Super Charismatic Nuclei, Why So SAD?


Another winter Sunday by the Bay, living in a spot where at any given moment, there’s enough semi-salty Bay air to know there’s a large body of water nearby.  It’s sunny and the sky is blue and clear.  In a few hours, the daily coastal mid-afternoon weather change. From sunny and quiet to sunny and windy at 2:30pm, then cooler by virtue of the wind, and then the dark. On rare occasions it will become foggy.  Kids play into the sunset time.

As I read back my writing in this paragraph, it’s oddly distant seeming, like I’m only vaguely caring about what I’m writing, including somehow making a transition to depression.  After all, maybe I’m just having a detached kind of day?  We all have those sometimes, right?  Or is this somehow different?

SAD is the lovely acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder– “affective” being the way fancy psychology people say “having to do with feelings”– and basically means that, in the darker times of year when the sun is lower (late fall through winter to early spring), people with SAD get more depressed.  When the light gets longer and brighter in the spring, and stays through the summer and early fall, the depression lifts.  Mine stays around the whole year, but it’s markedly worse in the winter.  I experience it mainly as a sensitivity to changes in light, like even subtle changes just after the Summer Solstice, when the light starts to dim ever so slightly, and then I get nostalgic.  As the sun moves lower in its arc over the following weeks and months, it’s like I’m drawn along down a path into a different take on the world, longer shadows, less helpful light.  Is the world dying?  Am I depressed?  Jeez!

Turns out we have systems in our bodies that synchronize us with the light (evolutionarily useful for many reasons)– talked about as “biorhythms” and “circadian cycles.”  What they are is a function of the sleep/wake regulation system, which consists of special nuclei in the brain called the SCN, or “suprachiasmatic nuclei.”  (Try not to call them the super charismatic nuclei, I can’t seem to stop doing that…)  The supRACHIAsmatic nuclei are “control centers” for the sleep wake cycle, and have a direct neural pathway leading into them from the eyes, which act as the light sensors feeding information about sunlight directly to these SCN control centers.  Anyway, the article I’m using as a source is from UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, check it out here.

Long story short, the sun is returning, and for me it’s acute– I can really perceive the change in the angle of the light, the quality of the brightness and time of day and how they pair together. It’s minute but still tangible, the littlest movement of something we can still sense… and begins to slightly, subtly nudge me back toward hopefulness.  Maybe it’s not over yet.

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