Does the ‘January brain’ really exist?

There are several studies that have delved into the impact of the seasons on human brain power (iStock)

Disconnect from your computer screen while you try to tackle the mountain of emails that have piled up since the Christmas holidays. Frantically searching in the depths of your mind for the right word but never finding it. Maybe even put things in the refrigerator that definitely don’t belong there.

Welcome to the January doldrums, when precisely no one, not even the kind of scammers who willingly listen to the Diary of a CEO podcast, you seem to be on your A game. When we return to work after that strange and glorious period of post-Christmas indoors, many of us struggle to adapt. Our brain may feel foggy, our motivation is lacking, and we may struggle to match our usual productivity.

Let’s call that fuzzy feeling “January brain”: a general feeling of mental sluggishness, as if we’re operating on a slight time delay or in slow motion. These feelings aren’t necessarily limited to our 9 to 5, either. The other day I really had a hard time processing a contestant’s (admittedly quite complicated) logic about The traitors and had to rewind his explanation about three times to understand what he was talking about. And socialize? It’s hardly worth contemplating when stringing together a coherent sentence seems like hard work.

All of this, of course, comes at a time when we must break out of our holiday cocoons to become the best, healthiest versions of ourselves, and that disconnect between what want achieve and what we are actually able to manage at the moment can be seriously discouraging. It’s no wonder that one in five people abandon their New Year’s resolutions after less than a month, according to recent research from Forbes Advisor. But why exactly do many of us feel so lethargic and stagnant this time of year?

It has long been accepted that animals adapt to the seasons: they can migrate during the winter or transform the color of their coat. Some mammals even undergo changes in the brain. “In animals that hibernate, such as squirrels, part of their brain acquires Alzheimer’s-like pathology during hibernation,” says Professor Tara Spiers-Jones, deputy director of the Center for Brain Sciences Discovery at the University of Edinburgh and president of the British Neuroscience Association. . “But that goes away when they wake up.” And to conserve energy in cold weather, shrews’ brains shrink, making navigation worse. (You could say they are less clever in the winter… can I blame “January brain” for dad jokes too?)

The impact of the seasons on human brain power has not yet been explored as thoroughly, but there are several studies that have delved into this phenomenon. In 2016, researchers at the University of Liège in Belgium assessed the brain function of 28 participants over the course of the year. Each of the volunteers would spend four and a half days inside a laboratory, and at the end of that period they would participate in two tasks designed to evaluate attention span and memory. Their brains were scanned with an fMRI machine to detect changes in blood flow due to brain activity.

Winter depression: lack of light can seriously affect our mood (iStock)Winter depression: lack of light can seriously affect our mood (iStock)

Winter depression: lack of light can seriously affect our mood (iStock)

The researchers eventually found that attention-related activity peaked in June, around the summer solstice, and was lowest near the winter solstice in late December. Basically, our brain works differently depending on the time of year. In particular, they discovered “significant annual variations” in the thalamus and amygdala, the parts of the brain involved in alertness, and in the hippocampus and frontal areas. Both help with self-control, problem solving, and reasoning. Basically, all the things you pretended you were good at in your job interview. Meanwhile, memory-related activity peaked in the fall and declined around the spring equinox in late March.

What’s interesting is that the test scores didn’t vary much throughout the year. The result was similar but the process to get there was different. “Because the media in [our] “The willingness to complete cognitive processes is lower in winter, so it may be more difficult to complete them,” said study co-author Dr. Gilles Vandewall. The Daily Telegraph. So maybe just seems It’s harder to get things done in January, but are we actually doing it right? Vandewall also suggested that these variations could be a throwback to a time long before electric lights and central heating, when we were much more in tune with the seasons.

However, you don’t need to look at academic studies to accept that mornings are dull and gloomy right now: open the curtains at, say, 7.30am and you’ll still be greeted by near-total darkness. Light (or lack thereof) can affect our brain and our well-being. “Every cell in our body has a molecular clock,” says Professor Spiers-Jones. “The master regulator of these clocks is in the brain and is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus.” When he receives information about light through the retina of the eye, he tells the body that it is time to get up. “And that controls things like sleep and wakefulness, activity, feeding and reproduction,” Spiers-Jones says. Therefore, not receiving enough light can unbalance all of this, affecting our mood and sleep schedules.

Exposure to sunlight is known to trigger the release of serotonin in the brain.

Professor Zoltan Sarnyai

Those dark mornings are especially difficult to overcome: in fact, they can even set the tone for the rest of the day. “Waking up is the most stressful and exhausting part of the entire day,” explains Dr James Jackson, professor of psychology at Leeds Trinity University. “You release stress hormones and sugar goes into your blood, which starts to give you energy. “The amount that is secreted at that moment, maybe 30 or 40 minutes after you wake up, basically decides how much energy you have to deal with things for the rest of the day.” But if we get up when it’s completely dark outside, we lack stimulation. “We don’t have the same reactions and we don’t see the same resources; it’s hard to get going.” He always knew that starting the day lying in bed in near-darkness scrolling through Instagram (usually seeing effortlessly radiant women showing off their morning routines) wasn’t the healthiest start. But I had never connected the dots to link it to my subsequent lethargy.

Light also affects our hormones. “Exposure to sunlight is known to trigger the release of serotonin in the brain,” says Professor Zoltan Sarnyai, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist and chief scientist at nutraceuticals company Ally Sciences. “Serotonin is often referred to as the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter because it contributes to feelings of well-being and improved mood.” Less exposure to sunlight, he notes, could reduce serotonin levels, “which in turn can affect mood and contribute to depressive symptoms” (it could also play a role in seasonal affective disorder). At the same time, “longer periods of darkness in winter can increase the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep,” adds Ivo Vlaev, professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Warwick. Hence those feelings of lethargy.

The sudden return to routine can be disappointing

Professor Ivo Vlaev

However, beyond these factors, “we are also regulated by social cues: meal times, work times,” Spiers-Jones says. So if we spend a week or more lazing around in a cozy holiday limbo, “that changes the regulation of these sleep-wake cycles and biological clocks. And that affects not only when we wake up and are active, but also our activity levels and our mood.” Similarly, “the sudden return to routine,” plus fewer social gatherings as everyone tries to quit drinking and save money, “can feel anticlimactic” after Christmas, Vlaev says, “contributing to a sense of slowness”.

It’s also a time of year when we’re bombarded with made-up concepts like “Blue Monday” (branded as the most depressing day of the year as a marketing strategy by Sky Travel to drive winter holidays among consumers 20 years ago). . Could our perceptions of our own “January brain” be influenced by these messages? Humans can be prone to misattributions. “When we feel a certain way, we don’t know why, we just assume it,” says Dr. Jackson. “It’s about mental shortcuts to seeing the world in a way that tends to work.”

Beyond recognizing the power of these cultural cues, how can we alleviate a case of “January brain”? The answers are probably all the things you know, deep down, that will get you out of your funk. More natural light (to increase those serotonin levels). More exercise, especially outdoors. Vitamin D. A regular sleep schedule. Don’t pick up the phone first thing in the morning (sigh). Even just making sure you don’t go into full hermit mode, despite how tempting the couch may seem, is a good step (positive social interactions can promote the production of oxytocin, another “feel good” hormone). And maybe we just need to give ourselves a little compassion and look at the funny side when we put the milk back in the cupboard and the mug in the fridge for the seventh time this month.

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