Here’s a fun fact: You probably get way less light exposure during a normal work day than you would if you were out camping.
“Sure,” you say. “That’s no surprise. At home, I have walls around me to block the sun. If I’m camping, I presumably have fewer walls.”
“You don’t understand,” I say, leaning in. “You get way, way less light exposure.”
I’m basing this off a famous circadian experiment from Ken Wright’s group at the University of Colorado Boulder, in which they compared the light people get in modern electrical lighting environments with the natural light they get while camping.
It’s not a 1x or 2x difference when you go from modern light exposure to camping light exposure. It’s a 13x difference:
Thirteen times more light exposure during the day! And this in the winter! It’s nuts.
Imagine turning your current daily light exposure down by a factor of 13, or to 8% of its current brightness. Two things would probably be true. First, it would be hard to see, so you’d bump into things. Second, and most important from a circadian perspective, it would be hard for your brain to tell the difference between day and night.
After all, the signal telling your brain that it’s day (light) would be just a tiny fraction of what it was before. It’d be like turning a faucet down to just a thin drizzle. You can tell it’s on if you look for it, but it’s an easy thing to miss.
In a sense, we’ve already done this with the shift from natural lighting to indoor, artificial lighting. We’ve given up the firehose of light that is sunlight exposure in favor of a much muted signal from our indoor lights and devices.
If you look at the lighting figure above from Stothard et al., it’s ridiculously easy to see where day starts and stops in the camping conditions (black line). But the picture is muddled for modern electric light (gray line): Day seems to start fairly clearly, but where does it end? There’s this blunted peak in light exposure during the day, and a long, ambiguous tail of light exposure stretching out into the night hours. There’s not really a clear day/night divide.
This matters for our health. There’s a notion in circadian rhythms science of your circadian “amplitude.” Roughly, you can think of amplitude as a measure of how confident your body’s clock is about the time it thinks it is. Give your circadian clock a clear day/night signal, and this will boost the amplitude. Keep it on a constantly changing, dim-light-round-the-clock kind of schedule and the amplitude goes down.
In other blog posts, I’ve talked about your phase response curve, which tells you which direction (earlier, later) light will push you when you get exposed to it. But you can also think of the amplitude response curve, which tells you whether your amplitude will go up or down if you get light at a certain time. Generally speaking, the amplitude response curves in our models tell you to go outside right smack in the middle of the day if you want to boost your amplitude as efficiently as possible.
So this Thanksgiving, get some outdoor light. Sure, yeah, get some exercise while you’re out there if you want. But simply being outside and in the light is a good thing: It’s building stronger, more robust rhythms in your brain. And if you happen to fall asleep hard after eating a big meal– well, part of it might be that your circadian clock’s a little more confident that day is over and it’s time to snooze.
…part of it.