The Psychophysiology of Fireside Relaxation

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.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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2 Responses to The Psychophysiology of Fireside Relaxation

  1. Christopher Lynn Christopher Lynn says:

    Hey John,
    Sorry if I only replied to this in my mind. We agree. It’s been a follow-up study I’ve been wanting to do since we started. Sampling & controls are more difficult though. We’re looking at little patio propane fireplaces, but, again, propane fire is different than wood fire…

  2. John Wright says:

    I would be more interested, and I think the results would be more relevant if real fire, in a real outdoor (I.e. non-lab) setting, we’re to be used rather than digital images. Part of my reasoning is because the colour of the firelight–very warm yellow–against the dark of the night may have an influence on the participants.
    Many years ago I took part in some simple experiments that tested light frequency sensitivity of participants. There seemed to be a gender difference in sensitivity, and so am also curious to see if that sensitivity, real or otherwise, has an impact on your studies.

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