In July 2009 I had the pleasure of visiting Iceland – in between disruptive volcanic explosions.
I had never been so far north on this planet before. I was exited to experience excessively long days (22/24 h of daylight), geothermal hot springs, and elves… Okay, maybe not elves – but if you were to find elves anywhere in the world it would be Iceland!
I was also keen to learn the correct pronunciation of Eyjafjallajökull – the annoying Icelandic volcano not just stuffing-up commercial flighs, but making life difficult for news readers across the globe.
So, my good friend Saerah and I hired a car and set-out on a 2 week adventure. Iceland is stunning. From the black sands of Vik to the glacial highs of Vatnajökull, to the vast lowlands that still look like molten lava, this country is like no place I’ve ever been before. It was also empty – does no one live here?!
Our first stop was Reykjavik, the country’s capital, a quaint and colourful port town. For summer, it was cold, the temperature rarely rising above 10 degrees. However, the excessive day length made it all worthwhile. Before going to Iceland I was worried that I would not sleep, that I would have to block out the light from by bedroom – I purchased an eye mask in preparation! What I didn’t think about was how the light would make me feel. I was energized and happy, and when I went to bed I had no trouble sleeping: content and tired from a long day of play.
I felt exactly the opposite to the way I did in Sheffield, UK, during winter where the nights were endless. I went to work it was dark. I got home it was dark. I’d never felt such depression (plus, I was in Sheffield!).
The science of daylight and happiness
I knew this probably had something to do with melatonin – a hormone excreted by the Pineal Gland in mammals, the amount released into the blood stream increased at night and decrease during the day. It helps animals fall into a circadian rhythm (a 24-hour cycle that regulates biological and physiological processes within the body).
What I didn’t know was the relationship between melatonin and serotonin – a signaling hormone commonly associated with happiness and well being. Melatonin is made out of serotonin, so the more melatonin our bodies make at night, the less serotonin there is remaining. Because I was experiencing very little ‘night’ in Iceland I have a feeling that my serotonin levels were sky high. Woot woot!
This may be why I didn’t even question trying whale meat – despite my disgust in the overall process of whaling. I had decided that I couldn’t knock something until I’d tried it… thank you serotonin for providing me with an unbiased point of scientific clarity (perhaps all scientists should take a hit before designing experiments). Needless to say, I didn’t like whale meat at all. It was bitter and irony, and tasted like mean slaughter practices. My serotonin levels dropped.
Speaking of serotonin levels dropping, one would assume that rates of depression are very high in Iceland during winter with the lack of sunlight and the high conversion of serotonin to melatonin. Referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD: possibly my most favorite aptly named acronym of all times), this is the medical label given to depression that is the result of seasonal change (melatonin and serotonin). Surprisingly, in contrast to other populations of similar latitude, the Icelandic people have a very low level of SAD – thought to be the result of an unknown genetic factor. Another example of evolution?
Having seen the Icelandic Eurovision entry for 2011 (below), I believe this people are indeed low on SAD. Their national entry is rather jovial, especially considering they are singing in memorandum of their dead friend.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I got some of the locals to teach me how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull. It goes a little something like this: