Weather on the brain

We live in air-conditioned houses
and work in climate-controlled offices. Our fields are precisely irrigated, our
rivers rimmed by levees and floodwalls, our buildings constructed on flexible
foundations. We have three-dimensional Doppler radar, ultra-powerful weather
satellites and seismographs that register every jolt and growl of the Earth’s

And still, we react much as the
ancients did when faced with the unpredictability of weather: with fear, awe,
adrenaline and fascination.

“This is something evolutionary,”
said Andy Niemiec, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College in Ohio.
“In history, we’ve learned that weather is something to be if not feared,
then perhaps in awe of. And I think a lot of that has to do with the sort of
sensory signals that … probably even activate unconscious parts of our

Recent headlines — including
flooding in Tennessee caused by record-breaking storms, tornadoes in the
Southeast, mammoth snowstorms this winter and earthquakes in Haiti and Chile —
have brought these emotions
to the fore.

It’s primal, Niemiec says.

Our ancestors lived in the open and
picked up on the dangers of some weather events, with impulses to “seek
shelter, go hide, whatever,” he said. More recently, when humans developed
agriculture, we learned the effect weather cycles could have on growing food —
on our very survival.

Indeed, humanity is fond of looking
for patterns where none exist, Niemiec says, a concept called illusory
correlation. (For example, you wash your car and then it rains.) But one reason
we’re so aware of earthquakes or other natural phenomena is because we see the
human cost, he observes.

After all, Niemiec says, our fear
of weather is the reason we’re still here. Even in our air-conditioned,
climate-controlled worlds, weather makes itself known, as it did when some
trees nearly hit the professor’s house during a windstorm.

“You think you’re in there and
you’re safe, but if [the trees] had gone five or six feet the other way, this
would have been it,” he said. “[At times] we do sort of get
desensitized, but then a big event happens, and it brings it right back. A
healthy respect for those kinds of conditions has led to our survival as a
species, and you wouldn’t really want to lose that.”