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 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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. http://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2787
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. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2008.0300
Friston, K., Thornton, C., & Clark, A. (2012). Free-energy minimization and the dark-room problem. Frontiers in Psychology, 3(MAY), 1–7. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00130