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The Extravagant Pleasure of Storms

Enchant, Sublimate

There’s a biochemical reason for the happiness induced by tempests and storms.

Too terribly glorious, the spectacle of clouds,
split and pierced by white and blinding bolts.
- Charlotte Brontë

The body shudders at storms and hurricanes. But we also feel happy, and that’s one of the most interesting paradoxes of our relationship with the weather. How is it that something so powerfully destructive raises, in nearly all of us, a sense of pleasure and excitement? One of the answers that comes to light first is that a storm, violent and fickle as it is, awakens in us a being that we spend our lives lulling to sleep for it is one we don’t truly know.  We sense that if we let it out – like someone letting out a deep cry – then we might not get it back in place. That very thought generates some excess energy. There’s something in storms that resembles poetry too much, a magnificent language that was never delivered to humankind and that therefore calls, almost irresistibly, the body to join in this vigorous orchestra. Biometeorology has yet another hypothesis for explaining the specific feeling of well-being upon seeing a storm up close, and it’s both fascinating and useful: the theory of ions.

Biometeorology is a branch of science that studies the impact of atmospheric processes on organisms and ecosystems. Among other things, it examines how the seasons and climate help to extend or curb human disease. For decades, a faction of biometeorologists has studied charged air particles, called ions, and how they can alter our psyches as they fly near. One of the most controversial explanations, one that’s gained plausibility , tells us that negative ions positively affect our mood, while positive ions can depress the mood.

Negative ions bear an extra electron. Positive ions are missing an electron. During storms, the composition of oxygen molecules is disrupted and positive ions will steal electrons to become negative. This happens not only in storms but in the crashing of waves, in waterfalls or even in sprinkler systems, and it explains the feeling of well-being generated by a morning shower.

Woman in lake with rain falling

The scientific jury is still out on how the biochemistry of this antidepressant works. There’s a “serotonin hypothesis,” which holds that positive ions create an excess of serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness. But an excess can cause a condition known as “serotonin irritation syndrome.” Positive ions, according to the authors of the study, are retained in the serotonin floating in the bloodstream. Negative ions revert the imbalance by starting a neurotransmitter in nitrogen molecules that returns serotonin levels in the blood to their optimum levels.

Another serious study on the subject was released by Doctor of Clinical Psychology, Michael Terman. Terman argues that when we breathe negative ions, a part of the nose called Jacobson’s organ, and which detects pheromones, starts to send positive messages to the brain. According to Terman, witnessing rainstorms, or even bathing for 30 minutes after waking, can have the same antidepressant effects that’ve been measured in clinical trials with negative ion generators.

There are still lots of pending studies to decipher exactly the optimum amount of negative ions needed to significantly raise our spirits. But it might suffice to open the windows or go for a walk after a storm, as there are no side effects. The calm after the storm may just be the best calm yet.

Image credits:

1. Seb Janiak

2. Camila Massu

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