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Winter sluggishness may be another brain myth, research suggests

“If anything,” writes British psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett, “the data suggest that our minds are more sprightly at this time of year than in the summer.”

British psychologist Christian Jarrett: “If anything, the data suggest that our minds are more sprightly at this time of year than in the summer.”

In an article for New York Magazine’s “Science of Us” website, British psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett (“Great Myths of the Brain”) offers some science news that might be particularly welcome to those of us living here Minnesota, where winter is our … ahem … signature season.

Two recently published studies, Jarrett reports, directly challenge “many of the popular assumptions about the psychological effects of wintertime, suggesting that we should look at the season in a new, brighter light.”

“The weather might be gray and chilly,” he explains, “but the latest science says we humans are better at dealing with this than we usually give ourselves credit for, both in terms of our mood and the basic functioning of our brains.”

The brain in winter

One of those studies I wrote about in Second Opinion last month. That study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, found no significant correlation between depression and season or latitude. It thus calls into question what the study’s authors called the “well entrenched folk theory” of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression whose symptoms are said to occur during the winter months. 

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The second study was published last month as well, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). It also “seems to refute a common cultural understanding of the effects of cold, dark days” — the idea that winter makes our brains more sluggish, says Jarrett.

Here’s Jarrett’s description of the study: 

The neuroscientists, led by Christelle Meyer at the University of Liège in Belgium, recruited 28 young men and women at different times of year to answer questions about their mood, emotions, and alertness; have their melatonin (a hormone that regulates the sleep cycle) levels measured; and complete two psychology tasks in a brain scanner. One task was a test of vigilance and involved pressing a button as fast as possible whenever a stopwatch appeared at random intervals on-screen, and the other was a test of working memory, which involved listening to streams of letters and spotting when the current letter was the same as the one presented three items earlier. The basic idea was to see if the participants’ brain activity during these tasks was different depending on the season.

The participants’ feelings of alertness, their emotional state, and melatonin levels mostly didn’t vary with the seasons, and they actually performed equally well on both tasks in the scanner regardless of the time of year, thus undermining the idea that the winter has an adverse effect on our mental abilities (more on this shortly). One question on mood did show some seasonal variation, but participants’ moods were lowest in the fall, not winter. In terms of underlying brain function, participants’ neural activity was highest during the memory task for those participants tested in spring and lowest for those tested in the fall, so, far from being a special case, winter brain activity sat in the middle.

A winter advantage

During the vigilance test, the participants’ brain activity was lowest in winter and highest in summer — a finding that was misinterpreted by some media outlets as evidence of winter sluggishness, says Jarrett.

“As the participants’ performance and alertness was as good in winter as at other times of year, their reduced winter brain activity can actually be seen as a sign of improved efficiency,” he points out. “For comparison, consider research showing how the more expert people become at a task, the less brain activity is seen while they perform that task, as the brain becomes more efficient.”

Jarrett also describes a 1990s study conducted in the far-north Norwegian town of Tromso, which has almost no sunlight in the winter and almost no darkness in the summer. That study, which put participants through a series of cognitive tests, “found little evidence of seasonal effects, but those they did find were largely in favor of a winter advantage,” Jarrett reports.

Time to change the narrative

“Many people dislike winter for obvious reasons, and the idea that these darker months make many of us profoundly miserable and cognitively impaired fits a narrative about this being a difficult time of year,” writes Jarrett. “… But we should be cognizant of how our expectations shape the way we experience the world — it may be the case that, after hearing over and over and over that winter slows us down, making us more sluggish and sad, we interpret days when we’re feeling down for other reasons as proof that it’s winter’s fault.”

“If anything,” he adds, “the data suggest that our minds are more sprightly at this time of year than in the summer.”

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Good thing, then, that we have long winters here in Minnesota.

FMI: You can read Jarrett’s article on the “Science of Us” website.