Temperatures have plunged in cities across the country. My wife and I have become accustomed to the morning ritual of layering on socks, sweaters, scarves, jackets, gloves and boots before braving the freezing winds that whip down our street. While no one would dispute how cold it is outside, science is beginning to find that how we experience temperature isn’t as objective as we once thought.
Ever felt hot when everyone else seems cold or vice versa? That experience illustrates that there’s more to temperature than the number on the thermometer. The first study looked at whether these feelings of temperature are contagious. They observed that human beings pay close attention to the emotions of others and those emotions can be contagious. Other studies have shown that watching other people in stressful situations causes a rise in our own stress hormone levels even though we aren’t doing anything stressful. The researchers wondered if watching a person experience cold or warm temperatures could cause the person observing to feel those temperatures as well.
To test this, the researchers showed 32 people videos of hands in visibly cold (ice cubes) or hot (steaming) water. They found that just watching these hands go into different temperatures of water caused the participants to feel those temperatures in their own hands and actually change the temperature of that body part. Watching hands go into cold water made participants feel their own hands were colder and their skin temperature went down as blood receded from their hand to keep their core temperature up. The opposite was true for hot water, although to a lesser degree.
This is happening to you all the time without your noticing. So what can you do? The next study gives us a clue. This second team observed that pain is often subjective. Ever notice how you might cut your hand while working on something, only to notice it later and have it start hurting for the first time? The researchers wondered how the brain determines how intense the feeling of pain should be. To find out, participants in the study were exposed to an uncomfortably hot pad on their arm while their brain was scanned by an MRI machine.
They were then asked to do one of three things: to think about whatever they chose, to think about the heat burning and sizzling on their arm, or to think about being really cold and finding the heat pleasant on their cold skin. Surveys showed that using these mental techniques actually changed how hot the participants found the hot stimulus to be.
The MRI showed two unique processes at work in their brain. The first one represented the direct experience of the pain that was the same regardless of what the participants imagined. The second pathway used parts of the brain involved in controlling emotion. Activity in this pathway didn’t change with the intensity of the heat, but became active when the participants tried to change their perception of the heat. The authors of the study think this pathway assesses the context of the pain and helps to tone the intensity up or down based on situation and thoughts.
These two studies show us that feeling the cold is a fickle sensation. If you’re reminded by others of how cold it is, you’ll start to feel cold, too. If you focus on the cold and think about how brutal the wind is, chances are good you’ll start to feel especially cold. But the opposite is also true.
The first study tells us that looking for people who appear to be warm, maybe in a restaurant you happen to be passing, can make you feel warmer than you would otherwise. The second study tells us that changing your attitude towards the temperature also makes a difference. Next time you’re out in the cold, imagine yourself in a hot oven. Imagine that the cold air is a welcome relief from the searing heat of the flame below you. It might sound silly, but science has shown us that it really does work. The temperature might drop outside, but how cold it makes you feel is at least partially up to you.