#bioPGH Blog: Scientifically Speaking, Why is Fall so Magical?
A resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer.
From the chill in the air to the pumpkin patches to the grocery store displays, we can see that autumn is on its way — arriving this Saturday, in fact! Autumn is a beloved season by so many, myself included, and sometimes…it just feels so magical. Have you ever wondered why that is? I did a bit of research on why fall just feels so beautifully wholesome and even poignant to many of us, and I noticed a few themes in the answers that psychologists tend to give to explain our experience of autumn. I was still curious, though; what is it about fall? Why do we love it? I made a quick survey that I sent out to the regular attenders of Phipps’ monthly Biophilia meet-up and some Phipps staff, asking about folks’ experience with autumn — what memories do we have, what do we like or not like, how does autumn make us feel, etc. I must say (especially if some of you reading this answered my survey), some of the responses moved me to tears. The joyful recollections of playing in leaf piles, the bittersweet reflections of loved ones long gone, the feeling of remembering a long-faded dream, the vivid colors that we all associate with the season — the responses blew me away. Below, I have some quotes from the survey mixed in with a dash of the science behind the autumn sentiments. Enjoy the moment, and then let’s all go enjoy the season!
“The color changes in the plants feel magical — like incredible that that can even happen. It’s also incredible to watch certain animals preparing for cold weather (migrating, stockpiling food, getting chubby).”
“We notice the little things. Bumblebees make more holes in our ground for their winter. We have many native fall-blooming plants, and love the life they give in the autumn to the creatures that over-winter. Gold finches build their nests late seasonally to use the later summer/autumn seeds for their nestlings, and not have to compete with all the other finches. Squirrels scramble to save nuts...nuts are an important part of autumn.”
“I love the way the air smells, the nature sounds of autumn, and the way the sun being lower in the sky casts that perfect "golden hour" light for more of the day. And I love the colorful leaves, of course!”
In a temperate climate, autumn is a magnificent example of seasonal change. And even if we know biologically what is happening, that doesn’t have to take away the wonder and awe of the changes. The details of how leaves change color is still incredible, migratory birds’ routes are mind-blowing, and strategies like hibernation and torpor are truly impressive. Nature is full of wonder, year-round! We just take a moment to stand back and appreciate it throughout the season.
“Fall activities make me feel joyous like I am a young kid again, ready to race through mazes and picking the perfect apple/pumpkin.”
“Autumn reminds me of being in elementary school, meeting all my new classmates and learning new things. It makes me feel like I'm at my elementary school library again, picking out books, or out on the playground, feeling the burn of cold air in my throat, running around with endless energy. I remember never wanting to put a jacket on in the fall because I loved the cool air so much. I remember going to the pumpkin patch and going down the slide in a potato sack. I remember watching my mom light candles, and how our kitchen always smelled sweet and savory and warm.”
“I love this season and I love the memories it brings back to me. Autumn makes me feel like me again.”
“It makes me feel like a little girl again. I feel light and airy and magical! It makes me feel safe and awake and connected with nature and things/people around me. But, most of all, it makes me feel a sense of bittersweet nostalgia.”
A key feeling associated with autumn is nostalgia. This time of year brings back memories. Not just any memories, though; autumn tends to evoke memories of joy and perhaps more innocent and simpler times. Though there is a note of bittersweet or longing mixed in with memory, the glowing happiness tends to overpower the associated wistful feelings. It’s quite an alluring feeling.
Intriguingly, several survey respondents specifically referenced the scent of autumn as being powerful to them, whether it was the smell of seasonal foods or the smell of leaves while on a hike. Though smell might not be the most obvious connection to nostalgia, it’s actually a very important part of memory. Our sense of smell plays an important role in both encoding and retrieval of memories, especially personal memories about our own experiences. In fact, researchers have found that memories triggered by smells are more emotional, more vivid, more likely to be from the first decade of life and evoke stronger feelings of being “brought back in time” than memories triggered by visual or verbal cues. For memory encoding, researchers have also found that “odor learning” begins very early in life, whereas the relatively slower development of visual and cognitive systems means that visual and verbal learning happens later. This means that different scents can help us form or encode memories sooner than seeing or hearing something. Studies have even shown that odors enhance autobiographical memory retrieval in patients with Alzheimer’s disease as well as information memory retrieval in healthy adults. Researchers believe that smells have such a strong effect on retrieval because they serve as powerful contextual cues that guide our brains to the right memory. And in this case, the right memory of bounding through a pumpkin patch with little other cares in the world.
Nostalgia has a few unexpected outcomes, in addition to pure memory. Oddly enough, perhaps the nostalgia associated with autumn even helps us to deal with that less pleasant chill of the weather. Studies have shown that feelings of nostalgia lead to folks quite literally feel warmer than folks who were not mulling over memories. And on a note that might explain why everything pumpkin-spice flavored ends up in my shopping cart, nostalgia weakens desire for money. This could make us more susceptible to marketing strategies that curate just the right blend of nostalgia, need, and price when we’re out shopping, since we are less likely to feel the need to hold onto extra dollars.
