Magic Has a Name: On Collective Effervescence

Hanging front and center on my grandparents beach cottage, a slab of driftwood was given a rainbow paint job and emblazoned with the words "Serendipity." Though I spent time there almost every summer as a youth, I never asked, or cared to know what the word meant. For me, it only needed to be the name of the cottage.

In 1996, Hurricane Fran rolled over the Outer Banks, Topsail Island, and our cottage, ripping away huge chunks of the beach and the entire first floor of the cottage itself. Once families were allowed to return to the area, I joined my grandfather in salvaging what we could. Cottage stilts resembling spindly legs were all that remained of the first floor, save a medicine cabinet mirror swaying in the wind and the washing machine, sitting lopsided in a sea of sand on the front lawn.  Our colorful piece of driftwood was gone. Gone until my grandfather found it among the shifted sands in front of the house.

Webster defines serendipity as "luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for" or in short form, "pleasant happenstance." I've come to appreciate serendipity as it shows itself in travels, reunions, even matters of the heart. If I had a boat, I might just paint it on the back. It was serendipity that led me into Camp Red Lightning at Burning Man this past September.

It was a dusty day on the playa, which goes without saying, but by saying it I'm meaning to convey that this day was as dusty as a day might reasonably aspire to be. Fits of mad white outs and still repose between, the day was colder than expected and many sought shelter or returned to camp to warm up. I was out far from my camp and too amused by shiny/dusty things to head back. It was only when the chill finally set in that I decided to duck to the nearest cover. Approaching the Esplanade I saw a particularly large cluster of bikes, which, to a burner means 'something cool is happening over there'. Relieved to be rid of the wind chill, I plopped down inside just as the speaker was finishing his introduction.

 Chip Conley speaking inside Camp Red Lightning.

Chip Conley speaking inside Camp Red Lightning.

The speaker turned out to be Chip Conley, author, hotelier, BM board member, generally curious human being, and founder of Despite the whirling dust and his own elevated position as speaker, Chip eloquently introduced his audience to a term that I never knew I longed to know; Collective Effervescence. First coined by 19th century sociologist, psychologist and mustachioed philosopher Émile Durkheim, collective effervescence refers to a shared excitement, thought or action among a group. More eloquently, collective effervescence is experienced when an individual focuses less on the self and feels a connection with others sharing an experience bigger than an individual. Chip echoed Mr. Durkheim's position that, as modernity and capitalism reshape our world, mankind has passively surrendered ceremony, celebration, rights of passage and so on that were once shared by a community or tribe. As these traditions pass to history, we are left bereft of a social good we may have failed to notice. In the modern world, it can be difficult to know your tribe, let alone share a collective joy or reverence together.

"What I love about a festival, when it gets it right, is that sense of ego separation dissolves, and what comes in it's place is this communal joy." Burning Man has created a temporary community, a tribe, where friends and strangers alike share, and create, just that. As diverse a group as burners are, the collective joy, curiosity, openness, expression and love are near uniform. All are tangible in the air though the mood shifts notably on burn nights. Euphoria, perhaps most so the night of the man burn, and warm, somber as the temple smolders. Mr. Conley described the experience we all could feel and asked, what can science do to capture and study this?

In a way, I'm completely content smiling and waving this joie de vivre off as a sort of magic. It's fun to think about, fun to leave it as a known unknown (not letting Dick Cheney keep that expression forever). Fortunately, the intrepid minds at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) have sought to measure this effect in real time. Since 2012, the institute has set up Random Number Generators (RNGs) at points across the playa, an effort starting with only a few machines yet including more than fifty as of 2014. The devices ran for the duration of the event with little deviation until the burn itself. In each year data has been collected, devices measured a statistically significant deviation immediately prior to, and during the burning of the man.

  Figure 1.  The Burning Man event began at 9 PM (21 hours) with the raising of the man’s arms; the man was ignited at 9:30 PM (21.5 hours). The peak deviation across all 6 RNGs occurred within minutes of the peak collective attention of the 65,000 minds at Burning Man.

Figure 1. The Burning Man event began at 9 PM (21 hours) with the raising of the man’s arms; the man was ignited at 9:30 PM (21.5 hours). The peak deviation across all 6 RNGs occurred within minutes of the peak collective attention of the 65,000 minds at Burning Man.

  Figure 2.  Odds against chance for graph shown in Figure 1.

Figure 2. Odds against chance for graph shown in Figure 1.

the statistical order observed in the playa RNG during the burning man event would be observed purely by chance only 4 in 1,000 times (p = 0.004). This means that if this same experiment were conducted at the annual Burning Man festival each year for a millennium, then the effect we observed would occur by chance alone on about four occasions. So we might have been lucky this time, but if we consider the results of all three tests combined (p = 0.004, 0.002, and 0.03), that outcome is associated with z = 4.28, p = 9.4 × 10-6, or odds against chance of 106,420 to 1.

Now, Noetics is rightfully considered an alternative science as it explores what is relatively unknown, unquantifiable, what could be called magic. In a sense though, what might magic be but unexplained science? It's fun to think about, to question and to see explored. In any event, collective effervescence is real and I'm happy to have the term to describe what I and so many others felt. Before the burn, I may well have known this feeling but remained without a means to describe it, now I know its name and can convey the experience that much easier. So next time you are at a concert and a thousand voices rise with yours for a chorus, or the next time you enter a centuries old cathedral, attend a wedding, a funeral, consider that you might be dabbling in a little bit of that shared consciousness. You might be dabbling in what, should you look it in the eye, resembles something close to magic.