Spiritual practices, whether you believe they were divinely inspired or the result of experimentation, can help people live longer, healthier and happier lives. Recent studies have suggested that sitting shiva reduces the pain of grief, meditation increases compassion, psychedelic rituals ease anxiety and depression, and more.
In his new book How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion, professor of psychology David DeSteno presents cutting-edge scientific evidence that religious practices and faith provide a toolbox for coping — even for the skeptical. And if you accept this assertion, perhaps based on your own experience, discover how it actually works in our minds and bodies.
Rabbi Amy Hertz: So I want to tell you a little bit about Scientists in Synagogues, and introduce our speaker tonight. Tonight would not be possible without the support of my friends at Sinai and Synapses, especially Founding Director and my rabbinical school colleague and classmate, Rabbi Geoff Mitelman.
Sinai and Synapses works to bridge the religious and scientific worlds, offering people a worldview that is scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting. Our Scientists in Synagogues grant, through Sinai and Synapses, and in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, and the John Templeton Foundation, have enabled us to bring wonderfully rich programming in the area of science and religion to Temple Isaiah, and we continue tonight with a beautiful program with Dr. David DeSteno.
Dr. David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group. His research examines the mechanisms of the mind that shape vice and virtue. His work continuously reveals that human moral behavior is much more variable than most would predict. Dr. DeSteno’s research interests include whether emotions can foster virtue, if compassion can be cultivated, and what behavioral science can learn from religion.
Tonight, our conversation will focus around Dr. DeSteno’s newest book, How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion. He is the author of numerous other books, and a regular contributor in print and TV media. We are so grateful to be able to join together tonight to welcome Dr. David DeSteno to the Temple Isaiah community. Welcome Dr. DeSteno. Nice to see you.
Hi, Thank you for having me. Happy to join you.
Amy Hertz: So glad you’re here. We’ve got quite the group. It’s nice to see everyone. I wanted to start with sort of an opening question, which is: how did you, a scientist, come to write a book about spiritual practices?
David DeSteno: Yeah, it’s a good question. You know, there’s always been a little bit of tension between religion and science, and these days, it’s kind of at a fever pitch. There’s hardcore fundamentalist sides of religion that believe science has nothing to offer. There are hardcore New Atheists, movements and people like Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, etc, who believe that religion is all superstition.
I came to this from the outside – as you said, I study emotion and virtue in social behavior. But what I found time and time again in my lab, and in the research that I looked at, is that the people who engage in a spiritual life, engage in spiritual practices, live longer, healthier and happier lives. Now, saying you believe in God or you don’t doesn’t predict anything. But engaging in religious community, engaging in different types of spiritual practices – prayer, meditation, whatever they may be – the data are kind of incontrovertible. They are as healthy for you, they reduce morbidity, to the same extent that stopping smoking does.They increase cardiovascular health. They reduce depression and anxiety. They ward off deaths of despair, which in these days of COVID and opioid addiction are rising. And so when I look at that data as a scientist, it tells me there is something going on. And it’s kind of like a dose-response model. The more you are engaged, the more protected you are.
And so I began looking at practices. And I want to be clear up front, there is no scientific test for the fingerprints of God. I can’t tell you if God exists; no scientist can. Even Richard Dawkins, who is the foremost New Atheist of our time, said that he can’t prove whether or not God exists. And so I think that’s the question that gets in the way. And so I urge people to put their “isms” to the side, whether it’s Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Atheism, and let’s look at these practices. And you can believe they were given by God, he/she/it, who really cares about their people and wants to help them, and so these practices were given, divinely inspired. You could think they resulted from people trying stuff out over millennia and kind of debugging things, rituals, to help people.
But what you can’t argue about is that they do something. And so for me, one of our first forays into studying meditation – for a long time, there have been neuroscientists studying meditation, and we see that it increases your memory and changes your white matter, but that’s not why it was created. It was created to reduce suffering, and to enhance compassion.
And so we ran some studies, which I’m happy to talk about in detail later if you want, where we actually showed that getting people to meditate for as little as eight weeks, and then putting them in situations that we set out where other people needed help, in situations where compassion is necessary – we actually tripled the rate at which they would go and help them.
