Scientists are beginning to discover what believers have known for a long time: the rewards that a religious life can provide. For millennia, people have turned to priests and rabbis, imams, and shamans to help them deal with issues of grief and loss, birth and death, morality and meaning. In his absorbing book How God Works, renowned research psychologist David DeSteno reveals how numerous religious practices from around the world improve emotional and physical health.
David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group. At the broadest level, his work examines the mechanisms of the mind that shape vice and virtue. Studying hypocrisy and compassion, pride and punishment, cheating and trust, his work continually reveals that human moral behavior is much more variable than most would predict. David is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the American Psychological Association, for which he served as editor-in-chief of the journal Emotion. David received his PhD in psychology from Yale University.
(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 Q&A with Dr. DeSteno was held at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, MD on May 21, 2023).Read Transcript
Mitchell Berkowitz: So now our guest of honor. Dave DeSteno, is Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group.
At the broadest level, his work examines the mechanisms of the mind that shape vice and virtue. Studying hypocrisy and compassion, pride and punishment, cheating and trust, his work continually reveals that human moral behavior is much more variable than most would predict.
David is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the American Psychological Association, for which he served as editor-in-chief of the journal Emotion. His work has been repeatedly funded by the National Science Foundation and has been regularly featured in the media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS Sunday Morning, NPR’s Radiolab and On Point, and USA Today.
He is the author of How God Works, Emotional Success, The Truth About Trust, and co-author of The Wall Street Journal spotlight psychology bestseller Out of Character. He frequently writes about his work for major publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. David received his Ph.D. in psychology from Yale University.
And we’re very privileged to have you here today. Thank you for joining us tonight. And start off by telling us a little bit of: how does a scientist wind up studying religion?
David DeSteno: Sure. Well first, thank you all for inviting me here. Thank you, Mitch, for inviting me here. It’s my pleasure and honor to be with you. And I appreciate you coming on such a beautiful day as this.
Yeah, it’s a good question. When I was an undergraduate – so I was raised Catholic, from which I’ve lapsed – I was trying to decide between being a psychologist or studying the history of religions, because I was always quite interested in the big questions – that is, what makes you a good person? What do we owe to one another? Is there a higher power? And I went back and forth, and ultimately I decided to be a psychologist, because for all of those questions except the one about, “Is there a higher power?”, I could actually run experiments and get some answers, rather than just debating things in a way that seemed to go in circles.
And so I spent my time as a scientist studying things. Like, as Mitch said, I study people’s virtues, I study their emotions. And a lot of things we studied were things like gratitude, things like mindfulness, and every time we studied something I thought, “Oh look, I found a way to make people happier, to make people kinder, to make people more generous.” And then I would look around and realize that I’d been scooped by millennia – that there were spiritual traditions from all over the world who are making good use of these things. That’s always humbling for a scientist. And then I looked at the data – and this isn’t my data, this is epidemiological data – people who are actively engaged in religious practices saying, “You believe in God,” doesn’t account for much in terms of your health outcomes, but regularly attending services, being engaged in religious practices, those people live longer healthier and happier lives at all stages. You know, even now, there’s epidemiological data suggesting that even among the younger generation, Generation Z, who we keep seeing spiking depression and suicide rates and stress, and those who are engaged in a religious upbringing –it doesn’t really matter the dogma, it matters that they are engaged in the practices and with the community – have more resilience.
And so as a scientist, to me, that says there’s something there. And so, I’m in no ways an apologist for religion. Religious institutions, like any other institutions or ideologies can be twisted for different purposes. But it would be strange if thousands of years of thought that was focused on helping people meet life’s challenges didn’t have something to offer. And so I spend my time among some of my scientific friends saying that, you know, let’s not make a caricature out of religion. Let’s not assume it’s all superstition and pick the cases where people are anti-science, because I don’t think that’s where most people are. Most people, I think, as Rabbi Geoff said, we’re trying to deal with human questions.
And so what we’ll talk about tonight is the wisdom of religious practices. You know, I like to think of it in terms of in the 1950s, when the pharmaceutical companies were looking for new ways to create new drugs, they did something called bioprospecting. That is, they went to traditional cultures and said “What medicines do you have?” And sure, a lot of them didn’t do anything, but some did. And from that we found amazing medications. And so given the data that we have that engagement in spiritual practices makes people live healthier, happier lives, let’s study those practices. Let’s stop debating whether God exists. I can’t tell you if the practices come from a God, he, she or it, who loves their creations and cares for them, or from people figuring stuff out over millennia. But I can tell you they work. And we’ve kind of done this with meditation as a society. You see mindfulness everywhere – although it’s been corporatized in some ways. We can talk about that. But I think there’s a lot more to learn.
And so I’ve been grateful for my partnership with Rabbi Mitelman, with whom I’ve worked and whom I’ve learned a lot, as we’re trying to kind of understand how we can put science and religion together and to understand how it makes life better for people. So that’s how I am – where I am.
Keva to kavanah: From prayer to intention
Mitchell Berkowitz: There’s still work to do. So we’re sitting here in Dweck Sanctuary, so I think we should we should start by talking about prayer – prayer being something that’s so central to Jewish life. It’s really a cornerstone of what we do in the American synagogue. It’s also very challenging, because we do it in a language that not all of us are necessarily fluent in, and even if we have fluency with the language, sometimes the content of prayer itself is difficult to to connect with.
So you talk about prayer as a technology. How does that technology work? What are the benefits of a regular cycle of prayer?
David DeSteno: Yeah, I think it can happen in many ways. One of the challenges with prayer – and as I told Mitch, please correct me if I mispronounce things, right – there is the keva, right, which is the actual saying of the prayer. And you know, I was raised Catholic but it’s a similar thing, in that I could sit in church and I could recite the prayers by rote, which kind of means I could do them while I was daydreaming, which kind of means they weren’t doing much for me. Then I learned from Geoff the word kavanah, which is the intention – when you feel moved by it. And I think the trick with prayer is, in the way it’s done in many religions, is there is the routinization element of it. And as a psychologist, I can tell you the routinization of it, when you understand the words, can actually help make a habit of things. If I think I should act a certain way, that’s useful – it will shape my thoughts.
But it’s all the other things that are going on when we pray together that really do a lot. So when we’re together in congregation, as you’re sitting there with people around you, what’s happening, unbeknownst to you, is that your heart rates are beginning to synchronize, your breathing will synchronize to those people who are around you. When you pray together, say the same words together – in different religions, people will sit and stand and kneel together – whatever we do in synchrony creates a bond between people.
And you might say “Well, how do you know that?” Well, we tried to study this in my lab, thinking nothing about religion, we figured that, you know, in the old days, if you looked in the sky – well, even now – if you see a flock of birds or a school of fish, if they’re moving together, it’s an ancient signal that these have become one. And so we did a study in my lab where we simply brought people together and we had them put on earphones and they made beats in their ears, they could hear tones. And they had to tap a sensor on the table. And for some of the people, they did it together, they were synchronized beats. For other people, they were asynchronous – they were just completely out of out of synchrony with each other.
And then after that, to make a long story short, we had one of the people get stuck doing this long, onerous laborious task which no one liked. Of course, it was structured to be like that. And then we asked the other person if they wanted to help. And what we found is if you had simply tapped your hands together in time, people reported feeling more similar to the other person. They’d say things like, “I think they were in my class last semester.” These were college students, right. “They were at a party I was at.” None of that was true, because we hired actors to do this. But they felt more similar, they felt more connected, they felt more compassion for the person’s plight. And 30% more of them actually said, “Yeah, you know what? I will help this person. I’ll take some of their labor.” And so prayer, if you do it together, actually, the simple act of it makes us feel closer, makes us feel more like a community.
