February is basically no one's favorite month. By now, most of us are well and truly sick of winter, yet winter is far from done, continuing to torture us with nose-freezing temperatures and super short days.
Given how unpleasant the weather can be, it makes sense to conclude that the season is only good for ski buffs and hibernation. Winter, many of us suspect, makes us moody, sluggish, and generally unproductive.
Science, however, has come to far different conclusions about the season. As a cheerfully well timed post from New York Magazine's Science of Us blog points out, there's no shortage of research that shows winter is not only not depressing, it might actually make our brains work better.
The post by Christian Jarrett offers a deep dive into the science on the subject, but the basic takeaway is this -- despite your subjective sense that winter is a bummer for your mental health, there's actually no proof that the cold and gloom make you sadder or slower.
Is SAD a self-fulfilling prophecy?
But wait, you might say, what about so-called 'seasonal affective disorder'? Turns out the condition might be more of a myth than a reality. That's the takeaway of a massive study of 34,294 American adults that looked for correlations between season and mood.
"Contrary to what you might think, the results provided no evidence whatsoever that people's depression symptoms tended to be higher in winter--or at any other time of the year. This lack of a seasonal effect was true whether looking at the entire sample or only respondents with depressive symptoms. The respondents' geographical latitude and sunlight exposure on the day of the survey were also unrelated to depression scores," Jarrett reports.
So why do so many of us believe that winter weather brings us down? Basically, flawed early studies popularized the concept, priming us all to take our every gloomy day in the winter months as a possible sign of the condition.
Winter doesn't make your brain sluggish either.
The claim that winter slows our brains doesn't stand up to scientific scrutiny either. New research led by a team of neuroscientists tested volunteers' cognitive function throughout the year, looking for hard evidence that short, dark days and cold weather really could dent our cognitive abilities. They did find that certain types of brain activity were reduced in winter, but that doesn't mean our brains are working less well during the cold months -- quite the opposite, in fact.
"Some media outlets have interpreted this as evidence for winter sluggishness, but 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," explains Jarrett. "You could even think of this reduced winter neural activity as your brain entering a kind of 'eco mode,' allowing it to perform as well as it does in summer but while consuming fewer resources." Other research from the north of Norway backs up this conclusion, showing our brains, if anything, function slightly better in winter.
But wait, winter still bums me out...
All of which is fascinating and might help cheer you up a bit if you're part of the country is currently in the deep freeze, but a bunch of scientific findings won't make your subjective sense of the winter blues instantly disappear. If, despite the lack of evidence for winter's negative effects, you still feel like you just want to curl up in a ball and sleep all day, the problem might be your attitude, not your brain.
Other research conducted in harsh Arctic regions suggests that how we think about winter is the most important determinant of how the season affects us. Because of their culture, Norwegians, for example, generally view winter with excitement and cheer. Very few of them report experiencing the winter blues. Scientists suggest that you can steal their approach to improve your mood in winter. (Alternatively, you could just skip winter next year.)