Autobiographical Memory in a Fire-Walking Ritual

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
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  • 1 Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus University, 8000 Aarhus, Denmark Interacting Minds Centre (IMC3), Aarhus University, 8000 Aarhus, Denmark Religion, Cognition and Culture Research Unit (RCC), Aarhus University, 8000 Aarhus, Denmark LEVYNA Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion, Masaryk University, Czech Republic Religious Studies Department, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand Centre for Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN), Aarhus University Hospital, 8000 Aarhus, Denmark * Corresponding author, e-mail: xygalatas@mac.com

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Abstract

Anthropological theories have discussed the effects of participation in high-arousal rituals in the formation of autobiographical memory; however, precise measurements for such effects are lacking. In this study, we examined episodic recall among participants in a highly arousing fire-walking ritual. To assess arousal, we used heart rate measurements. To assess the dynamics of episodic memories, we obtained reports immediately after the event and two months later. We evaluated memory accuracy from video footage. Immediately after the event, participants’ reports revealed limited recall, low confidence and high accuracy. Two months later we found more inaccurate memories and higher confidence. Whereas cognitive theories of ritual have predicted flashbulb memories for highly arousing rituals, we found that memories were strongly suppressed immediately after the event and only later evolved confidence and detail. Physiological measurements revealed a spectacular discrepancy between actual heart rates and self-reported arousal. This dissociation between subjective reports and objective measurements of arousal is consistent with a cognitive resource depletion model. We argue that expressive suppression may provide a link between individual memories and cultural understandings of high-arousal rituals.

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