Are you feeling cold? That’s not a problem, in principle. We all have a heater inside the body that brings warmth within seconds.
Chilly offices and frigid houses are one price we pay for the miracle of air conditioning. Unfortunately, the way our brains keep our bodies’ temperature constant ensures that there is no ideal temperature year-round for buildings. (Those who insist on one ideal tend to fudge, either by quoting alternative “ideal” temperatures or citing differences of opinion, such as admitting that 7 percent of us prefer the 50s.) And will your ideal office or home temperature tell you anything about how to heat your swimming pool? In a pig’s eye it will.
Yet we adapt and we habituate. We adjust, most of us. Yet some people are chronically cold or hot when most people around them are comfortable. A large part of this reflects differences in our bodies, but there are psychological “drivers” as well, including our emotions and memories.
BIO: It used to be simple: There were two kinds of animals, cold-blooded poikilotherms who got warm by crawling into the sunlight, and warm-blooded homoiotherms (now homeotherms) who generated heat within their bodies just about anywhere. Homeotherms—birds and mammals–had a set point in their brains that set the body temperature at about 37° C just as another set point in the hypothalamus provided a standard for body weight.
Got that? You can forget most of it, the set-point explanation at least. The control of body temperature is more complicated. There are multiple circuits (or loops) in the preoptic area and hypothalamus that maintain different thresholds for body temperature.
Temperature regulation is an important part of homeostasis, or maintaining a constant internal environment. Homeostasis is important because it allows the chemical reactions inside the body to proceed optimally, although fevers have a role to play, too. In fact fighting disease with fever is just one example of dazzling interruptions of normal homeostasis to deal with overwhelming crises. Middle-aged folks can feel hot when their bodies are normal: Hot flashes occur in both women and men, though from different hormonal fluctuations (estrogen dips for women, testosterone for men). Hot flashes are not fevers.
Since the outdoors won’t maintain our core temperature of 37° C for us, we need adjustments. Different animals have different tools, like ears on a jackrabbit or panting in a dog for cooling, or fur and hibernation when cold is the threat.
Humans rely on sweating and shivering. The skin provides these and other forms of support for thermoregulation, supported by blood vessels that constrict or dilate to retain or release heat, respectively.
PSYCHO: Why does 70 degrees feel comfortable to most of us? It may be that 70 is a Goldilocks temperature: any higher or lower and the body would constantly be sweating or shivering.
Why, then, do some folks with a core temperature close to what makes us comfortable feel always too cold or too hot?
Besides our bodily differences and our emotions and memories, mentioned earlier, we differ in body awareness or interoceptive awareness. There are people, perhaps cultures, who have become inured to thermal threats, like Wim Hof. People may ignore exhaustion in sports and work, and how many of us ignore the warning signs of sleep deprivation? People used to say that we could trust the “wisdom of the body“, following the famous physiologist Walter Cannon. That doesn’t work, but maybe giving it a little attention now and then isn’t too bad.
About one in 20 people are very sensitive to body sensations or are unusually concerned about their health. (Some clinicians distinguish between hypochondria and health anxiety, while others lump them together.)
In other words, thermal comfort depends not just on the temperature around you but your view of it as safe or dangerous. People who feel cold can feel vulnerable and lonely. (It works in reverse, too: loneliness is chilly.) Other contributors to thermal comfort include air movement and humidity and whether it’s day or night.
Medications and alcohol can make us feel warmer, although the vasodilation caused by alcohol can make the body lose heat faster. The sympathetic activation associated with stress can make us feel hot, but it can give us cold hands and feet, too. This is a heritable condition that can verge on the pathological.
SOCIAL: Have you heard of temperature contagion? There is evidence that other people make us feel hot or cold. This is likely related to the phenomena of behavioral mimicry and social thermoregulation. An association between residential climate and Big Five personality profiles has also been reported.