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Many Minds

Oct 5, 2022

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 kind 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 well-being. 

If you enjoy this convo, be sure to check out Dimitris's book—I can recommend it heartily. And if you're enjoying Many Minds, perhaps consider posting a review or leaving us a rating. Or maybe telling a friend, or three.

Alright folks, on to my chat with Dimitris Xygalatas. Enjoy!


A transcript of this episode is available here.


Notes and links

3:30 – Dr. Xygalatas wrote a previous book about firewalking in Greece. For his papers on various aspects of firewalking, see here, here, and here, among others.

14:00 – The website for the Experimental Anthropology lab at UConn.

20:00 – A paper in which Dr. Xygalatas and colleagues examined heart-rate synchrony in the context of a fire-walking ritual.

26:00 – A popular article about the concept of “over-imitation”—the idea that children will copy adults’ actions with high fidelity, even if those actions have no clear causal effect.

27:00 – A research article discussing imitation and over-imitation in chimpanzees and human children.

28:00 – A research article about children’s ritualistic behaviors and obsessive compulsive disorder.

31:00 – A popular article on the “waterfall display” originally described by Jane Goodall. A video about the display, put out by the Jane Goodall Institute.

34:00 – A recent study by Dr. Xygalatas and colleagues about pre-free-throw rituals in basketball players.

36:00 – A theoretical article on the “compensatory control model.”

40:00 – See this paper by Dr. Xygalatas and colleagues about the Thaipusam festival and how it promotes prosociality.

45:00 – For a classic exploration of synchronized movement, see the book, Keeping Together in Time, by the historian William H. McNeill.

48:00 – A study in which Dr. Xygalatas and colleagues explored the phenomenon of “collective effervescence” in the context of fire-walking.

50:00 – A recent article by Dr. Xygalatas and colleagues about ritual and well-being.

51:50 – A recent popular article by Dr. Xygalatas about Burning Man as an example of modern collective ritual.


Dr. Xygalatas recommends:

The Sweet Spot, by Paul Bloom

Drunk, by Edward Slingerland (featured in an earlier episode!)

You can read more about Dr. Xygalatas’s work on his website and follow him on Twitter.  


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte and with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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