Direct Light Leaves Weary Counting Sheep

Direct Light Leaves Weary Counting Sheep

It’s 11 p.m. on a school night: your breath is minty fresh, you’ve stripped down to your onesie, and the warmth of down feathers engulfs you.  However, your head is not quite enticed by the pillow yet.  Many hours of straining your mind has put you on edge and you need a way to relive the stress.  What better outlet than a light game of Tetris or some playful Facebook stalking?  Little do you know, using the computer before bed is actually more disturbing to your sleep cycle than the stress conceived from taunting piles of homework.

While numerous studies claim that glaring light from electronics either improves or degrades your vision, the majority of the scientific community accepts that it does decrease the quality of sleep or at least the rate at which one falls asleep. Around 9 or 10 p.m. the human body normally begins to secrete melatonin, a hormone that makes people naturally tired and helps regulate the internal sleep clock. Since humans are biologically wired to be active and refreshed when the sun is out, the brain should start telling the body to rest when the moon appears; however, bright light from electronics stimulates receptors in the eyes that tell our brain to be awake and halt the secretion of melatonin. Consequently, the modern and tech-savvy generation finds themselves bright-eyed when it is time to wish upon shooting stars.

Being a pretty technologically adept teenager myself, I generally check my email or chat with friends over Skype before going to bed. In reaction to this article topic, I decided to set up an experiment of my own: for one week I used electronics before bed, and for one week I took an hour or two to wind down without technology. Although I expected there to be a slight difference in sleep quality, I was surprised at the extraordinary outcome. Not only did I fall asleep much quicker after stretching or meditating compared to when I browsed through college applications for mistakes, but my dreams were much calmer, and I felt more rested the next day. I went from having a variety of high-action dreams involving hunting zombie lords after an apocalypse to, well, I’m not quite sure. My sleep was so peaceful that I don’t actually remember the dreams I had. Sure, my nights weren’t as interesting, but I found that it was a worthy sacrifice in order to be more alive during the day.

In addition to simply directing bright light into the eyes, most electronics specifically give off blue light, which our eyes are particularly sensitive to. When asked by a CNN reporter if electronics affected sleep, Phyllis Zee, a neuroscience professor at Northwestern University and director of the school’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology, said, “Potentially, yes, if you’re using [the iPad or a laptop] close to bedtime … that light can be sufficiently stimulating to the brain to make it more awake and delay your ability to sleep.”

Blogger J.D. Moyer decided to put this thesis to the test by conducting an extreme experiment within his own home and family. Enhancing a previous experiment done during June, significantly a summer month, Moyer and his family decided to go a full month with limited artificial light. The rules were simple: no artificial light including overhead lights, lamps, and refrigerator light, the only light source allowed was candles, the computer had to be turned off at 7:30pm sharp, and the television had to be off after sundown. Although there were several negative consequences such as temper flares when someone forgot to light the candles on time and they were forced to fumble around in the darkness for a lighter or matches, the Moyer family experience was generally a positive one specifically when it came to sleeping habits. During the day, Moyer felt more rested and experience more spontaneous moments of joy much like the first experiment he conducted.

Of the first experience Moyer said, “The June experiment with no artificial light was a huge success. Kia and I immediately started going to bed between 9 and 10 instead of around midnight. We quickly caught up on sleep, sleeping ten or eleven hours a night at first, then normalizing around eight hours. One thing we both noticed was a huge boost in mood — moments of unexplained, unreasonable joy would strike us at random times during the day. I’m not talking about the calm sea of serenity — I’m talking about bursts of goofy delight — the kind that’s really obnoxious to the moody people around you.”

Although there are also arguments that television sets and other distant electronics deteriorate the quality of sleep, the proximity of computer screens and iPads makes them particularly harmful. Other media such as the Kindle and paperback books do not emit their own light and consequently don’t shine light directly into the reader’s eye at a close distance. The level of light being contracted by the eyes from computer screens and iPads is greater and much more impactful on the sleep cycle.

There are many things you can do in order to relax before sleep instead of firing up the latest technology. If you enjoy reading, find a nice paperback or print out an interesting article off the internet. Pro tip: even if you are not that into the written word, boring material may actually be helpful in the sense that it will make you fall asleep faster. If that doesn’t appeal to you, try other relaxing activities such as stretching or meditating. There are plenty of non-electronic pastimes to take up before bed that will greatly improve your sleep and productivity throughout the daytime.

Written by Kristina Willis. This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.