Winter can be a depressing season. The weather is gray, it’s difficult to stay outdoors and everything feels just a little slower. For this reason, many individuals report increased symptoms of depression during the winter months, a condition that has been dubbed seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
But is EVERYONE gloomier during the fall and winter?
A research team led by Professor Steven G. LoBello, Ph.D., at Auburn University at Montgomery wanted to determine whether or not seasons can significantly influence a person’s mental health. To accomplish this, the researchers examined the depressive symptoms of over 34,000 American adults. They had participants complete a survey about their depressive symptoms over the course of two weeks. Since each participant completed the survey at different times of year, the researchers could use this information to look for seasonal trends in depressive symptoms.
As it turns out, depression was NOT significantly associated with any particular season. This remained true regardless of whether or not the researchers looked at the entire group of participants or only at the participants with a history of depression.
“Results do not support the validity of a seasonal modifier in major depression,” the researchers wrote. “The idea of seasonal depression may be strongly rooted in folk psychology, but it is not supported by objective data.”
Of course, it’s possible that some individuals with depression are not influenced by season whereas others are – the existence of SAD has been verified by numerousresearchstudies. More research will be needed before SAD can be discounted entirely. At the very least, the majority of the population won’t have to worry about growing more depressed this winter.
In fact, some people might find themselves developing sharper abilities instead.
People think better in colder settings
The sun is sweltering. Sweat keeps dripping into your eyes, causing them to sting. Every time you shift your position, you realize that your legs are stuck to the chair beneath you.
It can be a little harder to think on warm days – and now science has proven it.
A 2012 study conducted by Amar Cheema, Ph.D., from the University of Virginia and Vanessa M. Patrick, Ph.D., from the University of Houston found that people tend to be better at performing complex tasks in cooler weather.
The researchers had participants proofread an article in a cool room (67 degrees Fahrenheit) and a warm room (77 degrees Fahrenheit). Even though the temperatures were quite close, the difference was profound – people in the warm room performed significantly worse than the people in the cool room. Specifically, individuals who attempted to work in the warm room failed to identify nearly half of the spelling and grammatical errors in the article. Individuals who worked in the cool room, meanwhile, missed only a quarter of the mistakes.
Why would ambient temperature influence cognitive performance? It’s likely that warmer weather requires our bodies to put more effort into maintaining homeostasis, or keeping our organs at the proper temperature. This means that less energy is allocated to the brain, making our thoughts blurrier and our plans clumsier.
What does this mean?
Many of us dread winter because of the darker days and colder weather. Thankfully, the winter blues are far from guaranteed, and it’s even possible that our minds are sharper during these dreary months.
This year, try to greet winter a little more optimistically. Science will back you up.
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.