals provide an insulating barrier to the heat. In the Spanish ritual, the extra weight of a person on one's back pushes the feet further into the coals making it riskier. This ritual firewalk is done to obtain peace and forgiveness in a stadium filled with friends and family watching and cheering. It occurs in the evening of the summer Solstice as recently reported in The New York Times

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

It was the social aspect of the paired fire-walking ritual I found fascinating, and that interested the researchers who studied it. Why firewalk when up to three thousand people are watching? The same holds for magic shows and movies--why are they so much more fun in a group?

Susane Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, married neuroscientists who study the visual system, organized the neuromagic conference on the "Island of Thought" (a former leper colony and penitentiary) in Galicia, Spain. As part of their research in why the brain perceives illusions, they became magicians to better understand the neuroscience of deception. Their book Sleights of Mind reports their fascinating findings. The magicians at the conference provided the scientists with new ways to study illusion, and the scientists provided the magicians with an understanding of the science behind their art. All in a beautiful setting

In the firewalking ritual that you can see here, the researchers found that the heart rate of the firewalker and spectators were coordinated in a particular way. Spectators' heart rates revealed how closely related they were to firewalker: family members' and friends' heart rates were correlated with those of the firewalker, while strangers' heart rates were not correlated.

I found the same thing for another powerful ritual, a wedding. Oxytocin, the hormone I showed makes us feel empathy, was released during the wedding, and in a particular pattern. The sun in the wedding solar system is the bride, and the bride had the largest oxytocin release. The closest planet to the bride, the person who loves the wedding almost as much as the bride, is her mother who had the second highest oxytocin release. Then the groom's father, then the groom. Other family and friends were arrayed around the bride based on closeness to her in a dynamic solar system.

Magic, firewalking, weddings. All are rituals that draw us in, and ask us to leave our skepticism at the door. These rituals draw on deep aspects of our human biology and of the human experience. This is why I think that magic, religion and weddings are not going away.

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

more...

Subscribe to The Moral Molecule

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?