Transformation through human connection: What does the pilot study of the Story Sharing Cubes reveal?

There’s a lot going on at the Burning Man and the regional burner events, but each of us has very different experiences. A group of researchers and designers under the Burning Stories research collective created an experimental method to collect qualitative data from the participants of these events. The aim for us is simple – we want to get a better understanding of what is actually going on at these events on a deep personal level. What are the most crucial experiences people go home with? Why these events and gatherings actually matter?

Story Sharing Cubes

Although their shape and design may transform in the future, for the pilot study we created a set of boxes we call the Story Sharing Cubes. Those who stumbled upon these cubes at the Burning Man in Black Rock City or Borderland in Denmark in 2019 or at the Burning Bär in Berlin in 2020 and opened the box, found simple instructions along with the consent to participate in the research and a single button. Once you pressed the button, the magical box starts recording.

While we also tested the method with slightly different sets of questions, the central request to the participants was to share their most meaningful story from any of the burns they have attended, the story that somehow really mattered. At the core, we asked: What is the Burning Story you would like to share with the world?

Our approach builds on the long-term commitment in several scientific disciplines to use human narratives as part of qualitative research. The classic examples of such practice are oral histories, biographical interviews, letters, and stories as we know that people tend to attribute meaning to life and experiences by telling stories.

Our art-meets-science approach is definitely experimental as normally these narratives are collected in a form of an interview or through textual analyses of already written letters and autobiographies. We instead have a somewhat strange nonliving object – a Cube – and a vaguely, if at all, imagined audience.

But even if we set aside our main focus on collecting research data and rather think about the experience that the practice of the story sharing might create for the participant, we also know that telling a story – even if there is no audience or only a very abstract one – may have a self-affirmative quality. Hence, besides the research goals, we also believe our initiative adds value to the overall experience of a Burn.

While the limitations and the potential of this novel research method is a wide topic of further discussion, with the following, I rather focus on sharing some of the preliminary outcomes of our pilot study that took place at the aforementioned events in 2019-2020. We placed 4-6 cubes at different locations, such as certain camps or bars as well as at the trash fence at the deep playa, of which indeed the latter proved to be the most ‘productive’. Most of the shared stories turned out quite brief. Of the 34 stories that were transcribed as part of this pilot research, the average lengths of the story was just 3 minutes (note that the average lengths of the stories shared at Borderline 2019 was about 4 minutes). The longest recorded stories were about 10 and 16 minutes long.

Spontaneous actions in collective spirit

So what did our pilot study reveal? Let’s begin with one of the recounted stories.

Once at the Borderline, two people had been having a wonderful day and a beautiful night tripping ‘acid Friday’ as they we were now experiencing sunrise. They were tired and happy and ready to fall asleep any moment very soon.

“This morning we had the most amazing sunrise, the sky was set on fire and we were on top of the hill at the temple. So many people were gathering and watching the sky – a painting full of flame – and waiting for this ball of fire to rise above the horizon,” one of them recounts. This created a feeling of wanting to share the gift of music, but the problem was practical: how to bring the whole set of instruments (including a piano and a guitar) and the equipment from the camp up here on the top of the hill?

The story continues: “And then someone said, please bring your music here. If you can share your gift of music, we do the work, we’ll help you, we can do anything that you need, just tell us what you need and we will make it happen and we would love to hear you.”

This was the kick they needed to gather all energies and take up the ‘mission impossible’, but the thing is – so many people were supporting the idea and contributing with their help to carry the stuff. And eventually they had a surround sound system around the people who were watching the sunrise on top of the hill. They were playing a set of 4 hours! The storyteller describes the experience:

“Different music and with lots of tears and emotions coming by, singing from the soul, heart opening experiences and I was very grateful to sing to the sun and the day break came live, it was really magical. So thank you Borderline, thank you all these people for making this happening, thank you sun for making this wonderful day happening and making my dream come true, to be able to play and even in such a vulnerable state, without energy at all, like completely ready to drop down, still being able to get everything up working and running and have the energy to play four hour sets. That’s beyond my own energy, that was something else.”

This collectively driven effort that enabled a beautiful shared experience and created, at least for the storyteller, a magical experience ‘beyond their own energy’ is just one of the many passages that happen at certain events, including specific circles of people. Yet this story well highlights a feature that I found prevalent in many other stories that were shared – that of human connection.

Following the content analyses of all the stories for our pilot, the two most prevalent keyword-codes appeared to be transformation and connection. While transformation is perhaps not really surprising, given the nature of these events as often coded as ‘transformative’ and also the way our central question was posed, the high prevalence of stories related to something we can allude as ‘connection’ may indeed appear as surprising.

Connection through a shared experience

Many of the stories touched upon the theme of doing something together with others when creating an enjoyable shared experience – such as spontaneously carrying a huge musical setup to play live on top of the hill at sunrise. While the theme of connection was revealed in various ways, it was foremost expressed as a connection to other people, for example: “This was my first burn and I immediately felt so welcomed by all the people.“ Someone shared a story of connecting with a person whom they thought they normally wouldn’t, but then finding this connection beautiful and meaningful. Oftentimes it was expressed as simply highlighting a shared experience – “being here with you together” or bringing a virgin to the Burn. At several occasions, connection was very closely linked to transformation. For example, when transformation was perceived as bringing greater openness and trust to connect to others: “I feel Burner culture has transformed me and helped me become a more open person, more capable of trusting people and connecting to them and not being afraid to give as much as I can to people, to not fear that they’re just gonna take, but to trust that if I give a lot of things to other people, it will lead to connections that will enrich my life.”

