Technology has fed our addiction to light, and might help us end it.
By Dirk Hanson Illustration by Miko Maciaszek
In 1996, Yale economist William D. Nordhaus calculated that the average citizen of Babylon would have had to work a total of 41 hours to buy enough lamp oil to equal a 75-watt light bulb burning for one hour. At the time of the American Revolution, a colonial would have been able to purchase the same amount of light, in the form of candles, for about five hour’s worth of work. And by 1992, the average American, using compact fluorescents, could earn the same amount of light in less than one second. That sounds like a great deal.
Except for one thing: We treat light like a drug whose price is spiraling toward zero. In the words of sleep expert Charles A. Czeisler of Harvard Medical School, “every time we turn on a light, we are inadvertently taking a drug that affects how we will sleep and how we will be awake the next day.”1 Our daily metabolic cycles are not precisely 24 hours long, and this turns out to be a crucial evolutionary glitch in the mammalian circadian system. Circadian rhythms must be reset daily to keep us in behavioral synch with the earth’s rotation, so we will sleep when it is dark and wake when it is light. This process is called entrainment, and it is achieved by means of light exposure. In the brain, a region of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus receives input from the retina, causing specialized “24-hour” cells to oscillate in specific patterns. This affects how we eat, sleep, and work. And in most people, the circadian response is intensity-dependent, meaning the greater the light, the greater the effect on the human circadian system.
To complicate matters, our relationship with light is profoundly psychological as well. In “Psychological processes influencing lighting quality,” published in Leukos, the Journal of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America in 2001, Jennifer A. Veitch analyzes the available scientific evidence concerning the manner in which lighting conditions affect mood and behavior in office settings. Veitch found that “preferences for illuminance levels are generally higher than the recommended levels.” Researchers in the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada have all documented the same tendency to “overlight” things.2 Veitch also references studies showing that “people with seasonal affective disorder or the milder, subsyndromal, form of this mood disorder consistently preferred higher room illuminance levels than matched, normal controls.”
Veitch’s data support the notion of “a common experience of gloom associated with lighting conditions at low adaptation luminances, particularly when the vertical luminances are low.” Put simply, people don’t feel comfortable in dim workrooms with no wall lighting. See any film noir classic for details.
Our lust for light has transformed our cities. We have hobbled the nighttime thieves, perverts, and pickpockets; from the ghosts, goblins, and witches. Greg Gbur, a professor in the University of North Carolina’s Department of Physics and Optical Science, reminded me that a wealth of stories—from H. P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark to the movie Pitch Black—have focused on the horrible things that come for us when everything goes dark. Many of the first treatises denying the existence of ghosts and witches came from larger cities in the Netherlands and England, which featured some of the earliest and most extensive street lighting in Europe. At roughly the same time, “failure to illuminate” became a 17th-century crime. As Henry David Thoreau concluded: “Men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced.” By the mid-1800s, gaslight had changed everything. Artists, bohemians, and ordinary citizens of every stripe ventured forth into the gaslit night of the city. In the 1850 pocket guide, New York by Gas-Light, we are told how to “penetrate beneath the thick veil of night and lay bare the fearful mysteries of darkness in the metropolis.”…