New Internationalist

Seasons Of The Mind, Storms Of The Soul.

Issue 319

new internationalist
issue 319 - December 1999

Seasons of the mind,

storms of the soul

Not feeling quite up to scratch?
It could be a weather bulletin from the pineal,
says psychiatrist Trevor Turner.

It happens all the time. Some sparkle-toothed TV weather person, with distinctive hand movements and upbeat patter, tells you that tomorrow it will be ‘good weather’. With manic glee s/he announces that the temperature will reach, say, 29°C, great for getting ‘out and about’, and hints that you should go out and enjoy yourself. The fact that you can’t, because you are stuck behind a desk or in an operating theatre, or wherever, never seems to cross the weather person’s mind. And this sense of frustration at not being able to ‘enjoy the weather’ makes the irritability worse, the heat rash itchier, and concentration more difficult. Throw in air-conditioning, a closed-in ‘sick building’, and the discomforts of formal clothes – and urbanites can be seen as meteorologically mad. It might even be true to say that the weather, in ways much more profound than the minor personal problems that pass for experience in the modern world, affects our very soul.

By ‘soul’ I refer of course to the pineal gland. This sits in the more primitive part of the brain, produces a hormone called melatonin (among various other neurochemicals), and seems to react to light. Despite thousands of research hours grinding up pineal extracts and looking for data, this gland remains very poorly understood. It seems to be the mechanism that causes birds to fly south in winter, and may affect moods in humans as well as patterns of sleep and appetite. Tumours of the pineal are associated with sexual precocity, and it seems to gather calcium and harden as you get older. Yet if there’s any biology at all behind ‘feeling the force’ Star Wars-style, it’s likely to lie in the pineal gland.

To everything a season
The fact of the matter is that climate and weather can’t be ignored when looking at people’s mental states. The most obvious impact is revealed in the spring and autumn relapse rates for people with manic depressive illnesses. That is when, in temperate latitudes at least, the amount of light available is changing. Switching from ‘the clanging arch of steel grey March to June’s long lighted days’ sends you up or down and sometimes even sideways. Suicide figures increase markedly, and mental hospitals become clearing stations. Whether you call it ‘spring fever’ or ‘the winter blues’, it is profound, hinting at the deep roots of our evolutionary adaptation, showing how our brains are finely tuned to tailoring activities to the seasons around us. The strange and rising tide of perceived depression in modern human beings, living in artificial de-seasoned environments, may even reflect this loss of rhythm. By having alienated ourselves from the natural rotation of seasons, weather, heat, cold, rain, we may be psychologically attenuated, stuck in a no-man’s land of cerebral stagnation.

The most obvious condition highlighting our meteorological susceptibility is seasonal affective disorder syndrome (SADS). The nearer you live to the North Pole the more common it is. In Canada up to 40 per cent or more of citizens are affected to some degree, but only about 5 per cent severely. Moving south can help, as can using a lightbox. But the symptoms, usually depressive ones such as needing more sleep, losing concentration, feeling gloomy and sad, and wanting to eat more, may in fact be a form of primitive protection. Semi-hibernating, when there wasn’t much food around, in the year one million BC (or thereabouts) could have been a useful way of getting through winter. You would have felt hungry of course but your reduced physical acitivity would have helped you get by despite poor nutrition. Such natural depression perhaps even left reserves of energy for the summer when there was hunting or crop-gathering to be done.

This weather sensitivity may be telling us that depression in its uncomfortable, but essentially minor, forms isn’t bad for you. Having a natural low, especially in winter, may be important to enabling the natural ‘high’ of spring and summer. Not having the switch, because of artificial environments (and especially when people seem to be sleeping much less because of artificial light) may create the worst of both worlds. Winters will be a bit dull, but not unbearable, but summers won’t be as full of zest as you would like. Either way the perception would be of a flattening, or something not quite right. Perhaps a useful analogy would be with the rising tide of allergic disorders. These may well be due to our ultra-hygienic environments, leading to a failure to develop antibodies to common bugs and germs, and the absence of any good cleansing fevers to burn off all the immune detritus that tends to gather.

