When I was in my early 20s & wanted to be the next Charles Bukowski, I used to hang out at a bar called Coney Island High on St. Mark’s Place in NYC after work. Consistent with the Bukowski schtick, I went there nearly every day & because I could drink for free. I could drink for free because my band played there once a month for nothing, or in exchange for free drinks whenever Roger, the bartender who booked us, was working. The bar was upstairs & dark. There were a few regulars w/ whom I made a little small talk, but very little, as, frankly, I wasn’t very good at small talk. What I did was sit there & drink Jack & Cokes & stare at the TVs over the bar. The TVs played endless loops of ’60s burlesque, topless dancers w/ giant breasts who could make the tassels on their nipples spin in opposing directions. The sound was muted, as Roger preferred to listen to music. The TVs were simply visual stimulation &, really, utterly monotonous. Not that I have anything against giant spinning breasts–I generally am a big fan–but watching the same thing over & over, the same thing that never went anywhere, the same thing that had no other sensory component, drove me a bit batty. Yet watch I did. Our eyes were drawn to it, as I was not the only one sitting w/ a drink & blankly staring at the screen, & it was not just the male barflies but the females too.
Flash forward a decade & a half, & I am at the pediatrician’s office w/ my three kids. The exam room has TVs in that pick up Cartoon Network (thank gawd at least we’ve advanced from the years of being stuck in those interminable rooms w/ a forgotten magazine back in the “waiting” room–isn’t there a Seinfeld episode about how the exam room is just another waiting room & how they must feel obliged to make you wait since, indeed, it is called the “waiting room”?), & my kids are staring googly-eyed at the screen. At least they aren’t fighting. But we tell them, when the doctor comes in, they need to pay attention to the doctor. So the doctor comes in &, sure enough, they are in a trance & pay her no mind. The doctor mutes the TV & goes about the exam. We discuss amputating the children’s limbs & they are totally zoned, don’t express alarm whatsoever. I’m kidding. We didn’t discuss amputation, but we did discuss something important & a bit alarming, which normally would raise anxiety in the kids. The point is that, even w/ the sound off, the kids were transfixed. Not only did it captivate them visually, their thalamocorticol gating system was keeping everything else out apparently too. Fascinating, right?
When I was in grad school, I took a seminar course with Sean Rafferty in Cognitive Archaeology, & one of the readings was “Shamanic healing, human evolution, and the origin of religion” by James McClenon. McClenon is a sociologist who has published widely on the topic of the shamanistic model of cognitive evolution & the ritual healing hypothesis (see his book, Wondrous Healing). I was unfamiliar with his work at the time & initially thought it seemed a bit hokey (which, as you’ll learn if you follow along, tends to be a good sign that I’ll be intrigued & venture deeper). One comment in particular stood out. He suggested that Homo erectus could have been selected for prosocial behavior via sitting around fires. He said that fires were hypnotic inductors & that H. erectus, as the first hominids to manipulate fires, would have occasion to sit around them & enjoy the trance benefits.
A society’s attitudes and values regarding hypnotizability affect fertility of those with the trait. The scenario remains plausible since H. erectus probably experienced group ASC around fires 700,000 years ago and H. sapiens could have used shamanic/hypnotic rituals for healing for over 30,000 years. There was sufficient time for a modest genotype selection mechanism to have meaningful impact.
Those benefits, he suggested, would have included calming effects, which others would have found pleasing. Those individuals more susceptible to being calmed would be more pleasant to be around. Thus, McClenon proposed fire had a selective influence in favoring people who could be prosocially calmed at the expense of those who persisted in stomping around pissed off in the dark.
My initial reaction was not to poo-poo the hypothesis altogether, as trance states are my primary research interest, & it made a lot of sense. What struck me was his evidence-less assumption that fires are hypnotic. Are they? Anecdotally, most would agree. But when I went looking for confirmation, I could find no data to support it. Hence, a study was born.
I thought I could do a quick & dirty study of the influence of staring at a fire, publish a brief write-up, & have a reference for people to cite when they were talking about the importance of fire, which many people do, just seldom in this way. Alarm bells should be sounding for you if you’re an anthropologist. In our field, there is no such thing as a quick & dirty study. So what I intended to bang out over a semester in my spare time by recruiting Colonie Mall goers in Albany, NY (where they have a fireplace I thought I could use) has turned into 6 semester project w/ a variety of researchers & methods. But actually, that’s been a good thing. What I initially considered a cheap & easy way to get a pub out (which hasn’t happened yet, mind you) has been immensely interesting to a wide variety of people & led me to continue & to expand the study. As I will be discussing at the AAA conference this fall, it has turned into a fantastic learning exercise for undergraduate researchers in neuroanthropology.
As the project has developed & I have thought thru the implications of this hypothesis, it occurred to me that the compelling nature of a fire, that flickering that draws us in, is similar to the influence of TVs, which we watch even when we don’t want to. It was at this point that I recalled my days sitting in Coney Island High, staring at TV breasts even when I didn’t want too, or my children tuning everything else out to stare at a muted TV. I thought perhaps there is an “ecological trap” here, a behavior naturally selected for that we have overindulged, like sugar, salt, & fat, in that now we have problems with things like TV addiction. It also occurred to me that the fascination with lava lamps in the ’70s may have had the same allure & that fish tanks, not just real ones but the ones we use as screen savers, or even those stars that fly at us when our monitors have been dormant too long, all pull us in & allow our eyes to focus while we zone out. Keith Jacobi, a friend & colleague who conducts forensics for the State of Alabama, suggested that the fascination arsonists have with watching the things they set on fire, even to the point of risking being caught, may be rooted in the same phenomenon…
Up next, fireside trance & cyberdependence!