The other thing that’s interesting about it is: how do we get to the intention, to the kavanah? And I was talking with Marni a little bit ago, and she was saying in some congregations, at times, people will, you know, sing together – if you don’t know the words, hum. And it reminded me of this tradition of singing niguns or nigunim, and it is a way to actually pray without words right. You are chanting these tunes and these melodies. And there’s been a lot of work on this too, and what it does is it creates in people a deep sense of connection. And they build off one another. And it makes people report feeling greater connection to each other and greater connection to the Divine. And so there are lots of ways that prayer interacts with us.
Gratitude and togetherness
You know, another one that Geoff and I are actually working on is the – I can’t say it, what’s – how do you pronounce it? Birchot haShahar – early morning blessings and repeated blessings throughout the day. What are those? Those are really things that you give thanks to God, and if you’re feeling them if you’re feeling the covenant, you’re feeling gratitude, right. So the trick is not to do them by rote, which a lot of us do, but to take a moment and to pause. When you feel gratitude, what we know scientifically is it reduces your stress, it makes you happier, it makes you more generous, it makes you more honest, it makes you more willing to help other people. And we have all kinds of studies showing this, where we make people feel this emotion and give them the opportunity to cheat, or give them the opportunity to help other people. And we can see the changes. And so prayer, in many ways, is a technology that serves many purposes. It brings your intention to what the teachings of your religion are, but at the same time, it’s building community if you’re doing it together.
And this is one of the hard things when we were all on Zoom, right. We weren’t co-present with each other. And so these ancient rituals that have been developed over millennia for people together, because there was no Zoom, there was no computer, the question now is: how are they going to work when we’re in a world where we’re becoming more digital? And the answer is: we don’t know. But I think in all of those ways, prayer is one of those technologies that that is pushing your mind and your body on different levels. And there’s a wisdom in the way we do it.
Mitchell Berkowitz: Question that I have after – I mean that I think that’s all – you’re a little bit preaching to the choir, because some of these are regulars. So like people are here on Shabbat, or people here for daily services, and you answered it a little bit when you talked about the study that you’re about to do with Birchot haShahar, because that’s a prayer that you do – it’s a series of blessings that you recite every day. Is there a magic number? Is there a certain amount of time that you have to do this, or a certain frequency where it actually starts to work?
David DeSteno: It’s a good question. We don’t know. We’re going to look at that. But the trick, right, is if you ask people what are you grateful for – we were talking about this before. People say, “Oh, my family, my friends, my health.” Those are great, you should be grateful for those things if you’re fortunate enough to have them. But what we know from behavioral science research is, people habituate to things. And so if you say every day “I’m grateful for this or for that,” it can become kind of stale. And if you’re not feeling the emotion, if you’re doing it by rote, it’s a problem.
And so the question is: how do you get the feeling? How do you get the intention, how do you get the kavanah? It’s to be more mindful about it. You hear about mindfulness all the time, right, but mindfulness isn’t just a Buddhist practice. Sure, in some ways the meditation that the apps teach you is derived from Buddhist teaching. But it’s to pause, right, and it’s to think of and to reflect on those things that you’re thinking about. You don’t need an hour, you need two minutes. And so I would encourage everyone to make it a mindfulness practice as opposed to a routine one.
The other thing – I’ve learned this from Geoff as well – is one of the wonderful things about being people of the book is that you have prayers for many, many things. And sometimes the hardest thing is to find the right words that meet the moment. And if you have them, you can go through your day, and whether it’s a beautiful sunset or someone you know feeling better, or a beautiful meal, or whatever it might be, find those words and embrace that for a minute or two. And what you’re really doing then is you’re microdosing little bits of gratitude. And we know that’s good for your body and it’s good for your well-being. So to answer your question, we don’t know the perfect number, but we know more is better.
Prayer and sacred spaces
Mitchell Berkowitz: Did everybody hear that? More is better, right. So like an advertisement for coming to shul. (laughs) But speaking of prayers – so as Jews, we technically could pray anywhere. It doesn’t have to physically be in a synagogue space, we could pray wherever we’d like. But we know that more often than not, for most people, prayer takes place in a sanctuary like the one that we’re sitting in. And sanctuaries might be different from one synagogue to the next, but generally speaking, they have similar features. They’re laid out a certain way when we’re not sitting here talking to each other – this is where the reader’s table is where this the Cantor leads the service from, where the Torah is read on Shabbat. All Jewish synagogues have an Ark, as the one behind us with the Ner Tamid and eternal flame. What is it about the sort of atmosphere in which people pray that sort of adds to the experience of prayer, compared to just being in your kitchen or living room?
David DeSteno: Yeah, it’s a good question. If you think about – and I don’t know synagogues that well, so you can tell me. But if you think about a lot of worship spaces, the ones that I’m familiar with tend to kind of be larger rooms halls with high ceilings. Many times, a lot of the goal is to give people a sense of smallness, a sense of kind of awe and appreciation of something greater. People oftentimes, if you’re walking amongst the redwoods or the Grand Canyon, people will have this experience of awe, right, at nature’s beauty. And for many people, they’ll say that’s a spiritual experience.
What we know about the architecture of sacred spaces is they try to evoke that a little bit in and of themselves. There’s a lot of work on the feeling of having, even minor bits of, feeling kind of awe. It makes you feel small, it makes you experience wonder a bit more. And there’s even a great study that shows if you take people who are very secularly oriented, and you let them experience awe in nature’s beauty or in a beautiful space, and you ask them questions about “How likely is it that there is God?” or “There is a supernatural Force guiding the world,” it nudges up a little bit. And so that feeling you have is putting you in a state where you’re more open to wonder, to God.
It also is they’re usually quiet spaces. What we know – when the body feels quiet. So you have, to make a long, complicated story short – there are basically two branches of the nervous system, and when you are in a quiet place and you feel safe, you tend to get greater activation of your vagus nerve, which slows down your breathing, which slows down your heart rate, which also makes you more open to connection, to each other. And people feel that more when they’re in an enclosed space, but one that’s very large – no one likes to feel constrained. It’s also a space that has items in it, typically, that are spiritually oriented. That attunes you.
And so what you’re seeing in sacred spaces is architecture that makes you feel usually a bit smaller, having an open space that makes you feel a bit of awe by that open space, especially if it’s a beautiful one. And it’s making you open to those around you, and it’s making you open to the idea of the Divine and more accepting of the lessons that are coming from the space. So yes, you can pray everywhere, but it’s all about getting your mind and body in a state where it’s more receptive to it.
The importance of coming-of-age rituals and traditions
Mitchell Berkowitz: So for those who may not have read the book yet, one of the features is that Dave goes through some of the life cycles and identifies certain rituals and different traditions, and how those rituals stand out as being particularly efficacious in helping people get through a particular time in their life. So in the discussion about coming of age rituals, which happens a lot in this room, with bar and bat mitzvahs – with coming of age rituals, you write about two psychological levers: the self-control and also the self-fulfilling prophecy. So how do these two levers work and how do they work specifically when it comes to coming-of-age rites?
