Cold makes us feel less secure. But the beauty of snowfall and its ubiquitous influence over the human psyche, connecting us with our childhood, is a clear indication of its positivity.
In the past, experts posited that winter depresses people as the lack of sunlight and freezing cold temperatures makes humans feel insecure, often resulting in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
But newer studies show that might not be the case, putting some weight behind what we call ‘the Christmas spirit’ and the allure of snowfall.
Let’s first take a look at what the old science says.
During winter, particularly when it’s snowing, you might feel a little sluggish, an effect that has long been interpreted by psychologists as a sign of depression potentially linked to SAD, due to receiving less sunlight.
SAD is defined as a type of depression related to seasonal changes, with a set start and end in the season. Its symptoms usually begin in the autumn and escalate further into the winter, making people feel ‘sad’.
Experts say the lower levels of sunlight have a negative impact on our internal body clock. Less exposure to sunlight leads to diminishing levels of serotonin, a type of neurotransmitter, which is an important factor in altering moods whether good or bad, eventually increasing or decreasing our feelings of depression.
But newer studies have drawn attention to some important nuances.
While most researchers have concluded that brain activity reaches its lowest levels during the winter, its performance and reactions are as good as other seasons of the year.
“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,”wrote Christian Jarrett, a psychologist and an author.
It means the feeling of sluggishness might not necessarily be a sign of depression, but it could be like the reaction of a tortoise, which pulls itself into his or her shell in a reaction to external threats, despite maintaining its functions as it continues walking.
Winter brain is slow, but efficient
One way to imagine how our brain changes is to imagine the differences between a hyperactive and calm-mannered attitude - reduced winter activity versus a very active neurological system during the summer time.
Overactive brain activity expends greater energy to achieve the same objectives as a calmer attitude, like in winter time, which uses less energy to attain the same goals.
If the results are the same why do we use up more energy achieving them? That’s the definition of the reduced winter brain activity’s basic philosophy.
“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 analysed.
Think about an experienced attorney or a tennis player compared to a junior lawyer or a sports rookie to better understand reduced winter brain activity and its improved efficiency.
The experienced attorney listens to a client silently and methodically while the junior lawyer might be interrupting or talking a lot to persuade his or her client on their expertise. It’s clear that most of the time, clients will go with the confident, methodical, attorney rather than a junior lawyer who might exude stress.
A 1990 study, conducted in Norway’s Thomso, a place with freezing temperatures located 180 miles north of the Arctic Circle, found that a winter brain edges a summer brain most of the time on various tests measuring reaction time.
“Despite the subjective feeling one may have that one is mentally sluggish in winter, our data do not lend empirical support to the intuitive claim,” the study authoritatively concluded.
Then, the feeling of sluggishness might just be nothing more than reduced brain activity. If you interpret it as a neurological desire for laziness, you might just go to sleep, losing the advantages of result-oriented thinking and effective implementation.
Overall, while a lot of people are still affected by SAD, recent studies show that there is also increased brain efficiency in the winter time.
Does snow affect women differently?
Another study, published in 2013-2014, has also shown that snow and cold weather have a particular effect on women and their sartorial choices. The study showed that women tend to wear red and pink dresses during colder weather.
"Women are more likely to wear shades of red and pink on days when they're ovulating," said Jessica Tracy, the writer of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
The study was replicated in the winter of 2014 after its initial launch in 2013. In both years, the research showed the same results on women’s clothing choices. But during the summer, the effect appeared to lose its appeal on women.
"The basic idea is that red and pink colours are sort of a sexual signal," Tracy said.
Evoking the beauty of nature
Snow and cold conditions also evoke a nearly forgotten aspect of modern times, the sense of natural beauty.
While summer is green, and warmth brings out the beauty of nature, it does not give an overwhelming feeling of nature’s dominance in metropolises like New York and Istanbul, filled with skyscrapers and a lot of other buildings.
But when the winter comes with its snow, as it recently did in Istanbul, it is undeniable that nature takes on a new face and becomes more dominant than anything else, calling both parents and kids alike to enjoy it outside of their warm houses.
Parents might feel nostalgic for their childhoods while playing with their offspring, building snowmen or engaging in a snowball fight.
Connecting with the past in such a peaceful way reinvigorates spirits, and it helps to heal emotional wounds and calm people.
"Snow falling soundlessly in the middle of the night will always fill my heart with sweet clarity," wrote Novala Takemoto, an author.