Religion & the Social Brain
Can rituals bring us closer together? The ‘Religion and the Social Brain’ project was run with colleagues at Coventry University and collaborators from the University of Oxford and Cambridge, including evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar. The project investigated the biological, psychological and social processes that facilitate social bonding in religion. The Coventry team led a series of lab studies and fieldwork across churches and temples in the UK and Brazil. We showed that rituals increased social bonding and positive affect, and that this effect was driven by so-called mu-opioids, a type of brain chemicals that is known to also give ‘runner’s high’. Through another study, we showed that positive affect also supported social bonding in secular rituals of Sunday Assembly. Finally, in a study comparing secular to spiritual yoga, we found the social bonding was predicted by positive affect and proto-transcendental experience (i.e., the feeling of connection to something bigger than oneself).
Psychedelics & narcissism
Can the use of serotonergic psychedelic drugs bring us closer together? Our research on psychedelic drug use shows that those who had an awe-inspiring, impressive, significant, or emotionally intense experience during a psychedelic ‘trip’, showed greater feelings of connectedness and empathy within the five years following it, which in turn were associated with lower levels of maladaptive narcissism personality features.
Raves & awe
Can raves bring us closer together and lead to personal transformation? Our research suggests that those who engage in consciousness-altering activities like dancing to loud repetitive beats all night and taking drugs during raves may experience awe, especially if they score high on the personality trait ‘openness to experience’. Those who had awe-inspiring raves furthermore experienced personal transformation and social bonding, whereas those who engaged in the rave activities but did not experience awe had a lack of personal growth, or anomie.
Childbirth & identity fusion
Can dysphoric or even traumatic experiences bring us closer together? Our research suggests that knowing that others out there have endured very similar experiences to ourselves – as difficult, as painful – can bond people together. Much like soldiers at the frontline, mothers who had a difficult childbirth felt strongly bonded to other mothers with a similarly difficult birth, and this predicted levels of post-traumatic growth, afterwards.