Cloudy days, clearer thinking and SAD


It can’t be denied that the state of the sky affects our mood and perception. A clear, blue sky is crisp with contentment, while a cloudy, soupy sky might weigh your mind and your heart. For many who suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affect Disorder), cloudy days have dire consequences.

But the first-rate blog, BrainPickings.org, recently reported on a new psychological perspective: Cloudy days may actually make us think more clearly!

If that’s true, how lucky it is that our world is a very cloudy one! Almost 70% of the Earth’s sky is typically covered by clouds, especially over the oceans, where it’s only 10% clear at any given time (USAToday).

But don’t move to Seattle, yet… Unfortunately, it also turns out perpetual cloud cover negatively affects both the body and the mind.

The good news is that it looks like there might be a way to get the best of both worlds!

And what a relief that is, because it’s quite “clear” from the satellite photo below, that the USA has got itself some serious cloud cover. Our cloudiest areas are in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle & Portland) and around the Great Lakes (Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Rochester, Columbus, Cincinnati, Detroit).

(In case you’re curious, some of the sunniest places are: Phoenix, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Miami, Denver, Oklahoma City, San Diego and Salt Lake City.)

“Sunshine dulls the mind to risk and thoughtfulness.”

This is a quote from a book by Adam Alter called Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think,  Feel, and Behave. (Source: BrainPickings.org)

Alter describes an experiment in which social psychologists in Sydney, Australia put some trinkets on a store counter (things like plastic toys, Matchbox cars and a piggy bank). As shoppers exited the store, they were asked to recall as many trinkets as they could, then identify the ten trinkets among a list of twenty. The psychologists did this experiment on a variety of different days, and at different times of day, over the course of two months.

What they found, as you might have guessed, was that the shoppers’ trinket recall was better on cloudy days– THREE TIMES better than on sunny days! Can you guess why?

Survival instinct. That’s what most human rationale comes down to, after all. Alter says it best:

“Humans are biologically predisposed to avoid sadness, and they respond to sad moods by seeking opportunities for mood repair and vigilantly protecting themselves against whatever might be making them sad. In contrast, happiness sends a signal that everything is fine, the environment doesn’t pose an imminent threat, and there’s no need to think deeply and carefully.

These contrasting mental approaches explain why the shoppers remembered the ten trinkets more accurately on rainy days; the rainy days induced a generally negative mood state, which the shoppers subconsciously tried to overcome by grazing the environment for information that might have replaced their dampened sad moods with happier alternatives. If you think about it, this approach makes sense. Mood states are all-purpose measurement devices that tell us whether something in the environment needs to be fixed. When we’re facing major emotional hurdles — extreme grief, an injury that brings severe pain, blinding anger — our emotional warning light glows red and compels us to act. For most of the time we sail smoothly through calm waters, allowing much of the world — including small trinkets on a store countertop — to pass by unnoticed.”

*See more discussion in the Brain Picking’s blog post.

Many people write poetry when they’re sad or contemplative, but leave the pages blank when happy and content. Could this be what Alter is talking about? Does a dampened mood prime our perception and creativity for problem-solving emergencies?

The big BUT here is that lack of sunlight has a laundry list of negative effects on the body and mind:

  • Vitamin D deficiency impairs the body’s immune system, bone health and mental/emotional state. (We get vitamin D when sunlight hits the cholesterol underneath our skin.)
    • When D gets thrown off, so do the other fat-soluble vitamins, A, E and K.
  • Light deficiency sets our Circadian Rhythm off-kilter, which hampers the sleep-wake cycle, hormonal waves, brain detoxification and more.
    • Serotonin is turned into melatonin, which makes us fall asleep, when the pineal gland in the brain receives signals about daylight/darkness. Lack of direct sunlight can cause overproduction of melatonin, which dampens the mood, immune system and more.
    • Use of cell phones, iPads, laptops and computer monitors at night adds to this problem because of the particular blue wavelength of light they emit.
    • Fluorescent lights also throw many people off.
  • Both of the above trigger our Stress Response, which directs us to store more energy as fat just in case an emergency is coming.
  • Unfortunately for them, people who work night shifts have given us plenty of evidence of the detrimental effects of light deficiency and internal clock disturbance.

