Biology of a Black Rock City Burner

Does it hurt right now? Do you feel uncertain, sad or even relieved about not building Black Rock City this year?

We share 50% of our genes with a banana (and 97.5% with a mouse), but bananas don’t have the genes I’m gonna talk about here — the ones that create the chemicals to make us feel all the feels.

There is a really cool quartet of chemicals that make us feel happy things: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. It is this deliciously complex stew of chemicals coursing through our bodies that makes our body, mind, and spirit yearn again and again for Black Rock City.

And it is the marked absence of them that makes us feel the way we feel about missing BRC this year. It’s real. It’s human. Like it or not, it is our biology, and has been for millions of years.

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The First Chemical: Endorphins

Endorphins mask pain by making us feel pleasure. It’s the reason we get a “high” when we exercise, and the reason a hearty laugh can feel like such a relief.

I was watching the number of people joining the Facebook page “A Group Where We Pretend to do our Jobs at Burning Man 2020” virtually explode (1,793 members have joined since April 11!), and I think one of the reasons is the page is resurrecting a sense of community.

But another reason is that it’s a damn nice release to laugh in the middle of the pain felt by loss, and there’s a ton of hilarity on that page.

I’m seeing the same thing on all of the pop-up online meetings. People being light and silly and dressing up and reminiscing about the fun and outrageous… our biology craves the endorphins, and these are ways we are getting the “hit.”

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Chemical Number 2: Dopamine

We need those endorphins right now because we are suddenly starved for dopamine. Dopamine goes spilling into the bloodstream and bathing our brains when we get shit done. It’s that satisfying feeling when you reach a goal or even a benchmark in a goal.

We get a virtual EXPLOSION of the feel-good dopamine rush when the city is built, our teams are in place, the art is lit up, and we finally open the gate to the excited citizenry of Black Rock City. Big successes are like a dopamine beer bong.

The bigger the goal, the bigger the rush, and that’s why building Black Rock City, taking it down, and then the utter miracle that is Leaving No Trace feels so ridiculously good. Our luscious friend, dopamine.

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Next on the List of Delicious Chemicals: Serotonin

This is the chemical that washes through you when you feel that sense of “team” with your people, you are praised or rewarded for doing an awesome job, your efforts as a leader are realized, and you see the rich effect you’ve helped to foster.

Dopamine feels good because we achieved a goal; serotonin feels good because others saw, appreciated and rewarded our efforts, or we saw, appreciated and rewarded the effort of others, but mostly because we did it together.

Finally, There Is the “Love Chemical,” Oxytocin

This stuff literally oozes out of us when we feel love and friendship and trust. It makes us feel relaxed, stable and safe. It’s that feeling you get when you know you can show your soft underbelly to someone and trust that they won’t take advantage and hurt you somehow.

While dopamine gives you the thrilling rush, oxytocin lingers like a heady scent in the air. It inspires us to give generously, boosts our immune systems, turns us into wicked problem-solvers, and makes us resistant to fidgety addictions like food, substances, and social media.

Now, not to get all Debbie Downer on you, but these chemicals, dopamine in particular, are very addictive. And we have hundreds of people in our community who have been swimming in dopamine, planning, prepping and energizing their crews, communities, families, and themselves for a thing that just went *poof.*

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But now, without those goals, there is no dopamine. There’s no endorphin source unless we intentionally exercise or make laughter happen. And with social distancing and no Black Rock City life, getting the serotonin and oxytocin we need takes a monumental effort, especially if we are sequestered in a home all alone.

So in walks another chemical, cortisol. This beast is great in a pinch because it initiates the fight or flight response — “You’re in danger, get the fuck out!”. But when our social circles, livelihood, or sense of belonging are threatened, when we don’t feel safe and cared for, cortisol just leaks slowly and constantly into our veins.

It wreaks havoc on our bodies, raising our blood pressure, tripping up our immune response, impairing our ability to think straight, making our metabolism sluggish, etc. This stuff is awesome when we need it and a bitch when we’re continuously saturated with it.

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So Now What?

Great question. Staying connected with one another helps so much; setting the intention of connecting however we can during these strange times sure will help. Write surprise letters to your favorite people. Make and send little gifts of love and appreciation. Exercise to get those endorphins swimming into your remote corners. Practice quiet mindfulness to calm the cortisol drip.

Distract yourself by setting goals for the things you can accomplish while sheltering in place (learn things, clean things, create things). Embrace your patient self, knowing that it’ll be longer than we wished it would be, but we WILL go Home again, and the feeling of that will be better than we could ever imagine. 


Top photo: Build week hugs (Photo by Lung Liu) 

About the author: Kate Gonnella

Burning since 2001, Kate Gonnella acted as the Medical Chief for Emergency Services for a dozen years before becoming the Chief of Emergency Operations in Black Rock City.

15 Comments on “Biology of a Black Rock City Burner

  • Thank you Kate for the uplifting words. endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin…these are some of my favorite things

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  • Nicopetina says:

    Art, Music, Community and Education. Praise BRC! Thank you Kate. Your words are incredibly helpful. Cheers sisterpants!

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  • Buena Chica says:

    Great article Kate.

    Sometime people need to hear the scientific substance behind all our emotions.

    I continue to do suicide prevention and certainly cover all these…. once people understand our basics needs, each person can make proper choices to improve their well being accordingly within nay given situation.

    SO very much hope ALL Burners will now use all their creative juices within our own communities instead of just being ‘addicted’ to all these chemical reaccion on TTITD. Beyond Playa, there is soooo much more we can now do!

    *I AM NOT A BANANA!!! HA!!! )'(

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  • If you ever see a good post, it is important to praise it and I am doing the same, in fact, your post is very beautiful, the content written in it is good.

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  • Lightning says:

    Nicely written, Kate! I think I felt my cortisol level go down as I was reading it. (BTW, a Rampart neck gaiter I’m sure you don’t remember giving me has been my go-to face mask since the dawn of shelter-in-place. Thank you!)

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  • ira says:

    Kate, it’s things like this article that remind me why I adore you. Only you could take two topics like ‘neurotransmitters’ and ‘Burning Man’ and end up with a highly sensitive thought piece that filters feelings via science without losing the heart of the matter… that we need to be more careful with ourselves than ever and remember others need that too. Thanks! Miss your face but glad to run across this! <3

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  • Nate says:

    Love this post! So good to remember how important community is to all of us, and how staying productive is actually a form of happiness.

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