“Autumn makes me think of change and to look at my life and goals to see if there’s any thing I’d like to tweak or adjust.”
“The start of fall has also felt like a personal period of transition for me since I was young with school. End of the summer/start of fall is when I would start school going from one grade level to the next, and for me transitioning from one age to the next. Even now, being out of school, last year I made the transition of moving into my first apartment and sharing each day of my life with my partner.”
“Notice how the trees do not cling to their leaves. Fall is about releasing the old to make way for the new.”
Temporal landmarks are events or transitions that help us mark the endless march of time. Temporal landmarks can be the start of a new month or new year, the start of a new job or life phase or a major event that happened in the public forum. Whether we are conscious of it or not, many of us view autumn as a temporal landmark for the year and an exciting new season that will perhaps bring changes or at least recharge us for the coming adventures. It’s likely that the association with fall and new beginnings comes from school days; every new school year seemed like a new year of social and academic possibility for us and we simply carried that internal clock with us. Whatever the collective social reason for it, we often view fall as a time of change and new beginnings; and that excites us!
“[I think of] football games and bundling together with friend. Going on coffee dates and wearing mittens for the first time. Also jean jackets.” (Note from Maria – jean jackets! Me too, friend!)
“So many of my autumn memories go back to football. There was and is something special about the sense of community that comes from people getting together to watch their favorite teams. Also, Halloween is something that always makes me feel like a kid again and gives me the opportunity to dress up and enjoy a fun holiday with friends.”
“I feel that autumn makes me more active so I like to go on walks more. It is fun to go to the coffee shop and get a drink and pastry and sit outside with friends. I think eating outside with friends is one of my favorite parts of fall since I don't like being hot in the summer and freezing in winter.”
So many survey answers involved spending time with friends and family! One question asked about favorite fall activities and most responses highlighted wonderful pastimes like hiking, visiting farms, playing fall sports, baking, and cooking, all with loved ones. Given the heightened nostalgia that accompanies autumn, it makes sense that we would cyclically remember and crave time together with those we care about the most.
The Comfort of Traditions
Autumn brings with it a wonderful assortment of traditions with loved ones, and that is something very important in and of itself. Traditions reinforce social bonds, offer a sense of belonging, comfort us in times of uncertainty, and make us feel happier overall. Many of us enjoy the same activities year after year, and those traditions can give us structure and support, even when other aspects of our world may feel less certain.
For example, on a personal note, the image below is from October of 2020. A group of my friends have gone apple picking annually for over a decade now, and the image below represents a tradition that gave me some desperately need routine and familiarity in a period where so much seemed upside down.
“I love hiking!”
“Hiking and bonfires”
“Horseback riding and hiking in the woods, county fairs, photography, camping”
“Hiking, bird watching”
“Jumping in leaf piles (even as an adult!!)”
One thing we all seem to love about fall: almost all of us love to be outside and take in that crisp, frosty glory. We know that spending time outdoors is associated with lowered blood pressure, lowered stress hormone levels, increased feelings of well-being, and increased attention among many other things. One delightful aspect of fall fun is that much of it is outdoors! From hiking in a park to visiting apple orchards and pumpkin farms, many seasonal favorites take us into green (well, red and orange) spaces; and that is a mood booster all on its own. It would make sense, again, that we would love fall and remember it with a nostalgic glow if we are spending plenty of time outdoors boosting the hormones that helps us bond and make our bodies feel refreshed and relaxed.
There is even research that specifically looks at the benefits of viewing fall leaves and fall scenes on our emotional and physical well-being; and the fall landscape is indeed good for us! One study from last year noted that just viewing images of fall foliage in the mountains was enough to the moods of participants and even change brain activity to a more relaxed state.
Bringing it All Together
Yet whatever the science or psychology may be of why we collectively love autumn, it’s only a hint of the magic in nature. If you haven’t had a chance to make or relive some outdoor fall memories, grab a jacket and head out there! A bit of outdoors will do us all good.
About the Survey
Thirty-one respondents, ranging in age from 18 – 65+ answered the survey, and all participants spent at least part of their childhoods in a climate with color-changing fall leaves. When asked to name their favorite season, 45% responded fall, 25% did not have a favorite, 16% said spring, and summer and winter were equally split with 6.5% each. The remaining questions were focused on feelings, memories, activities, and ideals associated with autumn; and they are listed below:
- What do you like/dislike about autumn?
- Do you have any favorite outdoor activities during the autumn months?
- How does the season of autumn make you feel?
- Do you associate autumn with any memories, experiences, or ideals?
- Any other thoughts about autumn that you would like to share?
Images: Cover and header, Pexels public domain