Smarts from Sunshine

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We all know that sunshine seems to have an impact on your mood, but could it even affect how well you think and make decisions? Surprising new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggests that it can:

The latest study, conducted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, found that people were almost three times as likely to have impaired cognition after gloomy weather compared to those in sunny climes, if they were also experiencing some symptoms of depression. [From – Big decision? You may think best on sunny days by Linda Carroll.]

The caveat about extending this research to everyone is that the effect was observed only in people who showed some symptoms of depression. That doesn’t mean that individuals without depression aren’t positively affected by sunshine, though, since the initial screens in this experiment weren’t very precise:

“The cognition test was fairly crude,” says Robert DeRubeis, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “This test is meant to pick out people with problems that would be noticeable in daily life, not just by the person, but by others. It’s not designed to detect subtle, and even not so subtle, changes in our verbal facilities or quickness of response, or any of the things we all prize and count on in our jobs.”

Other research has measured the impact of light on the brain:

A report published in 2006 used functional MRIs to look at the effects of broad spectrum light – which is similar to daylight. The Belgian researchers found that as soon as people were exposed to bright light, brain activity sparked more strongly. When the light was taken away, brains became less energized.

The article notes that individuals are likely to vary in the degree to which they are affected by light. DeRubeis speculates that our brains react to light as an evolutionary advantage:

It all makes sense in terms of how we evolved, says DeRubeis. “In evolutionary terms, we were originally called upon to do the most taxing tasks during the day, so it makes sense that sunlight would serve as a signal to the brain to perk up so it could handle challenging things,” he explains. “And then it would make sense not to waste energy at night since nothing much happens after dark.”

Office Lighting. Years ago, when my company was building a new office, we specified bright full-spectrum lighting for the office area. That decision was based on sketchy research on SAD (seasonal affective disorder); we reasoned that cheerful people make better employees and co-workers. As it turns out, it may have been a wise choice, but for a different reason – there’s a chance that the sunlight-style lighting might have given our people a little cognitive edge, too.

It will be interesting to see how this topic develops as it is explored by other researchers. It could impact both personal and business relocation decisions, not to mention the designs of homes and workplaces.

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