Consent Angel

When the dutch burning man organisation asked for volunteers to help make the decomp party a safer space by advocating consent, I sent them an email with suggestions saying I would be happy to volunteer. I got a generic thank you message claiming they would contact me with more details. They never did. Despite that I still decided to do what little I could in face of massive sexual harassment this party suffered from. Read on for some tales including self defense and intervention tips which I would love to get more feedback on.

———This might be triggering for some. ———————-

Every self made sheriff needs a badge

The Playa Provides
At the very beginning of the party as I was putting my costume on someone offered me a gift. ‘We made badges of all the 10 principles of burning man, well actually 11. This year we also have a consent badge, do you want to be an angel of one of these principles?’ He asked. Guess which one I chose? And so, the playa provided me with a very useful tool, my makeshift little badge.

During the night I realized the people violating consent could be fit in broad categories on a ranging scale. Despite wanting to punch all of them I kept violence mostly to the bare necessity preferring to educate and get people to realize their behavior was hurtful.

The “nice yet insensitive” – these people model others as they model themselves. All of us have been guilty of this at some time. It is a natural statistical mistake. For some men if something doesn’t bother them it’s hard for them to Imagine it will bother women. These people are quick to apologize once called out and open for deeper discussion on these topics.

Are you a safe person?

Example 1: I facilitated a consensual massage circle with 2 others when some guy sat by me and touched me on the shoulder.
“Ask before touching,” I told him in a neutral tone.
“Oh, right sorry, I thought touching you on the shoulder would be ok. But I should ask, you are right. Can I touch you?”
“What type of touch?” (Negotiating specifics is a good thing especially if you don’t know each other)
“Just join the massage circle, I’ve never seen this in a party”.
“Sure, this is burning man and for me it’s part of the culture to be able to gift physical fun as long as its consensual,” I explained and we continued to discuss this.

Example 2: There was a nude woman volunteering to be a live art piece others can draw on. She was being ‘pimped out’ by some guy. “Can I ask her if she gives consent for me to draw on her?” I ask.
“You don’t need to she’s a living art piece,” he said. I cringed, this is a very similar idea for an art project I suggested to the burning man organisation. Just imagine how awesome it would be to get people to practice asking for consent in this fun interactive way instead of silencing this woman’s voice and telling people to do what ever they want.
“She is alive so I’m going to ask.” She thanks me for asking and I draw on her shoulder. I see a friends of mine is using his spit and finger to fix some of his drawing. “You know you should probably ask if she’s ok with that. Being ok with people drawing on you with brushes isn’t the same as people using some of their saliva on your skin.”
“Hmm, I’d be ok with it but you are right I should ask,” he said and proceeded to ask the model. Do not be afraid to call out on your friends too. If they are the good guys they will be happy to remodel and make sure they are not hurting someone.

“The over privileged” – These are people who’s parent’s never taught them to ask for permission before taking other’s toys. The walk around believing the world was made for their enjoyment. They don’t want to hurt anyone but their enjoyment comes first.

Example 1: Before I left the living sculpture, I saw a woman take some black tape and without asking tape the model’s mouth shut. Both me and the model seemed shocked by that. “You know, you should probably ask before doing that, maybe she doesn’t want that?” The model nodded and took the tape off.  To my shock the woman laughed, and took the tape off the model’s hands and taped her mouth shut again. The model took the tape off again and said it’s not comfortable. She didn’t need me to help her but I was still deeply disturbed by this woman’s actions. “You know by taping her mouth you are really changing this art piece from something very beautiful and special to just another image objectifying and silencing women which is also very triggering for some. “Oh yeah I didn’t think about that,” she admitted.


The most consensual hug the whole evening

Example 2: A woman was on a couch, lying on top of her chosen partner for the night and making out with him, her back was towards the room. A guy passed by and reached out to her with a long slow creepy “caress”.

“Do you know her?” I asked in a friendly voice.

“No,” he answered.

“Do you think maybe you should ask her before touching her?”

I can see his red alarm go off and he begins to get very defensive. “I didn’t touch her butt, just her back. I didn’t mean it that way…”

I engage with the female, presumably friend, he is with. “A lot of women really don’t like to be touched by strangers, right?” I ask her.

She nods “yeah, you should ask,” she says cautiously.

With his friend now siding with me he retreats and apologizes (although it’s not me he needs to apologize to) and says he will make sure to ask next time.

example 3: A guy took a close up picture of me while dancing. “you know you should ask me if i’m ok with you taking my picture.” I pointed out.

“oh yeah, I saw the signs”, he says dismissively.

“And?” I persisted and he goes on the defense.

“you can’t see your face in the pictures.”

“I don’t know that and for some people it might make them feel unsafe.”

“This is a public space,”his aggression started getting higher.

I engage with another man standing besides me “No, this isn’t. It’s burning man and we are trying to build a community that is safe for everyone. People come here to take off the masks they have to put on in public spaces right?” The guy beside me answers with a nod.

The selfish photographer’s social brain starts rewriting itself “oh, I guess I should reconsider.” he says slowly somethings sinking in. But is it enough?

For me burning man has always been an opportunity to explore gender fluidity.

Example 4: While standing on line for the party a guy decided to try to bully me because of my non binary gender appearance.

He laughed out load pointed figures and started asking me if I’m a guy or a girl.

“Does it matter?” I smiled.

