How light affects your everyday life

We take a deep dive into the effect of light on humans, and how human-centric lighting could change your working habits.

As humans, we’re diurnal creatures: active during daylight hours. Historically, we’d have risen with the sun in the morning and headed off for some much-needed shut-eye when the light disappeared in the evening. And although we now seem to live in a frenetic 24-hour society, our body’s internal clock – the circadian rhythm – still works to this essential principle.

Here at Point 6, we work closely with our client Signify to explain the importance of human-centric lighting (HCL), designed to complement the circadian cycle. It’s still a relatively new concept, but it’s based on a lot of well-established science about light and its effect on people.

The science behind light

When we open our eyes, light passes into our brains through our retina. Rods and cones – for night sight and bright, colour vision respectively – are two types of photoreceptors found in the eye. They help us to find our way to the bathroom at night, but also allow us to enjoy the vivid brush strokes of a beautiful painting during the day.

But there is a third photoreceptor: our retinal ganglian cells. Only discovered relatively recently, they direct light towards our hypothalamus, the small part of the brain that controls our emotional responses. The process releases hormones – such as cortisol and melatonin – which regulate our circadian rhythm.

Cortisol peaks around mid-morning, making us feel alert. This is probably the best time to tackle difficult work tasks. Melatonin starts to creep in during the evening, helping us feel sleepy and ready for bed. Although it’s worth mentioning that people’s cycles can vary slightly. There will always be early birds and night owls.

Photo by Burak K from Pexels

Light up your life

So we know that light is essential to our functioning. How does this affect us day-to-day?

When our circadian rhythm is knocked out of sync, it can have an impact on our health. For example, night-shift workers have been the subject of extensive studies into how they adapt to their nocturnal routine. Turns out, they don’t; they are often unable to shift their biology, thanks to a severe lack of suitable quality of light in their working environment.

One solution is to provide intense, bright light that matches the levels of normal sunlight throughout their shift, then minimise exposure to natural daylight upon finishing. This would essentially invert day and night for the worker, demonstrating just how bound to light our internal clock is.

Of course, night-shift workers are restricted when it comes to how they get their light fix. But the rest of us do have a choice, and more often than not, we choose blue light.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Blue light is all around us, at all times. It’s the reason the sky is blue. It surrounds us, filling our lunchtime strolls, weekend hikes and sunshine holidays with abundance.

But too much in the evenings before bed and it can disrupt your sleep. The amount of blue light we are exposed to is higher the more we use our laptops, tablets, and phones. This links back to our circadian rhythm. As we know, we are programmed to receive a burst of blue light from the sun first thing in the morning. So, if your brain gets another hit at 11pm from a late-night Instagram scroll, it’s a bit confusing, right?

Daylight saving time

Although we do okay compared to our friends further north, winter in the UK brings much shorter days. Meaning a lot less light exposure.

Plus there’s the contentious issue of daylight saving time. We’re all familiar with those Sundays twice a year when the clocks change. Widely regarded as nothing more than an hour more or less in bed, we give little thought to the implications behind it.

Photo by Jonathan Petersson from Pexels

Turning the clock back an hour means a bit more light in the mornings over winter. And as studies show that light in the mornings is more beneficial to our circadian rhythm than the evenings, this is good news. In the summer, that hour is moved to the evening, giving us those longer, brighter evenings we’re all dreaming of at this time of year!

Last year, the EU voted to scrap DST. It’s what the people want, apparently, with 84% of survey respondents throughout Europe saying they were fed up of the biannual clock changes.

What does this mean for the UK post-Brexit? Well, if we reject it, we could end up with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a different time zone for half the year. Alternatively, we’d have to pick whether we want permanent summer time or winter time. And as a nation deeply divided, it’s easy to see how complex that could turn out. (We’d go for the former; we sure do love those long summer evenings!).

Illuminating your home

If you’ve found yourself working from home recently, you’ve hopefully had time to finesse your work set-up; whether that’s borrowing a chair from the office, or slotting a desk into your garden shed. But what about your lighting?

Employees who feel good generally perform better. So back when we were regularly travelling into the office, it was in your employer’s best interests to provide the highest quality light. However, once you get past decorative preferences, most of us don’t put that much thought into our home lighting.

Autonomy for the win

Having autonomy over your workspace lighting could be an advantage. You might not get much say on your office set-up, but at home, you get to control the shots.

Natural light is not only good for our general wellness, but can help us regulate our workday, keeping our energy up when we need it most. Positioning your desk near a window — if possible — is a great way to make sure you’re getting your fix. Don’t have the space? Getting outside for a walk in the morning or at lunchtime will help.

As for your lighting, why not get creative? Philips Hue delivers inspirational light at the tap of your smartphone. Offering total autonomy over your surroundings, you get to set the colour and ambience of your office lighting. Need to brainstorm? Opt for a brighter, cooler light to get the ideas flowing. Winding down at the end of the day? Choose a warmer tone to help ease into the evening.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

In a world where wellness is a buzzword, HCL seems to be a smaller cog in the wheel. Thanks to the effects of the pandemic and the uncertainty around the future of office workspaces, we could see a rise in people paying more attention to their home lighting.

Do you have an inspiring workspace set-up? Tell us!

  • 19th August 2020
  • 6 min read
  • Louise Brooks
  • Categories

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