David DeSteno: Yeah, so if you are becoming an adult, one of the things you have to prove to other people in your community is that they can rely on you. And the way, psychologically speaking, that we learn that we can rely on somebody is that they show some degree of self-control – ability to control their impulses. And so in many indigenous cultures, what you often see in rites of passage are [that] people endure pain. There are tribes in the Amazon where they will put their hands in these gloves that are weaved with what are called bullet ants. And they’re called bullet ants because the sting has the pain intensity of being shot. And so they will do that, and they can’t cry out. And the Masai in Africa, it’s a similar thing. They will go through certain rituals that are extremely painful, and they have to show that they are not – that they cannot show pain, or not react to it. Native Americans, the women will do what’s called the sunrise ceremony, where they will dance for hours and hours and can’t stop. And these are basically ways to show the community that you have fortitude, that you have self-control, and also to convince yourself that you can do it.
As societies became more urbanized and what mattered for success wasn’t so much your ability to endure the pain that life brings you but to basically show that you had self-control, to basically develop skills that were more relevant to urban society, things like book knowledge or being an honest person, showing good virtue, it began to change. And so in many traditions now – and I think this is part of bar mitzvahs, right – part of what you have to do is a lot of study, and then that takes – I mean, I have not gone to Hebrew school, but I can imagine it takes a lot of devotion and effort to learn this language, and then to stand up in front of everyone to give a reading, to give a drasha, to show that you have developed a competence. And in many ways, these types of ceremonies are now taking the place of rites of passage.
You know, it’s funny, I remember when I was learning about bar mitzvahs, it seemed that they had developed over time. And for early on in Jewish history, when at that point it was a boy when he turned 13, it was basically the father saying something like, “Thank you God for relieving me for being responsible for this kid,” right. (laughs) And that was basically it.
But then it developed into what it is it is now, which is not just, “Okay, this boy has reached a certain age,” or, “Now this girl has reached a certain age where they can take part in certain religious rituals,” but they have to show their competence, their drive. And so I think that’s what’s happening now. But there’s also this part of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Once somebody has their bar mitzvah – I’ll focus on that for now. suddenly they can do many different things. They can be part of a minyan, they can say certain prayers – because part of the complexity of becoming an adult is you have to show that you have the skills.
But we all doubt ourselves, and so the community has to keep reinforcing it. If the community around you starts treating you like if you’ve had your bar mitzvah one day, and they start treating you like a kid the day after again, you’re going to fall back into it. But suddenly, if you can now have additional responsibilities, that’s a message to you that the community around you expects you to be an adult. They’re treating you that way. And it becomes what we in psychology call a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe something is likely to happen, it is more likely to happen, because you will unconsciously behave in ways that make you conform to that.
Mitchell Berkowitz: I think we’re very good at the self-control piece in the sense that we do expect a lot of our students to achieve. You had me thinking about what’s the piece of the self-fulfilling prophecy, like – are we asking enough of our students, in terms of how we treat them afterwards, right? Like, do we give them enough leadership roles? Do we sort of put them in the position to actually demonstrate what they’ve done, other than sort of in that one morning, or that one afternoon?
David DeSteno: And I think that’s the trick, right. So in many more indigenous societies, – you know, in the Masai, after you survive that ceremony, you get a bunch of cows, and they’re your responsibility. And you get land. In certain tribes in South America, suddenly you were now going to battle when there’s tribal warfare. And so I think that is part of it. You know, I mean, the joke, right, that I hear is that there’s more “bar” than “mitzvah” in “bar mitzvah” these days. And so same thing in Catholic church. So you know I had confirmation, which is kind of – it’s not exactly similar, but change that much for me after. And I think this is the question that we’re all dealing with now, in how do you know?
There’s a big debate going on, and I don’t have the answer to it. I don’t really have a side to it, because I think it’s a complex issue. But are we coddling teens too much, are we protecting them too much? Is there helicopter parenting – or lawnmower parenting, as it’s called now – is that good is that bad? It’s clear that adolescence has become longer for people. Whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing, we don’t know, because lives have become longer. The lifespan is longer than it was. And so maybe it’s okay not to grow up that quickly. But I think it is important for us to think about, if we want kids to have that sense of self-reliance and self-confidence, then, as you said, we do need to expect more and treat them that way. Because if we’re not, we’re giving them mixed signals – “Sure, you’re an adult, yeah, yeah, yeah, let me take care of that for you.” And I think it’s an issue we’re all struggling with right now.
Mitchell Berkowitz: My kids are still young, but I’m thinking about the whole panicking thing and how much of that we do, right. How much do you coddle, and how much do you really let them figure it out on their own, or expect them to sort of rise to the occasion? So I think, I guess, going along with that idea that everything is sort of being stretched out now – lifespan’s being stretched out, adolescence being stretched out – if we’re going to talk about (and you talk a little bit in the book) about sort of constructing rituals, and you use the example of scouting and merit badges – that, like, you take small steps. It’s not this giant leap.
And yet, often in the religious space, we talk about sort of the “leap of faith.” And I guess to a degree in Judaism, we think about, or we expect that, in terms of actions as well, that suddenly – I mean, I have these conversations with our b’nei mitzvah students all the time, that suddenly they become 13 and it’s no longer their parents’ responsibility for them to fulfill mitzvot, it’s theirs.
Easing into ritual
But that we know that that’s not the reality; that doesn’t change overnight. So how do you construct ritual, or what’s the benefit of constructing ritual, where you’re sort of gradually taking steps and working up towards something, compared to asking for this sort of giant leap to demonstrate one’s competence or abilities?
David DeSteno: Yeah, the reason I use the analogy to scouting is that basically – for those of you know anything about scouting (and they’ve had their problems, too, as an organization), but in terms of the the progression to Eagle Scout, you can think about that as a secular coming of age, right. It is true that people who have reached Eagle Scout status – it is something that employers like, it is something that they’ve shown a lot of effort and motivation to do, and they’ve earned merit badges along the way. What are merit badges? They are markers that you have certain competencies. And what we know about the brain, right, is that it’s not “one day it’s an adult brain.” Adolescence is a period of rewiring and growth and change.
And one thing we know about adolescents’ brains is they’re very attuned to social feedback, right. Why, in some ways, is social media hitting adolescents so hard? Well, yes, they use their phones more, but they care a lot more about what other people think of them. In fact, there have been studies that show they will pay money even to get negative feedback because they just want to know what you think. And biologically it makes sense if you’re coming of age in a society, and you want to fit in with that society, you want to be attuned to what that society values, because that’s how you’re going to earn your place in it. And so biologically it makes sense, but different competencies come online. If you think about it, we can vote when we’re 18, but we can’t drink till we’re 21. You can be bar mitzvahed when you’re 13. There’s not one magical age. And even when I told you about those bullet ant rituals, it’s not like they do it once. They do this many times over a couple of years. And it’s reinforcing the idea of growth.
And so I think what might be a better way to do it is to have different steps along the way where people can meet certain goals, and there can be a community showing some acknowledgment of it, and then we move forward, because the once-and-done – it’s hard to perpetuate something when it’s once and done, rather than building up slowly. And what those mileposts are going to be, and when anybody is ready for them, may change by community. It may change by person. One person may be ready when they’re 13, one when they’re 15. And if you target it to when they are kind of biologically and psychologically ready, it’s going to be a more lasting and more impactful way to do it.
I think the reason a lot of religions don’t do that is because they’re very much focused on, “Can you participate in the kind of religious aspects?” Can you say certain prayers? If you’re Catholic, Can you receive communion? Can you do different things? But in a lot of the world, religion permeates a lot more aspects of life, especially in more indigenous societies. And can we actually incorporate those mileposts, more mileposts, for adolescents along the way? I think that would help. I mean, you say that it’s at 13 we say you’re an adult, but the reality is it doesn’t really work that way. So how do you handle that?
