festivals, transformative experiences
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People attending festivals commonly report having transformative experiences – which researchers find to improve connection to humanity and willingness to help others

Throughout history, mass gatherings such as collective rituals, ceremonies, and pilgrimages have created intense social bonds and feelings of unity in human societies. Now, festivals mimic this old-age culture.

Researchers set out to find if modern-day secular gatherings like festivals, that emphasise creativity and community, serve an even broader purpose, by studying people’s subjective experiences and social behaviour at secular mass gatherings, such as the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.

These transformative experiences could be a range of numerous feelings, but often involved a person feeling their lives had changed for the better – with some positive results lasting up to six months.

Overall, the study demonstrates that people who reported transformative experiences at the gatherings felt more connected with all of humanity and were more willing to help distant strangers, of which, transformative experiences were the most intense among the 28% of subjects who reported taking psychedelic substances.

The researchers studied festivals which feature art, music, and self-expression

Looking at over 1,200 people attending multi-day mass gatherings in the United States and United Kingdom: Burning Man, Burning Nest, Lightning in a Bottle, Dirty Bird, and Latitude, researchers studied festivals and their impact.

They conducted their research via booths at the events inviting passers-by to “Play Games for Science”, where those who agreed to participate were asked about their experiences at the events along with their willingness to share resources with friends and strangers.

63.2% of participants reported having transformative experiences so profound that they left the events feeling radically changed, including a substantial number of people who did not expect or desire to be transformed. Transformative experiences were more intense among the 28% of subjects who reported taking psychedelic substances.

Daniel Yudkin, a postdoctoral researcher and first author of the paper, said: “We’ve long known that festivals, pilgrimages, and ceremonies make people feel more bonded with their own group. Here we show that experiences at secular mass gatherings also have the potential to expand the boundaries of moral concern beyond one’s own group.”

festivals, transformative experiences
Photo 142491142 © Steve Ford | Dreamstime.com

63.2% of participants reported having transformative experiences which changed their lives

Positively, the people who reported transformative experiences also reported feeling more socially connected with all human beings, and with every passing day they spent at these events, participants expanded their circle of generosity beyond family and friends towards including distant strangers.

They re-contacted some of the original attendees and also 2,000 people who had attended the event but were not originally interviewed, finding that transformative experiences and their prosocial feelings persisted at least six months.

Yudkin said: “The findings are an important reminder of what we’ve missed in years of pandemic isolation. Powerful social experiences, or what the sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence.’”

Another researcher, Crockett, commented: “Transformative experiences help people transcend the borders of the self and connect with all of humanity — crucial qualities to cultivate as we work to end this pandemic and prevent future ones.”

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