I felt pretty sure something was wrong when the deer began running toward me. I knew something was wrong when a pine branch flew by my head. The air went dark and a noise like a train barreled through the forest, the actual wind coming after the sound of itself. The trees all swayed in the same direction, and then came the slap of thunder.
I felt more than saw the huge shelf cloud, a wall of black striped with electricity, surge forward over the ridge of the Allegheny Mountains overlooking Green Bank, West Virginia. A sharp line against the blue sky, it looked less like weather and more like a Rothko. I lived in this remote town, and I was on my usual afternoon run, picking my way across the trails that led from my house to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where I worked. Adrenaline told me I needed to fly, faster.
I ran two miles in 12 minutes, a pace I’d never maintained before and never have since, hurdling downed trees and power lines. When I got back to my house, surprised to be safe, I dragged my dog down to the farmhouse basement. After a restless 30 seconds, though, I bolted back upstairs, threw the door open, and stood on the porch. A wall of wind hit me. Lightning struck like a strobe. I felt awakened, alive, engaged. As the edge of the front pushed forward, the force seemed to clear the air and charge the whole scene with yellow-lit significance.
I’m not the first to feel this way, or write about it. “It was his impression that not just he but other people too felt better in hurricanes,” wrote Walker Percy in his novel The Last Gentleman, published in 1966. Today, people crowd around Weather Channel broadcasts and cross their fingers that storms will strengthen. They get giddy over thundersnow. Percy, a philosopher as well as a novelist, was intrigued by the phenomenon. In one of his earliest essays, published in the 1950s, he asked, “Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?”
Why hurricanes elevate our mood—lift us out of a malaise we might not even know we’re sunk in—is a rich question for philosophers, novelists, and people who like philosophy and novels. It’s deepened by the fact that our giddiness often comes spiked with guilt, and a revulsion at ourselves for hoping for, and enjoying, something so destructive.
But the thrill of storms may not just be a psychological phenomenon. A branch of science called biometeorology attempts to explain the impact of atmospheric processes on organisms and ecosystems. Biometeorologists study, among other topics, how the seasons affect plant growth, how agriculture depends on climate, and how weather helps spread or curb human diseases. For decades now, a faction have looked at how charged particles in the air, called ions, might alter our psyches as they wing in on the wind.
Explanations of the environment’s impact on us sometimes crash at the intersection of science and pseudoscience. The idea that electrically charged molecules affect humans has led to dubious cures like negative air-ionizing therapy. But recent, rigorous studies have hinted at compelling links between ions, physiology, and psychology. The collision of that work with the science of storms could bear a message of connection for us all.
Scientists first attempted to unweave the web between air ions—whose composition changes with weather and environment—and human mood in the mid 20th century, when ion-generating machines and ion counters became more standardized and available. Ions, natural or ginned up inside a device, are electrically charged particles: Negative ions have an extra electron, and positive ions are missing an electron. Positive ions get their spark when some force—like the scrape of air over land or shear from water droplets splashing—strips an electron from them. That electron goes on the rebound and attaches itself to a nearby oxygen molecule, which then becomes a negative ion.
In the wild, people encounter the greatest densities of negative air ions in pleasant, hydrated places and during summer months. Breaking ocean waves and falling water—dropping from the sky or flowing over a rock ledge—release a rash of negatives into the air. So do bolts of lightning. Positive ions—often associated with pollutant particles like smoke, smog, and dust—are more prevalent indoors, in urban areas, and in the winter. The leading edges of storms and hot, dry winds like the Santa Anas in California also blow them in.
Lightning struck like a strobe. I felt awakened, alive, engaged.
Medical doctor Daniel Silverman of New Orleans and Igho Kornblueh of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia were first to test whether the shifting tides of ions do anything to the human body or mind. Is either polarity good or bad, or are they both neutral? In 1957, they gave subjects 30-minute treatments with air ions from ion-generating devices.
During the treatment, Silverman and Kornblueh watched patients’ electrical brain activity on electroencephalograms. Their long, slow, alpha waves looked calm and relaxed when they were surrounded by negative ions, positive ones, or both at once (not exactly conclusive). Another research group later confirmed chilled-out brain activity and sharper perception, when they treated patients with negative air ions. Their results weren’t definitive, but three other studies in the ’50s and ’60s looked at how ions changed self-reported perceptions of comfort and restlessness. According to this research, some subjects felt negative feelings with positive ions, and some reported positive feelings with negative ions.
That correlation soon became the standard wisdom: Positive ions hurt, raising crime rates, asthma attacks, and your hackles. Negative ions help and make you happy. But the experiments themselves were not robust enough to prove either of those connections, with researchers using mixed methods, unstandardized measurements, and questionable controls.