Everyone has different levels of ability to adjust to cloudy weather, but some are just plain out of luck. These people have what is called Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD), and being sad is the least of their worries. SAD can result in debilitating depression, slow thinking, terrible sleep, anxiety, apathy, loss of libido, and major cravings for carbs which leads to weight gain.

So, obviously, people with SAD would tell those Australian psychologists where they could shove their ten little trinkets!

Now to the good news: When there’s no sun, we can MAKE light! But not all light will do the trick. Our bodies are too smart. For example, fluorescent lights just make matters worse, and those brand-spankin’ new energy efficient spiral bulbs emit mercury and other heavy metals (though Mercola does carry some full-spectrum bulbs that are low-emission)… But, let’s keep looking.

Products called “dawn simulators” could be a good place to start, and could be enough. Like a silent alarm clock, they produce light that slowly gets brighter as it’s time to wake up. As long as the light is full-spectrum, it potentially fools the body into thinking the sun is rising. Here’s a good description of dawn simulators. While this can work for many, really tackling cognitive and mood symptoms might require more.

Light boxes are made specifically for countering cloudy days and SAD. While many emit the wrong frequencies of light, some are more accurate to the specific needs of humans’ eyeballs. A good light box should produce a full-spectrum light, closer to the blue or blue-green spectrum. This site has some good recommendations.

Light boxes work for many people, but you have to sit in front of them for 30+ minutes per day. While that’s a great opportunity to meditate or relax, it’s not necessarily practical for those with busy mornings.

Side note: Do beware of a product from Finland that shines light into your ears through ear buds. It’s not what it’s cracked up to be… the site makes it look amazing, but think about it. Why would we have light receptors in our ear canals? Many of us have hair that covers our ears, and so did our Neanderthal ancestors (except for the Teenderthals who wore the first mohawks). I’m not a scientist, but I know the body is efficient and does not waste resources. Don’t waste your resources on ear light!

Now, enter Re-Timer, a wearable light box! These bad boys emit the correct wavelength of light (into the organ that is made to receive light) and they do not tie you down for 30 minutes a day! As an added bonus, the look very badass… And they’re available through BuzzNutrition at a discount (contact me for specifics).

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Who might benefit from Re-Timer, or a high-quality light box?

  • Those with mild “Winter Blues”
  • Those with full-blown Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD)
  • Those with Insomnia or other Sleep Disturbances (fall asleep to early or too late?)
  • Those who work a Night Shift
  • Those who travel a lot and suffer from Jet Lag
  • Those who want to try to hack their bodies and brains to make them even more efficient and powerful
  • *When using light for a condition, especially bipolar, contact your health practitioner for guidance. There are some specific techniques that may be recommended.

Who should NOT use Re-Timer or a light box?

  • Those with Macular Degeneration.
  • Those who suffer from Porphyria, Lupus, Actinic Dermatitis (seriously sun-damaged skin), or Solar Urticaria (sun makes your skin hurt)
  • Those who take a medication that sensitizes them to light

It is believed that humans evolved in the middle of the globe where it was sunny all the time. We wore our bikinis and speedos and got plenty of sun on our skin. Then, in efforts to follow food, escape natural disasters, flee predators, or after a crazy night of drinking, we found ourselves flung all over the globe where weather was much different. But luckily we’re smart and can adapt with homemade light!

Maybe there are parts of the world where humans simply should not live (like Las Vegas). Maybe your personal ideal would be to move to a sunnier place. But, what if you can’t leave? What if your family, friends, community and job are in a cloudy place, but the light they create is brighter than the sun? Then, you can adapt just like your ancestors did, but in today’s age you have the advantage of various brilliant pieces of technology.

Today you can live under clouds and create your own light- the kind of light that your body recognizes and responds to. While enjoying physical and mental health, you can appreciate the added benefit of also thinking more clearly and noticing all the trinkets, advantages and opportunities in your surroundings and encounters.

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