While we were toasting marshmallows last night we were chatting about various aspects of ritual and symbolism, and a theory about how they work presented itself.
Some of the stuff on how brains work that we covered in the last philosophy course I did was very interesting. In split brain patients (where the corpus callosum is severed to alleviate severe epilepsy), the left and right hemispheres of the brain have only miniscule connectivity, so the left hand literally doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Or more relevantly, the left brain doesn't know what the left hand (or eye) is doing. Since the left brain is the centre of language and at least some forms of consciousness, things that happen in the right brain can only be communicated indirectly, like by letting the left hand draw, sort of on its own accord. What the course failed to highlight, though, was that there must be some communication in order for the researcher's request for the left hand to draw to get through.
There is obviously lots going on in parts of our brains that we are not conscious of, and lots of them influence our behaviour (I'm thinking phobias, addictions etc). I am wondering if the symbolism of ritual helps to provide communication between language-based, conscious bits of the brain and other bits. I think perhaps that ritual helps to communicate our conscious intentions to the less connected bits of our brains.
And I suspect that this is why some traditions resonate with some people more than others. I am quite attracted to Wiccan-type traditions, not because I actually believe in the Sun King or other things, but because I find the symbolism resonates well with me, and the meditation-type exercises help and work for me. On the other hand, I really, really like the message of Buddhism, but cannot manage Buddhist meditation. I just can't do it.
I also wonder if maybe the Buddhist approach actually helps form new connections in the brain, rather than finding an external route with visualisations and ritual behaviour. Which possibly means my brain is not too plastic. :)
Judao-Christian symbolism doesn't do much for me, but it obviously works for lots of people. I wonder what influences what symbolism works and what doesn't for any given person. Maybe all that stuff I read in primary school and junior high school about witchcraft and the occult set me up for life...
It's a little odd that the belief system that I like doesn't work in a practical sense for me. I wonder if other people have any similar sorts of experience.