In 2016, author and illustrator Jonny Sun tweeted a lament about how early the sun sets when daylight saving time ends. Parroting the lyrics of "The Sound of Silence," he wrote: "helo darkness my old friend/ why are u here its 4pm.”
The tweet quickly went viral, and not just in 2016. Nearly every year since, it circulates on social media in the weeks after the clocks "fall back" and the sun begins to set at an unholy hour—like today, when it will set at 4:29 p.m. in New York, where I live.
That this tweet faithfully resurfaces reveals that, for some reason, we continue to be shocked at how early it gets dark at the start of winter—even though we change our clocks an hour back every single year. We know that it's going to happen, and yet seeing the afternoon's darkness outside our windows feels freshly jarring and disorienting year after year. Each year we marvel. "Was it really this dark this early last year? Surely, not."
Why is it that such a regular occurrence feels so horrific and surprising? Why don’t we better remember that when it seems like it’s approaching time for dinner or a cocktail, it’s barely 4 p.m.?
There is a memory-based explanation, said Signy Sheldon, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at McGill University: It's because the way we interpret and encode our current experiences is all based on expectations. Memory is, after all, a tool to help us survive in the world, and so it, in part, operates to make predictions.
Sheldon referred to these expectations as schemas. Our minds build up a general framework for how we think things will turn out. Even after we set the clocks back, we still expect to be doing certain activities when the sun is out.
“I might expect the sun to be still shining when I am coming home from work based on my schema of my work commute, and if that is not the case, then my expectation is not met," Sheldon said. "When these expectations are violated, then comes the surprise and feeling of novelty."
This sense of “new-ness,” or emotion we feel is important. “It is a signal that you have to pay attention to what is in your environment because it is unexpected,” Sheldon said. “The presence of the emotion you feel when you notice the sun is not where you expect it to be is thought to help you learn to incorporate this new event into your expectations or schemas, and this is how you get used to something new.”
Sheldon said that we are capable of holding multiple schemas at once—you haven’t literally forgotten that last year the sun also set early for a period of weeks. But the schema that is most fitting with our current situation is most active, and for us that still might be the schema where the 5 p.m. doesn’t feel like 11 p.m. The more often we use a memory, the easier it is to recall it. Our memories of a 4 p.m. sunset are more unused, having been accumulating dust in long-term memory storage since last winter.
Nelson Cowan, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, said that another memory issue, called interference, could be relevant too.
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Memory interference works in both directions. Older memories can interfere with newer memories, like after New Years', when you still use the previous year when writing the date—this is called proactive interference. Retroactive interference is when newer memories interfere with older ones. When you learn something new—say a new sunset time—it can interfere with your retrieval of the original memory of the sun setting earlier.
Eventually we will and do adapt, and the early darkness schema and memories will take over, free from interference. “This is a good illustration of how our memory is very layered and we use it to help us understand the current situation we are in,” Sheldon said.
Dorthe Berntsen, a professor of psychology at Aarhus University in Denmark, thinks that our unsettled feelings also come from the fact that we change the time so suddenly. “My guess is we would not react with this kind of surprise if daylight saving time was not enforced on us, because the change would be more gradual,” she said.
Seasonally, the days get darker earlier on their own, but not as rapidly.
She added that more recent information dominates in our long-term memories, and so pulling off the daylight saving bandaid, in this case, has the opposite effect—it doesn’t make a transition to winter more painless, but enables us to better notice the difference. “We compare today with yesterday, not with an abstract memory of the same daylight saving transition last year,” Berntsen said.
AZCentral journalist Shaena Montanari lives in Arizona, one of the few states that mostly doesn’t adhere to daylight saving time. She agreed that without the dramatic change, she hasn’t felt the yearly shock at all, compared to the past.
“It just gradually gets earlier and I barely noticed it,” she said. “Sure, it does feel like the sun is setting ‘early’ now that it is winter, but I don't find it shocking in Arizona like I did [when I lived] in New York City or Scotland.” (She said it also helps that it is often very sunny in Phoenix.)
This is likely the case biologically too. In a study in Current Biology, chronobiologists found that our circadian clocks adjust to the subtle changes in daylight, but have a hard time adapting to the rapid changes in time when we adopt daylight saving.
Of course, 2020 is not just another year in which we set our clocks back and complain about the lack of sun. This was a very dark year before the sun set at 4:30. It’s the year that nearly everything about our daily lives has been upset, including the ability to stand within six feet of your loved ones. It was the year when, if you’re lucky, going to the "office" meant oscillating between the kitchen table and couch, and if you’re unlucky, going to work came with a risk to your health and life.
The sun now represents the ability to be outside comfortably, engage in less risky social behaviors, or get some fresh air and exercise. Memory aside, it makes a lot of sense to be upset about its absence.
And there’s some evidence that mindset about a dark and cold season can influence the amount of depression and distress it causes. In 2013 Kari Leibowitz, now a health psychologist at Stanford, went to Tromsø, Norway, where the sun doesn’t rise from November to January, called the Polar Night. Yet the people who lived in Tromsø appear remarkably resilient to being plunged into darkness for months at a time; a study showed the people living there had lower rates of depression during the winter than one might expect.
“Most residents, though, simply talked about the Polar Night as if it wasn’t a big deal,” Leibowitz wrote in an article about her research in The Atlantic in 2015. “Many even expressed excitement about the upcoming season and the skiing opportunities it would bring.”
Leibowitz and her colleague, Joar Vittersø, a professor of psychology at the University of Tromsø, developed a Wintertime Mindset Scale to assess how people in Tromsø regarded the winter, and how that correlated with their well-being. They found that the people who lived in Tromsø felt that winter was “something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured. According to my friends, winter in Tromsø would be full of snow, skiing, the northern lights, and all things koselig, the Norwegian word for ‘cozy.’”
Leibowitz reflected on how her original research questions of how people coped during this stretch of darkness were biased to assume that darkness was always bad. “In my experience, people simply got through the wintertime darkness on the way to a brighter, happier season,” she wrote. “But in Tromsø, the Polar Night seemed to hold its own unique opportunities for mental and emotional flourishing.”
This is not to say that a positive mindset only can transform winter time during a pandemic into a time for flourishing. There are incredibly valid reasons to mourn the loss of sunlight. But this could be one explanation why when the sun starts to set this year, it feels even more catastrophic than usual.
If there’s any way to try and channel the attitude of the people of Tromsø, and glom onto the concept of coziness for dear life by filling your dark winter hours with tea and fireplaces and novels—It’s not depressing that it’s dark at 5 p.m., it’s cozy!—by all means, go for it.
But the good news is that in 18 days, the daylight will start to come creeping back. Then, we can go back to expecting sunlight to linger into the evening, and look forward to being freshly shocked again next year—hopefully a little less so.
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