Ritual develops habits that can lift us to greatness

July 23, 2011
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 23rd July 2011

There’s been a splendid spate of books recently, from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to Matthew Syed’s Bounce, on what makes great people great. What is it that some have and the rest of us don’t, whether in sport, literature, music or science?

It’s a key question and there are some fascinating stories on the way to an answer. Syed, for example, tells us that there was once a street in Lancashire that contained more young table tennis champions than the rest of Britain put together. He should know. He was one of them.

Then there was the Hungarian Laszlo Polgar who decided, even before getting married, that his children would become chess champions. Eventually he had three daughters and they did all become chess-playing stars.

Clearly, then, genius can’t all be in the genes. There is no reason to suppose that a table tennis gene suddenly appeared at a particular time and place in Lancashire. The answer turns out to be the neuroscientific equivalent of the old joke. A tourist stops a taxi driver and asks how you get to the Royal Festival Hall. The taxi driver replies: “Practise, lady, practise.”

Which is what champions do. They simply put in more hours than anyone else. The magic number is 10,000 hours. That – roughly ten years of “deep practice” – is what it takes to reach the top in almost every field.

Even Mozart, the classic example of a child prodigy, turns out to confirm the rule. Mozart’s father Leopold was a considerable musician himself, as well as a dominating parent who forced young Wolfgang Amadeus to practise music constantly from the age of three. Although he achieved brilliance as a performer by the age of six, it was not until his early twenties that he was composing works of genius.

That is new in all this is our understanding of the neuroscience involved. Each new skill reconfigures the brain, creating new neural pathways. It seems that a substance in the brain known as myelin, whose function was previously not well understood, wraps itself around these pathways, making the connections speedier the more they are used.

The result is that practice makes certain responses immediate and intuitive, bypassing the slow, deliberative circuits in the brain. That accounts for the speed with which a Novak Djokovic or a Roger Federer can deliver a blinding return of serve. The more you practise the less need you have for conscious thought. That’s why after years of driving we no longer need to think about gear changes the way we did when we were still learners.

None of these authors, as far as I know, has applied their findings to religion, but they have huge implications for one aspect of the religious life that tends to be ignored much of the time. I refer to ritual.

People tend to think that what differentiates religious people from their secular counterparts is that they believe different things. But that is less than half the story. People in most religions behave distinctively. They engage in ritual. They do certain things like praying, over and over again. Ritual is the religious equivalent of “deep practice.”

We can now understand why. Constant practice creates new neural pathways. It makes certain forms of behaviour instinctive. It reconfigures our character so that we are no longer the people we once were. We have, engraved into our instincts the way certain strokes are engraved in the minds of tennis champions, specific responses to circumstance. Prayer engenders gratitude. Daily charitable giving makes us generous. The “thou shalt not’s” of religion teach us self control. Ritual changes the world by changing us.

This would not have surprised Aristotle or Maimonides because that is how they believed virtue is acquired, by constantly repeating virtuous acts. “Habit becomes second nature,” as the medieval thinkers put it. That does not mean that genes have no part to play. I think I always knew that with my height and lack of body coordination I was not destined to be a basketball champion. But neither talent nor virtue is determined by the lottery of birth. Hard work beats lazy genius every time.

Far from being outmoded, religious ritual turns out to be deeply in tune with the new neuroscience of human talent, personality and the plasticity of the brain. The great faiths never forgot what science is helping us rediscover: that ritual creates new habits of the heart that can lift us to unexpected greatness.