And to me, that said something, right. It says that these practices have have power. And this book, and my podcast, too, which is also called “How God Works” on PRX Network, is an attempt to bring scientists and religious leaders together to look at the science behind these practices and the way these rituals work. And I think if we don’t do that, we are slowing the progress of the science of well-being. You know, it’s kind of hubristic for scientists to believe that 1000s of years of thought aimed at helping people have nothing to offer.
Does that mean every ritual is a good thing? No. Does that mean that religion always does good things? No. I think it is a set of tools and practices. You know, just like science. Richard Dawkins says that “If you want to find the most efficient way to kill the most people possible, science is your friend.” If you want to find a way to help heal COVID, science is your friend. I think if we look at religion as practices, as technologies that shape and move the mind, there’s a lot to learn there for scientists.
Amy Hertz: Thank you so much. I had a chance to listen to you speak a little bit about that study of people helping other people. So I’d love, maybe in a little bit, for you to share a little bit more about your actual research. I think that would be great. I wanted to sort of push that just a little bit more, which is: there’s this tension or this perceived tension between religion and science. And how do you think, you know – we talked about [this] in our last program. People sort of tend toward the religious camp or the science camp, and sort of really struggle to piece these two things together in some meaningful way. I’m wondering how you would respond or think about ways that we can find our religion and science to work together?
David DeSteno: Yeah, I mean, I think the first step that I said before is to not argue about what is unknowable, right. I think once we start putting “isms” on us, just like liberalism or conservatism, people get in their groups and start yelling at each other. I think what we want to really, basically, do is think about how religious practices – not theology, you can’t always debate theology, and theologians can’t always say science is wrong with the proof is in front of us.
But I think where the action is to try and understand how the brilliance of certain spiritual practices can be used to make life better. You know, you can think about – people like Francis Collins are a wonderful example, right. The ex-Director of the National Institute Health is an Evangelical Christian. It doesn’t mean that he rejects evolution. He’s a hardcore scientist. But he believes that, you know, no one knows how we got here and there may be a divine hand in it. But that doesn’t mean that he rejects science.
I’m a scientist, and I’m humble enough to say: I don’t know if there is a God, but what I know is that there’s some benefit in exploring what religion has to offer people. And so I think if we’re willing to, in good faith, have that conversation, that’s useful. If we start talking about, you know, stuff that’s theologically derived, there is no way to prove whether God is behind a miracle, or if it’s a chance act.
Amy Hertz: Absolutely. And I love that platform for us tonight. And I think maybe we’ll talk about some of those practices and rituals, maybe in the order of the path of life. I know that’s sort of how you constructed your book. So I’d love for you to lead us through some of your thinking, and any of those things that you could elucidate for us along that path, both Jewish, and other religious traditions and rituals as well.
David DeSteno: Yeah. So just for an example, I always like to start at the end and work backward. The book starts by going forward. And the reason I say that is – so let me start there, right? Grief and loss is something that everybody has to deal with in life, no matter who you are. It’s unfortunate. And the trick with grief is to figure out – not to deny it. That’s the problem. But how do I move through it without letting it become too intense, or go on too long, both of which can be very paralyzing to people? And I think any departed loved one would not want that for the people that they leave behind.
And so, if you look at religious rituals across the spectrum, it’s interesting to see how they work. And let me give you an example. One thing that almost all religions do is we eulogize the person who has passed. Which seems kind of normal because we all do it, but if you think about it, it’s kind of strange. If I just lost a job that I really loved, if my wife, who I love, just left me, I wouldn’t think about how wonderful she was or how wonderful that job was, because it would make the pain all the more. But there’s a lot of research coming out of many scientific labs that show it’s people who can create a positive memory of a person who have gone that ruminate less, and they have less depression, etc.
And so part of all these rituals – what they do is they help us to create that positive memory. If you look at shiva, which I know here, being a synagogue, many of you are familiar with, it is a brilliant packaging of tools. So, let me unpack it for you from the scientific side.
