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Why You Still Get That Back-to-School Feeling

Habits, like going back to school, literally become wired into your brain.
Image: An empty classroom
Early September ushers in a more sobering, back-to-business feeling, regardless of how long it’s been since you graduated.Getty Images

That back-to-school feeling never fails to permeate the air and get under our skin — no matter how old we are. Even if you aren’t forced to endure long lines at Staples for a seemingly endless list of school supplies, or scan sales for lesser-priced opportunities to refresh your kids’ next-size-up wardrobe essentials, somehow, some way, many of us grown-ups invariably end up maintaining similar back-to-school style traditions of school shopping or buckling down at work come early September — even though we’ve long since graduated from school.

Proving this vibe has a place in the zeitgeist, a sharp humor piece, recently published in the New Yorker, aptly mocked how adults respond to this time of year, and the inevitable nosedive into nostalgic abyss that comes with it (looking at you, Trapper Keeper). “Just a super-friendly reminder to all you emotionally stunted adults still wondering where your childhood went: Could you kindly stand at least ten feet away from our back-to-school-supplies display? You’re scaring the actual children,” it reads.

Passing a back-to-school sale can easily evoke long-term memories and bring up the deeply wired feelings and emotions.

So what exactly is it about early September that inevitably ushers in that back-to-school feeling?

To begin with the obvious, summer has a way of signaling what I call a “laxitude,” or a more casual, relaxed way of being. The boost of heat in the air almost forces our muscles to relax. Longer days gift us with enough time in the evening to attend to more leisure activities.

Days with longer light also profoundly affect our circadian rhythms, or our sleep/wake cycles and our behavior. Scientists are exploring how those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder can literally feel the shift when light gradually lessens come fall, because they experience altered melatonin (sleep-inducing hormone) levels when there is less light in the day. The sleepier you are, the less likely you are to want to party and the more you might want to adhere to an early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine.

Also obviously, summer is when many, many Americans prefer to take their vacation time. In fact, this year, 51 percent had plans to take time off during the summer months, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

If we can’t score enough time off work to transport ourselves to some enchanted land of our choosing, we’re at least (very likely) getting out of work early. According to NBC News, Summer Fridays became all the rage among companies this year. A study by business advisory company CEB, now known as Gartner, found that 42 percent of the 220 companies interviewed let employees take time off on Summer Fridays. That number has doubled since the same survey was conducted in 2015.

If you consider how fall signals the end of vacation season for more than half of Americans, and that their Summer Fridays also come to a screeching halt, early September ushers in a more sobering, back-to-business feeling, regardless of how long it’s been since you graduated.

Old Habits Are Hard to Break

Another reason fall feels like back-to-school is, quite simply, it’s an ingrained habit. If you do something every year for so many years, it’s only logical that habit will stick with you for many years following that.

Research psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a renowned research expert on the neuroscience of habits, says repetitive behaviors can become habits in as few as two or three weeks. What’s more, behaviors regularly repeated for months or years can become “very deeply embedded” and “not readily reversed.”

It’s because habits literally become wired into your brain. “There is group of structures the brain known as the basal ganglia,” explains Schwartz. “These comprise what is commonly known as the habit center. Repetitive behaviors get wired into this part of the brain and can basically run on automatic, often without any conscious awareness at all.”

Behaviors regularly repeated for months or years can become 'very deeply embedded' and 'not readily reversed.'

“We are largely run on automatic pilot,” he said, explaining how the brain forms habits during a conference called Mind & Its Potential in Australia. “Habit is an extremely powerful thing that makes us act like robots. Extremely sophisticated robots, but robots,” he says. He goes on to explain how the striatum, the “core” part of basal ganglia (what he calls the “habit center”) acts like an “automatic transmission” for the brain, saying it takes over the gearing of other parts of the brain and runs it automatically.

Though Schwartz describes the brain as somewhat of an “elastic structure” capable of reprogramming, what Schwartz calls “relevant environmental stimuli,” like passing a back-to-school sale, can easily evoke long-term memories and thus bring up the deeply wired feelings and emotions.

Seeing as going to school in September was something you did every year through 18 or more of your formative years, it would only make sense your brain retain that programming and respond to various emotional signals far beyond that.

Yet another reason back-to-school feels like a new beginning is that, for those of the Jewish faith, it actually is. Rosh Hashanah heralds the Jewish New Year and is the first of the Jewish high holy days. As Jewish holidays are based on a lunar calendar, it’s always held on the first thin crescent moon of September or October.

It all adds up: considering that September ushers in the official dawning of New Year for some as well as a new school year for others, all that Schwartz had to say about habit, the gradual lessening of precious daylight and the curbing of all that fun vacation time, it’s no wonder grown people fall into that merciless (or, maybe optimistic) back-to-school sensibility.

So what’s a fully-grown person to do about it? As humor writer Kathryn Kvas wrote in the funny New Yorker quip above, let those feelings of nostalgia wash over you and move on: “Please stop staring at those cardboard children and wishing that you could relive your childhood for just one more day. You can’t, because it’s gone. Completely, entirely over.”

This all may very well be, but there’s also a positive side to all this nostalgia, too. Why not let the back-to-school vibe inspire some new beginnings? It’s the perfect time to ramp up your resume and invest in some new work clothes. After all, a sale’s a sale.

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