Scientifically Speaking, Sunshine Makes Us Happy

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I had marked my calendar incorrectly, and so I was hours late for my interview with David LaPorte, who teaches Clinical Neuropsychology in IUP's Clinical Psychology doctoral program. Despite my mistake, he happily set aside what he was doing in the Psychology Department office and pointed us in the direction of his office.

The irony was that I was interviewing him about the effect sun has on mood. And, this guy personified good nature.

laporte-david-5511d71.jpgIUP's photographer, Keith Boyer, was with me, and we rushed behind LaPorte as he began to explain the effects the hormone melatonin has on the brain. He was a fast talker--someone who has a lot to tell you, because he is eager to share what he knows. When we settled down in his office, I concluded that LaPorte must know what he's talking about, not only because he sounded convincing and because of his good credentials, but also because he actually had several brains--in buckets and jars--stashed in his office.

Teaching tools, he offered.

He told us exposure to sun has an effect on the human mood, because it suppresses melatonin. "If you want to go to sleep, take some melatonin," he said.

"If in the middle of July you go to northern part of Sweden, it will be light until eleven o'clock at night, and people will be walking around all bright eyed and bushy tailed. They aren't sleepy, because their melatonin is being suppressed," he said. "Conversely, in the shorter months of the year in the latitudes where we are, melatonin doesn't get suppressed and people get tired."

As a clinician, LaPorte says the cause often presents as a mood disturbance but more commonly, in winter months, people are lethargic--they want to sleep more, they eat more carbohydrates, and they tend to gain weight during that time. He suggested that people who visit sunnier climates in the winter tend to feel good because of the sun but upon return to darker climates at higher latitudes, they also return to feeling sluggish and depressed.

"It's almost a leftover hibernation response," he said. "Think about animals that hibernate and don't do anything at all during that time. That's sort of leftover in us, as human beings."

Too much sunlight isn't always a good thing, however. LaPorte said, generally,  more violent crimes are committed during the summer.

"During the winter we have a build up of melatonin and a lack of energy. In the summer, we have a lot more energy. The opposite of depression is mania," LaPorte said. "When people are manic, they have large amounts of energy and because they don't get as much sleep, they become irritable and violent. When you look at when people are most violent over the summer, it's not when it's the hottest or the most humid, it's when the most sunlight is available."

Keith and I met with LaPorte to pull together a story for IUP Magazine. You'll see one in the Fall-Winter 2011 edition.

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This page contains a single entry by Regan Houser published on September 2, 2011 3:13 PM.

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