Go Ahead And Kick Up Some Leaves This Autumn
Science Says You Were Conditioned Since Childhood To Love The Changing Season
My wife and I took a road trip last Sunday. Well, actually we just got in the car and started driving with no place in mind. September is still top down weather in Chicago. The sun was out, it was seventy-six degrees, the leaves are changing, and we saw it has one of our last chances to take our BMW convertible on the road before it begins its annual winter hibernation.
We headed northwest, opening the Bimmer up to sixty, taking small roads past farmland and residential areas just to see where they’d go. After nearly one hour of driving, we stopped at a Starbucks in a small town forty-five miles out of Chicago. The place was crowded with adults and a few children seated at outside tables watching the world go by. There was no drive-thru, so we parked in a space near a grassy area dotted with shedding maples and my wife walked to the door to purchase her favorite shaken iced green tea. As soon as she was inside, I caught sight of a mother and her small son near the maples. Whatever the reason, seeing that little boy’s sneakers kick through a drift of fallen leaves on a bright and sunny autumn morning caused childhood memories to swirl around in my head like the whipped cream that tops a pumpkin spice latte.
It was a long time ago that I was a young boy, but for the moment the past had the hard clarity of the present. Leaves of yellow, orange and fire red floated in the air. It was not a physical thing happening — it was a moment of perception — but all the same it was real, or so it seemed. I was no longer sitting in my little car. I was walking through the woods. And the sights, sounds and smells of autumn were all around me. I recognized the spot immediately. It was a narrow path that followed a small creek, and it was familiar to me because I’d used it as a kid when walking home from elementary school. The path took a long angle off to the left, I remembered, before returning back in the direction of the ranch house I was raised in. I remember how I used to look for the brightest leaf to kick like an imaginary football between the trees to score a field goal. That swishing sound was as clear as the current moment in my mind. I was searching for the perfect leaf when a gust of Chicago wind suddenly brought the smell of croissants, and the sight of a green mermaid on a cup my wife was carrying to the car brought me back to reality.
While autumn in Chicago is not the glorious showcase of color that I remember from growing up in the rolling Appalachians, autumn is still my hands-down favorite season.
But what is it about this time of year that brings adults, myself included, back to their childhood?
It could be that school is back in session or it could be that pumpkins are everywhere. Yes. There are definitely people who feel that pumpkins showing up have something to do with it.
Just as my childhood memories came flooding back when I saw a young boy kicking autumn leaves, others find something very nostalgic about the aroma of pumpkins. Just the slightest whiff and they are filled with a warm fuzzy feeling that automatically transports them back to pumpkin pie at grandma’s. There’s a reason, after all, that food manufacturers use the word pumpkin these days. You can find pumpkin-flavored items on grocery store shelves ranging from cereal and coffee creamers to yogurt and ice cream. And it’s not limited to food. Walk into any supermarket that sells beer and you’ll likely to see a wall of pumpkin-flavored beers just for you. Happy autumn chugging!
But who can talk about autumn without mentioning Halloween?
When someone says Halloween you probably think of trick-or-treating, haunted houses, and costumes. Same here. Halloween was a big deal when I was growing up, and my mother made costumes for my brothers and me to wear to school. I don’t know if she did it because our family was on a budget or because she just liked doing it. It was probably a little of each. But when we got to school, we knew we had costumes that no other kid had — costumes that were as spooky as they were original. Today, many years later, watching trick-or-treaters toddle up our driveway each October dressed in their Halloween get-ups, reaching for the basket of goodies and then opening the door transports me right back to that first ring of the school bell and the race into my room to see what the other 5th graders were wearing. It’s one of those awesome autumn memories that are forever woven into my brain.
So the question about all this is: why do our brains seem susceptible to these childhood memories? What is it about fallen leaves and pumpkins that get everyone so excited? Science says it has to do with “temporal landmarks.”
Temporal landmarks are happenings that stand in stark contrast to the seemingly endless random and trivial events that make up our lives. Temporal landmark include exciting events and calendar dates — like my mother making my Halloween costume, Thanksgiving at grandma’s (her famous pumpkin pie cooling on the windowsill), the start of a new school year, etc. According to science, these temporal landmarks are “fresh starts” that not only influence the manner in which we recall memories but also sway our current activities and plans for the future.
One study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology put it this way: “Much as physical landmarks help structure our representation of space, temporal landmarks such as birthdays and significant calendar dates structure our perception of time, such that people may organize or categorize their lives into ‘chunks’ separated by these markers.”
What this means is that we’ve been programed since childhood that autumn comes with exciting new things. For example, starting a new school year means new clothes, new crayons, new backpack, etc. All of these things are a fresh start. And by treasuring these memories, we shape an idea in our brains about what autumn symbolizes that stays with us forever.
That’s why it’s no coincidence this time of year that you can’t wait to pick out that pumpkin. Like kicking up autumn leaves or opening the school year, going to the pumpkin patch is a temporal landmark. Which means something deep in us loves spending a day picking pumkins as a way to celebrate autumn.
So go ahead and pull out all the stops! Kick up some leaves this autumn, pick out that just-right pumpkin, don’t think about the calories and treat yourself to a pumpkin spice latte. And in the end, have fun with it just like you did when you were a kid (well, probably not the latte part). It’s what you were meant to do.