January 31, 2013

Working in the Dark: Coping with Scotland’s Winter Solstice

A travel memoir

As I wrote this, on December 22nd, I was looking through a glass darkly, out an Edinburgh window at a very dark world and the black silhouette of a darker Edinburgh Castle.


It’s only 3:00 PM, “mid-afternoon” in my understanding. But it’s black outside. Scotland’s winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and shorter here than anywhere I’ve ever been, has arrived on time—but my work day is not supposed to end so early.

I don’t know how the Scots cope with it, but I’ve been having a tough time of it, as my brain shuts down with the Sun, before 4 PM. At first, about two weeks ago, in Inverness, I pretended that I could start work—writing articles—in mid-afternoon, after racing the Sun across the Scottish terrain to take in the sights and sites before scurrying back to my rented room, like some terrified Transylvanian villager racing the fading rays of the sun and against the increasing odds of becoming vampire food as the light vanishes.

Artificial indoor lighting, as Thomas Edison knew, helps deal with or partially offset that solstice shutdown, but only somewhat. At the end of the day (as the Brits are wont to say—around tea time, this time of year), the primal tug of the solar cycle is too strong and very resistant to my feeble, futile rationalizations of my defiant proposed post-sunset work schedule. Too often, in this short time with short days and long nights, it’s knocked me out (compounded by my slightly lingering China-departure jet lag).

As Bad as Last Class

I’m not the only one whacked by it. Edinburgh winter resident, seasonal hospitality-industry staffer and Australian world traveler, Geoff Forster, 25, describes his battle with the forces of darkness this way:

“Between the hours of 3 PM and 8 PM in the summer you can go grocery shopping, climb Calton Hill and have a picnic; you can still be productive after that. But in winter, after 3 o’clock, the difference is that instead of saying (with respect to work) ‘we can do’, you say, ‘we are meant to’ (i.e., expected to). Never in my life before did I ever think of taking a vitamin D supplement, but now I do.”

It’s not just that the darkness is inhibiting, distracting, depressing or soporific (sleep-inducing): Citing serious darkness-induced interference with memory and comprehension, Geoff says,

“It reminds me of last period in high school, when nothing makes sense. You can walk away and recall nothing, after being able to focus on nothing. Just drained and wrung out. Things that went as smoothly and effortlessly as clockwork in September…now, I have to write them down, on lists, which I can’t find, because I forget where I’ve put them.”

(After our conversation, around 3:00 PM, to be almost precise, I found a piece of paper on the floor near his feet. It was his to-do list he had lost track of. Really.)

The SAD Truth

Of course, S.A.D. (“seasonal affective disorder” and its associated winter depression) and softening bones spring to mind when confronted with no more than the approximately 6 hours of daylight available at this time of year here in Scotland. (Hence the vitamin D supplementation—a very good and now very popular idea.) That includes the 15% who plod through the winter months in a state of slowness and gloominess that they may just be able to hide from others, as well as the 5% with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, who confront major depressive episodes every winter. Together, they add up to some 60 million Americans.

Interestingly, the winter blahs-and-blues linger, through a kind of inertia, well past the winter solstice, in fact peaking after it. One Psychology Today report published on the verge of the 2012 winter solstice puts it this way:

“The winter doldrums and SAD lag behind daylight availability. Think of it as physiological inertia. Our research shows that the problem indeed gets more common as we go from the southern states to the middle states (at about 38 degrees latitude). But from then on it levels off and stays equally bad all the way north into the northern states and Canada.”

Time Zoned Out

The report adds,

“By the way, most of Western Europe is north of the 38-degree line, which explains while someone who lives in Rome is just as likely to suffer SAD as someone who lives in Stockholm. Another factor, generally overlooked, is where you live within your particular time zone.

Those who are more toward the western edge are at greater risk for winter doldrums and SAD. This fact tells us something important about the underlying trigger for relapses into winter depression. Time zone boundaries are simply arbitrary lines on a map, but they generate a situation in which the sun rises a full hour later at the western edge of a zone than at its eastern edge.”

