Some studies yield clear and pronounced results. They boast sample sizes large enough to override concerns about generalizability and are designed and executed with unnerving precision. The study in question, an exploration of altered states of consciousness during extreme rituals, is not one of them: It was small and only sort of corroborated its hypothesis. But, it's a gem.
To explore extreme rituals, researchers from Northern Illinois University, UT Dallas and Georgia State University attended a 3.5-hour piercing ceremony called The Dance of Souls or, for our purposes, just the Dance, which takes place on the last day of the annual Southwest Leather Conference. The four-day BDSM "conference," per the SWLC FAQ page, is about "merging our leather sexuality with leather spirituality. We're about being real and authentic in the moment and embracing and celebrating our fetishes and desires...Come with an open mind and do not hesitate to ask questions. Also come for the hot leather sex!"
In a paper published this month in PLOS One, study authors described an altered state of consciousness as "a qualitative alteration in the overall patterns of mental functioning so that the experiencer feels that his/her operations of consciousness are radically different from ordinary functioning." Real-life examples of these near-transcendental experiences include meditation, hypnosis, drug-induced states, runner's high and spiritual possession.
Other researchers have sought to investigate altered states of consciousness by studying extreme rituals, including fire-walking. But few have done so using empirical measures in a natural (rather than lab) setting. And, few have included people involved in rituals in different capacities, e.g., both the people traversing embers and the spectators. The Dance presented an opportunity to do both.
"The decision to study the Dance of Souls was an extension of our team's broader research agenda of studying the psychological and physiological effects of engaging in BDSM activities," said study co-author Ellen Lee via email. "We wanted to investigate an event where people undergo painful stimulation but sexuality is not emphasized. Some of our other work suggests that people may experience altered states of consciousness when engaging in BDSM, and we wanted to see if similar results would be found during an extreme ritual."
So, researchers descended on a Phoenix ballroom, festooned in piercing stations, to understand the shifting mental states of 83 people who assembled to get pierced, pierce others and facilitate the revelry with drumming, dancing, whoo-ing and the like. The Dance piercings are temporary, shot through flesh in mid-afternoon and ripped out by 6 p.m. And they're not exactly starter studs; piercings included rings, hooks and gages weighed down by filaments, weights and ropes, connected both to other paticipants and to a "central structure" against which they pulled. Fun!
The prediction? Participants' states of consciousness would change in a few different ways, depending somewhat on their roles. All participants (pierced, piercing and other), researchers surmised, would experience a state aligned with "transient hypofrontality," which means that pre-frontal brain regions (responsible for logic-driven cognitive functions) take a break, prompting changes in perceptions of reality, including time distortions and social disinhibition. Transient hypofrontality is the proposed brain mechanism underlying daydreaming and runner's high. Also, it's theorized that this break from rational thought can reduce pain, induce peacefulness and make people feel like they're floating.
Researchers thought participants who both got piercings and went hard on dancing would experience this brain state more than piercers and celebrators who didn't break skin. While it's tricky (if not arguably impossible) to test subjective, fleeting mind-states empirically, researchers turned to the good-ol' Stroop Test, that classic psychology task in which people see shapes in different colors and have to push buttons corresponding to colors but not shapes. The Stroop Test, researchers wrote, has been used to measure executive function (an umbrella term for cognitive functions including focus) in other exercise studies. And, because transient hypofrontality has been linked with reduced executive function, researchers saw the Stroop Test as a passable gauge for this state of floating and good feels.
They also predicted the Dance would put people in a "flow" state. Flow tends to come up during discussions of Runner's High. People achieve flow when they become so fully absorbed in an activity that they lose themselves in it, so to speak. They also lose awareness of time and, generally, feel great. But, another version of flow, more common in goal-oriented activities, comes with all-consuming focus. In this case, researchers assumed that all participants would experience the first type of flow, whereas piercers would also experience the second type, given their flesh-puncturing responsibilities.
In the end, researchers didn't see as many or as clear differences in altered consciousness between participants in different roles. Across the board, however, all Dance participants experienced transient hypnofrontality and flow, according to the study. In other words, just being involved in the Dance took people out of their normal states of mental and bodily awareness and thrust them into a one-with-the-world, "I can't fight this feeling" type of existential space. Slight distinctions did emerge, which shouldn't be surprising — getting heavy metal piercings, administering those piercings and drumming along aren't exactly fungible experiences. Participants also said they saw the Dance as more spiritual than sexual or sadomasichistic. (But the pierced participants reported more arousal. Rawr.)
The study makes a few impressions. For one thing, there's a consciousness-altering activity for most of us. The paper's frequent mentions of Runner's High serves as a reminder of the mental benefits of physical exercise. And part of the consciousness-altering power attached to extreme rituals stems from social cohesion, it's been theorized. Then there's meditation, which doesn't involve cardio or crowds and hooplah. And, of course, drugs, drugs and more drugs. So, go find your flow: Hit up that local BDSM conference. Or make the trustafarian pilgrammage to Burning Man. Or book an Ayahuasca retreat. Or experiment with hypnagogia. Or lucid dreaming.
Also, these scientists know where to find a good time.
This story has been updated.