Mitchell Berkowitz: That’s right. All the kids, I always ask them as a joke, right, “Are you going to start paying rent the day after your bar mitzvah? Are you going to get a job?” Right? So there is a little bit of, right – we’re telling them they’re an adult, but only in certain circumstances and only with these particular parameters, and we don’t necessarily reinforce it or ask that much of them.
David DeSteno: And society, or outside, doesn’t treat them like an adult at 13, right. Nothing really changes in school, nothing.
Rituals around death and dying
Mitchell Berkowitz: That’s true, right. The bar or bat mitzvah thing, we’re still figuring it out, but one of the things we have figured out, I think (and you reference this in the book at the end), is death and dying – that Jews are good about the whole mourning piece of all of this. But before we get to what happens when, for those who who survive, who are mourning the loss of somebody else – what are the benefits of believing in some sort of version of an afterlife or having some understanding that consciousness goes even beyond our death? What is it that helps to make that transition easier for a person who’s approaching that moment, to be aware of that?
David DeSteno: Yeah, so first I’ll give you the lay of the land. So if you ask people how anxious they are about dying, what you see is it looks kind of like this, where – how can I say this? So if you have a continuum from people who are kind of hardcore atheists and believe there’s no way there’s anything after death, to people who are kind of unsure, to people who fervently believe that there is an afterlife, the people who are the most anxious about death are the people who don’t know – because the atheists are like “Ah, I’m going to be in a box, I’m going to die, that’s it.” They’re still more anxious about death than people who firmly believe that life goes on, but the people who are the most anxious are people who don’t really know, because uncertainty is just never a good thing, and there’s always the question of “I don’t really know, am I doing the right thing to prepare myself?”
To be completely honest, as a scientist, I don’t know what happens. And any scientist who tells you they know what happens shouldn’t be saying that. You know, we can say we have no evidence that life goes on after death, but we had no evidence for quantum entanglement 10 years ago, 20 years ago, so I don’t like to question people’s belief about that, because it would be hubristic of me. I don’t know. But we do know that, to the extent you believe that life goes on in some sense, there is a reduction in anxiety around death. And so in some ways – and you see it in all religions – I mean, even in religions that believe in reincarnation or nirvana and merging with the “something greater,” there is this sense of “you” that goes on.
And it is a comforting thought. I think it’s a comforting thought for people to even think about their relatives who have gone on. In China, they have a tradition called “ghost money,” where they will burn paper money (it’s fake, it’s not actual currency) for the relatives who have passed, because it gives them money to spend in the afterlife. And you might say well “That sounds kind of silly, why would you do that?” But what it’s really doing is it’s allowing them to think about this person who has passed, to remember what it is they like and what they might want to spend their money on, and to have a feeling of connection with them that continues.
I know in your tradition, there’s the – how does the yahrzeit work? The anniversary of the death?
Mitchell Berkowitz: It’s the anniversary of the death. You show up in the synagogue for the service and you recite the mourner’s Kaddish.
David DeSteno: That’s what we’ve talked about before, yeah. Do you do it monthly or just on the anniversary?
Mitchell Berkowitz: Well, so the different stages of mourning – so, right, first the intensive seven-day period of shiva is only at home, technically, and then the sheloshim period of the 30 days which follow, you come back to the synagogue to recite the prayer. And then it’s on a daily basis. And for the first year, if you’re mourning a parent, you continue to recite the Kaddish on a daily basis. And then once that first yahrzeit has passed, the first year, you only say the Kaddish on the yahrzeit itself, on the anniversary of death. There’s a couple of holidays that you also do it, but then you’re only doing it once a year, and always on the Hebrew anniversary of their passing.
David DeSteno: And you’re remembering them, but in remembering them, what you’re really doing is kind of making them real again. And so I just think if we don’t know, then is there any harm in believing it?
You know, I always argue with my friend Steve Pinker – he’s like, “Dave, there is no afterlife, it’s superstition, and it devalues life on Earth.” And I say, “Steve, if it actually did devalue life on Earth, then I would be with you, right? If it were the case that people who believed in an afterlife didn’t take care of themselves here because they’re like, ‘I just want to go to heaven’ or whatever in your tradition, whatever it might be, I’d say ‘Well, you might have a point. But I just told you, people who are religious, who do believe in an afterlife, unless – you know, there are certain aspects of hardcore religion where people will try and hasten that, but for most people, that’s not the case. Those people take better care of themselves, they live better lives, they’re happier. There is no harm in it.
And so if we don’t know what the answer is, why are we going to try and argue about it and convince ourselves that it’s not true? Again, that’s not to say from a scientific sense that there’s any proof of it, but my sense is if there’s no proof of it, and it’s not doing harm but doing good, why say definitively it’s silly to believe in?”
Mitchell Berkowitz: I want to go back to what you just [said] when you talked about people coming and remembering their loved one – remembering as making them real again. That’s a very powerful image, because, I mean, we’re going to do this this weekend, three times a year, really four times a year, we recite yizkor prayers, this sort of memorial prayer, on all of the major holidays. And so the whole point is that people come back. Anybody who’s lost a loved one, they come to services and they recite a prayer in memory of a loved one who they’ve lost, whether it’s a year ago or 20 years ago or more. And we always sort of precede that service with a sermon, which is what the word yizkor is about – it means “to remember.” And so that’s sort of the goal of what we’re trying to do all the time, is you’re sort of reaching back into the past and remembering someone and trying to bring that into the present to make it real again. I think it’s a very powerful way you said it. But I’m going to use it in on Saturday when I talk.
David DeSteno: Yeah, it’s funny, I was on my podcast – I had Rabbi Angela Buchdahl on, and we were talking about – and we’ll talk about shiva in a minute. And she recited – and I can’t do it justice, but this beautiful midrash teaching about two boats: one was leaving the harbor on its maiden voyage to go out and explore the world, you can think of that as birth. And there was an old ship that had survived the seas and gone everywhere and was coming back to be decommissioned. And the reason – and shouldn’t we celebrate that that ship had seen and lived a wonderful life, and his time had come?
And the reason she was telling the story is because I asked her, “Well, why do you celebrate the death date? Why don’t you celebrate the birth date for the yahrzeit? Right? Isn’t that kind of morbid?” And she was saying “no,” and she’s absolutely right, because what you’re doing is honoring that life that has come to fulfillment – hopefully, not all do – and it’s celebrating that. And we talk about shiva. I’ll tell you a little bit more about why making that person feel real again, what the psychological benefits are.
Mitchell Berkowitz: And there are tangible components to the yahrzeit as well, other than coming and showing up in synagogue and reciting Kaddish. It’s encouraged that people give tzedaka, that they give donation to charity, on yahrzeit. So there’s a way to also sort of take the theoretical, and what you’re thinking and feeling, and also translate that into real, concrete actions.
Why sitting shiva works
So thinking, speaking of sort of the mourning rituals, well, let’s talk about shiva a little bit, because I like that – you know, so I was like proud of us as Jews when I read the part in the book that says, like, “You know, Jews do shiva, it’s a great ritual for managing grief and mourning.” And we had a workshop a couple of weeks ago in the congregation with a social worker, who helped us sort of dispel that notion that grief happens in these linear stages, and that we all go through them the same way. And we talked about, you know, it’s really not that line, it’s more like sort of like a jumble, going back and forth from one stage to the other. You may not even hit certain stages at any point.
But how do rituals, whether it’s Jewish ones or the others that you talk about in the book, how do rituals related to grief and mourning really help us navigate those various stages that people might go through during that time?
