The neuroscience of ritual | The Coast Halifax

The neuroscience of ritual

The key to your everyday badassery could be in seemingly simple repetitive actions.

click to enlarge The neuroscience of ritual
Rachel McGrath
The joy of that first cup colours the work that comes after.


t’s the pour-over coffee/unicorn mug/crossword routine that starts your morning, and those lucky underwear you put on when your team is in the playoffs. It’s the route you walk to work, and the weekly Skype-and-popcorn date with your sister. Whether you realize it or not, your life is full of ritual.

Nope, ritual isn’t just for sage-burning hippies and crystal-wielding witchy types. In fact, ritual is a tool for everyday badassery that we can all take advantage of.

A ritual doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or mystical: It’s simply an action or behaviour that you associate with another action, behaviour or event, such as a change in setting, activity, time of day or year. And in fact, far from your assumptions about hippies and sage, ritual is deeply rooted in the neuroscience behind conditioning and habit-forming, and can support you to do all the amazing things you always say you’re going to do, but never get around to.

Say, for example, you want to start waking up early in the morning to write. You can create a simple ritual out of your early morning writing practice by lighting your favourite candle or brewing a cup of coffee at the same time. By adding in these small elements of ritual, you wire shortcuts in your brain that remind you of the state of mind that you want to engage in when those external cues are used. The more often your candle-smelling, coffee-drinking, writing neurons all fire at the same time, the stronger the neural pathways that associate those experiences with creativity. The result? Your brain will be more prepared to focus and dive into the creative process
because you’ve set up some ritual around it.

A comforting, enjoyable ritual also helps to create pleasurable feelings around the practices and habits you want to build. It might feel like a chore to leap out of bed before sunrise every day and hammer out another chapter of your travel memoir, but the promise of that candle and coffee ritual will slowly begin to make the practice so special that it will begin to feel undeniable. For this reason, it’s important that your ritual be simple enough that it can quickly and easily become habit.

Adding a little ritual to some of the practices and habits you’d like to foster in 2018 is a great way to start, but ritual has the potential to have an even more profound impact on your life. Though we all create ritual in our own little worlds, whether it’s unconsciously or consciously, it’s the ritual that we share with others that may be most powerful. Shared ritual has always been of the utmost importance to humankind. It’s one of the most meaningful ways we can commune with each other, and yet many of us fail to participate in this age-old way of building and maintaining our social support networks.

Many sociologists argue that the loss of ritualized rites of passage and connection with the earth (see also: Dancing under the full moon) contributes to further disconnection and generalized floundering among us mortals. This year, in addition to experimenting with small personal rituals to support your everyday badassery, see if you can bring a little ritual into the way you connect with the people around you, or to sweet old Mother Earth. Whether you call it magic or call it science, ritual will level-up your life in the best way.

See you at the next full moon? No? Too soon?