Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Once the sun, moon, and stars were our only sources of light. Then came fire, and much much later, electricity (and finally, phone screen glare). It’s only been a few hundreds years — a mere blip in human history — that we have experienced the benefits and hazards of artificial light.
In a world centered on the indoor workplace, it’s easy to forget light's intimate connection to our behavior, and by extension, our well-being. From spending habits to sleep patterns, here are five ways light affects our lives — and some remedies for a brighter tomorrow.
When you step into a store, it’s more than just products that stimulate you. Everything from music to scent transforms your retail behavior. These highly strategized variables operate on a subconscious level of your brain, shifting your physical comfort and psychological state. The transformation can have significant effects at the checkout line.
One lighting tactic involves product/store congruence: aligning the type of product (i.e. a household item) with the ambiance (i.e. straightforward and practical) via bright, utilitarian light. Or pairing a product with more of a “hedonic value,” like lingerie, with dim lighting. Items intended as impulse purchases may be spotlit to capture your attention.
It’s not just background lighting that sways you: Research shows that in-store displays with dynamic digital lighting grab our attention. Consumers who see these light shows spend more time looking at the products and are more likely to buy them.
Remedy: Take potential purchases over to a store window to see them in natural light, which also makes it easier to spot flaws and get an accurate sense of color. Or avoid store lighting altogether and make your purchases online, giving yourself the freedom to control your environment.
Working in a windowless environment not only affects your immediate productivity, but also your efficacy the next day, as it negatively influences your sleep patterns (diminishing total sleep by over 45 minutes). And the light you are getting at work can be equally harmful: Computer screen light can induce Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), which causes eye strain, redness, irritation, and even blurred vision and headaches. Hypersensitive individuals can also experience migraines from fluorescent lighting.
These effects are not only physical but mental. These lights literally flood the brain, inducing unnecessary stress, which can create distraction and poor functioning, explains researcher Helen Irlen of the Irlen Institute. Jennifer Veitch, a senior research scientist at the National Research Council of Canada, focuses on workplace environments and lighting in particular. One of her studies indicates that simply giving employees control over their personal office lighting enhances overall well-being, as well as commitment to employers. (Bonus: It also reduces energy use by 10 percent.)
Remedy: To reduce CVS and protect your eyes, install an anti-glare screen protector on your computer or invest in some special computer glasses to wear while working. For a low-tech fix, discipline yourself to walk away from the computer and toward the window every 30 minutes, if only for a few seconds, to relieve your eyes and give your brain a jolt of sunlight.
One of the main ways we’ve come to view ourselves is through the photos posted on social media. Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the phrase “looking-glass self” to refer to the degree our self-image is shaped by others — and how we believe we’re perceived by them. Presenting our best self on those sites is a complex formula, filled with filtering apps and tech tricks to manipulate the literal light in which we’re seen. (That’s why professional photographers use light reflectors to diffuse light on their subjects.)
Remedy: If you want to up your selfie game, avoid the over-exposed effects of the smartphone flash and instead check out the LuMee, a self-illuminating iPhone case that adds the perfect soft glow for a picture-perfect shot. (It also comes in handy for more flattering video chats and makeup touch-ups.)
Mind and Body
Our circadian rhythms operate on a 24-hour cycle driven by periods of light and darkness. Disruptions to these rhythms can thrust us into imbalance. Studies show that light therapy, which helps to reset circadian rhythms, can be as effective as antidepressant drugs in positively transforming mood. We’ve all heard of light’s ability to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but it also boosts mood for non-seasonal depression and bipolar disorder, as well as women suffering from perinatal depression. It’s even being explored for counteracting the effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Light therapy can also affect your physical appearance. Red light therapy — originally developed by NASA to grow plants in space — is being used as an anti-aging treatment, as it penetrates deep into the layers of the skin to boost collagen production, thereby minimizing wrinkles and increasing firmness. Just remember: Light therapy is not a quick-fix, but a gradual process of repair and improvement.
Remedy: A lightbox mimics outdoor light. Just 30 minutes of exposure each morning can release a mood-elevating chemical in your brain. Do research before purchasing one to get your money’s worth and ensure it’s effective.
Whether you’re getting too much or too little light — as well as what kind — can affect how well you sleep. In addition to altering your mood, your circadian rhythm also dictates sleep patterns via the secretion of the hormone melatonin, which peaks at night. If you’re exposed to light at night, melatonin production is halted, prohibiting sleep -- a problem that is particularly pronounced for people who work night shifts.
However, the effect is mimicked on the the general population through direct or indirect engagement with technology. The National Sleep Foundation found that 95 percent of us use some sort of technology right before bed. Tech gadgets -- and energy-efficient light bulbs -- emit blue light (or light with short wavelengths), which stimulate our brains, reducing both the quantity and quality of our sleep.
Remedy: Power down your technology and dim the lights as you prepare your mind and body for sleep. (An old school paper book and some mood lighting might even seem like a luxury.) Since most of us have to get up at some point in the middle of the night, avoid the sleep-disrupting jolt of bright overhead light by strategically placing red nightlights along your path, as red is the only color that does not inhibit melatonin production.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.