David DeSteno: Yeah, so let’s set the stage first. You’ve probably all heard about the five stages of grief. There is no scientific evidence in any way that supports the five stages of grief. People like a road map, and so they’ve latched on to this road map. I think in some ways that’s why shiva works so well, because it is a road map for mourners on how to mourn in a way that’s productive. But there is no evidence for that. If we look at the evidence of how people grieve, there are three main trajectories in the way people move through grief.
The first is about maybe 65-70% of people, which is called the resilient trajectory. When someone dies, you experience that pain, you experience that grief, it’s for a relatively short time, and in a month or two you’re able to kind of reintegrate in society. It’s not that you repress the grief, but it doesn’t it doesn’t prevent you from functioning.
There’s another trajectory that is called chronic grief, and chronic grief – this is about 10% of people, where they get stuck in the grief and can’t end it. And so it is, in many ways, paralyzing, and impacts them for years at a time.
Then there’s another one called common grief, which lasts longer than the resilient period. It’ll last typically about six months, during which time a lot of people are really impacted in the sense that, you know, clinical depression rises, they can’t really function very well. And they will return to baseline ultimately, but the trick with dealing with grief isn’t to repress it, it is to move through it in a way that it does not become too intense or go on too long, because everybody grieves in their own way.
And a lot of this work was done by the psychologist George Bonanno at Columbia University. And he told me, when he first started studying how people move through grief – I said to him, “George, do people really want to come and talk to you about their grief? Because they’re grieving.” And he said a lot of people did, because they felt like they weren’t going through the five stages of grief, and so they thought they were doing something wrong, or they weren’t grieving the right way, or something was wrong with them. And they wanted to tell me what they were really feeling.
And when I look at shiva, it is an amazing package of just the right things to help people move through grief. So the one thing that all religions do, when somebody passes, is we eulogize them, right. We talk about why they were a wonderful person, and you might say, “Well yeah, what’s so special about that that makes sense?” It doesn’t really make sense. Because if you just lost a job that you loved, or your spouse you loved dearly just left you, you wouldn’t want to think about them all the time, because it would hurt to think about that job you were fired from or that your spouse has now gone on to marry someone else. But what we know about people who have died is: forming a positive memory, consolidating a positive memory about them, is one of the biggest predictors of who moves through grief in a positive way, because it becomes very comforting. And so it’s the reason that all religions foster eulogizing.
But then here’s where shiva is different. And you know this far better than I do. I have not been to a Shiva, so I feel like I’m preaching to the choir, but let me tell you about the way I understand it works. Immediately, the community goes into action. Everybody knows what they have to do. And so in that first few days – is it aninut, right? You have no responsibility, except to prepare things get ready for the final decisions that you have to make. And then the seven-day mourning period – people show up, right. It is a mitzvah, right. You have to come. It’s not like “Yeah, it’d be nice if I go and visit Mary whose parent died.” You have to go. You bring food, you provide other types of support. That’s called instrumental support. That is another big predictor. It’s not like sending a “like” on Facebook, right. It’s who shows up to help you when you need it and be there.
Another big predictor: you cover your mirrors, right. In Hinduism, they cover their mirrors. In Irish Catholic wakes, they cover their mirrors. But in Shiva, it’s a big thing you cover your mirrors. You don’t focus on your own appearance, right. Traditionally, people would tear their clothes. Now you might wear the kriah, right, just the ribbon. What does reducing self-focus do? Well, one thing – there are a ton of psychological studies that if we sit you in front of a mirror and we show you your face, whatever emotion you’re feeling intensifies. If you’re feeling happy, you feel happier. If you’re feeling sad, you feel sad. Or if you’re grieving, you feel that grief more intensely.
And so by reducing self-focus, by not worrying about how you’re dressing or not shaving or [by] covering your mirrors, you’re reducing a focus on your own appearance and your own self. That in and of itself reduces grief. You sit on low stools, you sit on the floor. I have not done this, but my imagination of this, just from ergonomics, is that after a while, sitting that way can be a little uncomfortable. What we know is that when you have mild onsets and offsets of comfort and discomfort, biologically, that causes a reduction in grieving and rumination. And so here’s another way of doing that. You have to have 10 people, at least, together to recite, is it – does everybody recite the Kaddish, or just the mourner? But do they say other prayers together?
Mitchell Berkowitz: Yeah, the rest of the prayers are together.
David DeSteno: And so whether you’re doing that, and if you’re doing it together, I don’t know – do people shuffle when they do this, right? It depends on what depends on the community, right. Again, that is the synchrony – we’re saying things together, we’re praying together, we’re perhaps moving together – that is scientifically shown to make us have more empathy and compassion for each other, we do that. Perfect. After the seven days, right, you go into sheloshim, and there’s a mild or a prolonged integration back into society.
My favorite example of that in other places is in Victorian England. They used to have this tradition where when somebody died, everybody would wear black, and then, what would happen is over time, you would go from black to gray clothing to violet clothing, until you got back to light clothing. And what it was – it was a way of showing other people where you were in the mourning period, right, so they didn’t come up and be like, “Hey, how’s it going, let’s go out for a drink,” or whatever it might be. It was marking where you were to other people into yourself.
And in some senses, sheloshim does that as well. And then, as you say, you know, the yahrzeit is a way for commemorating that person, for consolidating that positive memory of that person. And it doesn’t for most people. For some it will, but for most it doesn’t cause more grief. As I said, consolidating that positive memory reduces grief, makes you feel closer to that person, makes them feel real again.
One of the things that’s so hard when somebody dies is you know this person, and suddenly they’re not there anymore. And your brain is not used to that. And so by making them real, even if only in your memory, it helps you just consolidate those wonderful views about them. George Bonanno, whose work focuses on grief, likes to tell the story of C.S. Lewis, where he said – I think it was when his wife first passed. He felt like he couldn’t even picture her anymore. He couldn’t even put the pieces of her together. And it was only over time that he was able to do that, and when he did that, it brought him kind of comfort and joy. And so what you’re finding in the eulogizing and the coming together is helping to rebuild that positive memory of that person who has passed. And psychologically, that helps us deal with grief.
Mitchell Berkowitz: I want to come back to the piece about the mirrors, because I hadn’t thought about that – I mean, of course I’ve always learned that we always teach it as “you cover the mirrors to diminish your own concern with your own appearance,” but I don’t usually share the psychological piece, because I didn’t know that until you just shared it. But this idea that, you know, so you’re reinforced by whatever you’re seeing from yourself being reflected back.
On a somewhat different topic, but related to this idea of seeing yourself, I learned during COVID when I was on all these, you know, 9 million Zoom calls a day, you can turn off the self-view feature, so you don’t see yourself on the Zoom call. So you see all these other people, but there’s a way to turn it off so you don’t see yourself. And I was reading that, actually, it’s exhausting to watch yourself on the call, because rather than paying attention to the other people who you’re trying to communicate with, you keep looking at yourself. And you’re checking, like, you know, “Am I smiling enough? Are my eyes bright enough? Did I miss something in my teeth?” Like, it’s so consuming to be on that call. And so it wound up like we were already so exhausted because of staring at screens all day, and it was only exacerbating that exhaustion by constantly looking, basically, at a mirror for the entire day.
David DeSteno: And this is the hard part, right. As we move to a more digital society, these practices that have been developed over thousands of years may not translate for that very reason, right. Right now, I’m sure if it was better to have people around you on Zoom during Shiva than to be alone, but was it distracting? No. But seeing yourself there, in some senses, does exactly what you’re saying. It’s counterproductive. Now, there were theological reasons, right, for why covering mirrors worked.
