Following is a draft of the abstract I am working on for a poster I will propose to present at the 2013 Human Biology Association meeting in Knoxville, TN (yay, I can drive there!). Feedback is welcome.
The psychophysiology of fireside relaxation. CD Lynn. Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL.
The importance of fire in human evolutionary history is widely acknowledged but the extent of that role is not fully explored. Fires involve flickering light, crackling sounds, warmth, and a distinctive smell. For early humans, fire may have extended the day, provided heat, helped with hunting, warded off predators and insects, illuminated dark places, and facilitated cooking. Recent scholars have proposed that campfires also provided a social nexus and relaxation effect that could have enhanced prosocial behavior (e.g., McClenon 2006; Wilson 2012; Wrangham 2009). According to this hypothesis, calmer, more socially tolerant people would have been advantaged via the necessity of fireside interactions relative to individuals less susceptible to fireside relaxation. In this study, I test the presupposition that the properties of a campfire are universally relaxing. Using a randomized crossover design, blood pressure, skin conductance, and EEG data were collected from 134 adults from Tuscaloosa, AL with respect to viewing a muted digital fire, a digital fire with sound, and a blank computer screen for 5 minutes each. Student’s t statistic was used for within-subject comparisons of the degree of change in blood pressure from pre- to post-test among conditions. ANOVA was used to test between-subject influences on skin conductance and alpha/theta brain wave ratios. Preliminary results indicate that simultaneously watching and listening to a fire influences the greatest relaxation response while the control condition influences the least. These findings have significant contemporary applications, as understanding the psychophysiological influences of fire may “shed light” on our species’ captivation with television and other similarly multi-sensory phenomena.