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Diving Deeper into the Cold Season: The Science of Winter 

By Sophie Halpin 

Contributor



Via Mary Long/Adobe Stock, T. A. McKay/Getty Images


As you draw back your curtains in the morning to see, the season’s very first snow out of your window, you can feel that familiar sentiment building up in you. While some of us will run outside to swirl in the snow and have our main character magical moment, others will shut the drapes and jump back in bed with a grunt. After all, Mariah Carey might have defrosted a bit too early this year. Either way, scientists affirm that both of these feelings are absolutely normal. 


The close arrival of the winter solstice means one thing: shorter days. Ever wondered why daylight time reduces as that critical day approaches? As the Earth rotates around its axis and revolves around the sun, light does not shine for the same amount of time everywhere on the globe. The planet is not spinning straight up, but is actually tilted at about 23.5 degrees. Therefore, during our winter season, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, resulting in reduced accessibility to sun rays. Simultaneously, the southern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun, leading to its summer season, explaining the opposite seasons on either side of the equator. 


Unfortunately for many of us, shorter days, harsh weather, and cold temperatures come in a bundle with a bow on top: seasonal depression. The winter blues people experience has a clinical name: seasonal affective disorder. SAD is a type of depression defined by a seasonal pattern where symptoms are experienced for about 4 months, generally starting in the late fall. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms include oversleeping, social withdrawal, decrease in energy, persistent sadness, and/or anxiety… Sort of like hibernating! However, these have to last consistently for a long period of time to be considered SAD, hence do not panic if you experience these briefly during end-of-semester cramming and the forthcoming finals season. If symptoms persist, consult a mental health specialist to get a proper diagnosis. There are many treatments to SAD apart from antidepressant medications, including more natural options such as psychotherapy, vitamin D, and even light therapy.


If, on the contrary, you were already jamming to Christmas music on November 1st and are looking forward to the holidays, you might be interested in knowing why it is that, scientifically, winter is so magical. Snow itself is mesmerizing. How can such tiny flakes be so detailed, beautiful, and perfect? The secret behind their hexagonal shape is their molecular structure. Ice consists of an arrangement of water molecules which form a stunning pattern of hexagonal rings. As per the research done by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, snow forms in the sky as ice crystals agglomerate onto a dust particle. So, to all hypochondriacs out there, you might want to think twice before sticking out your tongue at the next snowfall! Lastly, all snowflakes are unique because their shapes vary according to atmospheric conditions, particularly temperature, encountered during their descent. 


The elegance of snowfall is one of the many magical elements of winter, but what if you combined it with the sound of your little cousins’ giggles alongside their footsteps as they run around the house, the warmth of your mother’s hugs, and the comforting smell of your grandmother’s pie in the oven? The combination of all the senses makes the holiday season so magical. More specifically, scents provide a lot of comfort and nostalgia. Olfactory responses are directly associated with the emotional center of our brains, the limbic system. As we forge memories throughout our childhood, the stimuli related to important magical moments that generate strong emotional responses, such as the holidays, are recorded by our hippocampus. Consequently, when these stimuli reoccur, for instance when a signaling molecule binds to an odorant receptor in our nose, an action-potential, an electric signal, is sent through our nervous system. When it reaches our brain, it activates the hippocampus, retrieving those memories. 


Overall, it may be said that winter is a season that triggers various emotions in us, all of which can be supported by scientific evidence. Whether you enjoy the winter season or not, make sure to take advantage of the winter break to enjoy yourself, let your biological rhythm readjust, and stay curious. The SparkMind team wishes happy holidays to you all!


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