7 Ways Light Affects Your Learning

You’re constantly around some form of light – whether it’s natural daylight, interior lighting, or the light from your screens.

You probably don’t think about it often, given how much it is a part of your everyday life.

But the type of light and the time you’re exposed to it plays a bigger role than you may know in your learning.

In fact, light can impact a ton of things from your sleep schedule to your learning and long-term memory. It can even impact your motivation and ability to focus.

To avoid the downsides of light, and take advantage of the benefits, here are 7 ways light affects your learning.

Table of Contents

1. Wake You Up in the Morning

2. Reduce Light Sensitivity

3. Maintain Your Sleep Schedule

4. Bright Light at Night Suppresses Dopamine

5. Blue Light Blockers

6. Artificial Light and Eye Strain

7. Overhead Lights and Red Lights

7 Ways Light Affects Your Learning

1. Wake You Up in the Morning

7 Ways Light Affects Your LearningThis might sound simplistic, but this is a science-backed fact.

Early morning light has the perfect degree of blue-yellow light contrast to get your brain and body waking up.

Cells in your retina detect this light and fire off signals to your circadian clock. This is a 24-hour clock that regulates, among other things, your sleep and wakefulness.

The light signals trigger the release of the hormone cortisol, which lets your body know it’s time to get up. It gets you alert and focused to start off your day.

Also, this cortisol release sets the timer for your sleep hormone, melatonin, to release some 14 or so hours later.

The more often you wake up to see early morning light, the more the connection between your eyes and circadian clock learn to anticipate it.

As a result, this naturally starts waking you up early!

The best way of getting light is to go outside – even when it’s cloudy, you’ll get a sizeable number of light photons.

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Dr. Andrew Huberman, neurobiologist and professor at Stanford University, recommends getting at least 100,000 lux, before 9 am.

Lux is a measure of light intensity, and you can download mobile apps to help you measure this for yourself!

Here’s a cool fact.

You don’t have to expose your eyes to 100,000 lux of light in one go. In fact, trying to do this would actually damage your eyes.

Your eyes can add up the photons they’re exposed to over time. So, spending a couple of minutes under the early morning sun can signal your entire body to wake up and be alert.

It’s important to get directly under the sunlight if you can. Viewing light through a window or screen is just half as effective.

And if you live in a place that doesn’t get much sun, you can do one of two things.

You could spend longer outdoors because the light photons will add up.

Or you could use a bright, artificial light source in your home as well!

The important part is to remember that you can get your target 100,000 lux over time, and not at once.

You’ll know the light is too bright if you have trouble keeping your eyes open or experience pain from it. So, be careful not to overdo it with too much light either!

2. Watch the Sunset

7 Ways Light Affects Your Learning

But simply viewing early morning light isn’t enough to help fix your sleep schedule and maintain your productivity all day.

Light exposure can actually be a double-edged sword if you don’t know how best to take advantage of it.

The light-detecting cells in your eyes actually grow more sensitive throughout the day.

This means that as natural light fades, your eyes would still respond to artificial light. This could be the light emitting from your screens and any bright ambient light you’re around.

Blue light occurs naturally in sunlight and artificially from your device screens, fluorescent light bulbs, etc. And when your eyes detect this light, it sends off signals to suppress melatonin.

Because this is your sleep hormone, during the day the blue light you get in sunlight keeps you alert and awake for learning and productivity.

At night, however, it’s much more likely to upset your circadian rhythms, and make it harder to fall asleep.

This doesn’t only spell an irregular sleep schedule for you. It can also drastically damage your learning and memory, as you’ll see in the next section.

One of the ways you can offset some of this sensitivity, however, is to get some sunlight in the evening.

The specific blue-yellow contrast of light at sunset helps reduce some of your eyes’ light sensitivity. It helps give you a little more of a window to view blue light in the evening safely.

It also helps delay your sleep just a little bit. As a result, you don’t end up sleeping too early and waking up in the middle of the night!

3. Maintain Your Sleep Schedule

7 Ways Light Affects Your LearningSo, getting light in the mornings and evenings helps you maintain a healthy sleep schedule.

But how is proper sleep related to learning and memory?

Turns out, according to neuroscience, sleep is essential for your learning and ability to create long-term memory.

While you’re asleep, your brain’s hippocampus and neocortex are actively processing what you learned during the day.

It’s while you’re sleeping that they review what you learned and make sense of it through what you know. As you sleep, your brain shifts information you learned into your long-term memory.

Scientists also link sleep to the brain’s ability to creatively to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems.

