Today we’re going to talk about parts of the psychology of human brains and how ritual and symbols operate on the mind. What is it about ritual practices that creates meaning in the mind of participants? The answer to this question applies to Freemasonry but also many organized religions and belief practices.
To dig into this, we need to start by talking about one of the brain’s memory systems.
When people talk about “memory”, it really comes in three different kinds. There is episodic memory, which helps you remember a thing that happened, like yesterday’s doctor visit. There is semantic memory, which is remembering facts and meaning. For example, you know Paris is the capital of France, which is a country. The third kind of memory, associative memory, is most important for ritual & symbolism.
The term associative memory refers the brain’s ability to learn relationships between unrelated items. An example is remembering a person’s name from their face, or voice. This kind of memory has been studied extensively in humans, and it’s well known how it works inside of the brain.
Associative memory is critical for survival; you can use it to remember the signs of spoiled food, the best places to eat, and when a mate might be interested. It is not surprising that human got very good at this; the ones who didn’t were likely to die, as they failed to pick up on the cues their environment presented them.
Brains don’t just have a few associations in them, they have tens of thousands, or more. And they all hang together, into something that looks a little bit like a net.
Association Networks: A Mind Map
What would it look like if we drew a picture of all of the associations inside of a brain? People do this, and it’s called a “Mind Map”. A person simply makes a picture with each “idea” in a bubble, with lines connecting bubbles according to how the ideas are associated. This example below is from a person who is thinking about making a professional presentation to a conference. The idea at the center is making a presentation, but around it are all of the difference facets of that.
This one is nice and clean, and lets us focus on “making a presentation”. It branches out like a tree, because it is all related back to one central idea of making a presentation. Many people swear by “mind mapping” as a great method of taking notes and organizing your thoughts. It’s very fluid; you write down the structure & shape of your ideas first, and then you can stand back and look at the contents of your own head.
But a real brain has a network that is vastly bigger, and a total inter-connected mess of relationships. The topic of breakfast may be tied up with childhood memories. The topic of money is related to job of course, which might be related as well to retirement, and anything else. This can get big, and colorful, and complicated quickly, when it’s not focused on something so simplistic as a presentation.
If you do this long enough on a topic, the picture gets dense. No two are ever alike, because it took your entire lifetime of your experiences to build up that map just so.
Distance Between Ideas
With all of these bubbles and lines, we can see that some ideas are close to one another, and some are far away. It’s all about how the ideas are connected. When we think about making a presentation, if we consider the room, it’s much more likely we’ll think about the laptop setup (technology). It’s much less likely that (when thinking about the room) ideas will come up about the structure of the talk. Notice how “Room” and “Tech” are very close, but “Room” and “Structure” are far away. That’s what we mean by the distance between ideas.
Similarly, if two friends who play instruments are talking, one might say “scrambled eggs”. Because it’s a breakfast food, this is likely to remind others of “nearby ideas” like bacon, toast, jam, and so on. Most people won’t be reminded of macaroni and cheese from a mention of scrambled eggs. This is caused by an idea called “Spreading Activation“.
When a word is preceded by an associated word (the prime) in word recognition tasks, participants seem to perform better in the amount of time that it takes them to respond. For instance, subjects respond faster to the word “doctor” when it is preceded by “nurse” then when it is preceded by an unrelated word like “carrot”.
Aside from this being proven in the psychology research repeatedly, it makes a lot of basic sense too. Talking about doctors brings nurses to mind, and does not bring ham sandwiches or tax returns to mind.
Symbols & Ritual Connect Ideas
In The Birth of Symbols, we discussed how symbols function like “handles for big complicated ideas”. The idea of keeping your life in balance with all competing demands is complicated, but the 24-inch gauge is a simple symbol that means the same. Looked at with a lens of associative memory:
Ritual and symbolism creates an association between an abstract idea (for example, a moral lesson) and a concrete item (like a working tool) or action (ritual).
If these maps look too simple, that’s OK — they are too simple. We try to sketch out a few simple ideas to show how a concept like associative memory works, but the actual stuff that’s going on in a human brain is always way, way more complicated. No matter how good the map, they are always incomplete and you can’t map your way out of mystery.
Systems of Symbols & Ritual
The 24-inch gauge is one simple example. What if you had an entire system of symbolism & ritual? Freemasonry definitely offers that, but so do many schools & religious traditions. The minds of the people who participate in these systems would be filled to some extent with all of these different concepts, and “morality” as a core idea would be drawn towards the center of thinking. Just as an example; because the 24-inch gauge connects to work, family, and sleep – and that idea itself is connected to Freemasonry and morality, then most ideas about life suddenly have a short distance back to core concepts like deity, and morality.
This is going to be very different for different people: in your lodge, ideas about Freemasonry are likely to be tied up with your friendships there, the initiatives of the lodge, and so on. Still, this is your unique network, “wired together” with Masonic concepts, relationships, and life experiences.
People know and can feel that experience changes them, and “rewires them” to a degree, but the dual ideas of mind maps & spreading activation is part of the how. Involvement in any activity in life trains the brain to connect different ideas, and spreading activation means that the objects of teaching (deity, morality, immortality, or whatever the focus) are nearby and more likely to come up in one’s thinking. If you spend time thinking about Masonic ritual and someone talks about how they’re stressed out because they’ve been working too much, because of “spreading activation” your mind might be more likely to go to the idea of needing balance – and less likely to go to the idea of “here’s how you can improve your efficiency and get more done”.
Changing your associative memory structure changes what you think about, and how you think.
Hack Your Own Mental Network
Once you understand these principles, you can start to modify your own beliefs and practices by taking advantage of it. And key to remember is that it isn’t optional: your life experience will hack your mental network for you, and constantly introduce new associations. So you don’t get to choose whether your associations change, or whether spreading activation influences your thoughts. What you get is the ability to shape it in a productive direction.
How would one go about doing that? The answers are very simple.
- Continuous learning. The more new material you learn, the more associations you create. You can choose to learn things that are helpful building skills, (like non-profit management, or a building trade) – or you can choose to learn destructive things like lock picking & illegal drug distribution.
- Social settings. Knowing that “spreading activation” controls some of how we think, be careful who you spend time with, because their thoughts will inevitably influence you and draw you in certain directions within your own thinking. Will you spend time with Masons who are trying to improve themselves, or will you spend the same time complaining about politics at the local bar?
- Mindfulness. To balance all of these factors you have to first know that they exist at all! Practicing some basic form of mindfulness in whatever way is meaningful to you is a great way to start.
References & Further Reading
- Associative Memory
- Mind Maps: A Powerful Approach to Note Taking
- Spreading Activation
- Meditating with Blue Lodge Symbolism
- The Birth of Symbols
- How does Ritual Teach?