Turn the light up or down to shift thinking styles

Research by Anna Steidle and Lioba Werth shows that we can change our cognitive performance in very interesting ways. Want to be creative? Turn the light down:

“Darkness increases freedom from constraints, which in turn promotes creativity,” report  Anna Steidle of the University of Stuttgart and Lioba Werth of the University of Hohenheim. A dimly lit environment, they explain in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “elicits a feeling of freedom, self-determination, and reduced inhibition,” all of which encourage innovative thinking.

There are some additional wrinkles to the research. One is that the light being dimmed needs to be one casting light downward, and not upward to the ceiling, which is too diffused to have an effect. And a second, fantastic finding: just thinking about darkness — like recalling what it feels like to be in a dark space, or relating that feeling to someone — is enough to increase people’s creativity.

In earlier research, the authors have also demonstrated the complementary effect: tuning the lights up leads to a more logical sort of reasoning (in psychological terms, an executive form of cognition). As the authors explained,

Different types of cognitive tasks call for different thinking styles: Logical reasoning
requires applying well-learned structures – typical for executive thinking, whereas creating something new requires making unusual connections and an expansion of conceptual attention – typical for legislative thinking [creative thinking].

Another argument for more programmable environments in our workplaces, or workplaces with a palette of light options: a dark library for introspective creative thought, a darkened cafe for creative coworking, a bright conference room for group decision-making, and so on.

Maybe this explains why my office is generally so dark, with the shades drawn down?