In fact, the difference can be as much as four hours in China, which has, despite its enormous size, only one time zone. As a result, residents of Kashgar, in the far west of China, will presumably be at an even greater risk of winter SAD than people on the east coast, e.g., in Shanghai.

Zapped and Sapped Will

But, for some, e.g., for Geoff and me, the impact is not so much emotional. Rather, the short days seem to affect our energy and cognition, with “the will to do”, in particular, taking a huge hit.

Now, it may seem that there is an obvious and simple way to counter this effect: Stay indoors and away from windows. That’s basically what I’ve done after 3 PM, but, ironically, mostly because it’s too dark outside to stay there after that. As for the windows, why would anyone want to sit next to a black one?

Another impact of the preposterously short solstice days is a shift in the sleep cycle. One 1990 Temple University small-scale study of four volunteers reported that the months with the latest wake-up and latest to-sleep times concentrated around the winter solstice.

Battling the Forces of Darkness

If you want to get a clearer idea of what your natural sleep-cycle is like or, more importantly, suffer from SAD, and, therefore, want to adapt to or overcome the winter solstice, you might try the free online diagnostic “Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire” at the online Center for Environmental Therapeutics.

It provides a very detailed analysis and recommendations, based on your responses, in terms of your personal melatonin-production onset, your natural bedtime and the appropriate light-therapy to offset SAD, in terms of the nature of the light, its timing and duration.

According to the questionnaire’s results, my melatonin onset begins at around 9 PM, my natural bedtime is around 11:15 PM and my optimal light therapy (if I have sleep irregularities or have symptoms of SAD—which I do not) is 30 minutes at 6 AM using a 10 K lux fluorescent light box with an overhead screen.

Solstice Damage When it and You Arrive

If working during or around the winter solstice seems tough, take a look at the impact of the winter solstice and the other dark days of winter on conception—and the career implications.

In the first place, the winter solstice can make you nuts when it arrives and before you do, as a newborn, as these cited studies suggest:

  • “Season of birth in schizophrenia: a maternal-fetal chronobiological hypothesis”:Alternatively, around the winter solstice, reduced maternal sunlight exposure during the second trimester of pregnancy may result in a reduced amplitude maternal circadian pacemaker, reduced maternal nocturnal plasma melatonin concentrations, elevated maternal nocturnal core body and incubator temperatures, and elevated fetal core body and brain temperatures. …Thus, the maternal-fetal chronobiological dysfunction hypothesis could account for the birth seasonality in schizophrenia and warrants further investigation.”
  • “Seasonal differences in suicide birth rate in Alaska Natives compared to other populations” : “Hours of daily sunlight at the summer and winter solstice correlated with the proportion of suicide victims born during those seasons. Seasonal differences in birth rates of suicide victims correlated strongly with latitude and seasonal differences in daylight.”
  • “De novo chromosomal abnormalities and month of conception”: “We cannot explain the unusual findings concerning Robertsonian translocations [a marker for Down’s Syndrome] that were only found for conceptions in December. This may be related to the annual minimum daylight hours (winter solstice) as opposed to the summer solstice.”

But Don’t Despair

Before despairing about your winter birthday, if that’s when you were born, you can take comfort in the always to be expected counter-studies, like the following, “Conception season and cerebral asymmetries among American baseball players: implications for the seasonal birth effect in schizophrenia”, which claimed not only the highest incidence of schizophrenia among May-June births, but also the lowest in November-December, a month before the winter solstice.

As a quirky additional conclusion, the study claimed to have discovered correlations between winter birth and baseball handedness—with career implications for being (un)able to switch-hit as a pro baseball player:

 “We found that not only strict left-handers (those both batting and throwing left) were most often conceived in May-June but that also strict right-handers and other players denoting more extreme levels of cerebral lateralization were most often conceived in November-December(a genetic quirk, mentioned along with heightened risk of schizophrenia).

Still, there is another dark side to Scotland’s winter solstice: If such reports about the winter solstice don’t keep you up and pacing during the night, you can pretty sure that the winter solstice itself will…

….because night is mostly what your day will be.

Read more in Work Life Balance

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).