By Bob Hesse
August 20th, 2014
Medicine has acquiesced and been using placebos for years to heal, without knowing the neuroscience of why they often work. Religion has been using rituals for millennia to heal, without knowing how God often makes them work. Medicine may call rituals merely placebos but the faithful believe otherwise, finding it often in their liturgies. In either case it can result in psychological, physical, and spiritual healing. In some faiths, rituals take the form of sacraments, which by definition are both symbols of God’s love, similar to placebos, and substance of God’s love, similar to a patient’s belief in the effectiveness of placebos. Medicine can no longer ignore the benefits of religious rituals any more than it can ignore the benefits of placebos.
Placebos in medicine usually impact only one of the senses but rituals often impact all the senses, which can make them a richer more human experience and therefore even more neurologically effective. All faiths utilize rituals but here we will take a brief world tour of some more powerful Christian rituals experienced by the author.
The sense of smell has the strongest neurological impact on memory. Churches use the aroma of exotic incense and the sweetness of fresh flowers to stimulate the olfactory glands. Incense is used in all churches but the most dramatic and unique example, is at the legendary Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Galicia in northwestern Spain, dating from 1211 A.D. The incense thurible or Botafumeiro, the size of a man, is attached to the vaulted ceiling by a rope. It takes seven men working in concert, pulling ropes attached to the main rope to lift and swing the huge container 70 feet to the ceiling, in an arch reaching from transept to transept. Each swing sends billows of fragrance towards heaven, which bathes the congregation in the ultimate olfactory sensation. But it was also historically practical since beginning in the early middle ages, when people didn’t bathe much, it masked their odor at the end of their month long pilgrimage. The pilgrimage, known as the Way of St. James, honored one of the 12 apostles believed to be buried there.
Churches have always used flowers but perhaps the most dramatic use is in the Santa Maria ad Martyres church in Rome. The structure reflects the earliest and most impressive use of concrete, which was invented by the Romans, because it has a large freestanding dome with an open hole at the top. Known as the Pantheon, built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 B.C., it was later converted into a Catholic church. On Pentecost Sunday a shower of delicate rose petals are dropped through the hole in the dome. The ritual impact is stunningly beautiful, bright red petals floating down through the sunlight, which warms them and highlights their fragrance and delicacy. It dramatically impacts both the senses of smell and sight.
The sense of sight utilizes more of the brain’s synapses than any other sense. Churches often combine art, architecture, and nature to impact the sense of sight with examples too numerous to list here except for a tantalizing few. Art examples include the famous rose window in Chartres Cathedral in France and Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Architectural inspiring gems range from the sublime Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg to the simple country Pilgrimage Church of the Holy Trinity in Germany. Nature examples include the forest-enfolded Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas and the dramatic mountains visible through the windows over the altar, at Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico, the most remote monastery in the US. The sensory setting is made complete by the monks singing melodic chant sounds.
Music profoundly touches the brain partly through the heart because music’s beats per minute (BPM) are often between 80-100 BPM, which is close to the resting heart rate of about 80 BPM. One of the earliest music forms was Gregorian chant sung a cappella, originally with only a few notes. The repetitive sound provided a vestibule into the deep contemplative prayer of the monks and nuns. The pipe organ is the primary musical instrument in almost every church. The opposing pipes from the massive organ in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral can be seen along with the rope, which carries the incense thurible previously described. Bach’s music was meant for church organs; attending a Bach concert in a church is a profound experience of not only sound but also, because of the resonant vibration of the pews, a liturgical experience of the sense of touch.
The sense of touch is communicated to the brain most often via the largest organ in the body, the skin. Sacraments and liturgy often incorporate touch in hugs, handshakes, the laying of hands on the head, and anointing on the forehead and hands with fragranced oils, which engages the senses of both touch and smell. Simple ritual actions of love incorporate loving touch as shown by Pope Francis’ tender touch of the disfigured man. All sacraments contain at least some of these ritual touches. Most notable is the anointing of the sick with fragranced oil, the express purpose of which is to heal. Even communion is delivered with a pressing touch to the hand or tongue, which provides both touch and taste
Taste and smell are closely linked senses in communicating with the brain. Second and third Century historians document that the 12 apostles believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is at the center of all sacraments and the majority of Christians believe, as the apostles did, in Christ’s presence when they receive and consume the taste of bread and wine.
Bob Hesse is an ordained Catholic deacon and Co-founder and President of Contemplative Network, Inc. (CN) dedicated to interdenominational Christian contemplative prayer. Bob is Vice Chairman and Faculty member, Institute for Spirituality and Health (ISH) and Instructor, Rice University. Bob Hesse holds a B.Th. in theology from UST and a B.S. in Chemistry and Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from St. Louis University. He is President/Founder of energy consulting company HEI having traveled to 60 countries often establishing international consortia.