Not feeling cold

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2010-01-03

For as long as I can remember, I have resisted being bundled up in woollens during winter. When I was little, I could be bullied into wearing warm clothes, but ever since I was old enough to refuse, my answer to Aren't you feeling cold? has generally been No. Every winter, however, the subject comes up again, and people, often complete strangers, see fit to speculate on or lecture me about low temperatures and my physiology.

“But I Thought You Didn't Feel Cold”

In high school, I could understand people who thought I was faking it to impress my shivering schoolmates, but over a decade later, suspicion is still the most common response.

Every now and then, I'll say something like Hmm… it's colder tonight than it was yesterday, and someone will say But I Thought You Didn't Feel Cold (with audible capital letters and a look of triumph at having caught me out at last). But that's not how it works. I am aware of the cold—in fact, I'm quite sensitive to changes in temperature—it's just that lower temperatures don't make me uncomfortable.

The “But I Thought…” reaction also applies to many other situations. If I leave a warm room (or bed) and go outside, the sudden drop in temperature takes a bit of adjusting to, and I sometimes shiver for a few minutes while that's happening, but I'm fine once I get used to the ambient temperature again. Speaking of warm beds, I'm not above diving under a blanket, even if I could stay outside without being too cold. I almost always bathe in cold water, and I don't turn down a bath if no hot water is available, but I sometimes like warm baths too, especially when I'm tired.

I don't mind being comfortably warm, but I overheat quickly, so I don't like heated rooms or fires or wearing sweaters. In fact, for many years, I didn't own any sweaters at all. It's only last month that I discovered that a thin North Face fleece (polyester) pullover is comfortable enough to keep me from overheating during the day, and is still pleasantly warm when it's cold. It is now a treasured companion on camping trips, where exposure to cold has taught me many things about myself. I need to keep my hands warm, because my fingers and wrists react poorly to cold even when the rest of me is fine. My toes are susceptible to chilblains if I let them get cold and sit in front of a heater (or wash my feet with hot water). Going camping in winter with an inadequate sleeping bag taught me that I need to be warmer to sleep well through the night.

I don't know what the lower limit of my temperature tolerance is. At one time, I believed I would be uncomfortable at or below 0°C, but when I first experienced such temperatures (in Oslo, in the winter of 2001), I found them unremarkable. Over the next couple of weeks, I was exposed to temperatures as low as −15°C, and didn't need my warm jacket (in fact, I had to take it off a few times).

(Aside: Speaking of extreme temperatures, I have a poor tolerance for hot liquids. I have to wait for my tea to become "undrinkably lukewarm" according to some people, or risk burning the roof of my mouth badly. I can't bathe with water that is on the wrong side of warm. My reaction to hot weather, however, is strangely less extreme. Most people assume that I can't tolerate the summer heat, but that doesn't seem to be true. Yes, I avoid it when I can and complain about it when I can't; but apart from sweating heavily, I do all right when I'm forced outside in summer.)

“You're going to fall ill!”

Thank you for your concern, but it hasn't happened yet.

(I know that the "cold" is a virus infection, and that it's only related to the weather insofar as the virus is more easily transmitted in winter when people are cooped up indoors, but I've always been mildly troubled by the fact that I often have a blocked or runny nose—apart from being severely troubled by the blocked nose itself, that is. It's only quite recently that I found out that I have a deviated nasal septum, which makes congestion much more likely, even without the viral infection.)

“Looking at you makes me feel cold!”

Put on another sweater, then, or look elsewhere!

I've always been astonished by the number of people who tell me they're feeling cold because of the way I'm (not) dressed, many of them complete strangers, and at least a few of them genuinely expecting me to put on a sweater because of their complaint. Some of these incidents are amusing: a little old lady in Münich dropped her bag and exclaimed in horror when she saw me coming out of a hardware shop in jeans and a T-shirt in December. Some days later, a little old lady in Füssen brandished her umbrella at me and repeated the same sentiments in a slightly different dialect.

But the best reaction to my not feeling cold was in the tiny Himalayan village of Liti, where the village Pradhan stood with me (in shorts and a T-shirt, as usual) in a gentle snowfall and told the small crowd of onlookers that I must be a Brahmachari (celibate) who had trained his body to withstand cold as a form of meditation and penance.

Of course, I did nothing to confirm or deny this rumour.