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Love thunderstorms? There could be a psychological reason for that

The concept of ‘amniotic sound’ may explain our fascination with thunder and lightning

Victoria Richards
Sunday 19 June 2022 09:49 BST
Of course, not everyone is so lucky – storms can be killers, too
Of course, not everyone is so lucky – storms can be killers, too (Getty Images)

If you’re anything like me, you get giddy during a storm.

When they happen at night, I lay awake in bed long after I should be asleep, listening to the wind howl at my window; the distant rumble of thunder like waves lapping at the horizon. When they break during the middle of the day, I announce it loudly to whoever is around me like a child on Christmas Eve. There’s just something about the growl of an imminent storm – the power of it. The electricity that crackles in the air. I’ll admit, it does something to me. It makes me feel alive. Storms (by which I distinctly mean the non-life-threatening, watch-from-the-window-while-cosy-and-warm-indoors kind) are sexy. Sorry-not sorry.

If my friends are anything to go by, I’m not alone in being “turned on” by a storm, either (and I use that phrase loosely…ish). A flurry of texts from some of those who know me best: “You listening to the storm?” “Bet you’re awake!”

Someone special to me messaged me at midnight to tell me a story of how he’d once spent the whole night in a hammock in the jungle in southeast Asia during a wild tropical storm, while it absolutely hammered it down. I have my own stories, too: of the night I spent at a rock festival on the side of Mount Fuji (believe it or not) in a flimsy two-man pop-up tent during what felt a lot like a small hurricane. No all-night parties and shouts of “b******s” for us (and if you know, you know) – it was torches off at 10pm and hunkering down to try to weather the, well, weather. Fun, though.

Then there was the night, one New Year’s Eve, when I watched the clock trip over from midnight to 2007 from my window overlooking the water in Cardiff Bay; water that was usually static but had been whipped up by gusty winds and transformed into a seething, bubbling cauldron. I can still close my eyes and picture the grins on all our faces. Something about a good storm (when we are safe and warm and out of the eye of it) makes us smile.

Pop culture references back this up – the most famous “storm scene” I can think of, of course, is during The Sound of Music, when Maria and the von Trapp children are first frightened, then invigorated, eventually taking to leaping about in those billowing nightgowns singing about “raindrops on roses” and “whiskers on kittens”. During the inclement weather, however, I was always spiritually with Liesl – the eldest von Trapp, the teenage stowaway sneaking out for a rain-drenched smooch with her (unfortunately, secret Nazi) boyfriend.

For some reason, the image of kissing someone in the rain – or having some kind of ethereal, out of the ordinary adventure – has captured our hearts and our collective imaginations for a reason: see Andie MacDowell’s famous “is it raining? I hadn’t noticed” murmurings while lip-to-lip with Hugh Grant at the climax of Four Weddings and a Funeral; or Dorothy, swept away to Oz thanks to a fierce tornado. I’m so in love with the concept of thunderstorms, in fact, that I’ve named an entire poetry book after them. So yes, I’ll admit it, I’m biased. I bloody love a storm.

But what’s really going on? Why do so many of us go absolutely ga-ga over bad weather?

According to some psychologists, the concept of “amniotic sound” might come into play – there could be comfort in hearing the slow rumble of thunder, the fizz-crack and intermittent crash of lightning striking in the distance. Much like babies are rocked and lulled into slumber, protected from the harsh bright sharpness of the outside world in the womb (where it is dark, where sound is muffled) perhaps we humans feel a resonance to being in utero when we’re indoors, listening to the sound of a storm somewhere far away, protected (if we are lucky) by sturdy brick and mortar.

One friend, who’s an acoustic engineer, told me: “Low frequency environmental sound, such as that associated with a rumble of thunder, can invoke a heightened feeling of fear or panic – leading to an adrenaline rush. An example of this would be a lion’s roar in the savannah. When a thunderstorm occurs outside, as humans we respond to the relative sanctity provided by the roofs over our heads, protecting us from nearby danger. This is one of the reasons we enjoy thunderstorms so much. Ironically, they help us feel safe.”

Of course, not everyone is so lucky – storms can be killers, too, and we’re seeing more and more of them, thanks to the effects of the climate crisis. Those in the developing world are in particular danger – and I don’t mean to be cavalier about the very real risk of rain and serious flooding. We are relatively lucky, in this country, though we are certainly not immune. We too have experienced devastating floods, loss of life and the destruction of people’s homes because of terrible storms in parts of the UK, as recently as this year.

What I’m talking about here is the joy of a “simple” storm. And there’s a word that has been invented online to describe the indescribable; the so-called “amniotic tranquillity” of being indoors during a storm – chrysalism.

It doesn’t surprise me, as a parent of two young children, that we’re so fascinated with the sensory impact of storms. There are already a plethora of products designed to produce “white noise”, even “pink noise” (the kind of noises most often found in nature, such as forest, ocean or whale sounds) for babies and young kids to help them sleep.

“Ewan the Dream Sheep” – a fluffy white toy with a throbbing recorded heartbeat, which you could switch to static – was a particular favourite for my kids to help them drift off, and plenty of adults rely on similar sounds to help them snooze or to block out noise while working or studying. The steady constant of a background hum and rumble can even help those who experience sensory overload.

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Other experts say storms can be good for anxiety because it actually helps our brains switch off – as humans, we are constantly searching for sound. Kimberly Hershenson, a New York City-based therapist specialising in anxiety and depression, told Vice the brain “naturally craves sensory input”. “Rain produces a sound akin to white noise,” she said. “The brain gets a tonic signal from white noise that decreases this need for sensory input, thus calming us down. Similarly, bright sun tends to keep us stimulated.”

There’s even a theory of “reverse” Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which could see some of us feeling happier in the winter months. Norman Rosenthal, the psychiatrist and professor who coined the term SAD, has posited that the drop in temperature can be calming for people who might otherwise find the summer heat oppressive.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear we’re all drawn to the mystery and wonder of thunder. Maybe it’s more romantic if we don’t quite understand why.

All I know is that my favourite storm of all is a fake one. It’s the one my children fall asleep to, every night – the “rain sounds” playlist on Spotify. I lie next to them in the quiet dark, the heavy throb of field recordings of rain like an orchestra all around us. Maybe there’s something in the genes, or maybe it is more primal than that, something we can all relate to: old or young.

Or maybe it’s the simple fact that a storm can be scary, and it gives us the perfect excuse to cuddle up to those we love.

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