Watching TV and staring at flickering flames produce similar physiological effects, offering intriguing clues to the enduring power of entertainment – and the origins of sociability

Humans



16 December 2020

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LAST year, it was Frozen. This year, it might be Eight Below. A holiday during the long, cold Michigan winter is a chance for my family to spend some quality time together. And what better way to enjoy our evenings than by watching movies on TV?

Some might call this a waste of time. Anthropologist Christopher Lynn begs to differ. He believes there is a good reason why many of us like gathering around the idiot box. Far from being frivolous, it is a legacy of a behaviour that arose to help humans survive the unforgiving Stone Age world.

It is tempting to see human evolution through the prism of technological breakthroughs that brought tangible material benefits. When our ancestors learned to make projectile weapons, for instance, they could hunt more effectively and secure more reliable sources of meat. Softer aspects of life, such as the ways we socialise, might seem less important to the success of our species. But Lynn, who is based at the University of Alabama, says we socialise not because we like to, but because we need to.

That may seem obvious to anyone who has struggled with isolation during lockdown this year. But Lynn goes further still. He thinks that the pleasure we gain from relaxing around the TV with friends and family might help explain why humanity became so social in the first place. It all began, he says, when our ancestors learned to control fire.

We have known for decades that the use of fire transformed life for early humans. It allowed them to cook food, for …