The Mild-Altering Role of Incense in Religion

Incense combined with light. (Image credit: stock.xchng)

Growing up as a Catholic, I spent much of my youth kneeling at the front of a church, inhaling incense. At every mass, the priest would grab the brass incense burner from the alter boy and wave it at the congregation as a benediction, spewing smoke in my direction. Little did I, or my parents, know that the priest was also sending a mind-altering drug wafting in my direction.

Incense might be symbolic in religious ceremonies, but it has also, perhaps not so coincidentally, played a role in gathering the faithful into the fold. A team of international neuroscientists has just announced that a component of the resin made from Boswellia trees, more commonly called Frankincense (yes, the same stuff brought to baby Jesus by the Three Kings), biochemically relieves anxiety in mice, and presumably people.

Although religion is usually considered a purely cultural construction, it might also have deep psychotropic roots.

Sociologists, philosophers and anthropologists have always looked beyond the spiritual to explain why organized religion was invented and why it stills plays a major role in all human societies.

Religion is, first and foremost, about community. Unlike groups that are formed by blood connections, religion has always been a way for unrelated individuals to cooperate, to depend on each other. As such, religion has always functioned as way of taking disparate people and encouraging them to be nice to each other.

Belonging to the same religion also gives people a common identity, sometimes across countries and continents. Of course, that spirit of community has also been forced upon people as a way to change their identity, if they want to or not.

And as anyone who has attended a bris, a First Holy Community, or a wedding knows, religion has always been instrumental in marking the passage of individuals through the life course from baptism through funerals, something that people love to do.

For some, religion also binds their anxiety because it answers unanswerable questions about death, the afterlife, and why in the world we are here in the first place. Religion can also be a place of solace during the hard times, a place to find hope when times are hopeless. In other words, religion is often essential for our psychological well-being.

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University and others have also pointed out that religion can also be adaptive. If cooperation and group identity helps individuals stay alive and pass on genes, then religion is evolutionarily important, even if we made it up.

The recent research, published in the online FASEB Journal (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) on May 2, suggests that religion, or at least many religious rituals, might also have another evolutionary, or biological function. Along with the group support, the embracing identity and the place to pray when times are bad, some religions are also doling out a bit of a psychotropic drug that helps the mind find peace.

Under the influence of a good snoot full of incense, mice in scary situations, such as being put in a swimming pool, remain calm, anxiety-free. At the alter, too, people feel the same sense of peace that comes from either the comforting words of the clergy, or from the intoxicating, brain altering, smell of incense.

In an age of endless anxiety, no wonder religion works; it is both cultural and biological.

Karl Marx claimed that organized religion was the "opiate of the people," meaning it dulls us into complacency, but that might not be such a bad thing.

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).

Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves". She is a contributor to Live Science.