So one thing you know is it is a mitzvot, right, it is a sacred obligation, that when a family is celebrating shiva, [that] you must go to bereaved, bring them food, help them out, visit. It’s not like, “Yeah, if I want to go” – you have to go. And that provides something that’s called instrumental support. It’s not social support, like “How many friends do you have on Facebook,” right? These are people who show up and help you when you need them.
One of the biggest predictors to reducing grief and moving through it in a resilient fashion is having people provide instrumental support to you, bringing you food, helping you with what you need, being there. When you form a minyan to say prayers, oftentimes it’s the mourners’ Kaddish or other things in groups of at least 10 or more, and people are doing that in unison – when you do things in unison, it creates a sense of bonding, and it creates a sense of compassion.
So let me just give you an example of an experiment we run. We’ll bring people into my lab, and they’ve never met before, and we’ll have them put on earphones. They can’t talk to one another. And they’ll hear tones in the earphones. And what they have to do is, in front of them, to tap a sensor on the table to the tones. And we rig the tones so that they’re either in time – people are moving in time – or they’re random, and so they’re not moving in time.
After that, we ask them, “How close do you feel to the other person?” Mind you, it’s someone they never met, someone that they have never seen, or didn’t talk to, even now. But that simple act of moving in time makes people report feeling closer to one another. And when we rig a little situation where one of them needs help doing something, the other person will feel more compassion for that person if they have tapped in time than if they didn’t, and by triple the rate, will offer to help them out that little problem that we give them.
And so when you’re in services – be it Catholic mass, or be it saying minyan prayers during shiva – that simple act is creating greater senses of compassion and empathy. You cover mirrors, right. And I know there’s a theological reason for that, and Rabbi Amy, you can tell us what that was. But there’s scientific research showing that whatever emotion you feel when you look into a mirror, it intensifies it. If you’re feeling happy and you look in the mirror, it makes you happier – if you’re feeling sad and you look in the mirror, it makes you feel sadder. And so during shiva, or Irish wakes, or Hindi ceremonies, people cover mirrors. Why? Because it’s a simple way to reduce grief a little.
You sit low on the ground, on low stools right above the ground. And you know, after a while, that’s kind of uncomfortable. It can cause a little pain. When you get up, it can remove that pain. There’s new neuroscience research that shows mild onsets and offsets of discomfort in your muscles reduces grief and reduces rumination.
And so there are all of these things packaged together that, through the ages, have been put together without understanding the science of why they work, right. You know, people, for millennia – they couldn’t scan your brains, but they figured out that they work. And all of these things create ways to help us deal with the challenges of life, grief being one of them, and I’m happy to talk about other ones too.
Amy Hertz: I’d love to hear about a few more of them, but before we go on, just a question, one that came up for me as I was doing some research and getting ready: this idea of ritual and doing things in unison. I’m wondering – what it brought to my mind, is there must have been – or I mean, maybe I’m projecting – a disruption of that experience due to COVID, and not being able to gather together. And I wondered what your view is, if you’re thinking any thoughts on the impact of that, but also how it translated to an online community, and maybe [became] not that impactful?
David DeSteno: Yeah, I mean, you know, I think, rabbis, ministers, priests, whatever, they were all trying to figure out, when services were closed down, “How do we move this online?” I think the problem with that – I mean, having online is better than not having it at all. Having some connection is better than having none. But all these rituals and practices were created to work when we’re co-present and in community with one another. When you get people into a room and talking to one another, their respiration synchronizes, their heart rates synchronize. They feel that sense of closeness due to the synchrony.
That stuff doesn’t work as easily over Zoom. Anybody who has been sitting shiva over Zoom – your face is front and center. And so what you’re doing is defeating the benefits of that mirror, seeing your own face, for the mourners, and seeing the pain on it. I mean, we didn’t have any alternative. But the question is, I think, going forward – I’ve had rabbis and priests ask me: “So, what can science tell us about the better ways to do this when we have to move remotely?” And I have no answer, because science hasn’t really taken up studying these practices. But I think that’s an opportunity to think going forward: how can some of these practices be best adapted to non-traditional situations?
Amy Hertz: Right, and how do you build in that unison online in some meaningful way? Very complicated. Someone in the chat said, “You know, the lag on Zoom really complicates that unison.”
