Does Burning Man culture make us feel better?

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It’s always nice when science has your back, isn’t it?

The journal Frontiers in Emotion Science, a section of Frontiers in Psychology, published a paper last month showing that people deal with their emotions differently at Burning Man than they do in the default world. I doubt there’s a Burner who didn’t already know that intuitively, but numbers are reassuring.

The study, which involved 16,227 Burners over four years, found that Burners are more emotionally expressive on the playa. But they’re also more in tune with their emotional states, so they’re more aware and expressive of both positive and negative feelings.

Now, this was a self-reported, on-playa study. Lead author Kateri McRae came right out with its biggest caveat in an interview with PsyPost: If you ask people about their default-world emotional states while they’re all high on life at Burning Man, they might give biased responses. They might over- or underreport how inhibited they are or how well they appraise their emotions at home. So we shouldn’t get too excited about exactly how much of a difference Burning Man makes, according to this study.

But the researchers are trying to get at something bigger than Burning Man itself. They think cultural context — the shared mix of values of a place and its people — can actually change the emotional norms. It might be more socially adaptive to be emotionally intense at Burning Man than it is in the default world. And if that’s so, it’s worth looking critically at the way any cultural context affects people’s emotional lives.

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Burning Man’s context is temporary, and that’s key to this study’s line of inquiry. What we really want to know is whether a brief, deliberate break from our default social arrangements can affect us profoundly enough that we come back to the world healthier and happier.

This is where we tell a story about consumer culture and mass media in the default world versus gifting and the Ten Principles at Burning Man. The default world is repressive, and Burning Man frees us to be ourselves, so the story goes. It’s always tempting to let ourselves feel like we do it better.

But don’t forget that Burner culture is self-selecting. It’s too easy to say that we go to Burning Man because it is an emotionally liberated place. We go to Burning Man because we want it to be that way, and then we try to make it that way.

This study makes an interesting case that cultural context, even when it’s temporary, can change the way we feel and know ourselves. But let’s not get hung up on whether or not Burning Man is better than therapy. Rather, let’s take heart in this: If a bunch of emotionally liberated people want to get together and build an emotionally liberating place, they can. We did.

Photos by Scott London

About the author: Jon Mitchell

I'm the managing editor at Burning Man. I co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012, which lives at templestories.com. I've been a Burner since 2008.

6 thoughts on “Does Burning Man culture make us feel better?

  • Nice piece. I definitely think that having such a fantastic outlet for freedom of expression carries over into ‘normal’ life. It has for me over the years. I’m not sure if that’s only due to Burning Man, but it’s absolutely played an integral part in my emotional happiness as an event I plan for and look forward to, as well as being nostalgic once it’s done for the year.

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  • From the article: “Burning Man’s context is temporary, and that’s key to this study’s line of inquiry. What we really want to know is whether a brief, deliberate break from our default social arrangements can affect us profoundly enough that we come back to the world healthier and happier.” I think there are historical precdents, so this may be something mankind has intuited for a long time… for example, the festival periods in England called the Lords of Misrule (or something like that), where traditional power and other default norms were flipped on their heads or set aside, marriages temporarily annulled, who knows what else. Maybe something of that showed up in Shakespeare (Henry IV Part I, guessing here, the scene where Falstaff gets crowned temporary king in the pub), but I got the sense that by the time Shakespeare cobbled it for his narrative, it had been over for several hundred years. Anyone else know anything about this?

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  • By the way, regardless of whether I got any of my previous post right: I DO KNOW for a fact that my IQ goes up for a couple of months after Burning Man. Not joking.

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