Teenagers are often drowsy – not just because they spend all night on Facebook or playing computer games – but because their body clocks lag behind in the morning and they don’t perform well until the evening (That applies to me too so maybe I’m still a teenager at heart!).
Some schools have responded by starting classes later to accommodate this. Others are experimenting with special blue-tinted lighting which keeps pupils alert.
The body clock is synchronised by light falling on part of the retina in the eye which responds most strongly to blue light. When stimulated the cells trigger alertness hormones so by exposing pupils to a dose of blue light the schools hope they will be more wide-awake in class.
The lighting system used has been developed by Philips at Eindhoven and is used in schools in Germany and the Netherlands. Apart from the intense blue light used to focus and energise the pupils the system also has more red tinted light to calm people down at the end of the day when pupils are usually more disruptive.
So the system is using light almost subliminally to trigger physiological responses. Early studies show reading speeds increased under the focused blue lighting and mathematical problem solving improved under the calmer settings.
Surely it’s only a matter of time that offices replace those headache inducing fluorescents, not just with LEDs, but with lights that might help improve productivity.
Other researchers have found that apart from the rods and cones there are cells in the eye which respond to blue light specifically. Blue light appears to enhance mood – both up and down – compared to other colours such as green.
Light therapy has also been used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which affects people who live in parts of the world that has only short periods of daylight during the Winter months. Recent research suggests that blue light might be more effective than white light.
There is a downside however. Some doctors warn that exposure to high intensity blue light can lead to macular degeneration which causes blindness.
Updated 5 July 2011: Epsom and Ewell High School have been using the SchoolVision lighting system since last September and found it has had a positive effect on pupil’s behaviour.
The school can change both the intensity and the colour temperature and the children can ask for changes to be made when they are actually in a class.
Apart from the normal setting, used as pupils arrive at and depart from classes, there are three other settings: focus, calm, and energy.
Focus is bright blue to wake them up, red is calmer and used after break periods, and focus is a bright white light used during exams and tests.
The experiment is only being used in the science labs at present to encourage more people to study science at post-GCSE level. It seems to have worked. Physics students are up from 3 to 30, chemistry up from 1 to 17, and biology up from 28 to 44.
The lighting seems to improve student performances too as concentration and mood levels improve and further research is being carried out by the Centre for Performance at Work at City University in London.