David DeSteno: Oh, yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Amy Hertz: I do a lot of online services leading with our students in our religious school, and we sometimes we say, “When you’re muted, it’s okay for you to sing too,” right. Because then you sort of mimic that unison with the person leading. But it’s not exactly the same. So I totally get that challenge. Yeah, I’d love to hear some of your other findings from the variety of the stages and ages of life, that you would love to share.
David DeSteno: So you know, one problem is – I call it “the midlife crisis, but not the one you’re thinking of, probably.” But if you look at [the] happiness curve in life, what you’ll see is that it’s kind of an inverted U. That is, people are happy when they’re young, happiness – kind of the nadir comes usually about late 40s, early 50s. And then it starts to go up. You might say, “Well, that’s self-reported happiness, right, does that really mean anything?” And if you look at the curve of antidepressant use, it does the opposite. It kind of peaks around the late 40 or 50’s. So I think there’s definitely something to it that’s kind of universal.
And what’s normally happening in that time is it’s a change in life: that is, you’re still stuck in your career template, right, trying to figure out what to do, but it may not feel as rewarding anymore. If you have children, they’re moving out; people who are the generation above you are passing. And what we find is that as people age, happiness comes back, because they reorient their values. They reorient toward what truly brings happiness, which is social connection, service toward your family, your friends, or a larger pod, and those types of things, as opposed to, kind of, your career and trying to climb the status ladder. There’s a place for that too in life, but it doesn’t bring you happiness.
And what we find is that when people make that shift, they become happier. Normally it happens with age, but what you see during pandemics is it happens for everyone. So that difference between what younger adults and older adults value, kind of “me, my career, getting ahead” versus social connections, spending time with people I love, service, etc – when the SARS pandemic hit, or now when COVID hit, suddenly the older folks and younger folks look the same. There isn’t that difference. Because the younger folks are like, “Oh my gosh.” Suddenly, the end of life to them seems closer too. Because when you’re 30, death seems really far away. But in a pandemic, it can seem closer. And so really what drives that isn’t so much age, but it’s your time horizon to when you think you might not be here anymore. When time becomes shorter, we turn to the things that truly make us happy.
What’s interesting is religions kind of try to remind us of that earlier. So you know, I was raised Catholic, and in Catholicism we have Ash Wednesday, which is a reminder that that you will return to dust and from dust you will come, right. You have the High Holy Days in Judaism from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, which is a period that kind of symbolizes the beginning and the end of life. But what’s interesting is on both days, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you say the Unetaneh Tokef, part of which is, “Who’s going to die before their time in coming year?” “Who by sword, who by fire, who by flood,” all of which we’ve seen – “who by plague,” which has happened a lot, unfortunately. And it’s a reminder that right before that kind of atonement, that you need to think about what’s going on.
And there’s wonderful experiments from a lab in Stanford, California, where this psychologist who studies aging, Laura Carstensen, asked people to think about, “If you were going to die in a couple weeks, what would you want to do? How would you want to spend your time?” And suddenly it makes them reorient. They suddenly want to spend time with people they care about, make a mark of service to the world, and that brings true happiness. Those services, Ash Wednesday, Unetaneh Tokef, before a period of reflection, do the same thing. They’re reminders to us in a ritualistic way, and they make us think about it because of all the symbolism that goes with it, of where we should be putting our efforts to bring happiness in this world. And if we make that shift sooner, we’re not going to have that nadir in unhappiness that typically confronts people.
And I think, you know, I’m sure there are rabbis who say this too, but you know, Thomas à Kempis, who is a famous medieval Christian scholar, reminded people, “Every day you should meditate on death. Don’t promise yourself that you’re going to be here tomorrow, and let that shape how you behave.” In Buddhism, meditations on death are common. Sometimes they’ll even meditate in front of a decaying corpse to remind them that life is short. And I’m sure there are recommendations in the Talmud and the Rabbinic literature, as well, to do the same. But by ritualizing it, it makes it happen.
Amy Hertz: Absolutely, definitely. To sort of act as though you’re living the day before death, so that you’re living in the world in those particular ways.
