Why Creativity Thrives In The Dark

Imaginative minds have long appreciated the power of dim lighting. New research confirms that when the lights switch off, something in the brain switches on.

Great artists and original thinkers often seem instinctually drawn to the darker hours. The writer Toni Morrison once told The Paris Review that watching the night turn to day, with a cup of coffee in hand, made her feel like a "conduit" of creativity. "It's not being in the light," she said, "it's being there before it arrives." Whether they join Morrison before dawn or get going after dusk, many of history's most imaginative minds have been inspired by dim lighting.

Turns out you need not possess a Nobel Prize in Literature to appreciate the creative confines of a dark room. Psychologists Anna Steidel and Lioba Werth recently conducted a series of clever experiments designed to measure how creativity responded to various lighting schemes. In a paper published last month, Steidel and Werth reported some of the first evidence for what creative masters know by nature: when the lights switch off, something in the brain switches on.

"Apparently, darkness triggers a chain of interrelated processes, including a cognitive processing style, which is beneficial to creativity," the researchers concluded in the September issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

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The work takes the study of illumination in a new direction. In the past, office managers asked to rate the creative potential of a work environment prefer bright lighting--the better, perhaps, to keep an eye on employees. Likewise, the symbol of a light bulb has given people brief boosts of insight, but brightness itself wasn't a factor in these tests. Steidel and Werth wanted to see how people actually performed on creative tasks when the lights went low.

To start, the researchers demonstrated in three tests that merely thinking about different types of light influenced a person's creativity. In one experiment, study participants spent five minutes describing either a bright or dark location in detail, then drew a picture of an alien from another galaxy. The aliens drawn by people who'd thought about darkness had more imaginative features--X-rays eyes, for instance, or legs connected to heads--and independent judges rated them as more creative.

Of course, thinking about a dark room is very different from sitting in one. So, in a subsequent experiment, Steidel and Werth arranged a simulated office environment with three different lighting conditions. Some of the 114 study participants in this test sat at cubicle with a desk light of 500 lux, which is the workplace standard. Others sat at a spot with a bright light of 1,500 lux, a setting often used by TV studios. A third group had a dim light of 150 lux, similar to a very cloudy day.

At their stations, study participants worked on four classic insight problems that require some creativity to solve. (The "candle problem," for instance, asks people to put a candle on a wall using just a box of tacks; the solution requires realizing the box can be tacked to the wall.) People at the dim workspaces solved significantly more problems than those at the bright cubicles.

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So what's the secret of dim lighting? Steidel and Werth suspect that it creates a "visual message" capable of nudging our minds into an exploratory mode. The idea is that dark places suggest an uninhibited freedom that loosens our thoughts, and that bright places suggest a compliance that restrains them. Consistent with this theory, the researchers found that study participants who felt self-conscious were immune to the creative charms of dim lights.

"A lot of room effects emerge outside of conscious awareness," Steidel tells Co.Design.

Before you go smashing the nearest lamp in the name of inspiration, consider one final experiment that Steidel and Werth performed. Once again they arranged three lighting conditions--bright, dim, and standard--and gave study participants a creative task. But they also gave them four logic problems that required a great deal of analytical thinking. This time the researchers found that while creativity thrived in the dark, careful reasoning flourished in the light.

In other words, a well-designed workspace must adapt to what you're working on. Steidel suggests a flexible lighting situation for all the tasks one might perform during the day: dim areas for creative brainstorming sessions and bright ones for administrative chores. "An optimal lighting scheme would provide a setting for all activities in an office," she says. After all, great ideas might arrive in the darkness, but a lot of other work is needed to help them see the light of day.

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9 Comments

  • This post articulated what I've always felt most natural doing. Using little light and working late night on creative tasks. Then saving my bookkeeping and routine tasks for the light of day before lunch. A flexible environment is key, but I think the other half of making it work is giving yourself time to actually rest. Working in 'modules' where you get a break in between. Those are the most productive days for me and why 9 to 5 always felt like utter drudgery. Happy to see validation in these studies.

  • Ivanov Correa

    I'm in this very moment (23:10) reading this post, and the only light I have is the indirect light of a 40w dimmable lamp, which I point to the ceiling. - Just enough to find the keys in my keyboard.

  • Jack Cohen

    Would be interested in learning about the difference in creativity and reasoning in employees between natural light (sunlight) and artificial light. Seems like a logical next step here.

    Jack Cohen
    www.skylightleasing.com

  • CPO_C_Ryback

    Yes, there is nothing new here. Recall the studies on music and cognition. There was higher cognition with non-vocal v. vocal .. because, obviously, with vocal you are thinking about the words.

    Nothing new here.

  • Chuck Mahoney

    not surprising really, since the characteristics of a darkened room are that there are fewer distractions and less noise - the mind has the opportunity to focus on new concepts and designs. The idea of solitude is a key enabler of creativity - something that open office plans neglect and actually interfere with.