Research: How climate change affects the brain and mind
Over millennia, our brains have adapted to the environment. However, they can no longer keep up with the rapid changes in living conditions brought about by increasing temperatures and the loss of ecosystems. This is evident in recent studies conducted by the Universities of Bochum and Hamburg.
Dorothea Metzen and Prof. Dr. Sebastian Ocklenburg, researchers in the field of biopsychology at Ruhr-University Bochum and the Medical School Hamburg, describe the effects of these changes in their book "The Psychology and Neuroscience of the Climate Crisis." They draw insights from various branches of psychology and neuroscience. The textbook has been published by Springer-Verlag.
The environment significantly influences the function and development of the human brain. "Studies show, for example, that spending time in nature, as opposed to in a city, can lead to the regulation of stress networks in the brain," explains Dorothea Metzen. Prolonged exposure to hostile environments, such as extremely cold regions like the Arctic, can also alter our brain functions. "Preserving the natural spaces that remain to us is therefore crucial for the health of our brains," emphasizes Sebastian Ocklenburg.
Extremely rapid temperature changes are difficult to manage
Temperature is also a critical environmental factor that has shaped ecological niches throughout evolution. The brains of animals, including humans, have adapted to specific temperatures. Extremely rapid changes in average temperatures can lead to the destruction of ecological niches without allowing time for organisms to adapt. "For example, whale brains have many cell types associated with heat production in tissues, which are vital for them in cold waters," says Dorothea Metzen. "However, if the water warms too much, the whales lack adequate mechanisms to regulate their body temperature."
Mental health at risk
Climate change has massive implications for human health, both physically and mentally. Heatwaves result in a rising number of heat-related deaths, while natural disasters such as floods and wildfires become more likely with increasing temperatures. All these phenomena also affect our mental health: heatwaves hinder us from going about our regular routines, can limit our social lives, and lead to isolation. Additionally, higher outdoor temperatures in the summer are associated with reduced sleep quality, which can impact mood, work, and suicidal tendencies.
Natural disasters can exacerbate depression
Vulnerable groups, including individuals with mental illnesses, women, and the elderly, are particularly at risk. Natural disasters can lead to depression and post-traumatic stress. People fleeing the consequences of the climate crisis face multiple stressors and health risks due to precarious conditions in refugee accommodations, limited access to healthcare, and violence.
"What can we, as professionals in science and healthcare, do now?" ask the two researchers. "We can advocate for preparing the healthcare system for the upcoming challenges because it currently is not," says Sebastian Ocklenburg. "The consequences of the climate crisis must be considered in health, science, and education, as it represents the greatest health risk and the greatest challenge of our time. We can speak out in associations and organizations to push politics toward real action against the climate crisis because prevention is the best way to protect the health of our fellow humans."
Source: Deutsches Gesundheitsportal