I’m wondering, and I may want you to share a few more of the rituals outside of Judaism – but one of the things that came up when I was listening to some of your talks was this idea of cultural appropriation of these rituals. I’m going to share a few more of those rituals outside of Judaism, and sort of what we can – how do we feel about utilizing some of the learning that’s coming from that?
David DeSteno: Sure. So let me give you one more example, then we’ll talk about that. So one of those studies that we talked about initially was meditation. And there’s this idea – if you talk to the Lamas, what they’ll tell you is, “Yeah, yeah, meditation. Yeah, it’ll help your memory. Yeah, it’ll reduce your stress. But that’s not what it’s for.” It’s to make you a more virtuous person, right? The Buddha said, apocryphally (we don’t know if he actually said it or not), “I teach one thing and one thing only, which is the end of suffering.” And there is a goal to reduce your own suffering but also to reduce the suffering of all sentient beings. And this is what meditation is supposed to help.
And so we ran some of the first studies looking at that. We brought people in who had never meditated before, we put them on a waitlist so they didn’t meditate, or we had them meditate for eight weeks at the foot of the Buddhist Lama. And after that, you can’t ask people, “So, would you be a nice person?” Because they’re going to say “yes,” lying. Well, I don’t think most of them would lie, most of them would say yes, but we all know when push comes to shove, we’re not always as nice as we want to be. We’ve all had that experience of walking past homeless people who need help, of not donating to help people when there’s a natural disaster in the world, or whatever it might be.
So how do we test this? Well, we brought them back to our lab and we told them, “We’re going to run some memory experiments on you.” That wasn’t true. The true experiment happened within the waiting room. When they entered the waiting room, there were two people already there, who they thought were just other subjects that we were going to test. There were three chairs – two people were sitting in the two chairs. So when you’re the third person to come in, what you do is you sit down in that third chair.
So the two people already sitting there already were actors. About two minutes later, we had an actor come in, and she was on crutches. She had one of those ankle boots that you wear on your feet when they’re broken. She didn’t really have a broken foot, but she was coming in, and she was kind of wincing in pain. And the people who were already there we told them, “Just ignore her,” you know, “Thumb your phone. Pretend you’re not looking.” Kind of like when you’re on the T in Boston, right, and somebody needs a seat, nobody looks at them.
So the question was: What would the people do? And what we found out is that in the control condition, where they hadn’t meditated, right, about 16% of people got up to give their seat to this person. Among those who had meditated, 50% did, right. So we basically tripled the rate at which they were willing to see someone in pain, sacrifice their own comfort to come to this person’s aid, and see if they if they needed help.
We’ve also done it with studies for revenge. To make a long story short, we had a crazy situation. You’re working with somebody, and they insult yo,u and you have the opportunity to actually think you’re going to cause them some pain as retribution – mild pain. We don’t let that happen, of course. And again, what we find is that people want to exert a little bit of pain at them. But again, we kind of cut that rate by a third among people who have meditated.
And so what you’re seeing here is meditation actually increasing the virtue of compassion and kindness in people. We don’t actually know the mechanism by which it does it, but we know that it does. And so we know the theological underpinnings for what this was supposed to do actually leads to changes in measurable behavior.
But the question, then, that Rabbi Amy brought up as well, is: what would you do if you want to be compassionate? Should you meditate? If you are suffering grief, do you want to incorporate the elements of shiva? And that brings up the whole idea of cultural appropriation. Now, you see, we’ve done this as a society with meditation. You can meditate now without any of the theological Buddhist precepts that are attached to it if you don’t want to.
Same thing – I mean, the question is, can we do that in other rituals? I think we never want to take the prayers and symbols of a tradition. That would be cultural appropriation. You don’t want Catholics saying Jewish prayers and vice-versa, because it kind of doesn’t respect the traditions. But if you look at the elements of these, right, there’s commonalities to them. And what people do, right – so you can do lots of things in synchrony together. You can say the Mourners’ Kaddish, but you can sing a song. You can say another prayer. You can organize situations where you provide instrumental help and make sure somebody is always there. You can cover mirrors, and it’s not just in shiva, right – Hindus do that. Irish wakes do that.
