Are you the “lucky” one who gets to sit next to that coworker who’s always cold and needs the heating on full blast all day? Or does your partner need to open the windows to sleep while you pile blankets on your side of the bed? Can’t get your head around the fact that your kids walk around in T-shirts and shorts when leaving your gloves and scarf at home sounds to you like a science fiction fantasy? Have you ever wondered why this happens to us? Why do we all have different perceptions of temperature?
The brain: the culprit of it all
Cold is a sensation, something perceived by our brain, that originates in the hypothalamus, which is where body temperature is regulated. Its job is to keep our body temperature at the ideal level — between 96.8–98.6 °F (36–37 °C). “The human body is well equipped to adapt to changes in temperature, though it always deals better with the heat than with the cold,” says Dr. Antonio Zapatero, chairman of the Spanish Society of Internal Medicine. This expert explains how we adapt to these changes: “We have thermoreceptors in our skin which are nerve endings that detect cold and heat and transmit those sensations to the most important thermostat we have in our bodies: the hypothalamus.”
When it’s too hot or too cold…
As mother nature is wise, the body tries to regulate the temperature whenever it rises or falls. This is where the hypothalamus uses compensation mechanisms to conserve caloric energy and make the body more energy efficient. For example, when we feel hot we begin to perspire and our cutaneous arteries dilate to allow more blood to reach the skin. On the opposite side of things, when we feel cold the body tries to produce heat and prevent heat loss by the simplest way possible: constricting the blood vessels, so that less blood reaches the skin and muscles contract, creating heat.
Can’t bear the cold?
Body temperature is a physiological phenomenon, but each person’s perception of cold and heat is subjective, and that means some people feel colder than others. It could be that a person’s compensation mechanisms aren’t working right or that something is wrong with their thermoreceptors. For example, they always say that thinner people feel colder than people with more body mass. “This is explained by the body fat that accumulates right below the skin, which acts as insulation and protects us from the cold,” Dr. Zapatero says. On the other hand, people who tend to feel lonely and downtrodden tend to feel colder than the temperatures really are.
In fact, as of late the theory has been proposed that sometimes it’s not that we’re actually cold, but rather the sensation is “contagious”: this conclusion is the result of a study which explains that if we see someone shivering from cold, we’ll probably start to feel cold ourselves due to our mirror neurons firing and the fact that we humans tend to imitate the behavior we see in others.
Lastly, people who suffer from any kind of vascular disease, such as hypothyroidism, anemia, etc. also tend to feel colder than others. Dr. Zapatero says “Some people feel more comfortable with the cold and others with the heat,” without there being any more explanation than the tolerance displayed by their bodies. Nor should we forget that the feeling of what’s cold varies from person to person depending on what a person is used to, the region where they live, the season of the year, etc.
What can we do to stay warm?
In addition to our compensation mechanisms, there’s also actions and habits that are within our reach to keep us from feeling either too hot or too cold. In order to regulate those temperatures we can sit out in the sun, bundle up in warm clothes, wrap ourselves in blankets, drink warm beverages, keep our bodies in motion and exercise, have a proper heating system… And when we’re sharing a space with others, we should come to an unspoken agreement and not consume more energy than necessary. Technology is making things easier and easier: We already have mechanisms available to regulate indoor temperatures individually, according to each person’s individual needs. We can even control the temperature using our smartphones with systems like Plactherm, a project with which Repsol is collaborating as part of our commitment to the environment and the development of new initiatives that improve people’s quality of life.