“What the fuck?” he kept pointing and shouting loudly. Like all bullies he wanted attention so I do the opposite. I engage with others, not sure if they are his friends or not but they were very tense and silent. “I’m a complicated creature. Not everyone can be normal,” I tell them smiling.  All of us except him have a good laugh and they start speaking up for me. “Yeah, we should all just do what’s good for us.” one says. The bully is still trying to get attention “But why? why do that?” he asks. One of the people started to intervene on my behalf. “It’s ok, I can tell him”. I looked at him, some parts of my brain actually managed to muster up some compassion for this fearful attention seeking creature, he really was afraid of me. I came close and while holding his gaze openly I whispered into his ear “Because life is too short to be just one person”.

His behavior totally changed. “I’m sorry, case closed” he said and went quite muttering to himself “I get it now, I get it”. Honestly I don’t think it really mattered what I told him it was more about me totally lowering my defenses, somehow projecting this notion that he has nothing to fear from me, despite my difference I would be kind and friendly if he did the same.

The hungry rapist creeps – These are people that are starving for some semblance of power, cowards at heart looking to take by force that which should only be given freely.

Example 1: I was dancing in the corner when I see a man approached a woman dancing near me. He stepped into her space uninvited. She stepped back into the wall cowering, putting up her hands defensively. He tried to kiss her and she moved her head sideways trying to push him off her.I jumped in between them stationing myself so I can still see him but providing her with some space. “Do you know this guy?” I asked her.

“Yes, he’s my friend.” she answered.

“Do you want him to touch you in this way?”

“No, I just want to dance,” she said.

I turn to the guy. “You should ask before you touch people.”

“She’s my friend”, he tried to move past me towards her but i’m faster then him and I blocked his way.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I pumped up the aggression and used my crazy eyes. He mirrored my actions and pumped up his chest. I break the formation and changed my body position moving faster and stranger then he’s probably ever seen. My hands were still in front of me if I needed to use them but they are hanging as if I was a strange puppet on strings. “She doesn’t want to kiss you.” I say with my head tilted side ways and a crooked smile.

His chest deflates he he isn’t sure how to react. “you are giving me bad vibes, let me talk to my friend”, he tries to reach around and grab her.

I fake on the most overly flirtations and sexually aggressive smile and put my hand around him. “Oh really? I didn’t mean to give you bad vibes.” I shoved my bearded side of the face towards him as if trying to kiss him.

“Don’t touch me!” he retreated freaking out.

I took a step back too. “Oh you are right. I’m so sorry I should have asked before I touched you,” I smiled his brain goes into freeze mode again and I can see this recalculation, him starting to understand he like the creep I was to him.

I talked to the woman again, showed her my make shift badge and told her she can ask me for help if she needs it. I made sure she wasnt’ dependent on this creep to get home and told her to be careful because if he doesn’t respect her boundaries here he will not respect her boundaries in other places. She thanked me and said she will talk to him. They sit down and talk I continue to dance while watching them. I also talk to another person beside me, explain the situation and tell him that if that creep harasses her again I might need his help to get security so we can kick this guy out. Honestly this was probably the hardest thing for me to do that night. My big feminist ego doesn’t want to ask for help but it is 100% the right move, so do not be ashamed to use it. The creep moved away. I talked to the woman again, gift her a blinky finger LED and did some shadow boxing example of what I would like to do to creep guys. She laughed and told me that he is a friend that just wants more from her and she explained to him she isn’t interested. I urged her to be careful and told her if i’m not around she can ask anyone else for help because there are a lot of good people in this party.

But this isn’t the end of creep guy. Later that night someone caressed my arm while I was moving on the dance floor. When I realized it was him I jumped forward and pressed a blinky toy forcefully into the corner of his eye. He let out a yelp of pain and I could see real fear on his face. “You do not touch me” I said keeping pressure on his eye doing everything I could to hold back from doing actual damage. I gave him a little shove and moved back looking at him like the despicable pathetic animal that his is. He puffed up his chest trying to save his bruised ego. But I’ve learnt that once they are really afraid of you they might keep barking but they will stay away from your bite. (Unless they are there with friends in which case get the fuck out of the place because trouble is coming).

None of my actions were perfect, nor would I advise anyone to necessarily take these specific courses of action. Self Defense is based on what characters you feel safe and able to bring out of yourself. I do hope the men and (woman) I interacted with will have some changes in their behavior, become better allies, more considerate of others or in the case of the creep I hope a small part of his brain starts predicting a woman being able to cause him massive physical damage. Despite the fact that most the harassment I encountered (although not all!) were by men and the women I personally  danced with or even cuddled/made out with all asked for my consent, a male friend of mine fell asleep and was woken up by a woman laying down on him and touching him. He was rightfully angry but he did not feel physically threatened. I asked him what would have happened if he had drank too much and couldn’t physically stand up to her. “that would have been bad,” he said a tiny glimpse of the fear so many woman carry around with them flashed on to his face.

What ever course of action you do choose to take I strongly suggest you keep your eyes open and do not let these types of behaviors go unnoticed. If you are intervening on behalf of others don’t presume you know what is going on and ask. I personally regret not asking the women how she would like me to help her before taking control of the situation and I should have intervened by asking her if she can show me were there toilets where or something that would get her away without me needing to resort to more drastic measures. If you do not feel you are able to intervene ask someone else or go get help. Don’t be a silent bystander.

