The Health Benefits of Learning Masonic Ritual
The Health Benefits of Learning Masonic Ritual
By Martin Faulks
There is a lot involved in Masonic ritual. The words must be learned by heart with precision and then performed under pressure. Besides the words themselves, inside the lodge room everything is placed in an exact order. We have exacting routines that take place involving specific routes to walk, steps to take, objects to move, knocks to make, salutes, and signs.
The whole practice is a team effort that keeps everyone involved on their toes watching out for the actions or words that trigger the next response. Beyond the details of the ritual Masons also need to remember other things - the names of brothers in the lodge and the guests, candidates, the titles of the lodge officers, as well as the salutes and signs to give. All this requires both short and long term memory, along with a good side helping of awareness, focus, information processing, coordination, eloquence and sometimes quite a bit of adaptability!
Often Masons of many years in and out of the lodge mention that they feel that Masonic ritual has been good for their memory. Sometimes they mention they have noticed that practicing ritual helps keep their mind sharp, or even that they believe it keeps them young.
You may also hear Masons talk about Masonic ritual practice as a form of relaxation, something that you can see is very much part of Masonic tradition if you read early texts of the Craft.
But is there any truth behind these observations?
There are no specific studies into the effects of Masonic ritual, but there are some very similar disciplines that have been researched in depth. For example, those who have honed their skills using classical memory techniques from Ancient Greece. This uses the layout of a building called a Memory Palace (like our lodge room), specific locations (like our pedestals), and images representing the things to be remembered (like our Masonic symbols).
Practitioners of this art are not only capable of learning long complicated scripts as Freemasons are wont to do, but can also perform feats like memorising a whole pack of cards or the different articles of a magazine from one reading. (Almost as impressive as those Directors of Ceremonies who can remember the names and ranks of all the Grand Officers present!)
For a long time, people have wondered if this kind of training has any effect on functioning memory and mental ability in daily life? Does learning sections of text help long term memory, or does having to put a list of guest names in your mind for a proclamation or toast help your short term memory when you visit the shops? In short, does all this memory work and mind training make a difference to the everyday performance of the mind?
There are some studies that show some very interesting results that could help us to see the health benefits of going through the chair.
Memory Training Improves Brain Function
A recent study that tested the brain functions of a group of memory experts gave some very interesting results, showing us some of the changes to the human brain that this form of training can have. In this study 23 of the top “memory athletes” were compared to untrained individuals of a similar age, gender and IQ. First they scanned their brains while relaxed and then while involved in memorising a list of words. Unsurprisingly the memory experts performed far better than the control group. The brain scans showed that this was due to increased brain connectivity. It seems their brains were more dense and better connected, but was this due to genetics or training?
To find out the investigators separated the untrained individuals into three groups: one was asked to practice the locational memory technique (the method similar to Masonic ritual) for half an hour every day for a total of six weeks; the second group practiced a very challenging working-memory task; and the third group did no memory training whatsoever.
When tested after this period the only group that showed both improvements in functional memory and brain connectivity similar to those memory champions were those using the memory palace system. Furthermore, these changes were still present in this group over four months later!
But it’s not just formal memory palace training that yields results, repeated studies have shown that London taxi drivers (who as part of their training must memorize all of London’s roads - known as “The Knowledge”) also have an enlarged hippocampus, the large paired structure in the brain that forms memories and also maps spatial locations. This shows that repeated practice of a particular activity causes physical changes as the brain adapts to perform better.
So the Past Masters were right, the memory palace system used by both memory experts and by Masons alike does seem to be a very powerful method of improving brain function.
So now we know that Masonic ritual does help with memory, what about the idea it could also keep you young?
Masonic Ritual Training Maintains Youth
The first study we looked at focused specifically on memory training, but as we summarised before there are many skills needed for the successful performance of Masonic ritual. The good news is that studies have been done into the effect of a similar regime with this kind of range of brain training and the results are interesting indeed. Studies demonstrate that any practice involving the need for quick responses shows increased improvements in brain processing speed and accuracy, and that disciplines that require the participant to regularly practice awareness actually change the brain, making them more aware in day to day life.
Most importantly it has been demonstrated that benefits from cognitive training can extend for as long as 10 years! Those who stimulate their brains through formal training or structured cognitive activities tend to be better off cognitively during the aging process than those who don’t have mental stimulation. So, next time you hear a Mason tell you that the Craft keeps him young and the ritual training sharp you better take it seriously.
The brain scans even showed that very modest amounts of training can produce effects that are very long lasting. It also suggested that cognitive training may translate to benefits in the tasks of daily life necessary for independent living, such as balancing a checkbook or going grocery shopping. Even more interesting, is the long term effect brain training and memory work seems to have on physical tasks. Ten years after the study they were asked to assess their ability to undertake physical tasks (rise from a chair or transfer from a bed) and the group that had undergone memory training reported far better results. It seems that what is good for the brain is also good for the body.
“Could you perform the address to the Master at the installation?”
But there is more. It turns out that small bursts of refresher training is very powerful. Previous studies hadn’t examined what impact booster training sessions would have, but the active study suggests such sessions can be invaluable. About one-half of the subjects who received the initial training were randomly selected for supplementary training after one year and again after three years, and the patients in this group showed additional benefits after 10 years over those who had received only the initial intervention.
So there you have it. Those old Past Masters were right, Masonic ritual is good for the memory and can keep you young. So now we have to ask ourselves. What else are they saying that we really should be listening to?
Click here to buy Martin’s book on the subject and learn more about the history of Masonic Ritual and Memorisation.
To see his displays of memory (including memorizing a whole pack of cards) and hear talks on the subject click here.
 Dresler, Martin et al. “Mnemonic Training Reshapes Brain Networks to Support Superior Memory.” Neuron vol. 93,5 (2017).
 de Lange, Ann-Marie Glasø et al. “The effects of memory training on behavioral and microstructural plasticity in young and older adults.” Human Brain Mapping vol. 38,11 (2017).
 Rebok, George W et al. “Ten-year effects of the advanced cognitive training for independent and vital elderly cognitive training trial on cognition and everyday functioning in older adults.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society vol. 62,1 (2014).
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