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  • Writer's pictureLily Smith

Why we are drawn to candles: humans, fire and primal instincts

Ever wondered why staring into a candle makes you feel so cosy, safe and secure? You may not realise it, but lighting your favourite candle taps into your primal instincts...

Fire's ability to mesmerise

Do you feel mesmerised when staring into a roaring fire or flickering flame?

For many of us, gazing deeply into fire is a magical, multisensory, almost hypnotising experience - engaging our eyes, nose, ears and sense of touch. Not only does it feel deeply relaxing, but there are real health benefits at play: studies have shown that gazing into a fire can reduce your blood pressure. In fact, simply listening to a crackling fire or watching a video of flames can lower your blood pressure!

Don't believe us? Try watching the video below (we recommend using headphones!) and see how you feel...

While a candle might not be quite as wildly majestic as a roaring open fire, a small flickering flame still possesses this same captivating ability to mesmerise and fascinate many of us.

It would seem that size nor purpose do not matter when it comes to fire: the mere presence of a flame alone can transform our health and wellbeing for the better.

But what is really going on inside our minds when we stare deep into that small, flickering flame? We did some research to find out...

Humans: our history with fire

Before candles, fire had several life-or-death purposes within the life of a human. From lighting a fire for warmth, to cooking meat and making food safer to eat, fire has been at the heart of human existence since cavemen roamed the earth. At its core, this is why candles tap into a primal part of our being.

Medical and psychological anthropologist Dr Christopher Lynn adds: 'For ancient hominins, fire would have provided: light to extend the day and illuminate otherwise uninhabitable dark places; heat for cooking previously inedible food, warming bodies at night, and enabling migration into colder climates; a weapon to facilitate mass hunting and stave off predators; and, according to several scholars, social connection.’

Fire in modern society: why are we still fascinated by fire?

Unlike our ancestors, fire is no longer a means for survival for the large majority of us. For most Westerners, we do not need to master fire for our survival. It is for comfort, rather than necessity.

Daniel Fessler, professor of anthropology at the University of California in Los Angeles, has a theory: 'If you were a child born 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 years ago you needed fire to survive — you had to learn how to master fire.' This is not true for many children of today.

As a result, Fessler claims that from childhood, right through to adulthood, fire remains an unknown entity. We feel drawn to it because we don't understand it or hold mastery over it.

As Fessler explains: 'If people don't ever satisfy the learning mechanism, that is they don't get enough experience at an early age, it's sort of a hunger that never goes away.'

Fessler also notes that a child displays the same fascination with a large, predatory animal, as they do with fire. He theorizes that this is because both display some kind of threat.

Fire's primary purpose is now comfort, rather than survival.

However, unlike our ancestors, who would feel obliged to learn mastery over this threat to ensure survival, we are able to remain blissfully safe in the modern world. Therefore, this sense of danger we may feel towards a flame (or a predatory animal), instead turns into fascination and allure.

As Fessler concludes: 'Hence, the modern Western fascination with fire may reflect the unnatural prolongation into adulthood of a motivational system that normally serves to spur children to master an important skill during maturation.'

It would seem, therefore, that our fascination with fire appears to stem from 2 key areas: fire's ability to ensure our survival, and fire's ability to threaten our very lives. The feelings of security and safety from the former, along with the sense of mystery and allure from the latter, combine to paint fire as a fascinating entity within the human mind.

So, the next time you're in need of some 'me-time', why not light your favourite candle, stare into the flame, and let those primal feelings of warmth, facination and cosiness arise...


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