And to the dutch burning man organisation I have this to say. You have utterly failed in making the decompression a safe space. As I have written to you before, putting signs up in the bathroom and entrance isn’t enough! You have paid some private outside security company (the head of security wouldn’t give me the name of the company just said it was his private company!). This company did not manage to deal with the queues and people were almost getting squashed and a woman with claustrophobia collapsed! To my knowledge this security company didn’t do anything to make this a safe space. I talked to another security guy and he said he didn’t deal with any men behaving badly, which mostly means he didn’t look for any. What I describe here is only part of the of the violations of consent I saw or experienced myself so I can only be fearful in estimating the amount of people that felt violated. Dear organizers I know you are working your asses off and I know you mean well but this should be your number 1 priority. No matter how amazing the art, how good the music, if people are getting harassed on your watch at this scale (this is actually a lot worse than the usual parties I go to!!!) you are doing something very wrong. Talk to me I have ideas.

In the meantime here are 3 tips that I’ve compiled based on my studies of brain and behaviour for the past 2 years, training in Martial Arts and self defense for over 20 and previously being part of the Israeli police forensics, investigating violent crimes.

  1. Break the prediction break the brain
    To cut things short, the brain is a prediction machine, if you break the prediction you break the brain.
    Sexual predictors or bullies predictions are simple, they are usually not the most creative or intelligent specimens of humanity. They are mostly predicting fear and obedience when they harass. They almost always start with checking your borders, either by a “vague” inappropriate touch or verbally. When someone stands up to them they are predicting the regular “who has a bigger dick” behavior pattern, puffing up their chest,  slowly pumping up their adrenaline and meager amount of bravery to get ready for a fight.
    To break these predictions create the most unpredictable batshit crazy character. Allow yourself to be anything, from overly nice to overly scary, overly stupid, overly violent, overly sexual or even animalistic or speak gibberish. If you do not respond in the predicted way a momentarily freeze response will occur in your attackers brain. For a brief moment their brain is susceptible to your influence. Which you can use to deescalate, get away or cause serious physical damage if necessary. The moment an attacker begins to take control switch again and do something totally unpredictable.
  2. Use Your Social Brain
    Humans have social brains, massive parts of our self identity are what others see in us. Once conflict arises, get the attentions of others as soon as possible. Engage them in the story you are creating, a story in which your perpetrator isn’t someone to be feared. The situation isn’t about just you and the perpetrator there is an active crowd now, and you can use their attention to divert the story in many ways. See the crowd as good Samaritans and not silent bystanders. The perpetrator must take notice of what’s happening and this destabilized the very simplistic social hierarchy pattern he is used to modeling. If the bystanders are friendlies don’t be ashamed to ask them for help, direct them as you would actors. If the others are the perpetrator’s friends that can still play to your advantage. Give all your attention to one of the friends, if you can tell who is the second ranking in their social hierarchy even better, pay him a compliment “what did this guy do to deserve such a cute friend like you?” Make indirect fun of the perpetrator while speaking to his friends “Are you like the spice girls and he is scary spice?” These type of social hierarchies are just waiting to start ripping each other apart. If you tell a story in which this “second in command” is actually the most powerful and an ally you might just get them to turn on each other. Remember you are smarter than these ass holes they only know how to play one game and it’s a game that is quite easy to play if you really have to.
  3. Play the Game
    For most of us, especially women violence is a language not well understood, and a brain that doesn’t know how to predict violence will freeze when facing it. That’s why I do advocate some real hands on self defense but even without that our imagination is our greatest tool. If you don’t feel you could crush this guy just imagine someone who would decimate this idiot and enjoy it too. Look them square in the eye and see them being crushed. See  their nose getting squashed by a fist, an elbow splitting their jaw sending splinterd teeth all over the room, a knee exploding their balls. Whatever gory blood thirsty images your brain can muster, bring them out, and imagine somebody (if not you), enjoying these images. Imagine that someone smile and let your mouth follow that imagination. There is nothing scarier than an unpredictable crazy person who enjoys ripping people’s eyes out. Vocalize your threats if you need to. I once screamed at a guy “I am going to rip your balls out and stuff them down your throat”. Since most men haven’t encountered a woman that can kick their ass it’s not part of their prediction. They do not believe they can come to any harm if they harass women. You don’t have to be able to hurt them just to induce the belief that maybe you can. These are cowards not looking for a fair fight. A friend of mine once got a group of fanatics looking to attack us to run away just by shouting “Dan, Mark, John, let’s kill these fuckers” while running towards them…” there were no Dan Mark or John, just me watching and learning. That same friend got out of a bunch of trouble once by speaking into his jacket lapel and shouting “Detective carter requesting immediate assistance at…”.

Remember even if your lies are found out you can always go back to playing nice, dumb or what ever. A woman in a wheel chair saved her self by relentlessly barking like a dog. You could also play the frightened cooperating person but make sure you have a joker up your sleeve. The earlier you can break the story your attacker is predicting the more able you will be to make a different ending. My recommendation is whatever happens do everything you can to not be moved to another location.

