Why Rites of Passage Are Painful

Why Rites of Passage Are Painful July 5, 2022

Adolescent Girl Rite of PassageAll around the world, many cultures have initiation rites to mark — no, scratch that, to cause — the transition from childhood to adulthood. As I’ve written before, these rites of passage usually take place during late childhood or adolescence, and they can be…intense. You might get rounded up with all the other boys of your age cohort, stripped of your clothing, and forcibly circumcised with a sharp rock. Or you might be exiled to a hut far out in the jungle and denied food for a week, all while encountering adults dressed up as terrifying spirits who teach you the songs and lore of the tribe. 

Usually, boys and girls undergo separate initiation rituals, although some cultures initiate everyone at once. The common factor is that, at the end of the ordeal, you’re a full-fledged adult member of your tribe, clan, or group — with all the responsibilities, rights, and expectations that entails. Only a few days ago you were a child. Now childhood is past, although your body hasn’t changed at all. (Unless you’ve been circumcised with a sharp rock, of course, which isn’t exactly a standard biological step in development.)

The Initiation-less West

In the modern West, though, we don’t really have much in the way of initiation rites. For us, the transition to adulthood is a long, messy, and rather undignified process with no clear endpoint. When do you feel like an adult — when you graduate from high school or college? When you get your first job? Get married? Buy your first house? 

Maybe it’s when you have your first kids. Or when they graduate from high school. Or have their first kids. Gosh, is retirement the threshold? You’ll be 70 years old and still half-suspecting that you missed something somewhere — any day now, the Adult Police are going to show up and force you back to middle school.

Maybe it’s not that extreme for everyone. But it is true that the transition from childhood to adulthood is much less clearly defined — and longer — in modern industrialized society than it is in many small-scale and traditional cultures. If you define the pre-adult stage of life as the years when you’re still training for an occupation or trying to secure your adult role, it often lasts until age 30 or beyond for Westerners. Once you finally complete that medical residency and get your first job, you’re easily twice as old as your just-initiated counterpart in a traditional society.

Part of the reason for the length of modern adolescence, of course, is that it just takes a lot longer to prepare for life in our über-complex society. You need a lot of patience and investment to prepare for all the hyper-specialized roles that modern people fill. It wouldn’t be adaptive to artificially arrest development at age 16. 

But, more importantly, there’s also the fact that we don’t really share a common culture. Rites of passage don’t just initiate you into adulthood — they initiate you into a particular group, your tribe’s specific way of life. You start off life as a kind of generic proto-human, a ball of organic potential. You could just as easily grow into a fully functional Walbiri tribesperson, a Peruvian villager, or a British noble, depending on where you happen to be born.

Adolescence as a Key Developmental Window for Religion and Culture

The anthropologists Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta* think that adolescence is the time when that potential begins to crystallize, when cultural identity begins to gel. They call adolescence an “experience expectant” period during which the developing human brain is especially receptive and hyper-attuned to religious and cultural symbols and cues of identity, just as early childhood is thought to be the critical period for learning language. In fact, Sosis and Alcorta think that adolescence plays such a critical role in human culture that they identify adolescent rites of passage as one of four cross-culturally universal features of religions. (The others are belief in supernatural beings, costly communal rituals, and distinctions between the sacred and the profane.)

This idea proposes that initiation rituals mostly take place when young people’s minds are, in a spongelike way, primed to make binding decisions about their identities and cultural belonging. Adolescent rites of passage provide the symbolic, meaningful information they need for this decision-making. In modern Western society, though, that information comes in a remarkably diffused blob, with different values and options streaming in via the internet, television, friends, school, pop culture, and whatever residual religious life their parents exposed them to. It’s very, very rare to get a coherent, unified worldview — unless you grow up in, say, an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn enclave, an Amish farming village, or the occasional Catholic homestead. For everyone else, it’s worldview soup. 

But the biological and psychological expectation of — and preparation for — a coherent worldview is still there.

Spiritual Highs and Mental Breakdowns

Recent research into the neurology of extreme psychological events may have something to tell us about the adolescent need for initiation. In an article in Aeon magazine, PhD student Ari Brouwer** argues that stimulation of a specific serotonin transmitter — 5-HT2AR — can elicit “pivotal mental states,” in which the brain becomes temporarily open to radical reconfiguration and shift of outlooks. In essence, pivotal mental states are “hyper-plastic” cognitive and neurological states.

