The Science of Gathering (Part 3 of 6).

March 3, 2021

The Science of Gathering (Part 3 of 6).

May 29, 2023

I started noticing something odd about our need to gather fifteen years ago. As our societal reliance on the internet became more pervasive in the early part of this new millennium, the annual percentage increase in the number of festivals worldwide grew at double the overall population growth.

It was almost as if our brain was telling us, “the more digital we get, the more ritual we need.”

Rituals create a “certainty anchor,” a psychic bedrock, that help create predictability and solidarity, especially in times of great change. Rituals also serve as a cleansing mechanism for community. African author Malidoma Patrice Some writes, “Where ritual is absent, the young are restless or violent, there are no real elders, and the grown-ups are bewildered. The future is dim.” A little too close for comfort, right?!

2020 presented a collection of megaforces that have kept us cloistered, divided, and stripped of our normal rituals. This unprecedented human moment requires a collective rising up to transcend these dark times. I believe there is pent-up demand in a world that is increasingly moving from “germophobic” to “claustrophobic” and the social science research bears this out.

What Social Science Tells Us About Our Need for Connection

Psychology literature produces more than one hundred times as many papers on depression than it does on joy and, given how present times are affecting mental health, this differential will likely grow. Yet, social science research shows that communal events can reduce the sense of isolation, creating a sense of “self-loss” which releases one from the prison of the self. And, the more we participate in the creation of these events, Goethe said the more it resembles Carnival which is “a festival that really is not given to the people, but one the people give themselves.”

The research on this topic is as enchanting as the subject, so much so that a university psychologist, Shira Gabriel who is also a “Phishhead,” has developed a scale called the Tendency for Effervescent Assembly Measure, or TEAM, which helps determine which events have the greatest capacity for offering collective effervescence. This can help treat people for loneliness and a sense of isolation.

According to Gabriel’s research, these effervescent gathering experiences fill the human need for belonging in a way that most social psychology research has tended to overlook. It underscores how customs as ancient as pilgrimages and feast days, and modern as protests and pro sports, help people to lead happier, connected, and more personally meaningful lives.

Further research tells us on a physical level that “interpersonal synchrony” is happening, where people sharing an experience have their internal physiology fall into a collective rhythm. It’s been found that Spanish firewalking rituals literally sync up the heart rates of a village. And, as the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran writes in his book “The Tell-Tale Brain,” our mirror neurons “appear to be the evolutionary key to our attainment of full-fledged culture” by allowing humans “to adopt each other’s point of view and empathize with one another.”

There’s no doubt that there’s a communal pulse on the dance floor, right? Remember the dance floor? We used to get sweaty together. Our mirror neurons are meant to dance together and when they do, magic ensues. In other words we don’t need science to tell us what we already know. We yearn to connect in person.

Live Events are Not Dead Events

At a time when we’re all stuck at home, why were television ratings for the 2020 Major League Baseball World Series down 32% compared to the previously worst ratings year of all-time? It’s partly because if we can’t be at a gathering, we want to experience joy by seeing others eat hot dogs, cheer for their team, and create “stadium waves” in collective rhythm. Watching sports on TV in an empty stadium doesn’t cut it.

I remember my 21st birthday party watching my Stanford football team play the University of Washington in Seattle when what’s believed to be the first “stadium wave” ever made its appearance over and over again around Husky Stadium. I had a deep, visceral reaction to the spontaneous synchronization of joy on television. I wanted to be there. Be a part of it, feel it rush toward me, through me, and give and receive strength from it. Again and again and again.

There’s a reason, pre-pandemic, that movie theaters, live concerts, and bustling restaurants still existed: convergence. When three rivers converge into one, it becomes a bigger, stronger river. The same goes for us at a public gathering. We move from being “alone” to being “at one.” And, in doing so, we pick up the energy of those around us which is why people are drawn to public protests when they’re burning up inside about some political issue.

Conventions are also popular because they are a way to connect with people who share the same unique interests. It is also about celebrating what makes us unique and connected to others who feel the same way. It’s visceral validation that we feel in our bones. This is why people fly their “freak flag” at events like Comic-Con or Burning Man.

To Lose Oneself is to Find Oneself

In sum, we live our lives on this planet in our separate vehicles, our bodies, often with our minds and hearts isolated from each other. So, sharing a sense of awe, laughter, purpose, excitement, or anguish with a group of people - even if they’re strangers - captures the moment in a momentous way.

We’ve seen this experience over and over again in Baja at our Modern Elder Academy. Eighteen complete strangers go through a transformational week together, sharing intimacy, being seen from the “inside out” rather than the typical “outside in.” It’s not something that can easily be replicated online as on a screen you often can’t truly be “seen.

Note: MEA has been pioneering “digital intimacy” with our new eight-week MEA Online course in which students are placed in small cohorts of eight and do one-on-one conversation, based upon some prompts weekly. Our beta participants gave the online course widespread praise about the connection we were able to foster and it has encouraged many of these online students to travel to Baja when it’s safe to do so.

Go deeper with a workshop, in person or online.

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