Playing glimpses of this violence loving character while giving the perpetrator a way out that maintains his delicate bruised ego (for instance by suddenly playing nice again or totally making light of the matter by laughing) should be enough to control the situation. If it isn’t and all else fails and you have no where to run, let this bloodthirsty character out to fight and shout and keep shouting! Viciously shred anyone that dares to try to harm you. Go for the neck or eyes, throw what ever you can and try to get to safety. You are so much stronger then you know!

Burn Babies Burn

This was my third time at burning man but my first time to stay all the way to the end and have a personal encounter with the ‘fire god’ at the burning of the temple on the last day. Read on for more.

Temple burn (photo by Liz Altmiller)

Temple burn (photo by Liz Altmiller)

Despite my cynicism and eversion from religion, already at my first burn it was obvious this was a place for me. Black rock city is one of the few places I don’t have to inhibit my “strangeness”, a place where I can push my boundaries and explore without scaring others or getting arrested.

upgraded mood badges, thanks Ashley Newton for the idea of adding an interactive dial.

upgraded mood badges, thanks Ashley Newton for the idea of adding an interactive dial.

This year I brought practice swords and challenged people to dual. I experimented with latex body parts asking people to explore their sense of touch. Played truth or dare with strangers using my modified mood badges. I even took my first totally naked bike ride (after padding the bike seat).
No other place has so many opportunities for learning new stuff and practicing problem solving. As I explained last year, no other place is so inducing of improvisation and play.

As part of the build crew in my camp I learnt to drill in wood, tie knots, build shade structures and more. Exploring the workshops in the city I increased my jumping distance in a parkour lesson,  practiced clenching each butt cheek separately in a twearking class, learnt some poi tricks, did some metal work, as well as gave a mini lecture on my psychedelic work, learnt about the possible future of genetic engineering from industry leaders and so much more.


I made this.

Revisiting Past Vs. Present
Returning to the same place with some of the same people allowed me to get glimpses of my progress in some domains. Each year I have gone to the roller disco and stumbled around. This year was no different until my eye caught a women who knew what she was doing. The past year I have been learning a lot about the motor system and have been practicing letting my mirror system take over. I looked at this roller disco women and ‘became her’. Suddenly there was stability in my movement. What had changed? I noticed how my head had moved forward over my toes, allowing the toes and feet to connect to the ground and control the movement. My ankles were not strong enough to maintain this posture for more than a few minutes at a time but I was so greatful and amazed at my body’s ability to learn.

Hammock forest with climbable two stories of hammocks. Structurally sound with no knots!

Hammock forest with climbable two stories of hammocks. Structurally sound with no knots! (photo by Liz Altmiller)

Since this was my 3rd year with the couch burning camp which tends to have many virgin burners I could contribute much more to camp then previous years. We were a very small and hardworking group of builders that set up almost everything within two days. We were one of the first camps to have an open bar, music, chill space (and showers for members) even before official doors opened. The efficiency of the small crew was total bliss for me until the third day when we doubled our workforce which resulted in the productivity halving. A strange variant of the bystander effects seemed to be taking place.

On my first burn, the visit to the temple, a place that naturally emerged in burn culture to allow for morning and letting go of loved ones did nothing to me. I was too emotionally blocked to feel anything. Last year I collapsed. Thanks to my connection with Shlomo parts of my limbic emotional system had been reconnected but they had the maturity of an undeveloped baby and were overwhelmed by sensing  everyone’s pain and sadness. I collapsed to the ground shaking and crying like a little baby and could barely crawl out of there. This year I entered more prepared. If this brain can mirror physical states it can mirror emotional states too. I asked Shlomo to walk in the temple with me holding my hand and he agreed to be my emotional container. It wasn’t easy. Tears started streaming down and I could feel the shaking start to take over but I held on to his haמd tightly, sucking his calmness though my skin. I reminded myself that even when hurt this system isn’t a baby. It can walk, it can talk and it can breath deeply. Once breathing was stabilised things were easier. My grandmother had died this past year but I couldn’t bring myself to write her name in the temple. It was too much of a religious act, like writing a note in the wailing wall. Instead, when we left the temple I told shlomo about her. How she was the strongest female role model in my life and how it hurt me to see her stubbornness and belief in religion stand in her way of growth and happiness.
Despite the success of the temple visit later that night these baby networks awoke with wave after wave of perceived pain. I’m not sure I’ll ever know what is the reason for the pain these networks recorded because whatever the reason is, it is long gone but live echos of the original pain remain unchanged by the flow of time. I felt the temple burn might be my last chance to try to get these networks to update their model before I head home and I really didn’t want to head home with all this pain.

Burnt temple. (Photo by Liz Altmiller)

Burnt temple. (Photo by Liz Altmiller)

So there I was sitting in a mostly silent crowd of thousands of people waiting for the torch to be lit. Unlike the mayam of the man burn when all the art cars are blasting contradicting music and stinking the area with gasoline fumes, the temple burn is sober and calm. Suddenly the temple was lit up in massive flames, a wave of heat flowing over the crowd. I was in an almost hypnotic state staring at the largest fire I have ever come close to. Fire is the release of stored solar energy, as Feynman explains and this fire could release the painful stored information in my brain as well, this was the time to burn the babies.  ‘Death brings new life’ something deep in this brain was chanting. ‘We can be like fire, flowing, changing and powerful’. Another part of my brain was doing statistical calculation, understanding that the painful sample recorded early on was still just a sample, not the entire reality. Many babies might never feel this type of pain, and even if it ever had any adaptive survival value it doesn’t have that anymore.

