The science behind the Shofar

  How our body’s reaction to hearing the shofar’s blast primes us for real change.
by Yvette Alt Miller

The Science of Shofar

How our body’s reaction to hearing the shofar’s blast primes us for real change.
Rosh Hashana begins Wednesday eve Sept. 4, 2013, through Friday night, Sept. 6
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Each day of Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue services are punctuated by a hundred calls from the shofar, a ram’s horn that reverberates with a distinctive, alarm-like cry.

The shofar’s rousing blast speaks to us more intensely than words ever can. It’s a personal call to each of us to wake up and use the opportunity of Rosh Hashanah to change.

Modern science has documented the physical responses human beings undergo when we’re subjected to loud, resonant sounds such as the shofar.

Sometimes called the “fight or flight” response, the physical changes we undergo when confronted with a sudden, urgent alarms helps us deal with immediate threats. During Rosh Hashanah, these changes can help us see the world differently, giving us a different perspective and helping us see areas where we need to grow.

1. Our senses are sharpened.

When we’re startled, the hypothalamus in our brain immediately starts producing hormones, altering our physiological state. One of the first is Neuropeptide-S, a small protein that makes us more alert. It decreases our need for sleep, and sharpens our alertness and feelings of energy.

Our brains also send a signal to our adrenal glands to start releasing adrenaline and norepinephrine, two hormones that increase our heart and breathing rates and sharpen our sense of concentration.

Within moments, we’re transformed into a new state of alertness, able to see dangers and details we overlooked before.

On Rosh Hashanah, these moments are invaluable. The energy we gain as we hear the shofar’s loud blasts gives us – for a moment – a new, sharper state of consciousness, and a different way of looking at the world.

2. Emotion grows stronger.

Another effect of sudden stress is simplification in our thought processes. When we’re startled, our brains release catecholamines, neurotransmitters which stimulate a part of our brain called the amygdale, a center that relies on emotional – rather than purely rational – thought.

This shift helps us to not overload on details or become bogged down as we make decisions: it’s the part of our fight-or-flight response that helps us decide to “run!” in times of danger.

It can also give us the clarity to see our behavior clearly, without the rationalization that’s part of more nuanced, everyday thought.

Thinking with our amygdale in the moments after the shofar’s blasts helps us to see ourselves more honestly, to perceive our behavior as good or bad, without the rationalizations. It can give us the courage to admit our shortcomings and the clarity to know what to do in the future.

3. Long-term memory is switched on.

At the same time our amygdale is stimulated, so is our brain’s nearby hippocampus, the region that stores long-term memories. It helps make sure we don’t waste these moments, that we learn from the stress we’ve just experienced.

This means that anything we’re about to experience in our newly heightened state will make a lasting imprint on us, remaining lodged in our memories longer than ordinary experiences.

This helps to ensure that our Rosh Hashanah resolutions have a more lasting impact. All our thoughts – our emotions, our resolutions and decisions to change – will all become a deep part of us, lodged in our long-term memory.

When we hear the loud shofar blasts, our brains become more sensitive; knowing this can help make sure that we use these precious moments to instill positive messages and resolutions to grow deep in our memories, to draw from all year long.

4. Our brain becomes more active.

While all these changes are taking place, during times of stress our brains become more active overall. Nerve cells in our brains receive more messages than normal, and we experience increased brain activity. We’re able to process much more information than during less-intense moments.

The period when we can hear the shofar’s call is very brief. Yet if we let it, it can stimulate us to think more deeply and make more lasting decisions than we’re accustomed to.

Judaism teaches that it’s possible to make even major decisions and change our lives in an instant. The extra capacity we have for thought and mental activity during this period makes change more possible.

As we listen to the urgent, loud sounds of the shofar, our bodies are perfectly calibrated to react to this loud, insistent call by giving us greater energy and focus. Let’s use it to analyze our past deeds and resolve to grow in the coming year.

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Author Biography:

Yvette Alt Miller earned her B.A. at Harvard University. She completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Jewish Studies at Oxford University, and has a Ph.D. In International Relations from the London School of Economics. She lives with her family in Chicago, and has lectured internationally on Jewish topics. Her book Angels at the table: a Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat takes readers through the rituals of Shabbat and more, explaining the full beautiful spectrum of Jewish traditions with warmth and humor. It has been praised as "life-changing", a modern classic, and used in classes and discussion groups around the world.