In everyday life, the brain operates with settled expectations and schemas. You have your established roles, your family, your normal sense of who you are. But during a pivotal mental state, that changes. Everything becomes open to question. You temporarily become open to revising all of those deep priors. 

Brouwer sees this ability to use pivotal mental states to catalyze personal transformation — for good or ill — as “an evolved human capacity for sudden and radical psychic change.” This idea is only a hypothesis for now, but it could offer a possible explanation for extremity and trauma-inducing nature of many rites of passage. You might think of serotonin as the “happy chemical,” but 5-HT2AR activity is increased during traumatic experiences, including both chronic and acute stress. In turn, over-expression of 5-HT2AR induces neural plasticity — the ability of the brain to melt down and re-forge different connections.

Let’s put this in the context of an intense initiation ritual. You’re fourteen years old. Your brain is already primed to greedily seek out and soak up cultural and religious input. It’s generally highly flexible and plastic, as Harvard psychologist Leah Somerville points out in the same podcast I did with DeSteno. 

One day, you find yourself force-marched out into the bush with the rest of your age cohort, ranging in age from twelve to sixteen. There, you’re all forced to spend a week fasting, learning lore, and being frightened by nighttime rituals in which the elders dress up as spirits and deprive you of sleep. At the end of that week, the initiation culminates with a painful group circumcision, during which you aren’t allowed to show the slightest hint of pain or weakness. 

This whole scenario might not sit well with modern, autonomy-loving sensibilities. But according to Brouwer’s model (which he developed with neuroscientist and psychedelics researcher Robin Carhart-Harris, whose work I’ve covered before here), the trauma of the initiation rite may be the key to the wholesale personal transformation that follows it. Becoming a man means internalizing the lore of the tribe, accepting new responsibilities, changing roles. The trauma, deprivation, and pain of the initiation rite evokes a hyper-plastic pivotal mental state, which is unpleasant but enables you to radically reimagine your place in the world. You were a boy a week ago. Now you’re a man. A “sudden and radical psychic change,” indeed.

Different Outcomes

Of course, not all pivotal mental states lead to personal transformation and growth. Brouwer warns that they can also be the prelude to psychosis — especially when there’s no cultural and symbolic scaffolding to lend intelligibility or meaning to an extreme experience. He offers two opposite scenarios as an illustration:

First, a monk embarks alone on a spiritual retreat in the woods with blessings from his community. He takes no food or shelter, exposing himself to the elements, and sleeps very little. The monk stays like this for 30 days with the intention of deepening his connection to God. Second, imagine a political prisoner is forced into solitary confinement and deprived of food, water and adequate clothing. The lights in his cell are kept bright and the prisoner cannot sleep well. He is humiliated and interrogated by his captors. He does not know how much time has or will pass in this state. The prisoner is forced to endure at the mercy of his captors.

Both scenarios are acutely stressful and likely to trigger [pivotal mental states]. The difference lies in the social contexts in which the physiological stressors (fasting, sleep deprivation, exposure) are embedded. The monk consents to his experience, welcomes the presence of benevolent agency (eg, God), and prepares for positive change. Our prisoner does not consent, and prepares to resist the influences of what he perceives to be malevolent agents (his captors). It is more likely that our monk will have a spiritual experience, and our prisoner a transient psychotic or dissociative reaction, due to differing immediate circumstances.

Similarly, an initiation rite might be more likely to evoke a “spiritual” — or at least socially and psychologically adaptive — transformation among initiates, precisely because it offers a coherent social and symbolic context and, at least in principle, requires the consent of the young participants. By contrast, everyday adolescent trauma — loneliness, alienation, depression — in modern Western societies lacks much symbolic coherence. It’s also not something that we intentionally seek out, and many lack any able adult guides to navigate through it. Extreme adolescent angst evokes the fundamentals of a pivotal mental state, but it doesn’t direct that trauma toward a constructive, transformative, culturally sanctioned end. The result may often be simply compounded mental distress and illness.

Self-Control in the Young Brain

During my podcast interview with DeSteno, we also discussed another aspect of initiation rites: self-control. DeSteno used the example of the Sateré-Mawé people of Amazonian Brazil, whose initiation ritual forces young boys to wear gloves filled with live bullet ants — so called because their sting is the most painful in the world, comparable to being shot. During the initiation ceremony, boys are required to endure hundreds of stings without showing signs of pain.