Two weeks in such harsh dry conditions with constant lack of sleep and massive amounts of novelty and emotional upheaval leave some long lasting effects. I’m still tired, my pores overcompensating for dryness are now giving me pimples and swollen tingling finger tips, parts of my dusty hair might need to be chopped off. On the emotional side I’m carefully optimistic. These baby networks are still babies, they haven’t been fully integrated into the rest of the brain and babies are oversensitive and confused and cry sometimes but at least it seems that they aren’t automatically biased to predict and experience massive amounts of pain and now it’s up to my grownup parts together with the incredible support I have from my loved ones to help them grow up healthy.


Lack of sleep and too much small talk influenced me to exit a Saturday brunch party and sit on the sidewalk in San-Francisco, hiding away from the rain that has been drenching the city for a few days.  Barley a minute passed before a homeless woman who looked around my age stood before me. She was holding a piece of cardboard in one hand and a fast-food soda drink in the other.  

“Can I sit?” She asked

“Sure,” I said, making space for her to lay down her cardboard and sit down.

She looked at me intensely for a moment.

“You’re cute that’s why you’re defensive,” she said.

I looked back at her and smiled. “They always want things from the cute ones don’t they?”

She nodded.

“They only want money from me. I inherited 8 million dollars and they took it all from me…” She began falling into her barley cohesive psychotic loop.

I wished her well, excused myself and went back into the building

A Bayesian account of ‘hysteria’

A Bayesian account of ‘hysteria’

Human’s are strange creatures, our brains do their best to model incoming sensory information and predict the future. Repeated patterns bind together and turn into priors, into expectations, into ‘meme’s trying to spread their recorded pattern and influence perception with their prediction. Sometimes these memes become too strong and force themselves onto any incoming signal. This can lead to depression, OCD, ‘hysteria’ and even psychosis.  This past year I have been researching this subject with a very practical goal in mind. ‘How can we get opposing memes to get along with each other? How can we create a coalition in the brain that can overcome past traumatic events that lead to over active priors?”  This very intense first weekend in SF has triggered many of these memes and some of them want to be released from this brain and out into the world.


On Friday I went to a unique superhero themed house party.  It began with short science lectures. Then there talks about consent and responsible usage of substances as well as the organizers offering support and suggesting a ‘safe word’ to any who might need it. This was an amazing attempt to create a safe environment. The party was spread across a three story house with many surprises throughout: a sauna,  a hidden tiny room under the stairs with images of eyes stuck on to the walls, some LED art, cuddle spaces and a VR experience, were some of the things I encountered.

Most people were conversing, cuddling, slowly migrating from one room to another to see what recharges they could find.

A messy combination of gene environment interaction shaped the brain that I belong to into something that doesn’t enjoy many of the default things most humans seem to enjoy.  Socializing is boring and tedious, cuddling is too passive. This brain needs massive amounts of novelty and activity to keep these memes busy processing information, otherwise they begin to over process the same signal and the ‘meme’s begin to fight amongst themselves. “We know this,” they will scream with burning sensations beginning to take over.


What will recharge you?

That’s the first question I learnt to ask. Allow your brain to create a ‘positive’ prediction of something that enough memes can participate in.

For my brain one of the defaults is movement. A massive part of your brain is devoted to predict and create movement. As long as there is enough space to allow these memes to do what they do, move the body, feel the body, expand their learnt patterns, there is enough of a ‘positive’ coalition.

At this party for instance, almost no one was dancing so the whole dance floor was free for me to start rolling/ crawling/ dancing.

Then a strange thing happened, one person sat down and began watching me, and then another and another.

Another strange quirk of fate probably due to growing up in a religious environment that was perceived as a danger, mostly allows my brain to shut down the weak incoming social signals. There are very few ‘memes’ that model what others think of me and even fewer that care.

“Do I need something from them?”

“Can they hurt me in anyway?”

“Do they want to take away my autonomy and agency, enslave me to their needs and inforce their memes into me?”

My brain does not look for social approval, love, or attention from outside sources, only for physical safety and freedom. ‘Will they let me do what I want to do?’


Some sketches drawn at the party when I got bored.

If this safety is judged not to exist my brain will enter ‘self- preservation mode’. Many memes have been specialized for just this occasion, Retreat if possible. If not, ‘maintain’ high borders, expect nothing good from anyone, show no vulnerability, activate language center to provide loads of information to overstimulate opponents, maintain physical distance if needed. If this does not result in actual physical altercation which many of these memes actually enjoy. If there is just this constant stress of an unsafe environment this will quickly wake up what I have come to call ‘the opposition’,  memes that early on in life came up with what might have been a brilliant survival tactic back then to help the brain lower anxiety. “Destruction“ as a means to maintain some level of structural integrity.  “We want to destroy everything and die” they will scream.

Interestingly I’ve noticed that when deciding if this is a safe space or not my brain seems to model not only my safety but the safety of others. I don’t think this comes from altruistic reasons just practical ones. “If others don’t feel safe, they might know something that I don’t”.

