Sitting by a fire can reduce your blood pressure and help you relax, suggests a new study from the University of Alabama.
When people spent 15 minutes watching a video of a crackling blaze, complete with sound, their systolic blood pressure dropped by 6 points and their diastolic BP dropped by 3, on average.
The study took place during daylight hours, so it might even underestimate the relaxing effects of sitting fireside at night, says study author Christopher Dana Lynn, Ph.D.
Lynn suggests cuddling up with your partner or bonding with some buddies while you watch the flames. He found that people who are prosocial, or “positively disposed toward other people and social gatherings and social interactions,” were more likely to relax by the fire. People with a larger capacity for absorption, which Lynn describes as “how easily you can zone out,” also felt more at ease, probably because they became entranced by the fire.
Why does the warm glow and crackle calm you down? Lynn says humans may have evolved to find fire relaxing because people who could find ways to manage stress lived longer and reproduced more. “Stress can kill you, literally, and having means of reducing stress is going to be critical for the survival of species," he says.
There are genes related to dopamine—a brain chemical that plays a role in feelings of pleasure—that might also be linked to the trait of absorption, says Lynn. “Anything that’s going to help us manage or balance that conflict is going to be selected for, to use evolutionary terms.”
No fireplace at home? Lynn theorizes that watching television might have similar effects. For one, the tube emits flickering light and sudden, unpredictable sounds, just like a fire. Both also have the capacity to captivate your attention, even if you try to look away, he says.
In addition, each has a social aspect. “When we think about history, there was a lot of oral history shared around fires,” Lynn says. “How is that different from watching a television for your story?"