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Why Cloudy Days Help Us Think More Clearly

“Sunshine dulls the mind to risk and thoughtfulness.”

Just as melancholy, that raincloud of the mind, expands our capacity for creativity, so does actual gloomy weather — clouds, it turns out, offer something possibly more tangible, certainly more pragmatic, than “contemplation [that] benefits the soul”; their proverbial silver lining is more than proverbial;

In Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave (public library | IndieBound), NYU professor Adam Alter, who studies behavioral economics, marketing, and the psychology of decision-making, opens one particularly pause-giving section with this unambiguous proclamation:

Sunshine dulls the mind to risk and thoughtfulness.

He goes on to substantiate the heading with a curious, counterintuitive study conducted by social psychologists in Sydney, Australia. The researchers found that rather than invigorating the mind, good weather blunts our cognitive function.

The study was essentially an ambush memory test administered to a sample of shoppers exiting a small store: The scientists had placed ten trinkets on the store counter — various plastic toys, Matchbox cars, a piggy bank — and asked the shoppers to recall as many as possible upon leaving the store, as well as to identify the ten items among a list of twenty. The experiment was replicated on multiple days, at various times of day, over the course of two months.

The researchers found that shoppers were able to recall three times as many items on cloudy days than on sunny ones.

Their theory, Alter explains, was that in dampening our mood, bad weather turns us inward and invites us to think more deeply, more clearly. With an eye to mood science, he writes:

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.

Taken in isolate, this might indeed be a curious consolation. But scientists have also demonstrated the devastating effects that insufficient natural light has on our internal clocks, which in turn play a crucial role in our cognitive and emotional faculties. (In fact, Alter does put numbers to the atrocity that is Daylight Saving Time, citing a study that found students in areas where DST is not observed perform better on the SAT than their peers in areas that observe it.) But perhaps that’s where science and philosophy once again converge — in these conflicting data points call to mind Rilke’s unforgettable assertion that “life always says Yes and No simultaneously.”

Published December 11, 2014




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