This might be an especially extreme example, but many initiations around the world revolve around difficult feats that demand self-mastery and self-control. Fans of the Canadian psychologist and internet personality Jordan Peterson are familiar with his sometimes controversial (but perfectly correct) admonishments to face the difficulty of life and exercise self-control. Well, you could think of such initiation rites are tools for getting young people to do exactly that. As DeSteno pointed out in the interview, self-control is one of the key criteria we use to determine whether to trust others: people who lack the ability to delay gratification, who consistently choose cheap and easy things over hard and rewarding things, are generally seen as less trustworthy. 

Or rather, they just are less trustworthy. The very fact that self-control–deficient people have trouble delaying gratification and exercising self-discipline means that they’ll be less likely to show up for you when you need them, ipso facto. They might sometimes make for a fun party, but probably won’t make the best coalition partners. Yet human societies — whether bands, tribes, kingdoms, or nations — are essentially long-term coalitions. Keeping a successful coalition depends, in turn, on solving thorny game-theory problems. How can you be sure that your coalition partners will defend you when another group attacks instead of selfishly running away? How do you decide, as a coordinated group, when to pick up stakes and move to a more productive part of the forest? The more cooperators you have in your coalition, the easier these problems are to solve.

Challenging initiation rituals thus probably also serve as tests — and proofs — of cooperative and coalitional reliability. By credibly demonstrating that they can face pain and hardship without complaint, initiates telegraph both to themselves and to their communities that they’ll be reliable cooperation partners, someone whose presence in the group will be a benefit, not a burden.

In many societies, the primary responsibility of adulthood is helping to procure food — contributing to the group’s income rather than drawing it down. And in many if not most societies, obtaining food is painful and hard. Chasing a deer through the woods, drawing a plough through hard earth, setting and checking traps for rabbits: these are all difficult tasks. Those who can suffer through pain during initiation will be better able to succeed at them than those who can’t.

Initiation in the 21st Century

Even Abrahamic religions, which most lack physically painful initiation rituals, often historically asked converts and initiates to undergo some sort of trial. The bar mitzvah, which from the medieval era marked the transition from boy to man in Judaism, didn’t have any bullet ants, but it often did have months of Torah study leading up to the first public reading of a parashah, or passage from scripture. Today, there’s a bat mitzvah for girls, as well. Ancient Christian communities often made a significant event out of baptism, with catechumens obliged to study and prepare before passing through a baptismal fount — often, again, while naked or at least “disrobed” from everyday dress. 

Modern versions of these religions tend to be pretty light on their initiation requirements, though, such that even young Christians who were confirmed during their teen years or Jews who completed a bar or bat mitzvah often don’t feel that they’ve made any clear transition from childhood to adulthood. And secular education doesn’t fill the gap. Not only does modern education typically fail to offer any effective equivalents to the adolescent rite of passage, but in fact, as I’ve written here before, it often seems to serve as a kind of anti-initiation ritual. Rather than deconstructing the role and worldview of the child and reconstructing an adult identity, many universities and colleges seem to deconstruct everything and then leave it lying scattered on the floor.

Given the importance of self-control and a clear sense of identity for mental health, it’s possible that the recent remarkable rise in adolescent mental illness and social pathologies, from self-harm to out-of-control anxiety, may have something to do with the lack of workable equivalents to initiation rituals in secular Western culture. Of course, much the problem can probably be chalked up to overuse of social media, social atomization, and loneliness. But remember that initiation rites confer socially recognized roles on their participants, and usually take place in groups. The problems of loneliness and lack of clear roles and identity may be entwined. 

Whether or not our conversation helped solve the great problems of the 21st century, check out DeSteno’s and my interview, and stick around for the fascinating conversation in the second half of the podcast with Leah Somerville on the brain and adolescence. The whole thing is heartening and exciting, really. A hundred years ago, hardbitten scientists were skeptical that traditional practices and rituals had any function other than encouraging superstition. Today, scientific inquiry seems to be revealing a different reality. There might be more useful tools and insights concealed in seemingly irrational practices like initiation than we realized even a few short decades ago. 


* Full disclosure: Rich was an external reader on my dissertation committee. He’s also one of the best human beings working in academia today. Candace was one of his students too.

** Second full disclosure: Ari was a master’s degree colleague of mine at Boston University.

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