What we don’t really know is which came first – or do we? I mean, in some ways, right, people will find something that works, and “let’s create a reason for why it works.” But when I look at religions across different traditions, you can see certain elements, kind of like convergent evolution, appearing in them, because they’re, you know, we all talk about life hacks, “Give me a life hack to help me save money, give me a life hack to lose weight.” Yeah, that’s great, they work. But what these practices are life hacks that have been honed and packaged together in very sophisticated ways over millennia.
Does every ritual have a power? No. But do many of them? Yes. And they’re pinging our minds and our bodies in ways that, you know, our ancestors couldn’t run randomized control trials and understand how and why they work, but they did. And there was, and I – Geoff, what’s the word for when things kind of – it’s not like a kludge, but when things kind of like come together and there’s no long tradition behind them? You were telling me that sometimes in the development of practices, they were just kind of – I should remember, when you told me about it, you said it in a more sophisticated way, like there’s not always a sophisticated theology behind the way certain practices are put together. I’ll have to think back.
Changes in ritual: What are the “COVID keepers”?
Mitchell Berkowitz: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I think related to – I mean, we just mentioned the Zoom Shiva. I think for many people, I mean, we talked about this at our last Scientists in Synagogues session, we talked about sort of “What were the COVID keepers?” What are the things that we did differently during COVID that actually work, and that are sticking around? Just based anecdotally for us, what’s working?
One of the things that’s not a COVID keeper, I think, is the Zoom shiva. I mean, we do plenty of shiva minyanim. Very rarely now, in the past year, have people said, “Okay, can you also set up a zoom link for us to do it?” It happened so infrequently that I think a lot of people said, “Well, if I don’t have to do that, if I can gather in person with family and friends, I’d rather that than than some sort of Zoom alternative that’s maybe not even second best, but somewhere down on the list.” I’m sure this is sort of still being figured out, but what are the things that you might imagine that the world has reacted?
Religions have had to sort of react and pivot so differently in the past couple of years with what happened during COVID. How are we going to push forward? What are the pieces that are going to stick with us? How are we going to determine what sticks with us? Where are we going from here?
David DeSteno: Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t know. The thing that I always heard about COVID was, of course, the issue of Zoom. The other thing that I think COVID brought – and then I want to talk about AI, because I think that’s where we’re going – but the thing that COVID brought that I thought was really interesting is, it was this awareness of death, right. So one of the other things that I like about the High Holidays in Judaism is in some ways, right, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur kind of is the beginning and the end. And the one thing that you say at both, right – oh, I can’t remember what’s it called, Geoff or Mitch? [Unetaneh tokef], which is basically who’s not going to be here next year, who’s going to die by fire, by flood, right, by sword, by disease? And I think for a lot of people that became really real during COVID.
If you look at happiness across the lifespan, it’s typically a u-shape. We’ve got some problems right now on the front end of that with younger people because of where we are, but traditionally across cultures, happiness bottomed out around 50. and that was a time when the older generation, your parents, were passing on, your kids were moving out it was getting harder to keep up at work. It’s the age of midlife crises, if they’re going to happen. It’s also traditionally, over the past few decades, when antidepressant used was the highest. Now it’s all changed. Now it’s, unfortunately, the teens and 20-somethings. But, traditionally that’s what it was.
And what we find is that the reason it self-corrects, going up until and unless you start facing serious health crises as you age, is because when you think about death as you approach, that you realize you have limited time. And it orients people’s values away from “How do I get ahead at work?” to “What’s on my bucket list to do in terms of, you know, doing X, Y or Z?” [From] going on a vacation, getting a new iPhone, toward the things that really bring happiness, which are connection with other people that we care about, experiences with them, and traditionally service as well.
What we found during COVID is that suddenly, [for] people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, death didn’t seem so far off, right. It could hit them too. I think it’s one of the reasons why we saw the Great Resignation happen. Not the only reason, but people’s values were changing – you know, there’s a great saying, right. I think this was Lily Tomlin, where, “It’s great if you win the rat race, but you’re still a rat.” And so, you know, “Why am I doing this? Why don’t I reorient my life to the things that truly bring us joy?” And if we could do that earlier, it would be good.
And so in unetaneh tokef, it’s a reminder at a time period when you are taking stock of what you have to do in life to be a better person, who you have to make amends with for Yom Kippur – it’s like that kick to your brain, by thinking about death. You might not be here, other people might not be here. And traditionally, some people – don’t they wear white also on Yom Kippur, as a reminder of shroud? In Christianity, it’s Ash Wednesday; the priest puts ashes on your head and says “You came from ashes, you came from dust, you came to dust you will go.”
Mitchell Berkowitz: Alan Lew, who’s passed away – he talks about Yom Kippur as your “dress rehearsal for death.”
David DeSteno: Yeah. And there are always, in Christianity – it’s around a period called Lent, which is a period of self-reflection. In your High Holidays, it’s between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. But interesting, right – you still say untaneh tokef at Rosh Hashanah, even though it’s the beginning, because that kick in the head of, “Hey, you’re gonna die,” can break you out of your daily rhythms if you embrace it. If you don’t do it by rote, if you actually allow yourself to have the kavanah behind it, it kind of says, “Hey, what are you doing? What’s important?” And it focuses you on that.
And so contemplations of death are really important. You see them in Buddhism – they will meditate on death all the time, sometimes they’ll do it in front of a corpse, in the most intense meditations that they have. But it is to reorient our values. And so I think if we did it more often, it would be a reminder to us, in making decisions, of what really matters.
Mitchell Berkowitz: So I want you to have the last word on AI, because I think that’s probably where we’re all going, and what’s not yet in the book. But before we do that I think we’ll take a couple of questions. And then we’ll come back. So I’ll come around so that people can use a microphone so that people online can hear, and that Dave can hear. I will take two or three questions, and then we’ll give you a chance to answer.
Audience member: Thank you so much for coming this evening and speaking with us. I finished reading your book this afternoon and returned it to the library so others can read it as well. I have a question in regards to shiva. If it’s so important to have shiva, what is the psychological impact for people who are not doing a whole week of shiva? They say, “Well, just one or two nights is enough.”
Mitchell Berkowitz: I think it is just limiting the benefit. So let me give you an example. So in Christian tradition, we have the wake, which basically lasts one day. People come and visit the family, usually at the funeral home. Then there’s the funeral, and that’s it. And my dad passed about four years ago, my mom just passed in January, and I felt – I mean, it was wonderful to see everybody. But in those few days after it, I really felt alone, and I wished I had more people. And people would call me and they would do nice things, but you know how it is. People get busy. They’re like, “Oh, I’ll send you an email,” “Oh, I’ll send you a card.” For all the reasons I just said, the way Shiva is built – it’s built biologically to soothe our bodies and minds, to help us grieve. And so if you’re only doing it for a day or two, you’re not getting the benefit.
You know, is seven days the magic? I don’t know. There have been studies on that. People, typically in the resilient grief trajectory, usually by about a month’s time, they’re feeling at least back to normal enough to kind of function and do things well. And so the beauty of Shiva is there’s the intense few seven day period, when it’s really new that this person is gone, and the community is there to support you, and you’re never really alone because of the minyans and other people coming to visit. And then there’s this gradual re-entry, if you embrace sheloshim in the real way.
Whereas, for, I think, certain other traditions, not all (Hindus have something kind of similar to shiva, not as complex, but a longer period) – it’s too rapid for the mourning period that is kind of the biological norm for us. And so I think if you’re only doing a day or two, you’re not taking advantage of the wisdom that the tradition has to offer you. Is it better than nothing? Sure. But I think the reason for the trajectory through those seven and then – is the 30 days counting the seven or no? Yeah, through the 30-day period – is because that is the trajectory for normal grief, and it helps people move through that.
