Let’s face it. Between our smartphones, hybrid cars and microwave ovens, we’ve gotten pretty detached from nature. However, that doesn’t mean that our natural biology doesn’t continue to exert a powerful impact on our day-to-day lives. And there are few things in this world quite as fundamental as how our bodies interact with both natural and artificial light.
We may think we can walk into any old darkened room and flip a switch on the wall, but the fact of the matter is that the relationship between light and productivity is far more complex than that and not all light is created equal. Thankfully, there are some technological solutions to problems that are, ironically enough, also created by technology.
The Fundamentals of Light and Productivity
I’m not going to dive into the intricacies of the science behind all of this, because most of us don’t need to know all the dirty details. That said, it’s important to have a fundamental understanding of why this matters. The most important concept is that of the circadian rhythm. The idea here is that the biological processes in your body are tied to the timing of the day.
This so-called internal biological clock is what gets you to wake up in the morning, become increasingly alert and active during the day, only to get tired and fall asleep at night. The most important trigger or stimulus that maintains this natural rhythm is the light-dark cycle. That’s why people who are kept in perpetual brightness or darkness can be thrown completely out of whack. On the flip side, if you work within the confines of your natural circadian rhythm, you can be much more effective and efficient with what you do.
Entrain for iOS
There are all sorts of travel apps that will make your trips a little more pleasant, but then arriving at your destination can be quite the nightmare if you start suffering from jet lag. Researchers from the University of Michigan have come up with a solution called Entrain, which is available as an iPhone app via the iTunes App Store. Basically, it calculates a light input schedule that will transition you from one time zone to another. Your circadian rhythm can then align with your destination. It’ll take a little dedication on your part, but if it means waking up and falling asleep at a reasonable hour, I think it’s worth it the effort.
f.lux for Windows
As mentioned above, when you’re looking at light and productivity, the main goal is to work within what is normal and natural. In the absence of artificial light, the main light source that we have is the sun. Both the color and the intensity of the sun’s light varies over the course of a normal day. What happens when you look at a bright monitor late at night is that your body starts to think that it’s still the middle of the day. Overcoming this problem is a free Windows program called f.lux, which is also available for Mac, Linux, and iOS. What f.lux does is adjust the color temperature of your computer monitor such that you see a brighter, “cooler” color during the day and a softer, “warmer” color in the evening. Experts say that you shouldn’t look at any backlit screens closer to bedtime, but f.lux is the next best thing.
Fight the Winter Blues with Philips Light Therapy
Natural light is always preferable, though not always available or convenient. What you can use in its place is something called full spectrum light and productivity should improve when you do. Your mood should, too, particularly among those of us who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during the winter months. There are a number of light therapy products from companies like Philips that provide this sort of light therapy. There are “wake-up” lights that simulate a natural sunrise, as well as blue lights that mimic a clear, sunny sky. The latter is used primarily to increase energy levels and fight the winter blues. If you work in a dark dungeon, this could be a good alternative to having a real window with real light.
Image credit: Mackenzie Kosut / Flickr