Category Archives: Emotion

Do you feel like a hibernating bear by this time of year??


Photo by Peter Lee

Well here it is, almost winter again with our days getting dark around 4:30pm (before most of us even leave work).  Sunlight is extremely important for setting our daily rhythms such as sleep, eating, productivity, and energy – by suppressing the neurotransmitter/hormone melatonin (a chemical that causes sleepiness).    Melatonin is secreted in the brain by the pineal gland.  Melatonin levels increase with darkness and decrease in the morning with sunlight.  For that reason, every year at this time I find myself tired all the time and sleeping a lot.   Not only that, but I feel like I have less motivation to actually go out and be social.   My office lacks windows so I don’t even get to absorb what little daylight there is during work hours.   So, I feel like that big guy in the picture, a hibernating bear 🙂

I’ve never been officially diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD – how appropriate), but I have all the symptoms.   Symptoms of SAD include hypersomnia (excessive sleeping), daytime sleepiness, increased negative mood in fall and winter months, lack of energy, and 80% of cases are in women during childbearing years.

 photo by Moyan_Brenn

photo by Moyan_Brenn

There are a few options available for improvement of SAD symptoms, but none of them were shown to completely abolish the negative impacts.   The first is light therapy by using a light box although some prefer tanning (which I do not recommend!) even though reports of this technique has conflicting results.  The time of day the person is exposed to  bright light seems to have significant impact.   It is helpful to try to get outside a few times a day to take a walk just for some natural sunlight exposure (probably the most effective therapy in SAD treatment).   A second option is exercise (in my opinion probably the second most helpful therapy) – multiple studies have shown the importance of exercise for improved mood and energy.  The third option is anti-depressant medications such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, norepinephrine/dopamine reuptake inhibitors and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.  However, finding the right medication and dose could take weeks to months (it could be spring by that time!).    I’ve also written about food and mood before, so eating more healthy foods during the winter months could lower negative impacts of SAD – this includes reducing the amount of sugary starchy carb loaded food (put down that Christmas cookie!) so that insulin levels don’t spike and drop quickly.  Lastly, from personal experience I have found that just getting out and socializing (even when you don’t feel like it) increases mood significantly – if you can incorporate it with activity it is even better (think about joining a sports league with some friends).

If you can combine all of the above suggested treatments I think that is the best option for minimizing SAD symptoms, increasing mood, and increasing energy levels.  I would love to hear some comments from others about their methods for treating SAD.


Kaplan, K. and Harvey, A.  Hypersomnia across mood disorders: A review and synthesis.   Sleep Medicine Reviews.  2009.  13: 275-285.

begin the beguine: of music and memory

Music has incredible power over the human psyche, and in particular over memory.  While we’ve now begun to uncover the underlying scientific principles linking music to memory, the phenomenon is something that songwriters and lyricists have known for years.  Cole Porter’s classic “Begin the Beguine” explicitly addresses the strength of this connection; throughout the song, the singer recalls that, when the band starts to play music he associates with a former lover,

it brings back the sound
of music so tender
it brings back a night
of tropical splendor
it brings back a memory of green

and that, every time the tune plays, he can’t help but re-live the precious moments spent with the lady he’s lost—even though he tries his best to forget her.

The experience sounds familiar to many of us.  When I hear old Clapton ballads, for example, I recall a very particular dance, memories refreshed like a series of old photographs, every detail perfectly catalogued, right down to the curls in my hair and the color of his vest (it was blue).  When I go for a run on a warm, blue-skied afternoon and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” pops up on my workout playlist, the song calls to mind every outdoor barbecue, every trip to the beach, every open-windowed drive on hot pavement, every sunny day when that song might have played, and I inevitably find myself grinning, glorying in the beautiful weather and the sound of summer.  How can music do this for us?  How is it that even a few seconds of a tune, an echo on the radio, can evoke such powerful memories?

The study of music and memory is still relatively young, but what we know thus far is that part of the strength of music as a stimulus or memory trigger seems to be linked to emotion.  In the memory field, strong emotions are generally thought to enhance memory formation, as well as memory recall.  This concept makes intuitive sense; isn’t it easier to recall exactly how you felt when you had your first kiss, and what you smelled, and saw, and heard, than it is to recall how you felt when you ate that (presumably emotionally neutral) ham sandwich the other day?  The effect of emotion on memory formation makes evolutionary sense, too: intense emotional arousal (e.g., fear) would strengthen memories concerning, say, a close encounter with a predator—an important experience for our ancestors to remember (and hopefully avoid in the future)!

This sort of enhancement is mediated in part by a brain structure known as the amygdala.  The amygdala makes bi-directional connections to many other parts of the brain, allowing it to communicate with (among other regions) the hippocampus (responsible for memory formation), the pre-frontal cortex (associated with mood and other complex processes) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (a network that can stimulate the production of hormones that may modulate memory formation and consolidation).  About ten years ago, a study found that some of these same brain regions can be activated by music!  Specifically, amygdala activation was associated with music that produced the intense feeling of “chills.”  Various studies since that time have implicated other components of the limbic (emotion) circuitry in the brain’s response to music, strengthening the apparent connection between what we hear and what we feel.  Music has also been shown to enhance our emotional responses to visual stimuli.  Imagine Mufasa’s death without the music.  Imagine chase scenes in the Bourne movies without the frenzied strings.  Considerably less memorable, right?

What’s especially interesting is that music has been linked to the activation of other brain structures, including the nucleus accumbens.  Remember the nucleus accumbens?  It’s associated with feelings of pleasure, fun, and reward—which, among other reasons, make this brain region integral to addiction behaviors.  Still, the activation of reward circuitry by music has a number of interesting implications.  Among the most clinically salient, however, are these:

Could we use music to help address mood disorders, or anxiety disorders?

Could we use music to modulate our perception of emotional experiences?

Given the link between music and memory—could we use music to promote memory formation and recall in patients with memory disorders (like Alzheimer’s disease)?

And in fact, these questions are all topics of current and intense research within the field of music perception.

So next time you turn on the radio, think about the songs you hear, and what they might mean to you and to your personal history.  Maybe you’ll hear an old love song as you’re driving home from work today; maybe it makes you want to cry.  Or laugh.  Or feel and remember any of a thousand different things, thrusting you headlong into any of a thousand different moments, each distinct and based upon your own experience—consider it an autobiography of a sort, your life and mine, called to mind, refreshed, re-lived in a series of chords.