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  • Grace McMahon

Seasonal changes and the brain

You may be wondering if the seasonal changes can affect our brain? Well, the short answer is yes! Seasons do have an effect on our brain functioning. Research suggests that some areas of our brain are more active at specific times of the year, less active during the opposite. But read on for the long answer - it’s worth it!

We spoke to Martina, Beingwell’s cognitive scientist and Thinkingwell expert, about how our brain’s functioning can be affected by the seasonal changes throughout the year. You might be interested - or even comforted - to know that those winter months can be a real pest for our cognitive abilities, and may even explain a little more behind why setting goals in the new year can actually be really quite challenging - despite the ‘new year, new me’ craze.

Moving from Winter towards Summer

This time of year it looks like our working memory - that’s our mental workspace, responsible for understanding instructions, using information, solving problems and making decisions - has lower activity as we come out of winter.

This can mean some of us have lower performance in tasks related to working memory activity. But don’t worry, it’s not that we can’t or struggle to perform these kinds of tasks, but that we require more resources to complete to the same standard at this time of year. Which might explain why things feel more like hard work, or energy consuming, or even a bit foggier than during the rest of the year. If this is familiar, it can be really helpful to make use of external memory sources, like sticky notes, calendars, notebooks or apps on your phone - use their memory space instead of your own!

Now, the reasons for this are not yet fully understood, but seasonal variables like daylight, humidity, air pressure play a role, as well as the chemicals in the brain and our lifestyles and routines influence our cognitive functioning.

Got a spring in your step this time of year?

Our brains are waking up from hibernation as we move through spring and into summer meaning our executive functions like working memory become more active. Summer is actually the time of the year when most of our brain functions are at their best.

Not only does our cognition improve with the seasonal changes, but our mood tends to shift, thanks to increased serotonin and dopamine levels - responsible for satisfaction, reward and self-regulation. This is the time that those who experience seasonal depression - or even the winter blues (the milder sibling of) - are likely to notice symptoms lift, with the changes in natural factors like longer daylight hours.

Now these effects may be quite noticeable for some, and may be not for others. We need to keep in mind that while seasonal factors influence our cognition, our routines and lifestyle habits will play a bigger role - and believe it or not, at this time of year building healthy habits might come much easier for most of us than during the cold, dreary weather winter offers.

So how can we harness those to get the most benefit?

Spend time outdoors

The natural light makes us feel more energetic and positive this time of year, as well as natural environments being great for stress relief, attention and creativity. So get outside, even if it’s sitting on a bench during a lap round the park or laying on the grass in the 5pm sun - anyone else dearly missed the daily dose of vitamin D?

Maintain a good sleep routine

Sleep allows our brain functioning to clean up and recharge during the night, so maintain sleep habits that work for you. Build on your wind down routine now that the evenings are getting lighter (but don’t panic the sun setting later really doesn’t affect our sleep patterns that much) and as always, stick to that wake up time - whatever it is for you.

Make the most of the fresh foods

Our brains need fuelling to keep them functioning. As the weather gets warmer, those fresh summery foods are more appealing - no one wants a cold salad on a wintery day. Create vibrant salads, snack on strawberries and other fruits, get the barbecue going (the season is upon us). Fresh foods are packed with more nutrients and vitamins that give the brain the right kind of fuel to function at its best, so make the most of it.

Final thoughts: Our cognition is like much of those smaller creatures out there - it tends to hibernate during winter and reappear stronger in spring/summer months. This might actually be the right time to set goals, make some changes, build healthy habits or even start something new! But even with the sun out our problems, stress, daily responsibilities won’t melt away and magically improve - you might just find it a bit easier to take the steps and stick to them though!


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