Because we adapt to long-term weather fluctuations, we might not be noticing climate change. Time to feel the heat…

Does global warming keep you up at night, or do you have trouble believing that the threat is real? Those who remain sceptical as the UN climate change conference begins in Paris tomorrow may find their brain is to blame. Humans feel sudden weather changes, such as cold snaps or heat waves, very keenly, but we’re not so good at sensing small increases in temperature over time. This is partly because our experience of temperature is relative: if you place one hand in hot water and the other in cold water and then put both in a lukewarm bath, you can’t tell how warm the bath actually is – your cold hand will feel it as boiling hot, while your hot hand will feel it as soothingly chilly.

So gradual changes in climate are eclipsed by our short-term responses to the weather, which fluctuates every day. We also adapt to long-term changes, so they are harder to notice: you’ll immediately jump out of a scalding hot bath, while if you get into a lukewarm one and keep adding hot water, you might not even realise when it’s verging on dangerous (if you ignore the rising water levels and rubber ducks in distress). Let that be a warning to the climate sceptics.

Photo credit: Extreme weather: Storm Barney approaching London at sundown last week with more than 40mph winds. Photograph: Guy Corbishley/Corbis

This article was first published on the Guardian website as part of the A neuroscientist explains series.