The therapeutic power of Radical Self-Expression

Embrace by The Pier GroupChip Conley, a member of Burning Man’s board, frequently likes to say:  “The more digital we get, the more ritual we need.”

I thought of that when I read about a new strategy for fighting depression – one that involves no pills, no brain scans … virtually no technology of any kind – and is incredibly affective.  In some studies, 94% of patients report an end to depression in six months or less.  In other studies, 97%.

What is this miraculous new cure?  This brain-hacking innovation?  It’s getting people to talk with each other.  Essentially peer lead group therapy.

The research is being conducted in the developing world, in areas where mental health treatment options are extremely scarce … and so far it’s focusing on women, because it’s possible to circumvent the cultural proscriptions against seeking mental health treatment by telling them that having their symptoms addressed is good for their children.  So the sample group is limited.  But the staggeringly good results strongly suggest that it is our approach to mental health in the first world … our privatizing organic “social networks” and replacing them with network of insurance providers dictating terms to health care professionals who emphasize the pill popping for mood adjustment at the expense of actually talking to people … that gets it all wrong.

With depression rates rising significantly in much of the modern world – even as more and more mood altering drugs are prescribed – it may be that it is modern culture itself which has so degraded our ability to have routine, deep, in person connections with one another, and that this is creating a crisis in mental health.

(The other option – that we have not lost the capacity to have deep, in person, connections with one another in the developed world, but that life here is so toxic that the only way masses of people can tolerate existence in the industrialized world is through medication – actually scares me much more.  But while possible (brrrr) I think that stretches past what the research so far is telling us.  Still, makes you wonder.)

Thinking of this, I am reminded of the way so many people believe that Burning Man … a camping trip that costs excess money and includes a higher chance of being run over by a mechanical octopus … is a crucial part of their mental health regimen.    Kinda ridiculous –  but people swear by the therapeutic power of Burning Man so much that I’ve had to write entire screeds reminding people that Burning Man is not “therapy Disneyland” and that it’s okay to be unhappy when you’re here.

Yet it may very well be … humanistic psychology has often said so … that what we call “radical self-expression” is in fact a vital component of mental health.  While the public perception of creative genius ties it to madness and mental illness, research actually suggests that it is human beings who lack an outlet for their creativity – in whatever form is meaningful to them – who are at a higher risk of depression and mental illness.

The benefits of belonging to an accepting community are equally well documented.  Put the two together and maybe you do have something that is particularly potent in its therapeutic effect.  Burning Man may be a surprisingly close simulacra of the experimental therapy groups now meeting now in the developing world.

Or at least can be.  But it isn’t necessarily.  I think that’s a vital point to keep in mind.  It’s one thing to say that Burning Man can potentially have a strong positive impact on someone’s mental health – it clearly can.  But it’s another thing to suggest, as some burner academics and Burning Man boosters have, that burners are necessarily better adjusted than the average person.  That we have more “emotional regulation” strategies or what have you.

This is nonsense – and not just because we’ve all seen people having epic breakdowns on playa, and know perfectly well that burners have about the same percentage of assholes among us as any other community.  More than that:  Burning Man is not necessarily therapeutic because Burning Man is an embrace of possibility.  To suggest that if Burning Man doesn’t elevate your mood by 16% annually you’re not doing it right is to entirely miss the point.  Burning Man is more open than that.  When we’re doing it right, Burning Man is an experience where anything can happen.  You might get healed, but you might get hurt.  You might die.

Burning Man has no guaranteed outcome, and Burning Man is not, as so many have claimed, a “safe space” where everyone will approve of you and no one will criticize you, and everyone will treat you like the special little daffodil you are.

No, it’s not that at all.  Which means you’re not necessarily going to express yourself in a meaningful way (even by your own standards) or find people who will want to listen to you.  It’s not a promise.  It can’t be.

But Burning Man is a space where the barriers to experimentation are incredibly low, and where if you’re able to dust yourself off and stand up again after falling on your face, you’ll find a lot of support for trying again.

This means that Burning Man contains the opportunity for tremendous healing potential – that you can find things here, walking naked among the 10 Principles and the hula hoopers, that will be extremely good for you.  And it may be as simple as the ability to truly express yourself within a community of your peers.