And so I think what we can do is learn the nature of practices. You can meditate on death. Not the prayers, not the theology, not the symbols, but the practices, and how they affect the mind and body aren’t owned by any one faith or another. And I think in that way, they can be utilized. You know, now the other big thing we’re learning about is the benefits of psychedelics, right. Psychedelics are a fast way to that transcendent spiritual experience. They can fight depression, they can fight anxiety. There are indigenous cultures in the Amazon who have used these forever. What’s interesting is about 20% of people who take psychedelics have a negative response to them, and about 8% of those people actually have such a frightening response that it will actually lead them to seek psychiatric care. And if you listen to Michael Pollan, who we had on the podcast, he’ll tell you he had both types. He had a wonderful experience, and he had a terrifying experience.
What we’re finding in psychological research is that if you have someone with you, if you have a guide with you who makes you feel comfortable, who’s there to put a hand on you, to support you with that guidance – that makes all the difference in helping the situation go better. And afterward, they’ll talk with you about it and help explain what happened with you. And in the indigenous cultures, that’s what the shaman does. But if you’re just taking the psychedelic, if you’re just taking ayahuasca or psilocybin, at your local, you know, Brooklyn hipster or Brookline hipster locale, without any theological protections and guardrails attached to it, it can go badly.
And so here, the researchers at Johns Hopkins – they’re not doing the shamanic prayers, but they’re understanding the role and the comfort and scaffolding that the shaman provided. And when they do that, they can get similar effects among people as well. And so I think if we have the hubris to think that we know how it’s going to work and don’t pay attention to the traditional knowledge that’s gone with it, that’s a problem. You see this with Native American sweat ceremonies. Now, people have died because people who are doing it don’t know how to regulate the temperature, don’t know the signs to look for, etc. But when they work, they’re helpful. You know that the Veterans’ Administration, that multiple VA hospitals, are now building sweat lodges, because we know it helps with PTSD. They don’t understand how, but they have enough outcome data to know that it works.
Amy Hertz: Thank you for that. Actually, that brings up – in the chat, I got a question about the meditations that you’re talking about, the work that you were doing, and whether that was independent of religious elements, or did that include some sort of scaffolding of religion?
David DeSteno: So there, we had a Buddhist Lama do it, but it didn’t have a scaffolding. And we purposely just did straight mindfulness meditation, because we didn’t want to do loving-kindness because that felt like we’re telling you to be loving and kind with that. And so no, it didn’t. But the question is, would it work better if it did?
And we actually replicated that effect using an app, Headspace. We use Headspace because I know the guy who created it. He has Monastic training, so he knows what he’s doing. The question is, would it be an even more powerful effect if we had the theological parts attached to it? Typically, when meditation happens in Buddhism, you would do it in a sangha, you would do it in a community, and there would be theological lessons that go with it. And so, my friends who are Lamas will say that they believe that the benefits would be even greater.
So that’s the other question for us if we go forward. Besides cultural appropriation, which I think we can get around, if we do kind of separate this from the theological beliefs, are the effects as large? We don’t know the answer to that yet.
Amy Hertz: It’s really interesting. I mean, obviously, I’m a rabbi, I believe in the power of community for a whole variety of reasons. And so one of the things we’re seeing a lot of for the next generations, so to speak – I’m thinking even people of all generations, but really the sort of movement away from sort of traditional faith, community and some of the “isms” that you were talking about before. And I guess I’m wondering, because when I heard – when I was researching that research, in my mind, the word “scaffolding” was what I was thinking about. And I’m wondering how you’re seeing this change in people’s affiliation with faith impact your work.
David DeSteno: It’s potentially a problem. I mean, so people are leaving traditional [religion] – I mean, this last year, according to Gallup, this was the first year that a majority of Americans did not report being a member of a church or synagogue or mosque or temple. And there are the good reasons why people can leave. I mean, the institutions are different than the faith, and there have been institutional abuses and scandals, and there has been gender discrimination. Certain faiths will not allow women and men to have equal roles. But most of them who are leaving – the majority are not becoming atheists, right? They’re trying to find new ways of spirituality, I think because they realize they’re missing those tools and practices.