Between 1981 and 1987, 13 more studies looked into ions’ psychotropic effects. Eleven claimed significant effects, leaning toward the same conclusion: Positive is bad; negative is good. Still, the experiments varied in dosage, design, and quality control, and so couldn’t point to a definitive conclusion.
At the time, and still today, scientists were unsure how ions changed biochemistry, if they did at all. The prevailing idea for a time was the “serotonin hypothesis,” advanced by A.P. Kreuger and E.J. Reed of the University of California, Berkeley, and Felix Sulman of Hebrew University. They claimed that positive ions created an excess of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, normally associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness. But high levels cause problems, later called “serotonin irritation syndrome.” Positive ions, according to the authors, keep serotonin floating in the blood. Negative ions reverse this imbalance, stripping nitrogen-based molecules called amines from the neurotransmitter, and so sliding serotonin levels back where they should be.
Other scientists, however, believed the serotonin hypothesis had problems. “The so-called serotonin hypothesis focused on blood concentrations,” says Michael Terman, a professor of clinical psychology in Columbia University’s psychiatry department, one of the few people currently doing serious research on ions. Serotonin in the blood is produced in the gut, while serotonin in the brain comes from the brain. They are “two distinct systems,” says Terman.
A bigger problem, from many scientists’ point of view, came in 1983, when Fred Soyka, a businessman who had “encounters” with “good” and “bad” ions, published The Ion Effect, setting off a New Age craze. The book is no doubt the forefather of websites with URLs like negativeionizers.net and negativeiongenerators.com—from companies peddling expensive air-charging devices that will fix all your problems. “For the scientist seeking a solid path toward clarity, the pop claims for air-ion efficacy were an embarrassment,” says Terman.
Rigorous work ground to a halt in 1987, when Jonathan Charry and Robert Kavet compiled existing academic papers into a volume called Air Ions: Physical and Biological Aspects. In aggregate, the three decades of research didn’t add up. Findings conflicted with each other, and scientists offered few biochemical explanations. The denouement after that was steep: According to a meta-analysis of experiments on the topic by principal scientist William Bailey of Exponent’s Center for Exposure Assessment and Dose Reconstruction, only a few human research studies were published between 1987 and 1993. But more recent experiments using high concentrations of air ions, like those Terman has done, led Bailey and his team to look again at the research literature. “It had been more than 20 years since the last comprehensive review of air ion research,” Bailey says.
Terman, who is the head of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, did not expect to become an air-ion researcher, or find that small molecules could have physiological effects. He began his work in ion therapy inadvertently: He needed a placebo for another experiment. To test whether bright lights help with depression, his experiment required a control—a group of subjects who didn’t receive bright-light treatment but didn’t know they were part of the control group. Problematically, most people can see light, so subjects would know they were getting the placebo, potentially skewing the results.
Terman discussed this problem with Larry Chait and Charmane Eastman of the University of Chicago, who had used a powered-down ionizer as a placebo in a similar experiment. At the time, most people had heard—thanks to The Ion Effect—that negative ions helped our psychological states. Chait and Eastman reasoned that if they disconnected an ionizer, but made it look like it was on, people would believe they were receiving a true treatment. Terman didn’t do exactly that. Instead, he kept a negative ionizer on at an extremely low dosage, so low that its trickle counted as placebo. Control subjects could believe they were receiving a treatment, even though they weren’t.
He compared patients’ responses to a light-box; a low-output, placebo ionizer; and also a high-output ionizer. “I personally had no expectation that the high-density units would actively reduce symptoms of major depression,” he says. “I thought both high- and low-density units would act equally as credible placebos. I was suspicious of early claims in the literature, knowing that the research field had virtually collapsed after publication of Charry and Kavet’s volume.”
Morning showers, like rainstorms, could have an antidepressant effect.
But the results shocked him. When patients had 30-minute, high-dosage sessions for about three weeks, depressive symptoms decreased by more than 50 percent. The low-density ions, though, didn’t help much, suggesting that an actual biochemical equation could be in play, just as taking more Tylenol yields greater pain relief. (Bailey, though, notes that in the meta-analysis, longer or more frequent high-density treatments didn’t produce better outcomes.)
Terman reported that result in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. “You can tell I was still nervous about the claim,” he says, explaining why he went with a publication that’s not as mainstream or high-impact as others. But he later replicated the results for the Archives of General Psychiatry (now JAMA Psychiatry) and the American Journal of Psychiatry, the field’s most competitive journals.
The jury is still out on how the biochemistry of this mood-lifting might work. The serotonin hypothesis remains a possibility, although better and brain-based testing is needed to rule it out or in. Another idea, Terman has written, is that negative ions land on the skin and neutralize positive charges that have built up there, which would decrease depressive symptoms if positive ions are, in fact, bad for the brain. Breathing in the ions could also activate the vomeronasal organ, a piece of nose anatomy thought to detect pheromones, and somehow send a positive message to the brain.
