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Light is a tiny fragment of the electromagnetic spectrum we can observe with our eyes. We are surrounded by it every waking moment, and yet, most of us don’t give it a second thought. Overlooked as it may be, light is one of the most impactful aspects of our environment with wide-ranging effects on our health, mood and sleep. 

I am fascinated by light. As a photographer and videographer, my work is extremely reliant on knowing how to work with various light environments. I’ve also spent several years doing stage lighting and design. This has all come together to give me a real appreciation of the role lighting plays in our everyday lives. Full disclosure: I own multiple strings of fairy lights (yes, that is what they’re called) for no other reason than the effect they can have on an environment.

I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned. Two major factors are used to define light. The first is brightness or the intensity of the light generally measured in lumens or lux. The second is the temperature, which is how blue or orange-tinted the color is measured in kelvin. Adjusting these two variables in our environment can have profound impacts on our mood, energy and mental well being. 

A study published by the University of Toronto in 2014 discovered a link between emotional intensity and brightness of lighting. The study found bright light intensifies the initial emotional reaction we have to different kinds of stimulus including products and people. This effect was shown to impact both positive and negative stimuli, but not equally. While bright light does amplify both, it does so to a greater extent with positive emotions. This is why people often feel more positive on bright sunny days. Conversely, dim lighting dampens the intensity of emotional reactions. 

The Harvard Medical School conducted research into the effects color temperature has on mood. Warmer tinted lights (under 4,000 kelvin) have been shown to promote relaxation. Think about the effect of lighting a candle (or string of fairy lights), which has a temperature of between 2,500-3,000k on average. As you might expect cool tinted lights (above 6,000k) have the opposite effect. The bluish hues provide modest temporary improvements in alertness and productivity combined with a dramatic reduction in the production of the sleep hormone melatonin; however, with long term constant exposure, the blue light can increase stress and anxiety levels while degrading sleep quality, which is why it is recommended to limit screen time, a very blue tint, before going to sleep at night.

As I mentioned previously, I used to work in stage lighting and design. While most people can appreciate a well-done stage, few know what psychological impact lighting can have on the crowd. The lighting can’t independently make or break an event, but it can go a long way in helping do so. The easiest way to break it down is by color.

 Blues, especially the deeper shades, are great for speaking or trying to impart information. Many people, myself included, find blue a calming color. This calming effect combined with the previously mentioned focus boost from blue-tinted lights helps an audience achieve a focused state optimized for taking in information. This is why blue accent lighting is very common in keynote presentations.

Amber or orange lighting is another common option for speaking because it doesn’t make the speaker look as pale when under bright lights. On the surface, it seems like a great option, however, in my experience it tends to lull the crowd a bit and occasionally put an audience member or two to sleep. This effect is common in the orange range of colors until it gets close to red. 

Red, for lack of a better term, riles up the crowd and can result in a sort of pent up restlessness. This energy can be used by a charismatic and engaging speaker to great effect or can cause the audience to become distracted or disruptive. I would call it a high risk with a high reward on the color spectrum. It will either do great or poorly and not by a small margin either way. 

Most of the events I worked on were for youth between 12 and 18 years old. This age group tends to have a hard time sitting still, so I would generally try to stay away from the reds when picking colors. I often found that a light purple or magenta did a better job than hard reds and adding a little blue really went a long way. 

You may have noticed that I have skipped over green and for good reason. Green lighting, especially for those with lighter skin tones, makes people look ill or nervous. The last thing you want an audience to think is that the speaker could, at any moment, launch the contents of his or her stomach all over the first row.

It is truly amazing how a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum can impact health and well being. I hope this information helps shed some light on the subject. I would encourage you to start taking note of the lighting in different environments and how it affects you. What you find just might surprise you.


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