Tom watkins unsplash Ritual
Oct 5, 2022

The Ritual Species with Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas (podcast)

"People ascribe the utmost importance to their rituals, but few can explain why they are so important." -Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas

By Templeton Staff

Research led by anthropologist and cognitive scientist Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas at the University of Connecticut's "Experimental Anthropology Lab" combines experimental methods with ethnographic fieldwork to study human culture. The lab's areas of focus include the cognitive and biological underpinnings of human bonding and cooperation, in various domains such as ritual behavior, sports, and music. Listen in to this conversation for the Templeton World Charity Foundation-supported Many Minds podcast to hear Dr. Xygalatas discuss where ritual is found in nature, what makes human rituals distinct, and how the physiological impacts of ritual are being measured.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"From one perspective, rituals are pure silliness. They might involve us waving our hands in a certain way and saying these exact words, in this exact order; we might put on a funny costume, or eat specific foods, or even subject ourselves to considerable amounts of pain. And we don't just perform these rituals once either — we tend to do them over and over again, year after year. Seen in this way, rituals are frivolous, expendable, and mind-numbingly repetitive. And yet they’re also central. Rituals are found in abundance in all human cultures; they're a fixture of every historical period. So what's the story? How can we reconcile the apparent silliness of rituals with their centrality to our species?

My guest today is Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas. He is Associate Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Psychological Sciences at the University of Connecticut. He’s also the author of the new book, Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living. In the book, Dimitris makes the case that rituals are far from extraneous sideshows: they’re enormously valuable, both for individuals and for groups, and they form a core part of what it means to be human.

Here, Dimitris and I talk about some of the extreme rituals that he's studied, in particular, fire walking. We discuss the methods he uses to study these kinds of traditions, especially unobtrusive physiological measures like heart rate monitoring. We also touch on: ritual-like behaviors in other species; what OCD behaviors have in common with certain ritual behaviors; why collective traditions often involve pain and synchronized movement; and how rituals serve to strengthen social bonds and enhance our wellbeing."

Play the full episode with the above player.

Learn more about Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences priority.


Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork is by Ben Oldroyd.