The science behind our obsession with fall

Photo credit: Julia Monteiro Martins

Even in Miami, fall has clearly arrived when coffee shops bring back the long-awaited pumpkin spice latte and temperatures drop below the standard 90 degrees. Experiencing a Florida fall means being able to avoid the “winter blues,” and the opportunity to make the most of what autumn has to offer.

On the calendar and in nature, fall marks the end of the year, but it also often represents new beginnings. The fall provides us with an opportunity to refresh and ruminate. For many people, fall is a temporal landmark, or a moment that creates structure for how we perceive and utilize our time.

Research supports the idea that we’re more motivated to follow through on our goals when we experience the “fresh start effect” that we often do at landmarks like New Years, birthdays and back to school season in the autumn.

“As children, we come to associate fall with going back to school, new school supplies, seeing friends. It’s exciting, for most. We still respond to this pattern that we experienced for eighteen years,” Kathryn Lively, a professor at Dartmouth University, said to HuffPost.

Dr. Yasmine Saad, a licensed clinical psychologist, explained the importance of temporal landmarks.

“Temporal landmarks divide life into distinct mental phases. They allow us to put in the past negative experiences and propel a fresh outlook,” Saad said to VeryWellMind.

Photo credit: Julia Monteiro Martins

In other words, fall isn’t just nice – it’s cleansing. As a temporal landmark, it allows us to separate different versions of ourselves into distinct time periods — this is where the “new-year-new-me” sensation comes from on New Year’s day. Regardless of whether the “new you” actually does stick around, it’s still a welcome burst of positive energy.

The positive energy is reinforced by the feelings of safety, warmth and comfort we tend to associate with the season. Following the usual commotion of the summertime, the fall affords us a chance to take a step back and relax, even if it’s through practices as simple as ditching the bikini for a cozy sweater or enjoying a hot seasonal drink.

According to the Harvard Gazette, the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that processes scents, is directly connected to the regions of the brain that process memories and emotions. This could explain why the scent of fresh rainfall still reminds you of your summer vacation in 2018.

Dr. Gabriel Keith Harris, director of the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University, described what happens on a neurological level when you get a hold of a favorite seasonal brew like the beloved pumpkin spice latte.

“Your brain fills in the gaps between the scent of the spices and the memories associated with the smell. It takes in everything we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting and it combines those sensory inputs with what we already know and believe about our environment,” Harris said to PBS North Carolina.

There’s no actual pumpkin in pumpkin spice — it’s really the blend of nutmeg, cinnamon and ground ginger — but the brain recognizes it as a fall specific scent and the positive association comforts us. Even the seasonal association of the pumpkin spice latte is intentional: if it was accessible all year round, the positive associations and excitement wouldn’t have the same effect.

Some might see fall as lacking so close to the equator, but in some ways, we benefit from not experiencing the full-swing season change and can make the most of the fall months. As a Miami native, I’ve never seen the leaves change color but I can appreciate the cooler weather that comes in the fall months and provides an opportunity to enjoy time outside.

Studies show that spending time outdoors increases serotonin, reduces stress and regulates sleep cycles. Many traditional outdoor fall activities like pumpkin picking, corn mazes and hayrides are made more pleasant by our milder temperatures and are not only pleasant, but physiologically beneficial.

While the palm trees won’t be changing color any time soon, the fall season still delivers feelings of comfort and possibility, especially when we remind ourselves that, in South Florida, it’s not signifying the beginning of a cold and dreary winter.

Melody Muniz is a senior from Miami, Fla. majoring in creative writing and double minoring in dance and communications.