Does Natural Lighting Make Us More Productive?

According to a new study, people who spend more time in natural lighting than in artificial lighting have increased productivity and alertness. Light directly influences the amount of melatonin a person produces, which indirectly affects alertness. “Most people spend their days within buildings under different lighting environments, which range from daylight to artificial light only,” said Mirjam Münch of the Solar Energy and Building Physics Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland. “At most workplaces, there is a mixed situation between the two principal light sources.” Münch added, “For the impact of light perception on nonvisual functions such as alertness, mood, and performance, those lighting conditions are likely to significantly contribute to modulation of alertness and productivity via the retinohypothalamic tract and melanopsin-dependent pathways.” Because few studies have examined the effects of lighting on cognitive performance, Münch and her colleagues conducted a study to determine how natural and artificial light affected cognitive functioning in the evening.

Participants between the ages of 19 and 25 years old were exposed to daylight (DL) or artificial light (AL) for six hours a day for two days. Each evening, after the exposure, the researchers evaluated melatonin and cortisol levels, and rated sleepiness and cognitive functioning and found significant differences in the participants. “Subjects felt significantly more alert at the beginning of the evening after the DL condition, and they became sleepier at the end of the evening after the AL condition,” said Münch. “On their first evening, subjects performed with similar accuracy after both light conditions, but on their second evening, subjects performed significantly more accurately after the DL in both n-back versions and committed fewer false alarms in the 2-back task compared to the AL group.” Münch added, “In summary, even short-term lighting conditions during the afternoon had an impact on cognitive task performance in the evening.” She added, “Such a relationship could be crucial for workers requiring high attention levels and executive functioning, such as bus drivers, industrial workers in sensitive areas, or air-traffic control.”

Münch, M., Linhart, F., Borisuit, A., Jaeggi, S. M., & Scartezzini, J.-L. (2011, December 26). Effects of Prior Light Exposure on Early Evening Performance, Subjective Sleepiness, and Hormonal Secretion. Behavioral Neuroscience. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026702

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  • dave

    January 4th, 2012 at 10:37 PM

    a small but significant finding.but not surprising to be honest.nature has been the best source and to have proof that natural air and light are the best underlines this very fact.

  • Lori J.

    January 4th, 2012 at 11:30 PM

    I definitely feel much better when I’ve been exposed to narural light than I do if I’ve been inside all day. I imagine the fresh air would help too with being outside. It brightens me up immensely. :)

  • vincetheprince

    January 5th, 2012 at 1:04 AM

    I bought a desk lamp that’s supposed to emit the equivalent of sunlight and I really do feel it makes a difference. I have two computers and when I spend any length of time at the other desk with the ordinary lamp I feel less alert than I do at the one that has the natural light desk lamp.

  • Celeste Conway

    January 5th, 2012 at 1:47 AM

    @vincetheprince : Or it could simply be that you know that’s supposed to happen if you are exposed to natural light and it’s all psychological. Just sayin’. Stranger things have happened. ;)

  • Shanna

    January 5th, 2012 at 1:46 PM

    I am a teacher and when the weather is really pretty outside I will sometimes move the classroom outside. There were parents who have expressed some concern that this will distract the kids in the class but I have found the opposite to be true. When we go outside to work it is like the kids become more motivated and eager to do their work. Something about that fresh air and sunshine gets them ready and focused. And yes it burns up some great energy too!

  • Little Green Monster

    January 5th, 2012 at 2:19 PM

    I certainly feel a lot more refreshed and healthier when I’m somewhere with a lot of fresh air and light. Staying indoors with the AC and the lights on just doesnt cut it.A lot of my friends have observed this too.I have also experienced a sense of rejuvenation from fresh air and light after a work session.

  • Dale-Version 2

    January 5th, 2012 at 11:57 PM

    is there any scientific proof to say that natural light is better than artificial light? I mean, I fully understand and have observed that natural light is better than artificial light any given day, but is there any study that tells us just why this happens?

  • Helen Bryson

    January 7th, 2012 at 3:41 AM

    @Celeste – That is in all fairness a valid point you make there. What would be interesting would be for these tests to be done again under conditions where the subjects aren’t aware of what type of light they had been subjected to. That would reduce a placebo effect result to a minimum.

  • Iain Kelly

    January 11th, 2012 at 12:54 AM

    Natural lighting is far more pleasant to work under. I’ve been in workplaces that had that and never experienced the usual headaches and lethargy I would get in my old job. Back then I had to work under those standard giant fluorescent strip lights so many offices are adorned with and went home feeling awful almost daily.

  • C.G.B.

    January 11th, 2012 at 1:03 AM

    It’s not necessarily the lighting alone that caused the lethargy and headaches, you know Iain. If you’re interested, look up “sick building syndrome” and see if you had any of the other symptoms associated with that.

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