The recent snowfall proves that winter has finally arrived in Southern Indiana, although it’s a little late for the holidays.
Each year the National Weather Services calculates an Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index, also known as the winter “misery index.” This index takes into account temperatures, snowfall, and snow depth to assign a “score” to each day of winter. According to the Midwest Regional Climate Center, on Jan. 9 Louisville had a score of only 38, which falls in the mild range. Even with our minor snowfall, we fortunately scored at the lowest rung on the bad weather ladder, although more snow seems to be in the long-range forecast.
As a child living in Southern Illinois I never appreciated the threat or inconvenience of the snow and cold. I only saw the entertainment possibilities— sledding, making snowmen, snowball fights, ice skating, and building snow forts. My wife Diane, however, was from Wisconsin, where the snow and cold were taken more seriously. Sure, skating or playing in the snow might be fun, but getting stranded in the snow and cold was potentially life-threatening.
I remember spending half the winter looking out our front window at night just to see if there was snow falling in front of the streetlight. The weather was colder back then and ponds froze more often and for longer periods of time, but snowfall where I lived was still relatively rare. We were lucky to have one snowfall heavy enough each winter to allow for sledding.
According to meteorologists snow can form and reach the ground only when the atmospheric temperature reaches freezing, there is right amount of moisture in the air, and the ground temperature is cold enough. Despite what I was repeatedly told, evidently it cannot be too cold to snow.
Most people perceive snow as being quiet and peaceful. Part of this perception is probably because a blanket of snow absorbs sounds. According to David W. Herrin from the University of Kentucky, “In the audible range, a couple inches of snow is roughly around 60% absorbing on average. Snow is porous, in some ways like a commercial sound absorbing foam.”
Snow makes the environment so silent, primarily because of this insulating property. Snow thus has the tranquilizing ability to create peace and quiet. It can also quiet things down by stopping traffic and halting a lot of ordinary human activities.
The muffling, insulating quality of snow can also have a dark side, as it does in Conrad Aiken’s 1934 famous short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” In this story a boy named Paul becomes preoccupied with snow and gradually withdraws completely from the world.
On the other hand, Linda Wasmer Andrews, a writer from Albuquerque, New Mexico has listed a number of positive things about snow. First of all, the peacefulness and silence of snow is something Andrews says is one of its “greatest charms.” Snow is also transformative. A snowfall immediately changes and improves how most everything looks. Even the most unsightly yard looks pristine after a snowfall.
Snow can also be restorative. According to the American Psychological Association time spent in natural environments increases attention, lowers stress, improves mood, reduces the risk of mental disorders, and even leads to increased empathy and cooperation.
Finally, snow is “hopeful.” The hope for a snowy Christmas, for example, originated in the nineteenth century, when many modern holiday traditions were first popularized and cold and snowy winters were the rule. So today we still hopefully dream of having a white Christmas.
In my childhood I also spent a lot of time listening to the radio, trying to hear if my school had been closed. A snow day was just possible the best thing that could happen to a kid — an unexpected school holiday plus the chance to play in snow!
Research shows that cold temperatures can also have a significant influence on people’s behavior. They exert an unconscious influence on our thinking and decisions. From influencing what colors women wear to how we judge criminals, chilly temperatures have a significant effect on the human behavior.
Extended cold weather, of course, leaves many people in a state of general dissatisfaction, bad mood, cabin-fevered, and with a sense of hopelessness. In such cases many people stay inside more and detach from their normal activities. This “hibernation mode” is known to increase depression.
Coldness can even influence how people judge criminals. In a 2014 study Christine Gockel from the SRH University in Berlin, arranged for a sample of college students to look at mug shots of individuals who actually had been arrested. The students were instructed to write what crime they thought the person had committed and rate how impulsive or premeditated they thought the crime was. Students in cold rooms were much more likely to see criminals as cold-blooded offenders whose crimes were premeditated study. The students in hot rooms tended to see criminals as hot-headed and impulsive.
A 2008 study by Lawrence Williams from the University of Colorado and John Bargh from Yale University found that individuals who held a cold cup of iced coffee judged others as being less interpersonally warm than people holding a hot cup of coffee. This confirmed what famed social psychologist Solomon Asch believed — that there was an association between actual physical temperature and the psychological traits of warmth and coldness.
When people feel physically cold, they also tend to seek out psychological warmth according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. In a series of experiments Jiewen Hong from Northwestern University and his colleagues exposed participants to varying temperatures, as well as hot and cold drinks. These researchers then asked participants to select a movie to watch. Participants who associated romance movies with psychological warmth tended to choose romance movies when they had been exposed to coldness. Their results were consistent with the finding that online movie renters choose more romance films when the weather is cold than when it is warm. It also probably accounts for the popularity of those Hallmark Christmas romance movies.
Simon Storey and Lance Workman from Bath University conducted a study in which they found that participants who were exposed to a hot object (hand warmer) were significantly more cooperative on a standard task than participants who were exposed to a cold object (ice pack). Physical warmth increased and stimulated interpersonal trust, while coldness decreased it.
Finally, research has also shown that different types of creativity can emerge when a person feels warmth or coldness. Hans Jzermana from Tilburg University in the Netherlands and his colleagues conducted a study of how cold and warm temperatures affects creativity in a diverse set of subjects, including Dutch kindergarteners, Singapore university students and Dutch college students. The researchers found that across groups warmth helped people feel psychologically closer to others, be more generous toward them and value relationships. Coldness on the other hand helped participants to generate creative unusual and unexpected ideas.
As we adapt to the wintery weather, at this point all I can say is, “Well, since we have no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”