I recently found myself staring into my lit fireplace, wondering why fire is so calming. However, I couldn’t find a good answer, so I did some research to find out more. Here’s what I found.
Fire is relaxing because we’ve grown to associate it with community and safety. Humans have had plenty of time to evolve with fire, as long as 1.5 million years. As a result, we’ve become conditioned to it. Fire also provides red light therapy and allows us to focus on the flames—forgetting many of our worries.
But where’s the science, and how can we get the most benefits from fire? Let’s take a closer look.
Why Do People Find Fire Comforting?
- Red Light Therapy
Clearly, the relaxing effects of fire are something that occurs deeper in our brains, so to understand it better, we first need to look at our history with it.
Early Humans and Fire
Wolves, bears, and lions have fur, claws, and fangs as tools to survive. What tools were humans born with? To compensate for our lack of these natural advantages, we adapted to rely on our larger brains and as a result—used the objects around us in inventive ways.
This commonly included making tools from stones and sticks, but also developing the skills to capture and make fire.
420 Million Years Ago
Fire has been around for a long time, even without human intervention, occurring in nature from hot and dry weather, lightning, and the occasional volcanic eruption. However, lightning strikes were the most common cause.
Because charcoal is the by-product of fire, we can assume that if we find charcoal in old sediment, we can pre-date fire. As a result, we’ve found that the earliest known occurrence of fire is around 420 million years old (source).
The planet also had higher levels of oxygen than it does now, which likely led to hotter and longer fires.
7 Million Years Ago
7 million years ago, fires helped manage the grassy savannas in Africa—preventing shrubs and trees from growing.
Because of this, grass dominated the landscape, allowing plenty of food for insects, birds, and herbivores, which of course then fed omnivores and carnivores.
According to Mark Shepard and his 100+ acre savanna farm in Wisconsin, savannas were key in supporting the most amount of mammal life.
The savanna biome supports more mammals than any other biome on the planet.Mark Shepard
1.5 Million Years Ago
It’s believed that humans only started interacting with fire around 1.5 million years ago. At this point, early humans likely used fire for light and warmth at night keeping predators and insects away. Additionally, the hearth encouraged gatherings, leading to increased socialization and likely the creation of language.
40,000 to 400,000 Years Ago
Between 40,000 and 400,000 years ago, humans started creating fire with the use of flint and from there—cooking became a regular activity. According to primatologist Richard Wrangham, cooking may have helped in the rapid growth of our brains (source).
7,000 Years Ago
7,000 years ago, humans began using fire agriculturally and for warfare.
So, now that we’ve seen our long history with fire, what is it about fire that makes us so relaxed, and what modern-day benefits do we still get from fire?
Over many hundreds of thousands of years, fire has provided humans with light, heat, and smoke to keep the darkness, predators, and bugs at bay. Naturally, when threats become more distant, we begin to relax. This is true for any animal. As a result, we associate fire with safety and comfort.
For early humans to have the optimal amount of safety (and warmth), it made the most sense to huddle around the fire. This close grouping deterred predators even further and allowed for more interactions in the community, likely leading to humor, language, and art.
Along with safety, the sense of community comforted us even further, and this is still true for modern-day humans and fire-related gatherings.
Results indicated consistent blood pressure decreases in the fire-with-sound condition, particularly with a longer duration of stimulus, and enhancing effects of absorption and prosociality. Findings confirm that hearth and campfires induce relaxation as part of a multisensory, absorptive, and social experience.Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama
Of course, fire puts out a lot of heat, allowing humans to compensate for our lack of fur. This, along with clothing and more advanced shelters allowed us to move away from the tropics and survive in more temperate climates.
While staring at the flame on a lighter or candle can be hypnotic for a minute or so, staring at a campfire is a different story, with many people staring for several minutes or even hours. This is likely due to a combination of the above reasons, along with the unpredictability of fire.
For example, fire doesn’t have a set pattern. It does not spiral as waves in the ocean or branch as trees or lightning. As a result, we likely feel the need to watch fire to make sure it doesn’t become unpredictable and dangerous. At the same time, we likely find the unpredictableness of fire to be beautiful—similar to staring at artwork in a museum.
Because of this level of focus watching the fire’s flames, many of our thoughts and worries are lost, allowing us to relax.
Red Light Therapy
At no point in our human history did we have as much blue light as we do today (blue light is the primary form of light from technology screens and other artificial lights). Normally, the only naturally occurring blue light is from the sun, and it disappeared the moment the sun set. Occasionally, a full moon would light up the night with some blue light.
So, from sunset to sunrise, the only light we’d receive is that from fires. Of course, the kind of light from fires is an intimate, relaxing red light.
However, blue light from screens has completely changed that, stimulating our brains late into the night and making it feel like it’s daytime.
The solution? Less blue light and more red light.
Red light therapy has been found to reduce anxiety along with other health benefits (source).
At our house, we recently spent $2 and replaced one of the bulbs in our bedroom lamps with a red lightbulb. At around 9pm at night, we switch off all of the lights and turn on that lamp, and what a difference it makes! We’ve found that we’re almost immediately more relaxed and fall asleep faster (probably with deeper sleep too).
Are these effects from red lights due to our long history with fire’s red light? It’s hard to tell, but I’d like to think so.
Are Fake Fires Relaxing?
Fake fires are not likely to be relaxing as they often lack the warmth, sound, and unpredictability of real flames. However, many people enjoy playing fireplace videos on their TV (especially during the winter), so there are likely some positive effects.
Whether these effects come from the actual screen or are simply from us thinking of real fires is not known. Still, for the maximum benefit and relaxation—make sure to keep the sound on and listen to those crackles!