But that raises two questions. One is the community connection. That is, if I decided that my spirituality is best defined by taking 30% of ideas from Judaism, 10% of ideas from Hinduism, adding in some Sikh rituals, maybe, you know, Catholic saints, that could work for me, it’s going to be so finely tailored that it may not work for anybody else. And then we lose that sense of community. I mean, one way around [that] is what you see with Unitarian Universalists, right, who are a little more welcoming of different perspectives. The question is, if we tailor things too finely, do we lose that community? And that’s a problem, potentially.
The other big issue is if we start creating our own rituals, how do they work? “Ritual Design” is a big thing in Silicon Valley now. There are firms who, if you want a ceremony for celebrating ringing the NASDAQ bell, will create you one. “You want a ceremony for you know, something else? We’ll create you one.” But the problem is when you create ceremonies and rituals from whole cloth, you lose the benefit of those thousands of years of wisdom that have honed these to work by leveraging mechanisms of the mind and the body, without maybe even understanding the science of how that works.
And so I think rituals can be adapted and created, but what you have to do is look at and honor what we came before, and not just try and create something. Because yeah, maybe it’ll work, but the odds are that it’s not going to work as well.
Amy Hertz: It’s so interesting. And actually, one of the questions I had written out for myself earlier – and it came up, actually, in someone’s direct message in the chat – but if we adopt these beneficial practices in a secular way, is there a role for religion other than bringing people to community? And my question was sort of a piece of that, which is that: in our community, where people who affiliate with Temple Isaiah really [do so] in a lot of different ways – some people for the religious aspects, some for the cultural aspects. And I’m curious if you have any thinking about that and how that really plays out?
David DeSteno: Yeah, I mean, it’s a hard question, and I think it’s individually tailored. But I can say that a lot of people deeply feel this need or connection to be part of something beyond, right, that is beyond themselves – that is greater than humanity. And I think religion speaks to that spiritual need. That’s a personal choice, like I said, it relies on faith. Scientists can’t tell you that God exists or not. Even, you know, rabbis and priests can’t tell you. They’ll say “I believe,” “this is what I believe,” and it’s really up to each individual person how they want – if and how they want to have that connection to something that they believe is greater.
I think because that is, in many ways, a pan-human feeling, there will be that sense of spirituality and religion going forward. Can you build, can you adapt, all these rituals and use them in a secular way? Probably most of them. Will they work as well? We don’t know the answer to that.
And so I don’t have a great answer, but I don’t think religion is going away. I think institutionalized religion may change. I think the spiritual landscape is going to change. And I think we have to have an open conversation about the best ways to do that. And hopefully that will bring scientists and religious thinkers together, both of whom care right about human well-being. And so if you don’t have that conversation, then I think we’re doing everybody a disservice.
Amy Hertz: Absolutely. And I have just a couple more questions, and I do want to open it up to some questions from the community. I guess one of the things that I was thinking a lot about is: a good portion of my work is with our youth. And I’m wondering how the work you’re doing, the research you’re doing, does it have a different connection if you were to think about it in children, you know? Has there been any sort of application of your work with young children?
David DeSteno: So there hasn’t been an application, but I can see ties, right. So I have to tell you – I came to this because I studied meditation, I came to this because I studied emotion, gratitude and all the virtues it leads to. And I studied it by motor synchrony stuff – it brings connection. And what happened to me was I said, “Oh, look! I found a new way to make people feel connected,” or to, you know, be more virtuous. And I would look around, and I see religions have been using it for thousands of years. And so that’s what led me to where I am.
But I think, yeah, I mean, I’m working on Episode 2 of the next season of the podcast. That will be out in late February, and that is going to be on “Do children need religion to grow up to be good people?” If you look at surveys, about half of Americans think they do. And at least to a lot of conflicted parents who are leaving religion, [they’re saying] “What do I do?”
