Bright Lights & Emotion

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Health has enlightened us on new research that suggests bright lights, including the sun, are not as comforting and positively associated as many people might think.

So, can bright lights make you more emotional?

That’s the question researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Toronto, Scarborough set out to answer in a recent study. The study, titled “Incandescent affect: Turning on the hot emotional system with bright light”, originally appeared in the journal for Consumer Psychology, and draws a link between feelings and lighting.

It has long been thought that bright light, especially sunshine, has a positive effect on mood. Consistent exposure to light helps us regulate our circadian rhythms, which can make us happier and healthier overall. It stands to reason that data would suggest that bright light would lead to an increase in positive emotion.  However, this new study had unexpected results.

Instead of finding correlation between light and positive moods, the new research shows that bright light can increase the intensity of ALL emotions, including negative ones. Participant’s reactions, under different lighting conditions, were rated to a number of stimuli ranging from the spiciness of certain foods to perceived attractiveness and aggression of other people.  Researchers, Alison Jing Xu and Aparna Labroo, found that bright lights increased the severity of the participants’ visceral responses to the stimuli. They reported, we show that ambient brightness makes people feel warmer, which increases the intensity of their affective response, including sensation seeking from spicy-hot foods, perception of aggression and sexiness (“hotness”) in others, and generating more extreme affective reactions toward positive and negative words and drinks.”  This was found across all six studies that were conducted.

So bright light tends to make people react more passionately, while dim lights can lead to people having subdued reactions. Why is this the case? According to the findings, “these effects arise because light underlies perception of heat, and perception of heat can trigger the hot emotional system.” This connection between our body’s perception of warmth and feelings of passion makes sense; our language is full of phrases like “hot-headed” and “hot and bothered” that associate heat with feelings of intense emotion.

How can we use this information to our benefit? Turning down the light, Xu and Labroo write, effortless and unassuming as it may seem, can reduce emotionality in everyday decisions, most of which take place under bright light. Keeping lights dim might help prevent us from making snap judgments and allow us to make more rational choices.

Do you plan to turn down the lights the next time you have a big decision to make? Let us know in the comments!

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