And if that is part of what makes Burning Man so healing for so many, it is something we can easily bring more of with us out into the world.  In fact, I think that too often we focus our public art efforts on the Burning Man style – colorful and fuzzy, flamboyant and partially dressed – rather than the substance of what people actually do here.  Art and events  that give the people attending the chance to express themselves and be heard in meaningful ways –not just in the costumes they wear or the music they dance to – may be more like Burning Man than a giant metal clitoris shooting fire.

Not to mention better for you.  If you choose to speak.  Again, for it to be radical – for it to be useful – it can’t have a proscribed outcome.  Anything can happen.

It’s a theory, at least.  One that actually says less about Burning Man than about the absurd toxicity of modern life.  But I think it’s a pretty good theory.

And if it’s true, then Burning Man should be funding more projects that say “we get strangers to talk” than “we have blinky lights.”  Of course, it also means that more Burners should be proposing them.  The great thing about projects like that is how few resources the basic experience needs.  Talk, as they say, is cheap.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

9 Comments on “The therapeutic power of Radical Self-Expression

  • Ten says:


    Report comment

  • jimbo says:

    >and so far it’s focusing on women, because it’s possible to circumvent the cultural proscriptions against seeking mental health treatment by telling them that having their symptoms addressed is good for their children.

    I guess dad’s mental health doesn’t effect the children, so screw him.

    Report comment

  • Caveat Magister says:

    @Jimbo, @Loopy

    As is noted in the article about the treatments that I linked to, there is a strong stigma attached to receiving mental health treatment in many cultures. Many cultures also regard women as the primary caretakers of children. Thus the researchers found that they were able to get active participation in these experimental treatments within these cultures if they focused on using women’s cultural roles as “caretakers of children” to overcome the cultural stigma of “receiving mental health treatment.”

    But this should not be mistaken as an endorsement of these cultural attitudes, either by the researchers or by me, let alone Burning Man.

    The good news is that there is no stigma against you guys seeking therapy. Knock yourselves out.

    Report comment

  • Lentil says:

    Great read, thanks for writing.

    An obvious reply to the last paragraph is “but blinking lights do get strangers to talk, it’s called ‘triangulation’ (”

    But I think burner art needs to strive for more than triangulation. In order for “anything to happen”, you need an empowered audience. The barrier between art producers and art consumers needs to be broken. Personally, it’s really disappointing to me that the org puts money into projects like Bliss Dance, which make for a great spectacle, but exist as a monument to individual creative genius with minimal interactive possibility. It’s pure image. In a small way, I feel like such projects increase the alienation of the ‘non-artist’ and seem quite opposed to the early, cacophonist energy that birthed burning man.

    Report comment

  • Caveat

    The wonderful thing about Burning Man is one can fuck up in the most spectacular way and there will always be someone there to encourage another go at it.

    Sort of like the scientific community, we embrace failure as the recipe for a good story and a learning experience … a learning experience where one may be run over by a mechanical octopus.

    The community is far from perfect (ample evidence in the comment thread) but if one takes a wider view, it’s pretty goddamn spectacular.

    Report comment

  • Dennis Hinkamp (Flackmaster) says:

    I go to Burning Man not to find the truth, but rather to escape from it.

    Report comment

  • JV says:

    A more indicative quote from Chip Conley would be:

    “The more digital we get, the more ritual we need, the more I’ll commodify and package all of that.”

    Report comment

  • LauraLynne says:

    @Loopy “There is a stigma for women seeking therapy because once the word gets around that she’s crazy, she’ll never be able to attract a beta provider husband.”

    Gee, you’re not sexist, are you? The fact is that women would really love to see their men get therapy, too. And not just to BE a “beta provider husband”. We need men who are able to communicate with us in a meaningful way so that our relationships are healthy and loving. Far too many men AND women were damaged as children because of dysfunctional parenting and NEED therapy to be good partners in relationships. Personally, I have never needed a man to provide for me financially. I have always been able to take care of myself in that respect, thank you very much!

    Report comment

  • AL says:

    Thank you for this. It is sd that in so many cultures men are seen as people who shouldn’t be allowed to express themselves or have feelings. I do think that a portion of this stems from truth behind research that women feel bonded after talking and men feel bonded after participating in shared activities.

    Communication greatly benefits every human, but the feeling of bonding to another and community, which aid mental health extraordinarily, is acquired differently.

    o maybe when the research is extended to males it will show that hey need some additional aspect to the communication, but maybe not, they might feel such a great release from being allowed to be human.

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.