The hidden superpowers of smart lights

Can we really use light to affect how we think, feel and behave?

The hidden superpowers of smart lights

From pulsing disco lights, flashing to the beat of club music, to the soothing, warm glow of ambient lighting in a spa, our bodies recognise the impact of the intensity, effects and colours of light on the way we feel even if our minds don't.

Years of research tends to back up these anecdotal experiences, with many studies pointing to the ability of different brightness of lights and different applications of colours to affect how we think, feel and behave in a range of settings.

Read this: The best smart lights for your home

Smart lighting is an easy entry point into the smart home, and according to Gartner, it’s expected to continue growing to reach 2.54 billion units installed by 2020. Companies like Philips Hue and Lifx are leading the way with smart LED bulbs and switches that connect to Wi-Fi and offer app, button and voice controls over the positioning, brightness, warmth and colour of connected bulbs.

There’s a lot of opportunity to put more thought into how we use lights in our homes and what they can do for us beyond never having to get up to flick a light switch again. So in the not-so-distant future could we start to use light to enhance our moods and energy levels, change our behaviour and make us feel better in our own homes?

Circadian rhythms

To better understand why light can have such an affect on us, we need to think about our circadian rhythms. Your circadian rhythm (often called sleep/wake cycle) is like an internal clock that cycles between sleepiness and alertness throughout the day depending on which hormones are being released. It’s profoundly affected by light, as well as how bright the light is and, possibly, what colour it is too.

Caroline McCrystal, a sleep expert at Sport Sleep Coach, explained to us: “As the sun goes down, melatonin (a suppressant hormone) is released. This encourages you to sleep, so when it's dark you feel more tired. Conversely, as the sun rises, melatonin secretion stops and serotonin is released, waking you up. Being outside and in the day light is the best way to waken up for this reason. If we keep the curtains drawn, it delays this hormonal change.”

In an ideal world, we’d be getting plenty of bright sunlight when we wake up, as well as throughout the day. Then we’d be eased into sleep by a sunset at night and experience complete darkness when we’re sleeping. But we all know life doesn’t always work like that.

The hidden superpowers of smart lights

This is where smart lighting can come in, allowing us to enhance or even fake the light in our lives to bring about states of sleepiness or wakefulness at the ‘right’ time. Already tech companies like Lumie and Philips have made waves in this space, introducing lights that can mimic a natural sunrise and sunset. But do they really work?

Waking up to light

When it comes to the brightness of certain lights, there’s been plenty of research into using extremely powerful (often white) lighting to make us feel more awake, more alert and more productive. As you might expect, there’s a big interest in this area of research in the corporate world, with companies looking to solutions to make staff more productive without spending a fortune – especially in call centres and shift working environments.

In a 2007 study looking into the effect of lighting on wellbeing and performance at work, researchers found using fluorescent lamps with a correlated colour temperature (CCT) of 17,000K increased alertness and performance. For those not in the know, that’s really damn bright.

This is also a key area of development for Philips. “We have conducted successful trials in schools, hospitals and offices to help inform our research and design human-centric capable lighting," Andy Baxter, product manager at Philips Lighting, told us. “We recently installed lighting in an airport lounge in Oslo that can provide an energy boost to help combat jetlag. Similarly, we’ve found a comfortable bright light setting for one hour in an office environment can provide a mild energy stimulus similar to a cup of coffee.”

Human-centric lighting installed in an airport lounge in Oslo can provide an energy boost to help combat jetlag

Bright light doesn’t just make us more alert. For years the effects of light on our mental wellbeing has been studied in great depth and could be used to combat depression and even reduce symptoms of mental illness.

We all know that SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lamps are often recommended in the winter months. But a 2015 study found that, contrary to previous beliefs, bright light therapy is effective at treating adults with non-seasonal depression all year round. A similar study also pointed to the potential in treating adults with bipolar disorder with bright light too.

The problem with bringing these findings into our own homes is that many of the lights used in these trials are really, really bright. Luckily brands like Lumie have products specially designed for the treatment of SAD, like the Lumie Vitamin L, but the challenge will be in creating lighting solutions that can change from super bright to soft and glowing with the flick of a switch – or by barking a command at a voice assistant like Alexa.

The hidden superpowers of smart lights

Is better sleep a smart lamp away?

A combination of light and colour might be the answer to better sleep. Caroline McCrystal explained: “In recent years we’ve been exposed to what we call 'blue light'. This travels into the retinas, even with your eyes closed, and prevents melatonin being produced properly. The pineal glands will keep producing serotonin, which will keep you alert.”

So what’s the answer? Lighting designed to lull us to sleep with warm colours. We’ve seen tech companies switch onto the problem of blue light a lot over the past few years, like Apple’s Night Shift mode which attempts to reduce blue light from your phone and make it warmer. Smart lights are addressing the problems too, with dedicated night modes that brighten up the room with warm, red hues, like the Lumie Luxe, Sleepace Nox Light and many more.

Although this thinking is backed up by research, like this 2012 study about red light, sleep and performance, often scientific trials are carried out with very powerful lights that we can’t replicate in our homes – not yet at least. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reap the rewards of soft, warm light in the evening and bright light in the morning if it helps us to sleep, but it might not work for everyone.

