I’m taking an anthropology class called “Myth and Ritual” this semester. The entire class is more or less dedicated to figuring out why groups of people from every continent follow elaborate traditional rituals.
The professor began a lecture the other day by describing an experiment: This scientist gathered a flock of 20 pigeons, then programmed a machine to shock or reward them on a completely arbitrary basis.
A few days into the experiment, the poor little guys were totally confused. They had no idea what they had done incorrectly to receive a shock, and they were equally confused about what they had done correctly to elicit a hunk of Gouda, or whatever their reward happened to be. The interesting part of the story is that the pigeons essentially began trying to remember what they had been doing immediately before the shock or the Gouda. They’d then either avoid or repeat the action accordingly.
The entire ordeal was a bit like Pavlov’s famous dog experiments, except more diabolical. And with pigeons.
By the end of a month or so, the scientist returned to his experiment to find that all his pigeons appeared to have lost what they had of their little birdy brains.
They were walking around doing all kinds of weird things. A certain pigeon would, for instance, inexplicably preen in a certain way, and another pigeon spent his days walking with a sort of bizarre affected limp. It was incredible. The pigeons had created, in other words, their own rituals in an attempt to understand, predict and out-smart the otherwise inconsistent world around them.
At that moment in my professor’s story, in the middle of my credit/D/fail anthropology class, I had a minor self-revelation: I am one of those pigeons.
Maybe I’m not walking with an affected limp down Elm Street quite yet, but the sentiment remains the same.
When I was eight years old, I discovered one day when I was sick that as soon as I turned my socks inside-out, I got better — I had received, so to speak, the human equivalent of a little hunk of Gouda.
I wore my socks inside-out whenever I was sick for the rest of my childhood.
About that same year, I randomly set my alarm clock for 8:17 on a particularly rainy night, and the next day was, contrary to all weather predictions, gloriously sunny again, the Gouda of life.
The great thing about this “Haley-pigeon” revelation of mine is that I’m quite confident that I’m not the only pigeon among us, trucking through life with these little rituals in tow.
I happened to know, for instance, that one of my best friends never turns off his radio in the middle of a song because one time he did and he broke his foot the next day. My brother cracks his knuckles only before big math tests. My soccer-playing cousin doesn’t wash his socks if his team is winning.
Gross? Yup. Totally ridiculous? You betcha. But the point is simple:
The strange behavior of the pigeons mimics the origins of human ritual. What is ritual, after all, if not merely the act of remembering, then repeating that which has elicited a piece of proverbial Gouda in the past?
In effect, all our rituals are an attempt to make sense of a world which, excepting the comfortable predictability of the laws of physics, seems to reward and punish us with the arbitrary abandon of that scientist’s machine.
So go on. Don’t wash your socks. Listen to the end of the song. Crack your knuckles just so.
And while you’re at it, see what you can do about this New Haven weather of ours. (Four to seven inches of snow post-spring break still seems an insultingly hefty “shock” in this crazy experiment of life.)
Whatever it is that you do for “good luck,” rest assured that this little pigeon won’t be throwing any stones of judgment.
Not from my little glass house, where you can be sure my booties are inside-out and my alarm clock is resolutely set for 10:17.
Haley Edwards wishes for peace on earth and Gouda wheel to men.