On the lookout for biological mechanisms that might explain the effect of air ions, Terman came across a study in which doctors dosed the lungs of ICU patients, who had just had surgery, with negative air ions. Their blood’s lactic acid, built up from stress, dove down. The same could happen in the veins of people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), an environment-induced depression. Terman was intrigued by the study, but says he wouldn’t “claim that increased oxygenation of the blood is the mechanism of action” in ions’ effect. Another study is underway to see if SAD patients receive bumps in their bloods’ O2 levels during negative-ion treatment. If they do, researchers can step forward, figuring out how negative ions oxygenate the blood and why that makes people feel better.
Catherine Harmer of the University of Oxford has also recently worked on double-blind, rigorous research—in which neither the scientist nor the subject knows which treatment patients are receiving—into how ions affect the mind. “We had seen published studies supporting negative ion administration as a treatment for seasonal depression, which were intriguing,” she says, referring to Terman’s studies. “No one knows how this treatment works.”
She set out to see if ion treatment produced some of the same psychological changes as prescriptions like Zoloft or Abilify. “When people are depressed, they tend to focus on and remember more negative things than positive things,” she says. That’s one of the first mental processes that drugs reconfigure.
In a 2012 experiment, Harmer gathered people with SAD and gave them a battery of standard emotional-processing tests, like recognizing positive and negative facial expressions and recalling negative and positive personality characteristics. The depressed were biased toward recognizing and remembering the negative, but healthy people in her experiment did not have this same bias.
When Harmer gave the patients a high-density negative ion treatment and then repeated the tests, they showed the kinds of emotional-processing improvement—like increased ability to recognize and recall those happy faces and words—as people who take medication. But it wasn’t just the SAD patients who got better. In most measures, the healthy control group did, too.
Both Terman and Harmer caution against overgeneralizing their findings to the stormy world outside the lab. The weather and waterfalls of the world don’t deliver precise, ultra-high densities of negative particles in known, controlled settings. Still, the scientists are willing to speculate a little. “It’s possible that natural increases in negative ions, like camping near a waterfall, might have similar effects,” says Harmer. “However, this hasn’t been tested using the same methods as we did in our study so it is unknown.” And small shifts in ion concentration, she cautions, would likely lead to small physio- and psychological shifts.
Looking to the world outside the lab, Terman also points to the work of a colleague, Phillip Mead of the University of Idaho. Mead found that the air in a typical bathroom shower had negative ion densities comparable to those that came from Terman’s industrial ionizer (which has higher output than most commercially hawked ones). “Whether this explains why people enjoy long showers, or begin to sing loudly, I don’t know,” Terman says. “But it is probably safe to extrapolate to rainstorms and their short-term aftermath, as the old pop literature claimed. Conceivably, if you showered every day for 30 minutes after waking up, there would be the same kind of antidepressant action I measured in our clinical trials.”
When I woke up after the storm, I was still buzzed, though the world was once again still. Maybe, like a shower or a waterfall-centric campground, the big meteorological event changed the air ion concentration enough that the weather literally got under my skin, changing my brain or blood or both. Like lying in a field on a new-moon night, the storm had made me feel like I was part of the universe—an insignificant, crushable part, but a part nonetheless.
When I opened my front door, it led to a new world, one with a lot fewer upright trees and utility poles. None of them had fallen on my car or house. But I soon saw that others hadn’t been so lucky.
The storm, I learned, had been a hurricane-force phenomenon, with winds that screamed up to 100 miles per hour. Meteorologists christened it the North American Super-Derecho. It did $3 billion of damage and left approximately 4.2 million people without power.
My town had no electricity—and so no water, which came from wells—for two weeks. The Red Cross showed up with tents, dinner, and hydration. A police officer stood next to the one generator-fed gas pump and rationed what little was left. The line stretched a mile. An older woman who lived out of town was found dead in her house, killed by carbon monoxide. A man died of heat exhaustion while trying to clean up debris, another because he couldn’t get to a hospital quickly enough.
But it wasn’t all bad, and the vivifying and devastating effect of the storm banded people together, like magnetized iron filings. In Green Bank, people gathered to share slowly spoiling food, drag branches from each other’s yards, and invite each other to nightly debris-combusting bonfires. They brought each other barrels of potable water, biked to the store to get neighbors cold cans of stew bought on credit, and shared “Where were you when it hit?” stories.
After a while, though—after the power came back and we went back to work and illuminated, fully plumbed homes—we each stripped ourselves from the tight group. We again became isolated and unbonded. But just as an ejected electron will seek out and bind to another molecule, humans, too, will always clump back up. After all, the future is full of catastrophes, threatening to draw us back together.
Sarah Scoles is a writer based in Denver, Colorado, and a contributor at Wired Science.
This article was originally published in our “Currents” issue in June, 2016.