When religion creates an “us against them” mentality – and how to avoid it
Audience member: Thank you so much for being here, and for just a very interesting talk. At the beginning, you were talking about some of the sort of psychological benefits of being, I would say, in a community of prayer. And some of what we’d say – positive attributes that you associate with people who do that – I’m concerned about what I see with, let’s say, the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, the Hindu in India, the Christian nationalists in the United States and elsewhere, where their experience of community and religion starts to become very much “us against the world,” and create very positive within-the-group feelings and extremely negative feelings and behaviors toward others. So I wonder if there’s an explanation there.
David DeSteno: Yeah, thank you for that question. I mean, the problem of having an in-group often means that there is an out-group. And in forming and intensifying relationships between people who are worshiping together, the danger is that it becomes one that is exclusionary or aggressive.
Now, there’s another interesting part to the psychology of how we think about God that shows when people feel that their way of life is threatened or devalued, they begin to think of God as more punitive and more aggressive. This is work done by the psychologist Kurt Gray. And so for example, when people feel their way of life is threatened, and you ask them to recall Bible verses, they will recall Bible verses that are the more punitive and warlike Bible verses. And so it is part of our psychology to divide the world into “us versus them,” and if there’s a sense that “they’re,” you know, making America not a Christian nation, or “they’re” coming to take our jobs, or “they’re” coming to do whatever, it can actually change the way we think of God.
So you know, I don’t know if you’ve seen it on the news, but when you see some of these Christian nationalist rallies, or what happened at Charlottesville, there are paintings of Jesus with an AK-47, right. And you have people like Lauren Boebert, who will say, you know, “The only reason Jesus was crucified is because he didn’t have enough guns,” like there were guns back then to fight off people. And this is part of our states. You know, even Buddhists, right, who you think of as supposed to be the most pacifistic religion. In Sri Lanka, the Buddhists are engaging in – I can’t think of the word I’m looking for, but they’re basically trying to annihilate the Muslims that are there. And so any religion can be twisted.
The trick is, and that’s true of any ideology, the trick is – and here’s, again, the wisdom of religions has built into the true aspects of each of them this notion of compassion. So in Judaism it’s gemilut chasadim, and in Buddhism it’s loving kindness. And Christianity, it’s the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The idea is: how do we overcome this tendency to split the world? And the way we do that is to inculcate in us this sense of compassion or loving kindness. And the way you do that is by increasing the moral circle. So there are lots of ways to do that. One way, for example, is people who engage in meditative or contemplative practice – and this has always interested me, and maybe we can talk about this with our resident rabbis – in Buddhism, contemplative practices are front and center. In Christianity, they’re hidden. They’re only in the seminaries. Are there Jewish meditative practices or contemplative practices? Yeah?
And so what we know from those, if you look at meditation, and at least in the Christian mystics that I know of, it’s a similar experience. It’s this opening of the heart, it’s this expanding of the moral circle, but it’s not the only way to do it. And so the question is: how do we teach our congregations or each other that, yes, we have to love, but we have to include everybody as worthwhile.
One of my friends is an Episcopal preacher, and she was telling me when 9/11 happened here in DC, when the plane hit the Pentagon, she said, “We need to go next on for services, and we need pray for our enemies,” right. “We need to pray for bin Laden.” Not that we want Bin Laden to win, but the idea is that to not engage in escalating violence, to actually show righteous compassion for people, to prevent them from causing harm, but not to kind of say, “All Muslims are bad” into all this. And the congregation was like, split. They’re like, “No, we can’t do that.” Half of them wanted to wrap the church in red, white and blue bunting, right – “Now it’s us against them.” And so it’s a natural thing to do, to split our us into “us versus them.” But every religion that I know of, in its truest sense, tries to foster compassion.
I remember Rabbi Buchdahl told me, you know, “It says in the Talmud,” it says – I think what is it like, “One time, do nice things for your family or friends, but 15 or more times for the stranger.” [Ed. note: it’s 36 times]. And so religion, at its deepest level, is about recognizing the humanity in everyone. It fails at that a lot, it gets twisted a lot, because if you really want to encourage people to do something, people will fight for what they believe is sacred more than they’ll fight for anything else. And so you can see it in Christian nationalists, you can see it in Hindu nationalism, you can see in lots of other places. So there’s no easy answer. But unlike many ideologies at its heart, there is this focus on compassion, and how do we do that?
When religious rituals leave their usual context
Audience member: Thank you, a wonderful talk that you gave tonight. A question that I have is that the two major thoughts that you talked about was the bar mitzvah experience and the shiva experience, and both of these involve a supportive community. Bar and bat mitzvah, you’ve got this whole community of kids who are coming along, starting from four or five, and moving through it, and of course, with shiva, [there are] people who are coming to the house, many of whom have experienced it before and who are there to help you out. What about the adult of – whatever age, doesn’t matter, 40, 60 maybe even 70 – who’s plopped down in the middle of a religious existential challenge and has no support, has no community for support? What do you tell that individual?
David DeSteno: Yeah, so the dark night of the soul is difficult for anyone. Let me start with one thing, and then I’ll get to your question. So one of the things we’re often seeing now, right, and this gets to technology, is a stripping of some of these ancient practices into bits. So you can do meditation and mindfulness on your app and never talk to anybody on your phone. You can take psychedelics by eating some mushrooms or drinking some ayahuasca at your local neighborhood hipster place, and sometimes they work, but they can also cause a lot of problems, right. 20% of psychedelic trips go bad, 8% result in psychosis. Meditation can be really bad, especially for people who are having a crisis, because what it first does is it can bring up stuff that is unsettling to you. And in religious organizations, traditionally, these were done in community. Meditation was always done in community, not by yourself. And there was a teacher there to help you through those crises, those thoughts that occur to you, the doubting, the pain.
Same thing for psychedelics. That’s why the shaman was there. Johns Hopkins is doing amazing work on psychedelics now, but when they do it, there’s a person playing the role of Shaman in there with you. When you start having a bad trip, they hold your hand. When you’re done, they help you make sense of what you’ve seen. So they’re basically the modern-day Shaman.
The trick is, two things: one is, community is always necessary, or at least very helpful for one reason: the existential crisis that you’re having, you’re probably not the first person to feel it, right. Even in Catholicism, Mother Teresa would talk about the period in which she didn’t believe. I’m sure in Jewish history there are, you know, learned rabbis or writers or teachers who have talked about doubts of faith. “Why are we here? Or what does it mean if I don’t believe?” And so you have someone in many ways who will guide you through in a community to support you.
If you’re facing these alone, it can go so many ways. The guardrails are gone. And I think that’s why, when I’m talking about meditation or psychedelics, the rituals have guardrails and practices. You know, we all go, many people go, to therapists when they’re having crises, but many therapists can give you medication, they can help you think about things, but it’s often not based on a corpus of knowledge that has existed for thousands of years. And it doesn’t mean the same answer is there for everybody, but in doing that exploration with the community that is there with people who have faced these questions before, I think it’s helpful. Because I mean where are we now? With a lot of therapy, we’re like, in this world of toxic positivity. People think any pain is bad. Let’s give you a pill, it’ll go away. Let’s give you a life hack, it’ll go away. Sometimes the deepest growth comes from pain and from adversity, if you have people to guide you through it and support you.
And I think that’s why in religious communities, you see 30% reductions in depression, you see tremendous reductions – I have to look at the stats. I think it’s at least 25% reductions in suicide or deaths of despair. It’s because you not only have the community, but you have these other practices around them that are built to support you.
