Why are people (especially men) fascinated with fire?


What is it about the fire that fascinates us so much? Why are camping trips so incomplete without fires?

While both men and women like fire, men seem to be more obsessed with lighting, building and maintaining fires. They play more with matchsticks and lighters as kids, burning different materials to check their flammability and later as teens and young adults, they crave starting fires on camping trips. (see Why men enjoy camping)

This is why you see more men than women preferring flame-themed tattoos on their bodies, stickers on their cars, and designs on their clothes.

Watching flames is very relaxing and puts people into a sort of hypnotic trance. It has been proven that staring at fires lowers blood pressure thereby promoting relaxation. It also promotes prosocial behaviours and deep, meaningful conversations often happen alongside fireplaces.

No wonder many have claimed that they enjoy staring at a fire so much that they feel as if they could do it for the rest of their lives.

fascinated with fire

Evolutionary roots of the love for fires

Mastering the fire was perhaps the most pivotal event in the history of the humankind. For early humans, the fire extended the day, provided heat, helped with hunting, warded off predators and insects, illuminated dark places, and facilitated cooking.

During the Stone Age, humans likely socialized around campfires, a place where they felt safe and warm. Collecting wood, keeping the fire going, and cooking were all activities that likely required cooperation among the group members.

This is one reason why we may have evolved to enjoy being around fires. It was a historically important means of fostering social cohesion and groups that were more socially cohesive had an advantage over those that weren’t.

In modern times, after a hard day’s work, when people settle down in front of a TV or a computer in the evening, to check the latest news or browse social media, they satisfy the same needs for relaxation and socialization that our Stone Age ancestors must have felt.

We have an innate desire to master fire

In modern technologically advanced cultures that we live in, we’re not required to master fires. Conversely, in primitive societies, children usually master the skill of starting and maintaining fires around age 7.

The result is that our fascination with fire is carried over well into adulthood whereas children living in primitive societies, once they’ve learned to master fire, don’t seem to be as much interested in it.

Fire has been crucial for human survival for about a million years and in that time humans have likely evolved psychological mechanisms dedicated to learning about and controlling fire.

Despite all the advantages of fire, it is also dangerous and can harm or even kill. Hence, knowledge of its nature and how it works is essential from the evolutionary perspective of promoting one’s own survival.

This is why children are universally fascinated by fire in a similar way in which they’re fascinated by predatory animals. Children show a decent understating of predator-prey dynamics from an early age. They quickly learn which animals are dangerous to them which aren’t.

Since both predatory animals and fires can harm or kill them, evolution requires that children be interested or fascinated by both because that would drive them to learn more about these natural threats. Only when you’re fascinated by something will you want to know more about it.

So when children experiment with fire, testing the flammability of different materials, noting the behaviour of flames in different conditions, checking how strongly they need to blow to put out a fire, and so on, they’re doing it to learn a historically important skill and to protect themselves.

Fires and romance

Why are candle-lit dinners deemed to be romantic?

Why are so many romantic scenes in movies shot in candle-lit rooms?

I’ve always wondered why, in so many love-making scenes, the camera focuses more on the candles or the fireplace than the couple.

Since our ancestors mostly relaxed in front of campfires, it’s likely that it was also the time when they most had the opportunity to get intimate with each other. 

Perhaps the reason why you’re alive and reading this article today is that some distant ancestors of yours got cosy in front of a fireplace.

All the more reason to love and respect fire.