My lab & I have presented on & written about fireside relaxation so many times by this point that I’m running out of clever titles. However, now that our first paper has finally been published &, as it happens, at the perfect time of year, I want to share an annotated press release.
“Hearth and Campfire Influences on Arterial Blood Pressure: Defraying the Costs of the Social Brain through Fireside Relaxation”
A University of Alabama anthropologist has found that, consistent with anecdotal reports, hearth and campfires can be relaxing and suggests this influence on the stress response system may have been important in the evolution of the human social brain.
In a recent article in Evolutionary Psychology (http://www.epjournal.net/articles/hearth-and-campfire-influences-on-arterial-blood-pressure-defraying-the-costs-of-the-social-brain-through-fireside-relaxation/), Christopher Lynn, a medical and psychological anthropologist, reports preliminary results from a three-year lab-based study.
Lynn isolated the sensory aspects of fire to study its influence on blood pressure before and after subjects watched a variety of simulated conditions, including a Yule fire DVD with no sound, or a Yule fire DVD with sound, a blank computer screen, and a static upside down picture of a fire. They found significant decreases in blood pressure associated with the more naturalistic conditions and longer exposure duration. On the other hand, fire with no sound and the upside down picture of a fire seemed to agitate subjects and increase stress.
Lynn and other researchers believe the relaxing influence of fire may have been important in human evolution. As claimed in the 2013 Coke Zero ad “Civilization,” featuring fur-clothed males in front of a fire, “man has always been captivated by watching stuff. And as civilization progressed, man was able to watch even more riveting stuff. And now scientists have developed HD to romance your eyeballs. How can you look away? So relax and do what your brain was meant to do, watch stuff.”
Tongue in cheek as this commercial may have been, recent findings suggest the human relationships with watching fire may have begun as early as 1.7 million years ago. Surprisingly though, no studies have examined the influence of fire on human cognition until now, confirmed that fire is a source of relaxation as commonly ascribed, or investigated the elements that produce its relaxing effects.
Lynn also found that greater relaxation effects were experienced by those who scored higher in prosociality. This finding supports speculation that manning perpetual fires before humans developed the ability to kindle them may have led to enhanced cooperation.
Stress-related disorders are among the leading causes of disability in the modern era and pose significant economic impacts worldwide, so it is important to better understand evolved mechanisms and environmental triggers of stress reduction like that of fireside relaxation. Firelight may enhance capacities to become absorbed in an object of attention and influence relaxation via autonomic nervous system effects, especially at night.
In addition to this fine press release that I wrote about myself in 3rd person, some astute journalists & bloggers have found their way to the article in advance of my shameless self-promotion.
The blog “Seriously, Science?” posted a somewhat snarky piece (I think?) pointing out what an obvious finding it is that fire is relaxing (I think—& which I agree with, btw). S/he also is savvy enough to point out that an alternative conclusion might be that all participants were culturally conditioned to find fire relaxing. We did control for that, though in a way that might not be obvious & is not stated specifically as such. We controlled for growing up with a fireplace, going camping, & hours spent staring at computer screens & other—ahem—flickering light & sudden sound phenomena (smartphones).
I like the piece by Mail Online even more because it overinterprets the findings in a way that I wasn’t quite willing but which I think most of us evolutionists feel is not quite true. However, I do need to point out that I’m suspicious there is a quiet minority whose interest is fire is ‘meh.’ Hopefully, we’ll address this variation better in our next paper.
I’ve also had a few cool papers sent to me in just the few days since the article came out by others researching fire or fire-related aspects. One I like that peripherally relates but is something I’ve never ever thought about is by Keith Stephens-Borg, who, I believe, is a practicing anesthesiologist in North Devon, UK. His essay, “The Crystal Chalice: Investigating the Source of Fiberoptic Science,” traces the medically transformative science of fiberoptics (thank you, endoscopy Gods, for aiding in the diagnosis of my Barrett’s esophagus, which used to bring me debilitating pain & now is largely check with Prilosec) to the changes in human perception & consciousness that came with the manipulation of fire.
Congrats on the paper!
The statement that “Surprisingly though, no studies have examined the influence of fire on human cognition until now” is a tad disingenuous as it discounts some interesting and potentially related work by Richard Wrangham. My gut tells me (pun intended?!) that the two areas of research are very likely closely linked.