Psychology and Fire: Why Do We Find Fire So Calming?
8 mins to read

Psychology and Fire: Why Do We Find Fire So Calming?

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There is nothing quite like sitting around a fire, whether on a camping trip or in your living room, staring into the flames and feeling the warmth against your skin.

The simple practice of sitting next to a fire and watching the flames flickering brings a feeling of relaxation and comfort. You may find yourself mesmerised by the flames and lost in thought.

It’s something we’ve all experienced at some point. But why do we like fire so much? What’s actually going on that makes it such a pleasant activity for humans?

There are many factors that make relaxing by a fire so pleasant, and there’s even some scientific research backing up the benefits of a fire on your health.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes sitting by a fire so enjoyable for so many people.

The Evolutionary Benefits of Fire

Bonfire in an area surrounded by snowy mountains

From the very first fires that our earliest ancestors sat around to the most modern bioethanol fireplaces available today, the story of fire is a long one. The connection we feel with fire to this day has been strongly affected by the role it has played in our evolution.

Fire was one of the first human ‘inventions’. It’s thought that fire was first used as far back as two million years ago, and evidence from caves in Israel suggests it was habitually used by humans potentially as far back as 400,000 years.

For thousands of years, fire has provided us with heat, the means to cook food, protection from wild animals, a source of illumination at night, a place for rituals and more.

Early humans spent plenty of time relaxing by the fire. Fire gave them a significant advantage over other species and helped with their survival. Early humans probably spent much time relaxing by the fire, even when they weren’t cooking on it, and this has led to an evolutionary adaptation that we experience today.

Perhaps it’s because of this that our eyes seem naturally attracted to flickering flames, which are almost meditative in their qualities.

With the importance of fire in human history for hundreds of thousands of years, we’ve essentially evolved alongside it. We are fascinated by it and drawn to it on a primal level that we can still experience today in our modern world.

The flickering lights of the fire, accompanied by the warmth, the crackling of burning wood and the smell – they all play a role in the experience.

Now let’s delve into some of the specific benefits of sitting by a fire that help to explain why we enjoy it so much.

Physical Warmth

Brown and white dog watching a campfire burn

There is one very simple reason why we enjoy sitting around a fire: the physical warmth that it provides.

When the weather is cold, we seek out heat, just like early humans did before the invention of modern comforts. Fire is the most natural way to seek warmth. It gives us a feeling of comfort and safety. This physical warmth gives us a sense of cosiness.

On a cold winter’s night, seeking out warmth is always going to create a sense of comfort and security, and a fire is the way that our ancestors would do this. It’s only natural that it makes us feel better too.

Visual Appeal

There is no denying it – fire has a visual appeal that we naturally enjoy.

Perhaps this is because of its significance to us over the generations from the earliest humans and how important fire was for us. But the fact is we simply enjoy watching the flames.

There is a hypnotic quality in watching flames dance and listening to the crackling of the fire. Whether it’s because of our evolution, or whether it’s simply something that is pleasant to look at, we enjoy watching flames and getting lost in our thoughts.

Calming Effect

Logs burning in an empty field

When you are sitting next to a fire, watching the flames, it’s natural to feel a sense of calm. But why is fire so calming? This is due to a combination of the factors already mentioned – the heat from the fire, the beauty of the flames and the soothing crackling sound.

These engage several different senses all at once, and we find it captivating. So you can easily spend a long time staring into a fire and getting lost in your thoughts.

When there are no distractions around you, no constant interruptions, and just you and the flames, many people could happily spend hours watching a fire and letting their minds wander.

This can help to take your mind off the daily concerns on your mind, combined with the feeling of comfort and safety the fire provides. Beside a fire feels like a place where you can properly relax.

This fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine looks at how the calming effect of fire might even have had a profound effect on our evolution.

In the article, Matt Rossano, a psychologist from Southeastern Louisiana University, suggests that the meditative qualities of fire may have impacted how our brains developed.

The suggestion is that humans would have found staring at a fire a way to enter a meditative state. Meditation impacts similar regions of our brains as those regions that impact working memory, which helps us to think about lots of things at the same time and carry out complicated plans.

Because meditation has mental health benefits, humans who were good meditators would have had an advantage, leading to them passing on their genes.

So our ability to regulate attention and cope with a wide variety of tasks in our modern lives may actually have been impacted by the calming effects of fire that we still enjoy today.

Social Benefits

Group of people gathered around a fire on the beach

Sitting around a fire is a social activity. While you may enjoy staring into the flames and experiencing a sense of calm, you might also sit around with other people – whether you are talking, telling stories or simply sharing the same space.

Again, this goes back to the earliest humans, who we can imagine spending plenty of time around the fire. The fireplace was probably a communal point in the camp, a place of rituals and storytelling, and it would have played an important role in early societies.

Humans are social creatures. We have a need to belong and to connect with our social group. Relaxing by the fire, whether in conversation or in silence, gives us a sense of closeness with other people.

When you sit around your fire at home, you’re doing the same as countless other humans over many generations, going back to the dawn of humanity.

Health Benefits

Does relaxing by the fire have health benefits? It’s possible. The health benefits of sitting by a fire have not been proven, but the fact that sitting by a fire makes you feel good and gives you a sense of calm and security certainly can’t be bad.

This is particularly true with the issue of stress. Many of us live fast-paced lives filled with stress, and we need to take time out every once in a while.

Sitting by a fire in the evening could be a great way to do that. It’s a way to reduce stress and anxiety, to properly relax and to recharge for the day ahead.

Is Watching a Fire Therapeutic?

Woman watching a big fire

Perhaps for all of the reasons discussed already, fire can be a form of gentle therapy. The psychological impact of fire comes down to the sense of calm, comfort and security it produces, along with the visual engagement.

We enjoy the sensory stimulation of the consistent patterns and the rhythmic flow of the flames. This can make fire become a place to enjoy being alone or to connect with others while recharging our batteries and mentally preparing for the challenges ahead.

What the Science Says About Fires

So far, we’ve looked at the general benefits of fires and the possible reasons why watching flames is an activity that so many people enjoy.

But what does science say about it?

There is not a huge amount of research, but a study was carried out by researchers at the University of Alabama on this exact topic.

Led by Dr. Christopher Lynn, an anthropologist, the study included several tests that sought to understand how volunteers reacted to watching a virtual fire.

Tests were carried out on a total of 226 adults, and the results found that fire might actually help to decrease blood pressure.

The researchers measured the blood pressure of adults before watching the virtual fire and then during and after watching the fire. The participants were also tested both watching the fire in silence and with a crackling sound.

The results of the study suggested that watching a fire with sound helped to reduce blood pressure. The longer the participants watched and listened to the fire, the larger the decrease in blood pressure.

How Do You Take Your Fire?

Black bioethanol fireplace in a modern living room with white sofa

Whatever the reasons behind the natural human enjoyment of sitting next to a fire, there’s no doubt that it is something many of us love doing. So spend some time sitting by your own fire and make time to cherish the moment.

You may have a real log fire in your home, or you might prefer to enjoy watching the real flames of a more environmentally friendly bioethanol fireplace, or to sit around a fire pit in the garden.

Whenever you get the opportunity, enjoy a moment to relax by the fire and feel a sense of calmness. And enjoy this simple activity that humans have been doing for many thousands of years.