If the Earth would have plunged into darkness for 6 days…

eclipse 1999

“NASA announces that, in December, the Earth is going to almost completely fade into darkness for 6 days, due to a solar storm.” This rumor has recently circulated in the media and on social networks. Although, obviously, it was a little joke, a denial from the NASA’s official was necessary, in order to calm down the more credulous readers, who had managed to panic.

But, if we were to make an exercise of imagination and conceive that NASA’s announcement had been true and the Earth would really fade into darkness for 6 days, how would people act?

First of all, due to the grave destabilization of the biorhythm, we would be subjects to an enormous degree of frustration, which would consequently lead to an outbreak of violence. The relationship between frustration and aggressiveness is well known in psychology and ethology; it is well known that the environmental factors can have a substantial impact upon the behavior of people and animals.

In the 1999-2002, I myself conducted a series of experiments on the aggressive behavior of honeybees (Apis mellifera) and I discovered that their degree of aggressiveness was significantly increasing in the middle of hot days (with an uncommon high temperature) and when the Circadian rhythm was disrupted (during a solar eclipse, for example).

At 11 august 1999, an almost total solar eclipse happened in Europe. I managed to benefit from this event and I tested the way the eclipse influences the honeybees’ behavior. The solar eclipse is a phenomenon which seldom occurs in nature and it always represents, both for animals and people, a deviation from the normal course of things. The animals are supporting disturbances at the level of their physiology, behavior and life rhythm.

As concerning aggressiveness, my records showed that in the morning, before the eclipse started, the level of aggression in honeybees was normal, as compared to other days. However, during the peak phase of the eclipse, the number of the attacks raised by almost 5 times. The highest level of aggression was recorded during the closing phase of the eclipse, when the flying activity of the honeybees got back to normal. During this phase, the number of the attacks was 3.5 times higher than during the peak phase. Therefore, the increase of the aggressiveness level during the solar eclipse was astonishingly high.

I have also studied other factors that cause the honeybees’ negative reaction. One of these is the high temperature. During hot days, in the midday, when the temperatures were about 35° C in the shadows, the bees were 3 times more aggressive than in the morning or in the evening. In the noon of the boiling days, the bees were stinging the “target” 7 times more intensely than in the noon of the days with a moderate temperature.

These are, obviously, reactions caused by frustration; the irritation, caused by the sudden change of the biorhythm or by arid temperatures, was exteriorized under the form of general aggressiveness [Furtună, 2001, 2004].

These behavioral reactions are seemingly universal and can also be extrapolated on other animal species, including humans. There is information that snakes, especially the vipers, also become more agitated and aggressive during hot period.

The impact of the environmental factors, including that of high temperatures and biorhythmic disturbances, are also, in a considerable extent, applicable for the human race. In the psychiatric hospitals, for example, the patients become more violent in hot weather. The physicians, therefore, have to administer them higher doses of sedatives. During hot weather, the number of psychiatric hospitalizations also rises, because the number of mental disorders increases [1], [Talaei et al., 2014].

Although people shall say that they feel “exhausted” or “apathetic” in hot weather, the studies have shown that, actually, their cardiac rhythm is more accelerated; this is a precursor and an attendant of the states of physiological and psychological excitation [Anderson et al., 1995].

On the background of any frustration, it is easy to make a transfer of excitation from one source to another one. The heat annoys us, or anything that we cannot eliminate and we discover that other details start annoying us too. In such cases, we redirect the accumulated frustration and aggressiveness towards the individuals around us. As Excitation-transfer theory of Dolf Zillmann purpots: the residual excitation from one stimulus will amplify the excitatory response to another stimulus [2], [Zillmann, 1988].

In these contexts, of higher temperatures, the probability for us to raise our voices, to angrily gesticulate and to verbally or physically abuse a person is higher. And it is not at all illogical and ineffective to install conditioners in different social institutions: schools, enterprises, prisons, hospitals, in order to exclude an important factor of the frustration – the hot temperature [3], [Anderson, 2001].

