Dim lights, dimwits (he said)

Therapy lights, Sam Kinison, my attic, a study, and 7 other things worth your time.

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Among my pandemic purchases is an extremely bright, $35 light therapy lamp. I got it because I work largely out of a home office that’s also technically our attic.

As it happens our house was owned 30 years ago by a big-time New York City talent agent.

I’m told that her clients, like the late comedian Sam Kinison and a few other celebrities, were up there at times to sign contracts and do whatever else people like that did in attics back then.

It’s a pretty decent space, but the lighting could use some work. Hence the therapy lamp and an assortment of other fairly random lights—and hence, also, my interest in the following study.

It came out two years ago, when Michigan State University researchers said they’d determined that working in dim lighting can “change the brain's structure and hurt one's ability to remember and learn,” according to a university press release.

Any time someone talks about external factors changing the brain’s structure, I’m likely to pay attention.

The study tracked the brains of Nile grass rats in a lab experiment. Half the animals were kept in an environment where the lights were dim, simulating what humans might encounter in typical office lighting.

The other half were kept in an environment with much brighter lighting—think of a sunny day outside.

Results: The animals that were kept in dimmer light “lost about 30 percent of capacity in the hippocampus, a critical brain region for learning and memory, and performed poorly on a spatial task they had trained on previously.”

“This is similar to when people can't find their way back to their cars in a busy parking lot after spending a few hours in a shopping mall or movie theater,” said Antonio Nunez, a psychology professor and co-author of the study, which was published in the journal Hippocampus.

(Ah, I remember shopping malls and movie theaters. Also, as long as I’m interjecting: I kind of love that the journal is literally called Hippocampus.)

Anyway, the results comported with expectations. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the researchers believe that reduced lighting led to a significant reduction in a brain substance called “brain derived neurotrophic factor.”

Reducing that substance makes it more difficult for neurons to connect with one another in the brain. 

“Since there are fewer connections being made, this results in diminished learning and memory performance,” explained Joel Soler, a doctoral graduate student who was the study's lead author. “In other words, dim lights are producing dimwits.”

So, what to do with this information?

Actually, I find it kind of soothing. Believe me, I have my “what the heck was I working on five minutes ago?” moments since the start of the recent unpleasantness. I appreciate having something like poor lighting to blame it on.

I’d hasten to add that the therapy light works wonders, too.

My big takeaway, and the moral of the story is simply this: I think a lot of us have spent a lot of time working recently in places that weren’t really designed for work.

Maybe now is a good time to admit that this is going to last a while longer, even if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and take care of some of the simple, practical things that make it all a bit easier—if you haven’t already.


7 other things worth your time

  • You know, I’d been thinking of doing a full newsletter on the movie 9 to 5 turning 40. But, alas, life interfered—and now the BBC has something really interesting: the history, which I had no idea about, of the movement that sparked the movie. (BBC)

  • The 2020 election was the single-most betted-on event in history. Almost all of the legal action took place overseas, and professional bookmakers reportedly made a ton of money because of supporters of the president who believed he couldn’t lose. (Slate)

  • Planning to travel after the pandemic? So is literally everyone else on the planet. OK, maybe not literally, but a lot of people — and that’s led to a big spike in travel planning, and increasing prices. (MSN)

  • Foreign hackers have apparently managed to gain access to computer systems in a wide range of U.S. government agencies: a massive breach covering everything from the EPA to the FBI. It also includes the Energy Department and the agency that maintains the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. “The U.S. government has not blamed any particular actor for the hacks yet, but cybersecurity experts have said the activity bears the hallmarks of Russia’s intelligence services.” (Politico)

  • President Trump was reportedly about to call for the stimulus bill to include $2,000 payments to individual Americans, but aides talked him out of it, for fear of killing the whole negotiation. Maybe it will still happen? There apparently will still be $600 in it now. (WashPost, $)

  • I wrote a whole newsletter on this, but the NYT has a great story about MacKenzie Scott’s donations. Bottom line is: No applications, phone calls out of the blue, offers to basically double their endowments in some cases, and few if any strings attached. (NYT, $)

  • Here’s the big debate going on in newsrooms right now: how to report on allergic reactions to the Covid-19 vaccine without unduly discouraging people from taking it. Obviously I don’t have room here to do a full analysis, but bottom line: I’m getting it, so’s my family. (CNN)


Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of Pixhere. I wrote once before about this lighting study at Inc.com, very different context though. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. 

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