Friday, May 13, 2011

Flickering Flames Affect My Brain

Last weekend, Lydia and I went "back home" to Warren, Ohio for a little Mother's Day visit (When we lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania was "back home"). One of our common activities, starting in the summer and extending into the fall, is to visit our friends Dan and Vicki, on their piece of property. It is like a little Ponderosa in the country, and when weather permits, it inevitably includes a campfire. I am not going to talk about the fun and enjoyment of a campfire. Most red-blooded Americans, at least where we are from, have some kind of warm and fuzzy campfire memories. People talk, eat hotdogs (referred to as "weenies", only when cooked over a campfire), and generally relax. Many boy-girl relationships have blossomed around a fire, I am convinced. I have also noticed, it is like a truth serum. People engage in small talk and reminisce, talking about old times or how they hate their boss. Often, somebody throws a wrench in the works and mentions currents events, whether in the world, or in their own life. Eventually, prolonged exposure to the flickering flames casts a spell, a slowly building hypnotic state. During that time, some people begin to succumb to the truth serum and share the things that are buried inside, that they would not talk about under more stressful, guarded circumstances.
This brings me to the point I want to talk about. Campfires can be fun, but I am not going to go down that road. Rather, I want to mention something that is rarely talked about when sitting around a fire. WHY does it mesmerized us? Somebody might say, "It is relaxing". Yeah, but WHY? It can't be just because it is a focal point for us to look at. I don't get the same effect from going into a backyard and staring at a tree. I can' t invite people to come over to my house so we can stare at a tree and have good times. Insert "stare at a picket fence". You name it. It doesn't work. No, there has to be something more because, I am telling you, I am one of the easier prey. When I began looking at the fire, I fall victim to its seductive charms pretty quickly. I stare...stare and listen....stare and talk. It absolutely has to be a physiological process in my brain. Incidentally, let me say it is not just fires. I am captivated by the ocean surf. I can sit by the ocean, frolicking from time to time, all day. I rarely grown tired of it (I am an "ocean person". You either are one or you are not.). I visited my daughter once, and she has a radio that doubles as a nature sound machine. You can turn it on and listen to a soundtrack of the ocean surf, or the woods, the rain, or a waterfall. I like them all, but the ocean surf actually sooths me to sleep. She bought me one of these machines of my own.
Anyway, I am going to ask my son-in-law,the physician, about the physiology of the brain, as it pertains to this subject matter. In the meantime, I have two directions I want to go with this. First, the idea of hypnotism (if you are fundamentalist Christian, I love you, but don't wig out, like "If you are a Christian man, you shouldn't be messing with that stuff". I get it. However, I do not believe in Christian Stalinism. I just want to discuss this. As a college admissions officer, I speak to people from across the country, every day. Because I work with doctoral and masters degree candidates, I often speak to people who are quite accomplished and have strong formal educations. I spoke to one such man recently who was a hypnotherapist. He was not a self-styled kook, but an actual practitioner, licensed in his state. But, he did hypnotism. He kind of weirded me out when he told me he could hypnotize somebody over the phone, as we were in fact speaking over the phone, and he said, "How do you know I didn't hypnotize you just now as we were speaking?". However, I told him I have no desire to be hypnotized, nor do I allow myself to be, as I am not susceptible to it. I did not mention the fact that I have the Holy Spirit, as a believer, etc. Anyway, he gave me a kudo. "Right you are!". Indeed, according to this guy, you have to want to be hypnotized, and some people are susceptible, while others are not. So, we got into a deep discussion of what hypnotism is, and is not. Most people talk about it flippantly and do not even know. Even hypnotists don't agree and Christians (that's me, by the way) are often misinformed. That is not my point, however. The point is...well, let's keep this fundamental. Does anyone here remember Pavlov's dog? Anybody who took basic Psychology 101, or has even done some light reading on the subject, understands this is the quintessential case study on cause-and-effect. The guy rang a bell when he fed some dogs. Eventually, he stopped providing food when he rang the bell, but the dogs continued to salivate when the bell rang. They associated the bell with food, simply enough. OK. This is, arguably, part of the whole hypnosis thing, according to my psychologist friend. It is association, and just as a dog does not say "Hey, that bell usually means it is time to eat. Therefore, I will begin to create more saliva to eat a meal", a person who is hypnotized does not say the following: "Now that I have snapped my finger (or clapped my hands, or whatever other distinct act triggers the response), I will stop desiring a cigarette". It is cause-and-effect, like the bell and the dogfood. So, is that part of the campfire effect? Is it a cause and effect relationship, where it casts a hypnotic spell over those who are most willing and susceptible? Remember, going to a campfire event is an act of WILL. You go there because you DESIRE to be relaxed and enjoy it...just like someone who subjects himself or herself to the hypnosis of a therapist. I dunno. So, that is one direction on the subject, and here is my second.
Could it be that the mesmerizing effect of a campfire, ocean, or you name it, is strictly a physiological phenomenon? I am not a scientist, of course, but I do have my Time/Life book on the human brain. That sounds so non-intellectual, but actually, it is a fascinating resource for a lay person, and when I bought it, I read it in one day. That is how cool it is. However, I could not really find anything in there which I could bring into this discussion. I did a Google search, and I found something written by a guy who said, if you stand around Stonehenge, while staring at a flickering candle, some kind of pulsations start in your brain, and..........that is when I quit reading this tripe. I think he was going to say aliens would come or something. I also found out something about flickering flames and brain damage, only to find out it was a Pink Floyd album. So, I did eventually find a couple of academic papers on the subject. A basic theme seems to be the theory of evolution (let's not start that discussion, but yes, it is a theory). Some academics theorize that prehistoric man would spend large amounts of time gathered around campfires, this being their only source of light, cooking, and safety during the evening. Therefore, over extremely long periods of time, the human brain developed, and was wired, in such a way that it has an affinity for flickering campfire flames, and associates them with other brain processes, like reasoning and communicating. Shamans, and other religious types the world over, use fire. It is used in some sorts of meditation. Remember, Shamanism in all its forms goes back a long way, well before Christianity.
Anyway, it is what it is. But, it is an interesting subject, if you ask me.

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