Chanting has been with us for a long time. Non-literate societies use it as a technique of remembering and passing on information before leaves, scrolls, books and computer chips made it easy. Chanting is also connected to singing and music which have very interesting effects on the human brain.
Let me be outright about my pragmatic, naturalistic propensities: Chanting can have many desirable effects on the human mind: memory, mood shifting, consciousness-altering and perhaps others. All of these, I am sure, can also be detected with measurements to some degree.
Though chanting most likely evolved essentially as a memory heuristic, I think NonSense chanting (discussed in my post on magic-language bias) evolved because people valued the mood/consciousness shifting effect over the information-transmission effect. Or perhaps they just valued the “traditions-re-enforcing” effect over information. But why not keep the information-transmission component?
Well, I think that the magic-language-illusion played a role in this. Many humans associate the way of their elders as sacred tradition and full of deep wisdom. This is a conservative reflex which many people share. Thus, to make the chanting effective as a mood shifter, religious specialists tied (perhaps sub-consciously) this magic-language-bias to the chanting to amplify its mind shifting effect or social-ordering effect. Indeed, since people could no longer understand the words, they could no longer be distracted by them and thus the focus of the activity/ritual was on the other desired mental state.
Can “NonSense Chanting” be useful?
I don’t believe in Magic. So I don’t believe NonSense Chanting can effect the external world. But sure, it can alter internal moods, train the mind or alter consciousness — and such activities can be useful. Likewise, singing, droning, dancing and much more can do the same. To engage in these activities, people ritualized them so as to make group practice easier.
Can “NonSense Chanting” be counter-productive?
Sure it can. What if the activity is re-enforcing negative habits of mind. Well, belief in magic (over the long haul) I think is a negative habit. Belief in the sacredness of a given language (over other languages) is a mistake and can have bad effects on the mind. You see, I think an accurately discerning mind is highly valuable. I could go on, but let me get to the last important question.
Can self-deceptive mental habits be useful?
Yes, I think it is a matter of deciding if the trade-off is worth it. This issue is sometimes called “Skillful Means” in Buddhism and “Consequentialism” in ethics. But truly understanding the long-term effect of such a compromise is difficult. Sometimes such a trade-off is undesirable.
Ideally we have both good means and good ends. Ideally we don’t have to deceive ourselves or others to accomplish desirable goals. Here on my blog I like to be open about how we deceive ourselves. I am not saying it is always bad to deceive ourselves (though many Atheists think it is), but I am always hoping that slowly we can recognize what is actually the case in the world (“truth”) and build mental technology which does not need to much compromise. This may often an unreasonable goal, but it is the conversation I enjoy.