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Outside/Inbox: Why do we like to stare at fire?


Every other Friday on Morning Edition, the Outside/In team answers a question from a listener about the natural world. This week, Collin asked us on Instagram: “Why do we like to stare at fire?”

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard argues in his book, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, that the rational understanding of fire is impossible. But we called up some fire historians and anthropologists to investigate anyways.

So let's start with a look into how humans came to rely on fire in the first place.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment, but some estimates say our hominid ancestors started using fire some 2 million years ago. Perhaps they stumbled upon naturally occurring fires and realized they could make an easy meal out of insects and mammals that got caught and unintentionally barbecued.

The next step, according to Frances Burton, author of Fire: the Spark that Ignited Human Evolution, was to keep these fires going by simply adding dried grass or small twigs.

Then, our ancestors learned to transport fire by moving embers, or using something like a small branch that's lit with fire.

"When the fire stick becomes dull, they light some dry grass which reignites their stick, and then they go on," Burton explains.

With control of fire came the advent of cooking, which plenty of research has shown is what supercharged the human brain.

Burton also says fire changed human circadian rhythms. Our ancestors stayed up later sitting around fires, likely telling stories and coming up with new ideas, activities that laid the foundation for developing culture.

So maybe, one might argue, we like to stare at fire because we’ve spent millions of years cooking, keeping warm, and literally keeping an eye on the flames.

But not everyone agrees that staring at fire is an inherent human pastime. Daniel Fessler, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says staring at fire tends to be a recreational activity people only do in developed regions of the world — where fire is more romanticized.

Fessler lived for three years in a village in Southwestern Sumatra, Indonesia, where he says children learn to control fire by playing with it unsupervised.

"Around age five kids start building play fires, they're pretend cooking," Fessler says. "And by the time that they're sort of seven or eight, they have complete mastery of it."

Once they're reached adulthood, the villagers aren't inclined to stare at fire; after all, they've been using it for all sorts of mundane tasks ever since they were children.

But many of us are still drawn to stare at flickering flames, and Burton has a pretty simple theory why.

"Fire light dances, it moves. You're going to check it out because it might be dangerous," she says. "So it's not the fire itself that people are staring at. It's movement that is causing them to look at it."

True. But what else moves like fire does? Burton says it herself: "Fire light dances."

So of course we're going to pull up a chair and watch this age-old primordial performance.

If you’ve got a question about the natural world, send it as a voice memo to outsidein@nhpr.org, leave a voicemail on our hotline at 1-844-GO-OTTER, or share it with us on Twitter or Instagram.

Outside/In is a podcast! Listen and subscribe on the streaming platform of your choice.

Felix Poon first came to NHPR in 2020 as an intern, producing episodes for Outside/In, Civics 101, and The Second Greatest Show on Earth. He went to work for Gimlet Media’s How to Save a Planet before returning in 2021 as a producer for Outside/In. Felix’s Outside/In episode Ginkgo Love was featured on Spotify's Best Podcasts of 2020.
Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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