Ritual pain linked to increased psychological well-being

Participants subjecting themselves to bodily mutilations as part of a religious ritual experienced an increased sense of psychological and emotional well-being, a Keele University researcher has found.

Dr Sammyh Khan, from Keele’s School of Psychology, was part of an international research collaboration examining the psycho-physiological responses of Tamil Hindus participating in the kavadi attam, a ritual held in honour of the Hindu god of war Murugan as part of the longer festival of Thaipussam.

The ritual sees Tamil Hindus across the world honouring Murugan by piercing and puncturing their skin with skewers and needles, before beginning a pilgrimage over many miles uphill to a temple carrying portable altars weighing up to 60 kilograms on their shoulders.

The research was carried out with members of the Tamil Hindu community in the town of Quatre Bornes in Mauritius, as part of an international collaboration including
the University of Connecticut and Harvard University in the US, Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, and the University of Otago in New Zealand.

For three weekly periods before, during, and after the ritual, participants wore portable monitoring devices recording their stress levels, sleep efficiency, and physical activity. Their heart rate was also recorded daily, and clinically and cross-culturally validated measures of psychological well-being were administered before and after the ritual.

The researchers found that participation in the extreme ritual had no detectable harmful effects on participants, but actually had positive effects on their psychological well-being. Participants engaging with a higher number of body piercings in fact experienced the greatest improvements to their perceived health and quality of life.

Dr Sammyh Khan from Keele University said: “Although the findings may seem counterintuitive at first, research from multiple disciplines highlights the palliative effects of belonging to, and participating in, groups - religious or otherwise.

“Often more stressful and painful activities and experiences bring people closer together and in turn increase resilience and wellbeing.”

The research, “Effects of Extreme Ritual Practices of Psychophysiological Well-Being”, is published in Current Anthropology.

Picture credit: Dimitris Xygalatas