And so if you look at the data, there are two ways that religion shapes virtue in children as they grow. One is that they believe God is watching them. And there’s a lot of evidence showing that, as kids come to the awareness that God is omniscient and can watch them, that that influences their honesty behavior. So kids who believe that God can watch them – there’s lots of data showing that they behave better. Now, what we don’t know is: do they do that because they’re worried, kind of Elf on the Shelf, right? That “I’m afraid of God and I’m gonna be punished.” Or do they do it because they love God, and they believe that God values what they’re doing, just like if you believe your parent wants you to do this, and they place emphasis on that?
And all kids believe in their parents, they can see them, they want to do that. If you believe in this all-loving being, is it important that you do it? We don’t know which of those it is. But we also do know that cultivating certain things in children, like feelings of gratitude, right – I bring people into my lab and make them feel grateful by counting their blessings. I get an opportunity to cheat on something opportunities to cheat go down, opportunities to be generous go up, just by feeling that emotion.
We know gratitude is tied to a lot of prayers, right. If you do the – I’m going to say it wrong, but the Nisim b’chol yom is a more formal name for that, right, the miracles of the everyday. Modeh ani – that is a prayer for gratitude. And throughout the day, if you say the hundred blessings that the rabbis recommend, that cultivates gratitude. And gratitude can make you a more virtuous more generous person. When you read stories about people who are noble, whether it’s a civil rights leader or whether it’s a holy person, that creates this emotion called elevation, which is this feeling of your chest expanding. You know, if you see Mother Teresa ministering to the poor, or John Lewis, when he was alive, fighting for civil rights and marching, we know that that emotion makes people want to be more virtuous, and we can show ties with that.
So with kids, when you read stories about noble events from the Torah, or the Quran, or whatever scriptures you’re doing, and they have that emotion, it makes them feel better. You can do the same thing with civil rights leaders, if you’re a secular person, or other noble people. And so I think what we’re trying to do is look for ways that religion inspires these feelings of gratitude, elevation, or awe, the awe we experience often in nature. We know awe makes people more generous, more kind, you know, you can have awe when you’re in worship ceremonies. That’s a more positive way of increasing virtue in kids than “God is watching,” you know, “Don’t feel guilty and mess up.” But we’re just trying to study those now.
Amy Hertz: You made me think about Brené Brown and shame. So you know, we don’t want them to feel shame at all. But shame can be a very powerful emotion at times. And in limited doses, it can be very useful and good and important. But as a long term thing in terms of our relationship to God or to anybody, it’s terribly toxic, as she says. And that’s why I think these other more positive emotions are more positive ways to get there, and religion, when done well, cultivates those states.
Amy Hertz: So I’m going to ask one more question, and open up for some conversation from our community. I’m go out on a limb and ask you: this notion of these “spiritual technologies.” You know, certainly they have resonance with the ones in Judaism, but I’m curious, just personally, as a scientist, and also someone who studies these. What are the spiritual technologies that you have really either personally experienced that are very meaningful to you, or that, in your work, just seem to really rise to the top, that you want to share with our community?
Dave DeSteno: Yeah. So I mean, it’s a good question. I have made it now part of my daily routine to kind of have a gratitude practice. And, you know I would say I’m an agnostic person, that is, not part of any of any religious tradition, though I certainly am willing to admit that I don’t know if there’s anything greater – there certainly may well be a higher power in universe. And I try to find my own gratitude practice during the day, that is, to kind of cultivate that state regularly. Because I see it in my own data what it does for people.
I wish I meditated more. I don’t make enough time for it, I should. But it does have benefits. And you know, I think next time that I have to do something with – so, I’m a Catholic by culture, we have the wake and then it’s done. And I think what I really want to try and do is create, in a secular way, more of that experience, of an ongoing period of several days where people come together and have that continuing celebration and reminisce and eulogize and provide support in the way in the way shiva does. Because from all the data that I see, all of those elements have a profound effect. I also try to meditate on that. I’m getting older as it is, I’m in my 50s, so I’m in that period of the nadir. And when I do that, it does help me reorient myself. And I worry less about getting my next paper out, you know, as a scientist, and more about what kind of mark am I making in this world.
Amy Hertz: Absolutely, beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This program was held on January 29, 2022, and hosted by Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA).