According to a new study, participants in extreme rituals (such as fire-walking and body piercing) show physical and psychological evidence of altered states of consciousness.
Though other researchers have collected stories and anecdotes of altered states of consciousness, this is the first study of its kind to include psychological and physiological testing.
The study, published in 2016 in PLOS One, examined participants in the “Dance of Souls,” a 3.5-hour ritual event during which participants receive temporary body piercings, attach hooks and weights to the piercings and dance to music provided by drummers.
“Both pierced participants (pierced dancers) and non-pierced participants (piercers, piercing assistants, observers, drummers, and event leaders) showed evidence of altered states [of consciousness],” said Ellen Morgan Lee, principal investigator.
A total of 83 participants were assessed–47 pierced dancers and 37 non-pierced participants. To measure psychological effects of the ritual, participants completed cognitive tasks (such as sorting tasks) both before and after the ritual to determine consciousness. They also completed questionnaires designed to measure mood, psychological stress and sexual arousal. Finally, scientists measured participants’ cortisol levels to determine whether or not they experienced physical effects as well.
The results of the cognitive testing determined that both pierced and non-pierced participants experienced impaired cognitive functioning as a result of the ritual event. Additionally, the self-reported measures indicated that participants experienced a decrease in negative emotions and stress, as well as an increased level of sexual arousal, from the beginning to the end of the ritual.
Both pierced and non-pierced participants experienced physical changes in cortisol level, but the effects were different for each group. Pierced participants’ cortisol levels increased before the dance, indicating an increase in stress, but decreased from the beginning of the dance to the end. Non-pierced participants showed a continuously decreasing level of cortisol throughout the ritual.
The enlightening results showed that participants were greatly affected by the ritual, regardless of the role they took in it.
“Reductions in stress and negative [mood]and the increases in intimacy occurred regardless of whether or not participants had received painful temporary piercings,” said Lee.
“Experiencing the intensity of the piercings during this extreme ritual did not appear to be necessary for participants to receive these benefits of the ritual.”