And so as we become a more secular society, I think it’s not that everybody’s becoming an atheist – they’re not. They’re just not feeling, they’re not resonating with institutional faith. And so they’re kind of charting their own way. But charting your own way can be a problem, because maybe your own way is like, “Well, I like this from Buddhism. I’ll be 30% Buddhist, and 20% Hindu, and I’ll throw in a little Baha’i. And hey, here’s these crystals, and I’ll put them all together.” And that’s great. But as we become more idiosyncratic in what our faith and our view is, we become a church of one, and we lose the benefit of support. And so I don’t have a good answer to your question, except you’re right, in that the people who are alone when they face existential crises are much more vulnerable for it. Again, that doesn’t mean religion has all the answers, but it’s built to deal with this issue.
One more question, and then we’re going to wrap it up.
Ritual, prayer and opening up
Audience member: So as part of the shiva process, I found, when people came when I was sitting shiva for my husband, that I spent probably as much time listening to their grief, and responding to their grief, and helping them through their grief of him, as he was for me. So what’s the research on how that makes you climb out of your own shell, and not only think about yourself? Or how does that help in the whole process?
David DeSteno: So two things: one is, we know one big predictor of happiness – not that you’re going to be happy if you’re mourning someone in shiva, but in general – is service. That is, when you do something that makes somebody else feel better, it makes you happy. So there are all these great studies where, you know, people help each other, and they feel happy. If we give you money and we say “you can spend it on yourself or you can spend it on somebody else,” at the end of the day, you’re happier if you spend – no, I’m not talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars that you could put your kid through college. With that, you’re going to give it away. But I’m talking about, rather than spend, you know, 200 bucks to buy yourself a new outfit versus 200 bucks to help somebody else, that makes you feel better. And so in helping others, it increases your positive sense of well-being.
In the case of mourning, it also is that kind of element, of recognizing each other’s shared humanity. The thing about death is it comes for us all, right. It’s the great equalizer in many ways. And what we know is that when we recognize the shared humanity and the shared experiences in it, and we can talk about that and share that authentically with someone, it creates a stronger bond. And that bond, in and of itself, makes us feel better. It also makes you feel like, in your weakest moment, you’re capable of doing something for someone else. And that sense of efficacy helps you feel better too.
New roles for artificial intelligence?
Mitchell Berkowitz: Thank you. So I want to get back to the point about AI. You wrote this book before sort of the explosion of what we’ve seen recently in terms of the work of AI, and how accessible it is for any of us to just access some of these things online. So if you were to sort of write the last chapter again, in what ways would you integrate this artificial intelligence piece as part of the story?
David DeSteno: Yeah, in the book I kind of laugh at this one piece, because they’re, I say now, you know, there was a Church of AI that was founded in in the Bay Area, where they believed AI was going to become all-knowing, and therefore it would be like God. And then it turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, and it collapsed. And I thought, “Oh, there you go.”
But I said, you know, it’s not the end. What we know now is, so in Japan, there are already robotic priests that are AI in form that are dispensing information. In Poland during the pandemic, there are these little robots, they’re called SanTO – they’re shaped like a friar in robes – which will help you pray, though they’re not that smart because they’re not like ChatGPT, they can’t really create things yet.
But I remember a month or two ago, maybe a little bit longer, there was a rabbi, I think he was in New York, who had ChatGPT write his sermon, right. And nobody knew. And so the question is: what is that going to do? Because another bunch of work I do with folks at MIT is on humanoid robots, and we build into them kind of emotional cues, right, so that they can show emotion, they can gesture in certain ways. And what we know is that if we have the robot move certain ways or do certain things, it makes you trust it more or less, because your brain reads certain non-verbal cues as being trustworthy. And the technology is good enough that it can do that. And this was 15 years ago. It’s way better now.
The problem there is, when you or I are trying to convince somebody of something, it’s like an arms race, right. I’m trying to convince you that I’m going to be honest to you, even if I’m not, and you can kind of read in the non-verbals in me that maybe something doesn’t feel right. You ever get that gist? Just like, that sense of – “I don’t know if I can trust you, I don’t know why?” So there is evidence that we can kind of read people’s intent non-verbally. Once technology is so good it doesn’t leak anymore, right, I can design it to manipulate you in better ways than other humans can.
And so what’s going to happen in AI, especially if you have kind of on-screen agents who are kind of preaching to you or doing things, is they can give off subtle cues that make you believe in them and trust them a lot more. And so that’s one problem, because religion is about big questions, a lot of them ethical questions, and if I have an agent that can make me trust it by manipulating certain nonverbal cues that it gives to me, I think that’s scary for marketing, because you can make me want to buy something, but now you can actually influence my beliefs.
The other big question is: how is AI going to deal with ethics, right? You know, it’s like, this is always the question. Many people thought science could give us our ethics, right. Sam Harris was famous for saying this. And you all know the problem with utilitarianism, right, which is: you’re going to do the most good for the most people, that’s how you should solve things – it works most of the time, but you can basically say, “Well, Dave, there are people here who need five different organs. Why don’t I kill you, take the five organs out of you, give them the five different people? They’ll be healthy, you won’t be, but five is better than one, so we’re making more happiness in the world.” There are just questions that ultimately there isn’t a scientific answer to as to what’s right.
There are there are algorithms and optimizations that we can run – just like, you know, you probably all know the famous Trolley Problem. They’re putting this in cars now, right. If you were the AI car driving down the street and there’s five people you’re going to run over, but you cannot run over those five people by veering off into a tree and killing the occupant of the vehicle – makes sense, right. We don’t want anybody to die, but better we save five people than one. Everybody says “that’s great,” except who’s going to buy the car? Nobody, because nobody wants to be the person who’s going to be sacrificed. Would you want to drive around in a car that knows it’s going to sacrifice you to save some other people? No.
And so I have a friend who’s a prominent business school teacher, and he always says decisions are about optimization. We can learn, you know, what’s the expected probability of this and the value of that and the stock price, and this and that, and we can run all those numbers and optimize an algorithm and get an answer.
Choices are something different. Choices that are about what we stand for. They’re about what we value. They’re about what trade-offs we’re willing to accept, right, to say, “Okay, I’m going to do this, yes, I need to make money for my shareholders, but not that way. There are certain lines I won’t cross.”
I don’t know where AI is going to get its choices from. It’s great about optimizing, but how does it answer questions of which life is the most valuable, whose pain is it worthwhile to feel? I don’t know that there’s going to be a way for AI to do that, at least not in its current form. And so I think we have to be really careful about how we’re going to make AI spiritual, for lack of a better sense, because in some senses, right, that’s what brings us brings out our better angels.
I have two words: one is the fact that it’s going to know how to manipulate us better than we can manipulate ourselves, and that I’m sure about. The other question is: where is it going to learn its values? And that no engineer has the answer to yet.
Mitchell Berkowitz: Just as you’ve sort of demonstrated us the significance of being a religious person, having a religious life for the benefits of doing that, it sounds like the work isn’t done yet. We need to also transfer some of that wisdom, some of that knowledge, about spirituality, religion and morals, into whatever we’re going to encounter in the future of the science community as well.
So thank you so much to Dr. Dave DeSteno for being with us tonight – thank you to all of you, to Geoff Mitelman and Sinai and Synapses for making all of this possible, to Dr. Marni Hall, who’s a leader on the lay side of B’nai Israel, in getting Scientists in Synagogues off the ground, and thank you to all of you for joining us tonight. Thank you.
Bat mitzvah photo by Frances Gaul Photography