We spoke to Dr Jamie Zeitzer, assistant professor at Stanford University in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Centre for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, who warned us to be wary of the sleepiness and wakefulness claims of modern day smart lights. “Light can directly activate wake-promoting circuits in the brain, but the light intensity to which we are exposed is probably not bright enough to have a major impact.

“There have been recent studies to indicate this kind of light exposure might more gradually wake the brain up, which could be useful in certain circumstances,” he explained. “It might also be able to activate sympathetic nervous system circuits which would allow people to awaken with more energy. But, alas, it is still an area in dire need of research.”

The power of colour

When we’re exploring the power of lights, especially the smart lights in our homes, it’s difficult to separate light from colour. Especially as so many smart lights have different colour effects and a bright white light can look and feel so different to one with a bright yellow hue.

Getting to the bottom of our relationship with colour has been a topic of discussion for centuries, from the pseudoscience of chromotherapy, to Jungian psychotherapy, to art therapy and marketing. Often thought of as being a bit ‘woo-woo’, the body of scientific research about colour is growing. Our relationship with colour is both fascinating and complex and better understanding it might have big benefits.

The hidden superpowers of smart lights

Point out a colour and many of us would be able to tell you what we associate it with. For example, red can symbolise aggression, passion or danger. Studies have been carried out that aim to look specifically at the effects of coloured light. In a notable 2000 study Glasgow council installed blue street lighting in some neighbourhoods and then reported a reduction in crime in those areas. Similarly a rail company in Japan installed blue lights in its stations in a bid to reduce suicide attempts.

We have to take those tests with a pinch of salt as there’s no solid evidence that they worked, and a lot of the reported benefits are anecdotal. But there’s clearly more to be explored here if behaviour can really be influenced by a different bulb.

The idea that colour can have an impact on behaviour, emotion and even purchasing decisions is something that’s been widely studied and employed in the worlds of branding and advertising for decades. In a 2006 study called Impact of Color on Marketing researchers found that, in some cases, 90 per cent of snap purchasing decisions are based on colour alone.

But despite a solid interest in colour across industries from town planning to film-making to advertising, it’s still tricky because attitudes towards colour can be hugely dependent on upbringing, cultural differences, personal experiences and much more. So red is often considered the colour of danger yet red is also the colour of a tasty strawberry and has vastly different connotations in different parts of the world.

This might muddy the waters when it comes to the prospect of using colours for very specific purposes in our homes, which shows we may be a long way off from prescribing green light for a particular condition or a warm, red glow for something else.

The calming effects of playing with colour

I was prompted to embark on this exploration of light and colour after I received a Sleepace Nox sleep light for a review. I found that I became calmed and soothed by playing with the different colours of light on a spectrum on the smartphone app. Interestingly, no one particular light seemed to be responsible for calming my anxiety, but the act of experimenting with the colours has been hugely beneficial for reducing stress and even aiding my productivity.

The hidden superpowers of smart lights

I was keen to find out why, so I asked Imi Lo, psychotherapist and art therapist at Eggshell Therapy who specialises in helping people deal with difficult emotions. She explained: “There might be a few things going on here. By focusing your sense of sight on something, your mind enters into a mindful, meditative state. It’s like how staring into a candle light relaxes us. It helps us access our unconscious, or enter a state of ‘conscious daydreaming'. It could also be soothing because a full spectrum of colour serves to balance things out as a gestalt. It’s like the yin and the yang – the various colours balance their impact out.”

Read next: The best Philips Hue apps

I asked her how people could replicate this experience in future, beyond just ‘playing’ with the colours, but that’s exactly what she suggested. “I think the key is to not be very mechanistic about it, hold it all loosely and be open and curious about what it does to you,” Lo suggested.

Lacking scientific research in this area, I decided to chat to Kurly Mawaha, a Feng Shui Master. Feng Shui is a Chinese philosophy that transcends a number of disciplines, but is essentially all about energy, balance and seeking out that sense of equilibrium in all areas of our life, including our health and our homes.

If you’re feeling sceptical, that’s fine. But Mawaha recommended a similar experimental approach to Lo: “We resonate with our favourite colours because they energetically help balance us out in either our thinking, feelings or physical body.” She also suggested that, as well as syncing up our lighting to our sleep/wake cycle, we should go one step further and ensure it’s always aligned with what we experience in nature. “Any lighting that emulates different natural lighting conditions will be an absolute hit every time and better for us, from the midday sun, to sunrise, to the dappled lighting in a forest.”

The future looks bright

Smart wake-up and sleep lamps are the first step that tech companies have taken in using light to help consumers take their wellbeing into their own hands at home. Although research into using light and colour for other purposes, like calming down, treating anxiety or aiding productivity is still limited – or needs to be applied in a very specific setting – researchers and tech companies will need to further switch on to this potential.

Andy Baxter at Philips Lighting predicts that the future of smart lighting is all about adapting to routines: “‘Human-centric lighting,’ where LED light can be tuned to positively help people, is likely to become a mainstream trend, whether it’s providing the optimum light setting to help someone to concentrate, energise or relax. It’s likely to be a hot topic in 2018 and beyond as businesses and consumers start to use it and the mental and physical benefits are explored in more depth."

We’re hopeful that with more research, new investment in smart light technology and an increased interest in improving health and wellbeing ourselves, smart home companies will be able to develop seamless smart lighting features and setups that can be – intentionally or playfully – tailored to what you need from light.

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