Tuesday, December 9, 2008

cultural rituals and obsessive-compulsive disorder

Dulaney, Siri and Fiske, Alan Page. "Cultural Rituals and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Is

There a Common Psychological Mechanism?" Ethos 22.3 (September 1994): 243-283.


by Megumi Okamoto


This is an intriguing article that explores the common features that are shared between various cultural rituals (including music) and obsessive compulsive disorder. It begins by presenting some scholarship that deals with the structure of rituals. It mentions Huizinga's view that rituals are derived from play and that they are performed for its own sake. It also mentions the transformative purpose, the belief in supernatural powers, the use of formality, rigidity, condensation, and redundancy that are found in cultural rituals.

The history of the scholarship in these issues is then provided, which starts with the year of 1963, when Freud aptly pointed out the similarities that were shared between religious rituals and the symptoms of OCD. He found that this relates to various cultural rituals as well. Rituals are a collective suspension of everyday structure, and involve forms of purification, precise symmetrical patterns, repeated sequences, and adherence to rules, which all are features that typify obsessive compulsive disorder. The main difference between cultural rituals and OCD rituals is that, while the participants of the cultural rituals feel the sense of communication due the symbolisms that connect them to the deep cultural roots, the OCD patients who perform rituals on their own feel alienated from social network, and are aware that their actions are meaningless and absurd.

The article describes rituals from various parts of the world, such as South Asia, New Guinea, and Australia, and the surprising ways in which so many of them exhibit OCD-like characters. And to discover whether such features are more common in rituals than in other activities, authors compared these rituals to other activities in life, such as work. As a result, they discovered that the OCD-like features were four times as prevalent in rituals than in other actitivies, which supported their hypothesis.   

Authors emphasize that the relationship between cultural rituals and OCD does not mean that rituals are pathological. Rather, they feel that the mechanism that is malfunctioning in OCD is closely related to psychology of cultural rituals. They believe that the study of OCD behavior is useful in the way that we can learn about universal psychological mechanisms that lie under various rituals. Most people learn rituals from cultural predecessors, and these rituals contain a multilayered network of meanings that are useful in anthropological study. The more we know about the components for constructing rituals, the better we can understand ourselves.

As a conclusion, the authors discuss the implication of the "ritual mechanism." In the case of OCD patients, it is a result of a well-defined psychopathology with specific defect in anatomy and psychology, as it is related to malfunctioning of the basal ganglia and excessive levels of serotonin. It is characterized by need for absolutes, narrowing their focus on a particular issue. They do not entirely believe in their own rituals, and are often embarrassed by them as these symptoms interfere with their lives. But when operating normally, the "ritual mechanism" is a powerful tool that enables people to respond to the paradoxes and complexity of human life and bring transformation. 



I found this article to have relevance to music, as music is a highly cultural, ritualistic activity. Music is used not only in religious ceremonies, but in every other ritual that comes to mind. And even in cases where the direct purpose of music is not to supplement the rituals, music can be considered as a type of ritual in itself. The use of formality, rigidity, condensation, and redundancy that the authors mention at the beginning is exactly what characterize music.  

It is interesting that cultural rituals often contain costumes, masks, icons, and models of people/gods. This is one of the indications that suggest that the everyday distinctions outside the ritualistic context are ignored, as a separate framework is constructed in order to bring order. This creation of "separate framework" is a key word in music, and this is partly what provides the transformative effect onto people. It is a way of dealing with paradoxes and complexities in life, as we are given the opportunity to separate ourselves from the everyday constraints, and yet become connected with the essence of our lives and our surroundings.

I feel that OCD patients are ultimately trying to free themselves by using these "rituals," but since anxiety is the basic driving force, it becomes a negative addiction. The structures of cultural/religious rituals are meant to provide freedom and the sense of flow, but when OCD patients follow their own rituals, it cannot step beyond the realm of rigid structure since it is fear-driven. The "fluidity of boundaries" that is found in the state of flow cannot be achieved with such obsessive rituals.

Interestingly, OCD patients are known to possess creativity, imagination, and above-average intelligence. As we can observe here, the ability to imagine "what if?" can be used to create freedom, such as in artistic activities, or it can be used against ourselves in destructive ways. I feel that, as educators of music, we can promote mental health by allowing imagination to be directed to a desired direction, and enhance overall quality of life.



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