Translation of the article The Meaning of Light. Source: Kinfolk Issue Fourteen. Words: Georgia Frances King.
Daily sunrise and sunset are one of the few reliable occurrences in our lives. Despite the simple cycle controlling everything happening on our planet, we do not pay attention to the sunlight effects on our physical and mental health. And as some neuroscientists are beginning to discover, the use of its radiant power could provide benefits to our health.
Every day we find ourselves in different situations forcing us to make decisions about our lifestyles, and there are plenty of self-diagnosis websites, new age books, and mothers-in-law ready to instruct us on the right choices we should make. In an attempt to improve ourselves, we follow their mantras: we sleep eight hours a night; we choose whole grains instead of white flour; we drag our reluctant bodies on a quick jog; we prefer not to open the second bottle of wine. But what if there was a more natural factor affecting our health? The one that precedes gluten alternatives and exercise bikes?
For the past few billion years, the sun reliably rose every morning and set every evening. And our bodies have therefore come to expect its daily spiral path through the sky, and all our biological systems work on the assumption that we will follow this sunlight-based sequence. But now instead of waking up at dawn, we have a “remind me later” button. Instead of taking a nap at dusk, we have Netflix.
Sunlight plays a significant role in our lives and has a profound effect on the way we think and how our bodies function. Through its role guiding our circadian rhythms — adjustment of the internal biological clock — sunlight can control everything from our sleep habits to our wintertime extra cheese cravings. Despite thoughts about our well-being, it becomes clear that the sun is the ironically imperceptible guru we should be following.
Regardless of the sun’s ubiquitous presence, the real impact of the daylight on our physical and mental processes is just beginning to be examined. Two people working together in this field are Stephen Auger, a Santa Fe-based artist with academic experience in neuroscience, and Benjamin Smarr, a neuroscientist and professor at the UC Berkeley whose research works focus on the long-term impact of circadian rhythms on our physical and mental health. “Most people have not heard of the daylight importance as a ‘phenomenon’, although it is intuitively perceived as known,” Benjamin says. “I wish people would pay more attention to this.”
But how did we lose our connection to sunlight in the first place? When Thomas Edison popularized the lightbulb 135 years ago, he unwittingly ended our close relationship with natural light.
“The part of our DNA that responds to light is very old,” Stephen explains. “It existed in one-celled organisms in the primordial broth long before we became humans.” Now, thanks to the simple lightbulb, we can work night shifts and dance until dawn. Stephen believes that we have “objectified light.” Adapting to convenience glowed brighter than our biological clocks, and we have begun to miss out on timing ever since.
Before we delve into the effects of sunlight on our health, we need to understand the circadian rhythms. Our bodies crave sunlight and have come to trust it to tell us when we should eat, socialize and sleep. “Your circadian rhythm is the physical anticipation of the 24-hour cycle of sunlight and darkness,” Benjamin says. “The sun has arced through the sky every 24 hours for all kinds of life, so life forms have evolved to assume it is not going to suddenly stop.”
“Every cell in our body has a clock that predicts the time of day and adjusts to the overall game,” Benjamin continues. “If my body knows that I wake up and have breakfast at 8 a.m., then my liver, my stomach, and pancreas should not wait for food to appear in my stomach. We have to do something about it.” However, this preventive response is effective only when supported by a constant routine based on the sun’s movement. This approach does not involve spontaneous movie sessions at night and sudden deadlines. Technology and our desire to socialize have muted our biological process, ignoring pleas for predictable schedules of the circadian rhythm. “People are generally dissociated with the environment,” Stephen says. “And I am not the only person who says it is connected to light.”
It is pretty easy to confuse our internal clocks thanks to caffeine and night shifts. And this is especially common on the weekends. Having gotten used to poorly-structured morning routine five days a week, we make up for lost sleep on the weekend and still feel tired on Monday morning. This feeling has a name: social jet lag. “It is a real phenomenon with a real effect as your body dumbly expects you to wake up at the same time as yesterday because that’s how it worked for the past four billion years,” Benjamin says. This is also why getting up on Mondays can be such a shock. “Our bodies have no mechanism to deal with an alarm clock or control in order to go to bed on time instead of watching an interesting movie.”
The act of self-care via the understanding of sunlight patterns is part of what Stephen and Benjamin call “sensory well-being”. “In addition to the other decisions we make to improve our health, light is an essential part of the puzzle,” Stephen says.
Here are some quick ways to set up your light-related habits:
Set your routine
In order for our bodies to function smoothly, all of our organs and systems are dependent on the coordination between the internal clocks. “They are not able to look at the wristwatch of the neighbouring organ, so they need a clear routine to line up.” Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day allows our bodies to synchronize the schedule. And we benefit even more by regulating the timing of meals too, like making oatmeal at the same time each morning.
Use a sleep mask
Sleeping eight hours a day is beneficial, but not when your body thinks it is daytime. Switching on the bathroom light or checking emails during insomnia might not be the biggest problem: the most destructive factor is the penetration of sunlight through the curtains. “Most bedrooms are not dark enough, and your brain registers light throughout the night, especially in cities,” Benjamin explains. Wearing a sleep mask can have a profound effect.”