If on the other hand the environment is judged as safe then the meme “Can we play together?” will appear. And this is what happened at the party. I began playing and improvising with the small crowd until another person joined the dance. He was not a professional dancer but we explored possibilities together and at least for part of the dance entered a shared state, a mutual growth function were we both wanted the same thing. Then my brain began picking up signals, was he trying to impress me? Was he trying to lead the dance to a more sexual place? This might have been my over sensitive priors but what came out was a little improvised “Macho” dancing, my body movement becoming extremely dominate and ‘male’ like. The crowd burst out laughing and clapping and that ended the dance.

I’ve wrote a more about safe space, expectation and improvisation in the post about burning man called  “adventure mode”.  The basic idea is to create an environment of plenty and that has to start with ‘radicle self-reliance’. It is this coalition’s opinion that only when you (mostly) do not need others for your happiness, only when there is a coalition that is able to look inwards and self-recharge can there begin to be a group coalition that looks out for each other without creating co-dependent situations.

The last few months I've been creating a gratitude wall. a little art piece or something I collected that reflect something I'm grateful for

The last few months I’ve been creating a gratitude wall. a little art piece or something I collected that reflect something I’m grateful for

The last few days I’ve been asking people here what recharges them? I was surprised that most answers were about outside goals: a lot of ‘making the world a better place’ in different forms. From my perspective that has to do with spreading your memes ‘outwards’ instead of developing them inwards and this is likely to lead to even bigger conflict and neediness from the outside world to accept your contribution.

So how about being egotistical for a second (or a lifetime), filling your cup before you fill others?

Here is a partial list of the recharges I have come up with throughout my lifetime that require no other human and are legal J (in no specific order):

Dancing, sketching, making strange art, looking at the mirror, hot showers, learning new things about the brain I belong to, Climbing, punching my punching bag, creating and participating in my own behavioral experiment (even if they don’t teach me anything), reading, writing, reading what I write. masturbating, eating novel (tasty) food, watching bad superhero tv shows and imagining my own scripts that would make them way better, staring and noisy patterns and allowing my brain to impose shapes and figures on them, eating chocolate, being topless, creating my gratitude wall, searching for more self-recharges 😉

“It wasn’t a “battle” it was just life”, A dying atheist wrote in her last message to her loved ones. The brain I belong to has managed to build a coalition strong enough to try to imprint this meme. Life might have many battles in it, both internal and external, much of my life has been spent fighting them. Now, it would seem, it’s time to start building coalitions. Both within my own brain and among others I wish to share my life with.



The Dutch decompression was a great reminder of the recharges burning man offers, adventures, improvisation, beyond random encounters and gifts, learning new skills, deepening connections and insights into my brain and society. Read on.

By now I’ve learnt enough about burning man to have some ideas how to maximise opportunities in this community by coming prepared. I had the beautiful LED boa Shlomo made me, some parts of my Halloween costume, some left-over mood badges and some chocolate, all of which came into play at some point in the long night.

Play Time

Choose: my makeshift costume and impro game.

Choose: my makeshift costume and impro game.

Waiting on line I began using my mood badges to entertain people (mostly myself). After entering, I was inspired by some of the art, and upgraded myself into an interactive installation/impro game. I wrote CHOOSE on my stomach and attached 2 different mood badges to my scarf. “Flirt with me” and “Teach me stuff”. I then either positioned myself as a sculpture in various corners or danced around, luring people into my game. The sad part was that every male that chose “flirt with me” (not all of them did) proceeded to try to ‘take control’, touch me and be overly aggressive. Without meaning for it I found myself giving some feminist education. The only good “flirt” was from a beautiful older woman, who proceeded to dance with me. She patiently played with the distance between us and made lots of sexy eye contact, and simply enjoyed the dancing. I contemplated whether I was being a “tease”?  I realised many men are so starved for affection/sex/intimacy/touch, that they aren’t able to enjoy what there is to enjoy without being frustrated and wanting the whole package. I too got to practice this skill myself as I was there with a woman I’ve had a crush on for a while. I had every intention of making sure she doesn’t feel uncomfortable so while dancing and ‘flirting’ I just asked her about her borders. She admitted that she really likes flirting, dancing and even cuddling with me but didn’t want anything to get sexual. Agreeing upon borders made everything more simple and I could just let go of ‘wanting more’ and enjoy whatever she enjoyed too. This brought me to my realisation that “the person who wants more out of a relationship, sexual or other, should let the person who wants less to take the lead.”


Patrick playing with fire (from his FB page)

First I met a fire poi master Patrick van Baarle, whom I met once before at a house party, which made me feel like I know local Dutch people. At the end of the night I got an amazing lesson from him which made me believe I might be able to acquire this skill with a little (a lot) of practice. I had to stop after hitting my knee and limping around.

Then I met Mephy. Mephy was the first intro I had to burning man culture, she was my ride to the New Zealand burn. I hovered around her cool LED dome until she appeared. It was amazing to realize how much we have both changed and grown since then.

I also saw this guy I recognized, from the European leadership burn party. Back then he and this women I saw him with reminded of what Shlomo and I might be 10 years from now and I had managed to conjure a whole imagined story about them. This time I actually had the guts to speak with him. Turns out even back then she was his Ex, someone who things didn’t work out with. He now had a new girlfriend and they didn’t seem to be poly. I was slightly disappointed but consoled myself with the thought that my reality is better that anything I could imagine.