Another remarkable story about connection was shared by a person, whose bike together with a backpack was stolen at the beginning of the Burning Man. She then had to survive without, but finding out that people were really good to her, providing food and things she needed. Eventually at the end of the week she got her bag as well as the bike back, so the initial terrible experience actually turned out a really good experience. Namely – resulting in greater trust in others.

Work for the benefit of others

A special nuance worth highlighting here is that a significant sense of connection appears through work for the benefit of others. This may be reflected in a brief testimony by a temple builder, who considers “building the temple for the people of BRC to have facility to express their joy”as the most meaningful or simply by witnessing the immense amount of labor that serves the event. See the following beautiful recollection: “My story of transformation starts with my first Burning Man in 2010, and what specifically I think affected me the most about it was how generous everyone was. It was realising how all the art and the camps and so many amazing experiences and gifts and things were all made by the blood, sweat and tears of people for no reason other than to make other people smile and make other people happy, or give them a unique experience or help them grow, or just take care of their basic everyday needs so that they can focus on all that fun stuff while they’re there, and to me that was the most touching.”

Connection was also expressed in more psychedelic, embodied and mind-altering terms, for example, by connecting deeply to one’s soul through dance or connecting with the earth through mushrooms and with each other through signing or through shared sexual activities or a combination of those. For example: “And I asked them if they could give me pleasure, and it became a beautiful, sweet little orgy kind of thing, and then I gave everyone ketamine.”

While it is true that mind-altering substances were mentioned a couple of times in the stories (although no-one explicitly shared a ‘trip report’), the abuse of substances was also critiqued: “Certain segment of the population are very focused on taking drugs and constantly talking about taking drugs and doing them every day and assuming that everyone else is doing the same. Probably because they are high all the time they don’t realize that actually the significant portion of the community don’t do drugs or they only do them occasionally under special circumstances or they only do very small amounts that aren’t that perceivable to others.”

The conclusion of this cautioning story once again reveals the emphasis on connection: “The atmosphere itself is so conducive to opening up your self and trying new things and connecting and I really don’t think you need – you don’t need drugs to do that and I get why some people do it but I wish it was a lot less common than it is.”

Returning to the topic of sexual connection, several stories (recounted by women) explicitly expressed the quality of platonic connections at Burns and the value of consent: “I just loved the way Burners are so platonically affectionate. You get so many offers for hugs and things like this, which just feels very caring and loving, and a lot of the hugs, you know, they’re really safe, they feel really genuine, like they just want to connect with you as you.”

New life resolutions

As we have seen, the moments that matter or qualities that are explicitly raised are often related to connection to others. Sometimes this is recounted in relation to the perceived transformative experience, but there are also other specific ways transformation is described. While the word ‘transformation’ or ‘transformative’ indeed appeared frequently (11 times) in the stories, what revealed as central in the stories about transformation is that people come to some kind of resolution about one’s self and life at these events.

These may be discoveries that the person has found one’s mission or role in life, whether its about “enlightening people” or making others “have little bit more fun in their life, be closer to their real path”. Or a statement about an aspect of one’s life that needs some re-arrangement, such as “I need to stop working” or “I wanna do more for myself in terms of consent” or “I gotta love someone unconditionally, but my life and my dreams too matter.” Someone cited a newly found meaning of life: “The purpose of life is simple: seek joy!”

The transformative qualities were less often projected on the more communal level. However, creating conscious communities, collective vision or taking the kindness we receive at Burns back to the wider society were mentioned.

Keeping it weird and going wild

Besides the deep personal reflections and vivid descriptions of meaningful shared experiences (i.e. connection), almost equally present were the stories that highlighted some kind of fun or wild affective experience of the Burn. Keywords that appeared here were about play, creativity, keeping it weird and going wild. One of the participants was simply quoting the oft-cited lines from Hunter S. Thomson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (“We have two bags of grass, and 75 pods of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, half a salt shaker of cocaine…”). Another shared a funky secret in just one line: “I got a finger put in my butt four years ago and I loved it.”

Talking about sharing secrets, not all the shared secrets were fun and kinky. A couple of stories were sharing a personal traumatic experience. One person was coming to terms with a breakup when the ex is also present here at the Burn and the feelings of loneliness and missing this has been causing. There was also a brief touching testimony by someone who revealed dying of cancer, but doesn’t tell anyone not to make them worry.

Gratitude

And lastly, a totally unexpected feature that I found prevailing in many of the stories was the immense gratitude that the participants shared. Sometimes it was explicitly directed to us, the researchers, who are ever going to listen to these recordings and who had placed that magical cube at a right place at a right time. But the gratitude was oftentimes directed to a much more abstract referee. This seems to be equally as much about a specific community (i.e. Burning Man, Borderline) as about the gratitude of a living experience per se : “It’s incredible to be here, amazing journey, I love you.” Or: “Thank you so much, I couldn’t thank you enough.”

Given that this data is derived only from the pilot study and we plan to further develop the method and use the story sharing devices at a much wider scale at future Burns, it is certainly early to draw any solid and complete conclusions here. However, the tense occurrence of the theme of human connection and related transformation is certainly worth further exploration and notice. Besides, we may conclude that the method has proved to be a fruitful way to collect a variety of narratives, opinions and reflections from event participants that may be helpful not only as a means of reference or scientific understanding, but for our continuous collective pursuits in developing the burner culture.

Dr Terje Toomistu is an anthropologist based in Tallinn and affiliated with the University of Tartu, Estonia. Together with the project lead Dr Jukka-Pekkä Heikkilä from Aalto University, Finland, they went out to the field to test the method.The Cubes were built from scratch by the stories artist-carpenter Kalle Oja and techie Peter Tapio.

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