However, the outside temperature can’t be artificially decreased. The social psychology studies revealed that there is a linear correlation between the rise of temperature and the level of aggressiveness. The general degree of violence raises, especially that of domestic violence, along with the number of rapes and other different types of aggression. It’s not only during hot days that these cases of violence happen, but also during the months and the years that have higher average temperatures. Scientific data which prove these influences and correlations are numerous [4], [Anderson et al., 1989, 1997, 2000; Rotton, Cohn, 2003; Simister, 2008; Butke, Sheridan, 2010; Gamble, Hess, 2012].

Some people (1-2%) suffer in particular during the changes in seasons, inclusive in hot weather, being affected by the so-called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which causes depression, anxiety, predisposition towards violence and suicidal thoughts [5]. Other authors proved that climate changes can affect the mental state in a wider range of people (approximately 10% of population). Correspondingly, both these citizens, as well as other people around them start suffering from anxiety and general depression, which end up in suicide [6]; hence the different asocial and antisocial behavior.

Starting from the conclusion that different antisocial behaviors spring from frustration and depression, the American researcher Matthew Ranson foresees an explosion of criminality in the US, due to the global warming and the hot temperatures of the decades that are about to come. According to his rough calculations, between 2010 and 2099, there will take place, additional to the ordinary statistics, 22,000 murders, 180,000 cases of rape, 1.2 million aggravated assaults, 2.3 million simple assaults, 260,000 robberies, 1.3 million burglaries, 2.2 million cases of larceny, and 580,000 cases of vehicle theft in the United States. All these crimes will also harm the state on a financial level, the losses being between 38 and 115 billion dollars [Ranson, 2014].

There have been other forecasts like this one [Anderson et al., 1997]. Of course, this calculations are made with a great approximation; things can evolve to be less harmful, or, on the contrary, worse. However, they indicate the general trend of increasing violence in the society under the influence of hot temperatures.

Now, if we get back to our exercise of imagination about the Earth’s immersion into darkness, we understand that a colossal disturbance of the biorhythms will occur in the living world. And the same mechanisms of frustration that make us aggressive due to the hot weather will make us extremely aggressive due to the darkness.

But there’s more than that. Social psychologists and criminologists know, for a very long time, that the nights and the darkness, especially the streets with no light, are a very strong reason for fear in people [Atkins et al., 1991; Painter, 1996]. And these fears are due to the fact that darkness is also a stimulus for antisocial and delinquent behavior.

It is known that the individuals have the sensation that they are protected by anonymity, therefore their sense of morality can be affected and they are able to lie more easily [7].

Even being present in a slightly dim room or wearing sun-glasses makes people believe that they are anonym, that they won’t be recognized, that their intentions won’t be deciphered. Correspondingly, the level of people’s honesty and good behavior can be reduced. It is no exaggeration to say that, sometimes, a brighter lamp could prevent some unethical behavior [Zhong et al., 2010].

In conclusion, a couple of days of complete darkness would be parlous for humanity. And this will happen not only because of different technical problems, but rather because of the triggering of some behavioral mechanisms that are associated with violence and delinquency. It would start a chain reaction of different sources of social frustration, which would be hard for the governments to amortize in any way.

Six days in darkness would have brought forward the hidden parts of everyone of us, of people in general. It would have been an interesting experiment for researchers, but dangerous for society.

© Dorian Furtuna, ethologist


Photo: Total solar eclipse solaire 1999 / from Flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/luc_viatour/1264349089

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2. Excitation-transfer theory // http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excitation-transfer_theory
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Talaei A, Hedjazi A, Rezaei Ardani A, Fayyazi Bordbar MR, & Talaei A (2014). The relationship between meteorological conditions and homicide, suicide, rage, and psychiatric hospitalization. Journal of forensic sciences, 59 (5), 1397-402 PMID: 24635192