Menus Subscribe Search
dim-bulb

(PHOTO: TOPSTEP07/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Dim Lighting Sparks Creativity

• June 18, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: TOPSTEP07/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New German research finds a darkened room encourages freedom of thought and inspires innovation.

There are certain times when you want the lights turned way down low. One such time, according to recent research, is when you need to think creatively.

“Darkness increases freedom from constraints, which in turn promotes creativity,” report  Anna Steidle of the University of Stuttgart and Lioba Werth of the University of Hohenheim. A dimly lit environment, they explain in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “elicits a feeling of freedom, self-determination, and reduced inhibition,” all of which encourage innovative thinking.

Steidle and Werth describe six experiments which provide evidence for their thesis. The key one featured 114 German undergraduates, who were seated in groups of two or three in a small room designed to simulate an office.

Merely priming the idea of darkness—taking five minutes to describe an experience of literally being in the dark, and recalling how it felt—is sufficient to boost creativity.

The room was lit by a fixture hanging from the ceiling directly above the desk. The amount of illumination varied, with some groups receiving only 150 lux (dim light), others 500 lux (the recommended lighting level for an office), and still others 1,500 lux (bright light).

After acclimating themselves for approximately 15 minutes, participants went to work on what the researchers describe as “four creative insight problems typically used in creativity research. These tasks require that individuals change their perceptions of a given problem in order to find the optimal solution.”

After spending two minutes attempting to solve each problem, participants rated how free from constraints they felt. They noted the degree to which they felt externally controlled, and reported their level of self-assurance.

The results: Those in the dimly lit room solved significantly more problems correctly than those in the brightly lit room. They also felt freer and less inhibited than their intensely illuminated counterparts. Participants in the bright and the conventionally lit rooms did not differ significantly from one another on either scale.

“These results indicate that dim illumination heightens perceived freedom from constraints, which in turn improves creative performance,” the researchers conclude.

Don’t have a dimmer switch at your desk? No worries. Other experiments found that merely priming the idea of darkness—such as by taking five minutes to describe an experience of literally being in the dark, and recalling how it felt—was sufficient to boost creativity. Participants who did just that drew more innovative portraits of space aliens than their counterparts who had described being in bright light.

However, the darkness-spurs-innovation equation did not always hold true. In another experiment, the researchers found “the darkness-related increase in creativity disappeared when using a more informal, indirect light instead of direct light.”

In this experiment, the light provided by the luminaire illuminated the ceiling and surrounding walls instead of providing a “top-down” light on the desk. Under those conditions, the dimness did not heighten a sense of freedom from constraints, and thus did not result in more creativity.

What’s more, the researchers note, innovation consists of two distinct phases: generating ideas, and then analyzing and implementing them. The latter requires analytical thinking, and in a final experiment, participants did better on that task when they were in a brightly lit room rather than a dimly lit one.

“Creativity may begin in the dark,” Steidle and Werth write, “but it shouldn’t end there.”

Nevertheless, during that all-important phase when you’re grasping for ideas, dim light appears to be a catalyst for creativity. “Darkness changes a room’s visual message,” the researchers explain, and one such message seems to be it’s safe to explore widely and let your imagination run free.

These results would seem to contradict those of an earlier study, which found creativity is boosted by the presence in the room of a bare light bulb. However, a closer reading finds they are compatible: It was the symbolic power of the bulb (which has gone off over many a cartoon character’s head to signify a mental breakthrough) that boosted creativity, not the level of illumination in the room.

So if you’re struggling to finish that screenplay or come up with the next must-have app, you might try illuminating your workspace with one bare bulb of minimal wattage. If you don’t want to be thought of as a dimbulb, perhaps the answer is a dim bulb.

Update: OK, that last suggestion wasn’t as clever as I thought it was. (What can I say? I was writing in a very bright room.) Steidle writes: “I’d rather suggest creating an informal and benign visual atmosphere by dimming direct light and having a light bulb somewhere in your field of vision which is turned on from time to time. As far as I understand it, the turning on of the light bulb is what primes the procedure of gaining insight.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.