Then towards the end of the party this woman passed me by. I did a double take to look at her again because I couldn’t believe what my brain was telling me. She was there with a guy I recognised too, he was wearing glasses and they were both dressed but I was pretty sure they were the couple I played with at burning man in the orgy dome. So I went up to them and said, “This might sound crazy but I think I had sex with you guys in the orgy dome?” The woman looked at me and said, “That’s an interesting conversational starter instead of talking about the weather.” She paused for a second before continuing “But yes, we had sex!” all three of us burst out laughing and group hugged. It was great to feel slutty again even though I had only platonic interactions at the party!

The best MOOP ever

A rubber hand!

A rubber hand!

I was sitting on the couch when I found a rubber hand which made me jump up in excitement. This might come as a surprise unless you’ve heard me go on about the rubber hand experiment. This is one of the basic experiments in neuro science that shows how easy it is to trick your brain into wrong predictions based on correlating information. You put a rubber hand on the table and your hand is under the table. The rubber hand is stimulated in the same places and frequency as your hand and after a few moments your brain will model the rubber hand as ‘your hand’. I have been itching to conduct this experiment on myself and others and finally I had a chance! It was a very cool sensation as if your hand has been teleported to a few centimetres from where it actually is.

The sad ending

At the bus, me and my friends were discussing whether this party was a safe environment for women when another woman joined the conversation and told us of unwanted touches she had to deal with on the dance floor. The party was a disappointment in that respect, yes I could go topless without anyone calling the police, but this male hunger was in the air – something I personally never felt at the burn itself and think arises from non-burners coming to this party too. I keep thinking what the burning man community should do to provide a safer environment for women in these type of parties? Suggestions?

Adventure Mode

After more than 10 days at burning man I’m going to try to explain what makes Black Rock City a unique niche environment that biases behavior towards playfulness, improvisation and adventure. I’ll try to explain why this is so rewarding for the brain and why the hippies got the ‘go with the flow’ thing right. Wish me luck and read on!

The man at the center

The man at the center

The predictive coding framework (Friston & Kiebel, 2009) claims that in essence the brain is a prediction machine, it tries to predict it’s sensory input and form a model of the environment as well as predict the best interaction with the environment. The reason for this is flat out survival. Biological life must “maintain their states and form in the face of a constantly changing environment” (Friston, 2010) yet interactions with the environment are needed for food and reproduction.

One way to make predictions easier for the brain is to actively intervene and change the environment, making it more predictable (Clark, 2013). Almost all animals do that, create nests, lairs or mark their territory. Human’s just do it on a much larger scale. We create cities, social norms and chain stores to make things easier to predict.

Black Rock City is a unique man made environment, on one hand it is more predictable than most cities. It is designed in a shape of a clock with the man at its center, there are public toilets at every corner and a fence making sure people don’t get lost in the desert. Due to the high ticket price and the gifting economy an environment of plenty is created making it much safer than most cities. Not to say that crime doesn’t exist, our bike got stolen from under our nose and I heard of a sexual assault in another camp but relatively speaking, it is safe and allows your brain to stay away from ‘fight or flight’ mode. Safety exists also in the social domain, as Burning Man defines itself as an inclusive community which allows for radical self expression. You will not be excluded for being naked, or gay, or having a unique fetish or hobbie.

no way to predict the next moment? WTF is that?

no way to predict the next moment? WTF is that?

The predictable infrastructure is the basis for all the mayhem that grows on top of it. Just standing on a street corner you have no idea what crazy art installation, costumed person, game, or strange social interaction might come your way. The weather too includes maddening dust storms that come out of no-where and the fact that there is no cell phone reception (well, this year to my dismay there actually was some) makes creating concrete plans and sticking to them virtually impossible.

So what does this have to do with improvisation and playfulness?

Let’s get back to the brain for a second, these predictive processes  in the brain are organized in a hierarchy. For any pair of levels, the higher-level will have hypotheses predicting the bottom–up signals from lower-levels. If the predictions are good, the bottom–up signals will be ‘explained away’. Only discrepancies between the winning prediction and the bottom–up signal remain as ‘prediction error’.

Creating a top down prediction that is far from reality = delusion

Creating a top down prediction that is far from reality = delusion

For instance, while lower levels of your brain exposed to a tree leaf will model the greenness of it to great detail, higher layers will just use an abstract word and shut down the lower layers, limiting the activation of  the lower level green ‘colour networks’.

Many improvisational techniques use exercises that overwhelm the ‘higher’ levels of the brain and split up the hierarchy allowing lower layers to be the ones explaining the input signals. For instance, try acting out an action but saying that you are doing something else or pointing at a familiar object but giving it a different name. These exercising force your brain to move away from ingrained prediction patterns confuse your higher verbal brain function that are used to predicting (describing) reality.

The lower layers react faster as the information doesn’t have to be carried all the way to the top and this added speed and fluidness is what improvisation is all about.

Why is that so much fun? Well, the dopamine reward system of your brain actually reacts much stronger to surprise rewards than to predictable ones. By not having these higher levels expectations, the brain can experience a higher degree of reward, and because of the higher refresh rate of the lower levels, your brain will be getting rewarded much more often.

A tiny part of the fun

A tiny part of the fun


The feeling of safety is also crucial for professional improvisers, the fear of messing up blocks the brain and puts actors, dancers, or musicians into ‘freeze’ mode.