If you’re not getting enough rest, you’re not giving your brain the opportunity to digest what you’re learning.

You end up losing more of what you learn.

In fact, studies show that people tend to retain and recall more in tests if they sleep after learning, than if they don’t.

Do you pull all-nighters to try and get work done? Now you know that according to neuroscience, this is counter-intuitive.

Light is one of the biggest factors in helping you control your sleep cycle. When you utilize it effectively, you can make sure you’re sleeping at the right time!

Remember, it’s the specific blue-yellow light of early morning that kicks off your cortisol and sets your melatonin timer.

You’re not going to get that same effect with afternoon light.

4. Bright Light at Night Suppresses Dopamine

7 Ways Light Affects Your Learning

Not only does light in the evening suppress sleep-inducing melatonin, it also suppresses dopamine.

Dopamine is your motivation molecule. This is the neurotransmitter that gives you the push you need to get out of bed, get started on your project, and work toward your goals.

Dopamine is a massive player in your learning, memory, and focus.

It’s what gets you excited about achieving your goals and drives you to work toward them.

By suppressing your dopamine pathways with bright light in the evenings, you’re less likely to feel motivated the day after.

Do you struggle to get yourself out of bed, or have to really push yourself to get to work?

A reason might be because of the bright light you expose yourself to in the evenings. It could be the glare of your TV, computer or phone screen, or even bright interior lighting.

As you can see, there are a bunch of overarching, long-term implications of bright light exposure at night-time.

This is why it’s so important to maintain some healthy light practices. Dimming your ambient lights and putting your devices away a couple hours before bed can help buffer the negative effects.

Getting that evening sunlight can also help offset some of your light sensitivity. This gives you a window in the evening to browse Netflix or your socials without upending your sleep schedule.

5. Blue Light Blockers

7 Ways Light Affects Your LearningYou might have heard people recommend blue light blockers to counter the bad effects of light at night.

This only partially works.

The truth is, it’s not just blue light that might disrupt your sleep schedule. Bright lights at night overall can have the same effect.

Blue light blockers do help cut down on that specific light wavelength, which does cause eye strain (more on that in a bit) and suppress melatonin.

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If you have to use your devices in the evenings, blue light filtering screens and photochromatic lenses can help.

But it’s also important to take into account other factors light the brightness of your screens or your environment.

If the glare from your screen is extremely bright, it can still upset your circadian rhythms even with blue blockers.

Meanwhile, blue blockers during the day might actually deprive you of the necessary blue light you need to stay alert.

6. Artificial Light and Eye Strain

7 Ways Light Affects Your Learning

Okay, you know that blue blockers suppress melatonin and can mess up your sleep cycles. But that’s not all.

Excessive exposure to blue light from staring at your screens can cause Digital Eye Strain (DES). This is a condition that affects millions of people.

Blue light scatters the most out of all the other light wavelengths that make up visible light. It’s because of this property of blue light that the sky appears blue on cloudless days!

This means that your eyes focus much harder to make out contrast when it’s looking at blue light emitting screens.

Do you get headaches, brain fog, irritated eyes, or struggle to focus after some time on your screen? This is why.

Natural blue light doesn’t hurt you. However, blue light pouring out of your screens, especially in the evenings, can not only damage your learning and productivity. It can also harm your eye health.

Some doctors believe excessive blue light exposure can lead to long-term damage to your retinas. It may cause or worsen conditions like macular degeneration.

If you absolutely must use your devices extensively in the evening, blue light blockers can help reduce eye strain. They help make it easier for your eyes to focus by eliminating some or all blue light entering your eyes.

Note, once again, that blue light blockers aren’t going to be enough if your environmental lights are too bright.

7. Overhead Lights and Red Lights

7 Ways Light Affects Your LearningAlong with blue blockers, you might also have heard of the benefits of red lights to maintain your sleep schedule.

This is technically true – however, again, there’s an important caveat. Bright red light can also disrupt your circadian rhythms and suppress your dopamine pathways.

If you’re going to opt for red light at night, you’ll want the dimmer variety.

Lights within the orange and red end of the color spectrum emulate sunset. This helps sync your body to your natural day-night cycle – provided they aren’t too bright.

Another important consideration is the placement of your light.

Your eyes are naturally designed to detect light from the sun – in other words, overhead light.

To avoid accidentally triggering these light responses in the evening, switch to lights closer to the ground after sunset.

With these 7 ways light affects your learning, you now know exactly how to avoid damaging light or use light to your learning advantage!

Which of these tips are you trying out first?

Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.

Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™. 

Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!

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