Meditation has been part of the human experience for a long, long time. The earliest reports of defined meditation practice date back to about 1500 BCE in India, and became part of Western practice during the Roman Empire. As neuroscientists have studied meditation, they’ve discovered some interesting ways in which it affects the physical structure of the brain. These include effects that can be seen in autonomic functions and neurotransmitters as well as changes in blood flow and brain wave activity.

Meditation has been extensively studied for its effects of stress reduction and other clinical functions, and there have been several preliminary studies in its potential as a pain relief treatment. Now researchers at Wake Forest have published a study measuring the physical effects of meditation on pain — and it turns out it might be more effective than morphine.

This morning, Kaptchuk is out with his latest salvo in this research: a study that showed that patients with irritable bowel syndrome improved more if they were given inert sugar pills – even though they were told the pills had no active ingredients and the bottles were labeled “placebo.” Fifty-nine percent of patients who got the obviously fake pill got adequate symptom relief, compared to 35% of those who got nothing.


The idea that ritual has profound effects on the way we feel shouldn’t be shocking. It’s why many smokers have a very specific routine – banging the pack against their hands several times to pack the tobacco, for instance – and why people are very particular about their cocktails. And ritualistic behavior is a common thread in songs and books about addiction. “Where is the ritual? And tell me where is the taste?” singer Mark Sandman, of the alternative rock band Morphine, sang in the title cut of the 1993 album Cure For Pain. If ritual affects the way we use recreational drugs, why not real medicines?

Perhaps the most compelling evidence in support of family rituals is the positive effects they have on our children. In a recent study, researchers questioned 90,000 teenagers in order to find out why some kids were more likely to engage in “risky behaviors” such as drugs and sex. The only factor that clearly stood out was that those kids felt emotionally close to their families. “And what is it,” says Cox, “that makes families feel truly connected? Good family rituals.”

Furthermore, in a series of groundbreaking studies during the 1970s and ‘80s, Steven J. Wolin, M.D. at George Washington University Medical School researched the rituals of families with a history of alcoholism. He learned that the more serious a family was about its rituals, the less likely the alcoholism would be passed down to the next generation.

Cox cites another study in which psychologist Barbara Fiese, Ph.D. looked at freshmen college students and found that those who had strong family rituals adjusted better to college life. Those students came from families where there were rituals for a variety of activities, from mealtimes and vacations to religious and ethnic traditions. She concluded that engaging in such activities all their lives gave the students “…a firm grounding, a sense of identity and these things made them feel more worthy of being liked.”