Intemperate temperaments
Another long-recognized aspect of the weather has been the notion of temperament in different peoples. The English, with all their fogs, rain and cold, have long been considered phlegmatic. That is to say, they are rather stolid, not obviously emotional, but with lots of stamina. By contrast, the so-called ‘Mediterranean’ temperament is meant to be more fiery and sanguine, reacting instantly to things, but inconsistent. Such stereotypes are being increasingly eroded by travel, inter-migration, and perhaps less weather-bound lifestyles. It is also very Eurocentric, since the range of temperaments seen in people living in the tropics is just as diverse. All we can say is that there is a general perception, in every culture, that weather modulates our state of mind. In Spain it is said that the highest suicide rates are found in a town at the southern tip, constantly bombarded by wind from the Atlantic. Lurid tales of cabin fever from the Arctic north can be matched with high summer murder rates in American inner cities. Much of this is the stuff of travellers’ tales, but there is enough hard science to make it difficult to ignore.

Perhaps the people who best illustrate this are those living in the wrong weather system. I recall vividly an Ethiopian woman, living in North London, who seemed always to be in a state of high anxiety. She was frightened to leave the house, was constantly phoning her husband during the day, and developed panic attacks. A much-loved brother had died, back in her home country, and she found it hard to mourn for him, being unable to get him out of her mind and feeling guilty that somehow she had deserted him. Eventually she went back on holiday, and we all thought that the bereavement process would be completed, but her return to the UK saw her just as anxious. She got better to some degree with therapy and medication, but remained clinging, tearful and very dependent. She did finally admit that she couldn’t stand the apparent ‘heaviness’ of the air, the cold and the damp in winter, and the sense that she could never feel warm and comfortable.

The colonial experience of India and the Far East had a reverse impact on a number of expatriates from England. Debilitated by the heat, wives and children would be sent home, flocking around hotels on the south coast, while working husbands struggled along for years alone in the heat, often drinking themselves to death. In fact, the rate of psychiatric breakdown amongst soldiers and civilians in India was such that there was a standard process for shifting people back, and a couple of asylums were assigned to looking after these Eastern casualties. The process of going mad was called Dulally-Tap, because the transit station for shipping people to England was based at a place called Dulally (Deolali)!

Adapt and survive
Given that we can’t dissociate ourselves, our moods and temperaments from the weather, that we are in every sense nature’s creatures, perhaps it makes sense to go to where the weather suits your clothes. Some people apparently enjoy living in the permanent sunshine of Southern California. This may seem like fun, fun, fun, but where do they get those natural brain rotations that we need in order to relax or reprogramme? A lot of people get a paradoxical kind of mood swing in the winter, as witness the rush to ski and skate and luge. This strange desire to travel downhill very fast, in a semi-controlled skid, gives some people a buzz, while terrifying some of us out of our wits. Some of us actually like the rain. Whether sitting inside and listening to it, or walking through it and splashing along, it can be most therapeutic. I still miss the monsoons of my (far Eastern) childhood, with the sense of awe and comfort that all that water, falling and falling, seemed to give. Maybe the wonder of electrical storms with flashes of lightning arcing across the sky, is a kind of psychological electroconvulsive therapy?

The task therefore is to adapt yourself to the seasons as seems best. Accept the fact that you are going to be a bit sluggish perhaps in the winter (or if you are a paradoxical, in the summer) and line up your activities appropriately. The commonest complaint in doctors’ surgeries all over the industrialized world is ‘I feel tired all the time’. Which may be a way of saying please let me hibernate, rather than please put me on the Prozac.

All the stuff about suicide rates and SADS and temperaments and the various forms of melancholia is telling us that we are adapted for seasonal change. We need our quiet periods, our hibernations, and we can’t expect to be storming along all the time. Artificial environments may be convenient, whether they be air-conditioned shopping malls or strip-lit office blocks, but they block out the rotational rhythms that our brains need. And since we have spent some 2.5 million years adapting our pineal responses to a world of weather, perhaps we should think about this a bit more before plaguing the doctor with another complaint about headaches or tiredness or feeling a bit nervous. Maybe weather therapists could be the next form of alternative medicine? A week in a monsoon in rural India would perhaps be very good for the pineal and the soul.

Dr Trevor Turner is a consultant psychiatrist working for the National Health Service in inner London. With several publications to his credit, he is keen on trying to destigmatize mental-health issues.

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