Scientists who study the brain are discovering real physical changes to our brain during different seasons. Discover Magazine recently provided research information revealing how the human brain might change from season to season. Some of those changes are due to the differences in weather or temperature and how we react to change.
One thing we know for certain is that the seasons bring change, and the seasons also bring familiarity. For many people, seasons have specific rituals that we attach to them, which can foster feelings of nostalgia and take us back to the emotions of years gone by. We are often encouraged to experience familiar things like decorating a tree or baking a pumpkin pie. It stands to reason that these forms of activities would engage and inspire people with cognitive challenges.
Weather and seasonal changes often affect much of what we eat or do daily. We might think it is “too cold” or “too hot” to exercise or walk, so we avoid them. Weather can be both a helpful and destructive force. Offering options for exercise, such as an indoor seated Yoga video or seated strength video, can encourage and strengthen older adults.
Seasonal mood shifts often include less energy, cravings for more carbohydrates (Christmas cookies), and changes in sleep (it’s too cold or warm). We tend to eat hot and warm food in the cold season and cold shakes and lemonade in the hot season. Not only do our food habits change but also our clothing (which also affects our body functions); we must “dress for cold weather,” for example.
Are seasonal changes good for our brains? The brain is more active when we try to pay attention in the summer (so it’s easier for us to remember things). Whereas in the winter, memory recall is more challenging. Some people report experiencing symptoms such as lower energy and feeling somewhat moody, often referred to as the “winter blues.” These symptoms usually start to disappear in the spring and summer.
Scientists have long believed the brain is vulnerable to seasonal shifts. For instance, headaches are more frequent in the fall and spring, mental health may decline during winter, and more people in various studies say they can concentrate and remember things easier in warmer weather.
Scientists only partially understand the biological mechanisms behind the brain’s seasonal variations. Serotonin levels fluctuate with the seasons, and the immune system is more prone to inflammation in the winter.
According to Beingwell, spring and summer can bring on symptoms of anxiety, agitation, and irritability. As we move from winter to spring, our executive functions, such as working brain memory, become more active.
Seasonal changes affect our moods and even our cognition. According to Luminosity, SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a widely known affliction caused by the seasons’ influence on our brains. SAD is described as recurrent clinical depression, and it particularly affects people in northern latitudes, where seasonal amounts of daylight vary more than they do nearer the Equator.
In a research study that involved 3,000 people, small but distinct changes, smaller in winter and larger in summer, were identified through MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging). They found that brain size changes with the seasons. What do these seasonal brain changes mean? Generally, a larger brain allows a more extensive brain cell network and better processing power for complex cognitive functions like memory and reaction speed.
Suggestions from the experts to boost your brain? “Live Seasonally.” As seasons change, so can our eating habits, lifestyle, and physical activity. Finding things to celebrate each season can add energy to daily living.
- If the weather permits, spend time outdoors, attend a local farmer’s market, or walk through a garden center or pumpkin patch.
- Switch to seasonal music.
- Recall seasonal family traditions.
- Introduce new seasonal traditions (walking through the pumpkin patch or attending a spring music concert at a local high school).
Research tells us that our brains result from enrichment in all aspects of health. These experiences encourage the growth of new brain cells and their connections, a process called “neurogenesis” that allows for multiple “backup” systems for thinking, problem-solving, and memory.
Change from season to season, familiarity, strong memories, special foods, and celebrations are great ways to stimulate our brains. Adapting to the weather and learning new things about each season enables our cognitive processes to cope with changes and make our lives more enjoyable.