The massive amounts of unpredictable information in Black Rock City combined with the safe structure are a controlled exercise in overwhelming higher levels of your brain. The addition of some chemicals that further reduce higher functions of  the brain increase this affect even more. As many will testify, this is a city made for tripping. Tripping reduces the activity of these higher levels and takes your brain back to a more childlike state. It’s no surprise that one of the main themes of burning man is giant playgrounds and giant games (my camp was part of that too with human foosball and creating a giant billiard with balling balls). While our brain can be reduced to a childlike state our body stays the same, thus we need to increase the size of the playground to give us the same magical, almost overwhelming feeling, we had as children climbing the monkey bars reaching out to the sky.

hippies get some things right

hippies get some things right

There is a fine balance to be found – if the top-most layers expect too much they will ‘enslave’ the lower layers and try to force ‘reality’ do be something that it’s not. While totally getting rid of the higher layers isn’t a good thing either, it makes the brain incredibly susceptible to the current stimulus coming from the environment, which can be cold, dusty or dirty on the physical level or crushingly sad and depressing if you go into the temple. This sounds very zen, but you can get you brain into a state of  knowing that “everything is going to be ok and even if it’s not ok it will still be ok.” This is just the right amount of higher layer biasing towards a positive prediction but still freeing the lower layers to react in an improvised way to whatever actually happens.

Mood badges! brainstorming with some pro artists and burners got me to this idea.

Mood badges! brainstorming with some pro artists and burners got me to this idea.

I found a cool way to slightly hack this system using ‘mood badges’. An LED lit badge that signals out to the world what type of interaction would be recharging. “Teach me stuff”, “Flirt with me” or “Tell me a secret”, became a setting for an improvised social interaction that was deeper and more satisfying than the usual small talk conversations. I’m seriously thinking of wearing them in my daily life, or maybe even making a cell phone app out of it. Anyone interested?

Anyway if you want to read more about predictive coding and the ‘sense of self’ you can read my neuro philosophy paper: 2015-07-13 Predictive Coding final5. Or read some of the papers in the references.

P.S Thank Brodi for the pics!


Friston, K. (2010). The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory? Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 11(2), 127–138.

Friston, K., & Kiebel, S. (2009). Predictive coding under the free-energy principle. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 364(1521), 1211–1221.

Friston, K., Thornton, C., & Clark, A. (2012). Free-energy minimization and the dark-room problem. Frontiers in Psychology, 3(MAY), 1–7.

Pre Burn

Burning man might be a week long social experiment/festival for some, but for other’s it’s a year-long hobby that increasingly takes over their life as the burn gets closer. Hanging out in San Francisco I got to meet some of the people who invest their time and money to create the magic that is Black Rock city.  Read on

Where dreams are built

Where dreams are built

The first time I walked into Nimby (not in my back yard), a massive warehouse in Oakland, the cynical bastard in me went to sleep for a few hours. It was at the back stage where dreams were being set up, like some scenes in Niel Gaiman’s Sandman. All around me people were working on projects that they chose to work on, investing their time and money on something that had no practical use. “We just like building stuff,” most people would tell me when I asked why they were doing this.

Even Dr. Brainlove can't escape bureaucracy of licencing and a license plate.

Even Dr. Brainlove can’t escape bureaucracy of licencing and a license plate.

I joined a group called Phage which exists for around 10 years trying to ‘infect the playa with science’, their art car called Dr. Brainlove models brain activity by using 400 meters of LED’s on a massive steel framework that can be climbed on.

After running around taking pictures and poking my nose around I asked to help and was put to work painting. I was delighted by the large percentage of women that were involved, many of them leading the project.

Build parties

Build parties

Nimby might be where all the heavy duty work took place, but cutting of the LEDs, soldering and the programing mostly happened at the crazy house of two amazing technical artists (check out their web site called sustainable magic and their workshops and events). I have always used the technique of calling something a party + ordering pizza and beers to get people to build my garden, paint my walls, help me move to a new apartment. These people have taken it one step further with their ‘build parties’.  I practiced being a Chinese factory worker for a few hours of cutting LEDs. My main contribution was probably finding a way to reduce the labor for that specific task by sliding the LEDs then cutting them just once instead of cutting them on both sides.

Chinese factory worker, just with music, friends and as many breaks as I want.

Chinese factory worker, just with music, friends and as many breaks as I want.

I also joined the sustainable magic crew in a last minute attempt to save the day by using their laser cutter to create thousands of plastic pieces that will hold in place the material used to defuse the LEDs light. The warehouse they work in was another small version of Nimby with amazing art created for burning man in previous years.

Another project I helped out with a little, mostly by giving massages, although I got to grind some of the rust away with this massive machine without killing myself, was the Tree of missed connections. A bunch of friends working in their back yard creating a LED-lit climbable tree, yes people like to climb on thing at burning man!

The Tree of missed connections

The Tree of missed connections

Both these projects were funded using crowd funding and let’s admit it, would probably not have come into being if the day jobs of a lot of the participants and their friends wasn’t the booming high tech industry in the area. This doesn’t lessen their accomplishment by one bit but shows that the freedom to create comes at a price that most people probably can’t afford.

Some amazing art from last year!

Some amazing art from last year!

These people and thousands of others creating the art for burning man will be working right up to the burn (and after). They will reach the playa even more exhausted than most but at least for some the added value of creating something together as a group is enough to keep them going and send them raving into the night… well, some chemical assistance might help as well.

See you on playa!