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  • Randall Wilson, Psy.D.

The Healing Qualities of Fire

On a trip last year to see family, we were treated to nightly campfires by our hosts for about 5 evenings in a row and I noticed a profound improvement in my mood and sense of well-being. Of course, it could have also been the fact that we were on vacation, the weather was perfect, and the fires were accompanied by good conversation with loved ones. Still, I was convinced that the campfires were doing something special. Upon returning home, I committed to continuing the campfire experiment as often as possible, and the experiment continues today. This ongoing n=1 study has me convinced that sitting by a fire has a real, measurable impact on psychological well-being, especially when done on a consistent basis.

And it turns out others have noticed this effect as well. In 2014, anthropologist Christopher D. Lynn conducted a study to test out this hypothesis. The study found that watching a simulated fire resulted in a significant reduction in blood pressure, and this result was enhanced by sound effects and by observing the fire for a longer time period. And again, the "fire" in this study was simulated, so we can only imagine how powerful the effects may have been with an actual campfire.

While there hasn't been much research on the health benefits of fire beyond this study, it's clear that there must be something special about fires based solely on the fact that so many people have them. In any given backyard in your neighborhood, you might find people gathered around a fire pit sharing drinks and conversation. Even here in balmy Florida, you can step outside and smell the familiar aroma of burning wood on the first cool evenings heading into winter. Those who camp are aware that campfires can sometimes be the highlight of the entire trip. Even the televised "Yule Log" fireplace, rediscovered in the early 2000's after being originally aired in the 1960's, proves just how powerful the allure of a crackling fire is for human beings.

So what is it about fire that makes it so irresistible, and so psychologically healing? I've got a few theories, all of them arrived at while sitting by the fire completing my new experiment:

1. Fire connects us to our roots.

When we think of our early ancestors, one image that comes to mind for most is the stereotypical "caveman" huddled over a fire. Although this is a bit cartoon-ish, there's a good reason for this popularized image. For as long as we have been human, we have controlled and utilized fire. In his book "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human," Harvard-based anthropologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham makes the argument that the discovery of fire literally resulted in us becoming who we are as a species. He argues that the use of fire allowed our pre-human ancestors to unlock unprecedented amounts of calories from food, resulting in a shortening of the digestive tract and an explosion in brain size. And Wrangham argues that fire not only changed us anatomically, but also culturally. The protection that fire offered from predators likely drew human beings together around it, leading to more prosocial behavior, and eventually to storytelling, music, and any number of uniquely human behaviors. Whenever you get a whiff of campfire and feel that deep, primal pleasure that arises from it, you are connecting with an experience that is as ancient as the human species itself.

2. Fire connects us to others

As mentioned above, fire likely aided in the process of our early ancestors becoming eusocial (highly cooperative). And if you've ever sat by a fire with friends and loved ones, you know the experience of togetherness that comes from sharing a fire. It gives rise to conversation, story-telling, and physical closeness. It provides a setting for people to lower their guard and just be present together.

3. Fire induces a state of mindfulness

There is something inherently grounding and meditative about the experience of fire. The flickering light, the ever-changing patterns of flame, and the crackling and popping of the fire are simply hypnotic. If you sit down next to a fire and have no other powerful stimuli drawing your attention away, you'll find that your eyes are immediately drawn to the light and the movement of the flame and held there. You'll also find that the endless stream of thought, worry, and rumination dampens down as you connect with the movement of the fire. It's just you and the flickering, dancing flames, and everything else ceases to exist. This quality of fire, I believe, is ingredient that results in the profound psychological benefits that Lynn observed in his study and that I've experienced personally. And if like me, you find that your mind drifts endlessly during meditation, using fire to ground your awareness might be just what you need.

4. Fire teaches us to let go

After weeks of building fires almost every single night, I started to notice myself becoming more engaged with and more playful about the process of building the fire. I began to enjoy designing intricate patterns with the kindling. This was in spite of the fact that I immediately destroyed these designs when I lit the fire. It made me realize that fire, being a destructive force, puts us into contact with the experience of impermanence. It's no different than the Buddhist practice of creating and destroying mandalas. The more comfortable you get with letting things go, the more psychologically flexible you become.

With all of the trendy, expensive, and often disappointing forms of self-care and relaxation out there, I think fire offers a cheap and accessible alternative. $40 at Home Depot will get you an acceptable fire pit, $5 for a bundle of wood, grab a lighter from the drawer and some crumpled up junk mail and you're ready to roll. If you're feeling distracted or like you've lost your psychological balance, take some time to sit in silence and let the healing qualities of fire recenter you. And if you're feeling disconnected from others, set up some extra chairs to reconnect with your clan. Happy Summer everyone and get burnin!

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