Observe sunrise and sunset
We still have a lot to discover, but we already understand that these are the most important parts of the day: the light quality changes quickly, and this is well recognized by the body for the transformation of biological activity. Try to get up 20 minutes early to walk the dog at dawn, or take a break from work to snack on a delicious sandwich while watching the sunset.
Look for direct light
Glass, like sunscreen, blocks our skin from harmful light frequencies but also deflects some useful frequencies from our bodies. The body is thus deprived of triggers for important biochemical responses. In order to produce vitamin D, direct sunlight needs to shine on our bare, unprotected skin. It is best to bask in the sun when the level of harmful ultraviolet waves is minimal.
In addition to circadian rhythms, vitamin D can also play a vital role in our sensory well-being. Our bodies naturally produce small molecules when our skin absorbs certain beneficial particles of ultraviolet light, causing a whole series of enzymatic responses in our cell structure that help maintain a healthy immune system and balance our mood. Without its presence in our bodies, our defence to unpleasant mistakes is weakened, as well as our happiness.
But why do we need sunlight and not just more lightbulbs? It’s all about wavelength. Wavelength and its intensity have different effects on our bodies, ranging from tumours due to ultraviolet overdose to a more positive effect, stimulating the production of vitamin D.
Nowadays we spend a lot of time indoors and little in the wild, so vitamin D deficiency has become quite common. This is especially true in the winter when the number of sunlit hours is sharply reduced. In the darker months, a combination of vitamin D deficiency and our disrupted circadian rhythms play a crucial part in seasonal affective disorder syndrome. In fact, it is an emotional disorder caused by chemical responses in our bodies, although most people take it as an imaginary excuse not to crawl out of bed. The extra sleeping, the extra eating, the lack of desire to get out of the house and be social – these are often accepted behaviours in the winter involuntarily taken to excess, which interferes with our ability to operate at our optimal level of mental health.
The best way to prepare yourself for “winter blues”: set a routine to adjust the circadian rhythms, try to spend time outside even at low temperatures, and be attentive to the desire to eat an extra slice of cheese.
But often the people most affected by seasonal affective disorder live in areas where they do not have the choice to bask in the sun, even if they wanted to. For the residents of the world’s northernmost communities who do not experience a sunrise for months during winter, or night-shift workers who have to be awake at night, no positivity and goodwill can tilt the earth on its axis to get more sunlight. How can these people set a steady daily rhythm or produce enough vitamin D to stay healthy?
That’s where artificial light starts to glow. Thanks to a joint project with neuroscientist Margaret Livingston (author of Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing) and collaboration with several optical engineers, Stephen and Benjamin have developed a highly sensitive dimmer that can artificially simulate different wavelengths and changes in the sunlight movement. Instead of walking into a room and flipping a simple on/off switch, owners of the dimmer will be able to download many different light sequences so they can have a romantic dinner in Moroccan dusk or wake up to the sunrise seen in the Scottish Isles. His team is currently measuring the light wavelengths around the world – everywhere from Alberta, Canada, to Tasmania, Australia.
As it turned out, our eyes see no difference whether the light comes from a halogen lamp or the sun, as long as it provides them with the necessary wavelengths. “If you are able to replicate a light spectrum, physiologically there will be no difference between the experience of that in nature or in a space with an artificial light source,” Stephen says.
Stephen in no way claims that sitting in a room with a lamp simulating waves of light can ensure our happy lifestyle, but artificial light can help us when nature’s benefits are not easily accessible. “I am always suspicious of technologies that replace the magnificence provided by nature,” he says. “It took me a while to stop romanticizing. I have begun to demystify light and look at it empirically: it’s a spectrum, it’s a wave. The dimmer may be artificial, but it can bring us back to a baseline from which we can build a healthy emotional and physical state.”
The irony of a dichotomy with artificial or real light is that we have become too attached to technology, which in turn gives us only the opportunity to connect with ourselves. As with most things in life, keeping the balance brings us satisfaction. Such inventions help us benefit from the sunlight while remaining active in modern society. “We have trouble accepting that we are turning into our parents, right?” Benjamin explains. “With circadian biology, we have four billion years of ancestry to come to terms with.”
The most important factor to consider when it comes to sensory well-being is figuring out what works best for you. You can use a sleep mask or a dimmer to program artificial light to simulate the sunrise in winter. The very awareness of sunlight importance is a step in the right direction. The sun will continue to rise and set every day, and people will continue to learn how to have a better relationship with it. There is still so much to discover, but at least we started to see the light.
Stephen Auger is a visual artist, colour theorist, and inventor whose work has been used by organizations including the Metropolitan Opera and the Smithsonian Institution.
Dr. Benjamin Smarr is a doctor of neurobiology who works with Professor Lance Kriegsfeld, a world expert in circadian and seasonal neurophysiology and reproduction, in the psychology department at UC Berkeley. His research works focus on the role of circadian cycles in maintaining a healthy brain.
Photos were taken by Uta Barth, who studies the properties of light, capturing random and fleeting moments. Her works are in collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Tate Modern. She currently lives in Los Angeles.
Suggested reading material from Benjamin:
- Rhythms of Life, Russell Foster
- Internal Time, Til Roenneberg
- Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, Dr. Margaret Livingstone