Light and Neuroscience: A Combination that Looks to the Future

Photo by Rhett Wesley on Unsplash

Originally published in Officelayout magazine No. 186, July-September edition, 2021. Published with permission of the Officelayout editorial board.

With contribution of Martina Frattura & Natalia Olszewska.

The combination of neuroscientific research findings exploring neuronal processes behind mental states, and new approaches in lighting design, becomes an important strand of innovation that truly places an individual’s well-being at the center of the lighting and product design

Neuroscience has become a key innovation factor in the field of lighting design as it makes it possible to correlate human physiological and neurophysiological characteristics, with the architectural features and environmental conditions of the context in which a person is located.

Understanding of brain workings can make an enormous difference in architectural design and, also so, in lighting design, because the possibility of identifying more clearly the factors affecting people’s psycho-physical states, leads to the definition of new evaluation criteria on which design choices can be based. 

Design has been placed in relation to the environmental aspects closely related to human senses. However, the objective of good lighting is no longer just to make people see well, but also to make them feel at ease, taking into account the effects of artificial light on the human organism. 

There has been a push towards product innovation, oriented towards the development of intelligent systems, capable of observing people’s physiological reactions and, in the presence of negative situations such as stress or discomfort, of intervening by modifying the environmental parameters to recreate well-being conditions. 

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These systems act primarily on light, as it represents the main stimulus to regulate the circadian rhythm, the biological clock that in the different phases of the day regulates key functions such as hormone levels, sleep, and metabolism. 

This line of research has led to solutions based on the principles of ‘Human Centric Lighting’. The next step is represented by the integration of sophisticated sensors that detect ciliary and ocular movement, as well as posture, the presence of sweat, and movements of the person to develop neuroscientific models for evaluating reactions to environmental lighting stimuli. 

The road is therefore paved, but to proceed in this direction, it will be essential to maintain an interdisciplinary approach, the result of the knowledge that, in addition to lighting engineering, ranges over the fields of physiology, neuroscience, medicine, physics, and psychology, with implications involving technology and artificial intelligence.

Neuroscience and lighting design

Our relationship with indoor environments has completely changed compared to the past. If our ancestors spent most of the day outdoors, over the years, the number of activities that lead us to spend our time mainly indoors have always been growing, with possible negative repercussions on our physiology and our brains, which have not adapted to these changes. 

This is one of the reasons why discoveries in the field of neuroscience which can elucidate the nature of the relationship between man and environments, are important. 

So far, it has been demonstrated that the choice of colors has direct effects on the nervous system, for example, red activates the sympathetic nervous system generating anxiety and excitement, while blue acts on the parasympathetic nervous system giving the person a sensation of peace, relaxation and rest. Even the selection of specific odors such as natural aromas has a positive effect on people’s state of mind… 

Light is even more important. Sight has an important impact on human well-being. Think for example of the benefit we find when we are in front of a work of art; we feel emotions that can be further accentuated if the work of art is properly illuminated. 

But how can we emphasize well-being using lighting? Simply by starting from some basic principles: good lighting must be of high quality; it must be comfortable for the eyes; it must be dynamic, i.e. it must change intensity during the day to alternate moments of attention with those of relaxation and, finally, it must be customizable both in terms of the light spectrum and by adapting to the needs of the user. Furthermore, considering that natural light is the best light for people’s well-being, the project must aim at artificial lighting as similar as possible to sunlight.

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The researcher Yvonne de Kort, PhD Full Professor and Chair of Environmental Psychology of Human-Technology Interaction, Department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, draws attention to the many pieces of research in the field of smart lighting, highlighting the need to recognize the needs of users – in terms of vision, comfort, health, performance, atmosphere and energy savings – and the need to implement an interdisciplinary collaboration between professionals from different disciplines such as neurobiology, cognitive neuroscience, chronobiology, psychology, design, and lighting technology. 

She also emphasizes the need to contextualize research outside of the lab for greater relevance to reality: “Intelligent lighting solutions address real people, in real environments, under real light conditions, not to lightless, sleep-deprived lab rats in closed white boxes. 

Participants may respond milliseconds faster to unexpected visual stimuli or their melatonin levels may rise minutes earlier in light of a certain spectrum or intensity, but does this imply that they will finish their work more effectively or sleep better at home? Will the effects persist if they have not been affected by dim light, a cup of coffee, and in case someone has more on their mind than the single goal of finalizing the session? 

Will there be significant light effects in the context of the rich and chaotic situations in which we live? Won’t the potential dissatisfaction with a particular light in a certain context invalidate the potential benefits seen in the confines of the lab? Truly intelligent lighting solutions require considering all of the above: they should balance all relevant needs, be based on comprehensive evidence, and rooted in the real world.”

A beautiful light, the light that activates attention

What are the characteristics that artificial lighting should have to help maintain a good level of attention and to avoid the exhaustion of mental resources? This is the starting question of the research project ‘A beautiful light’ launched in 2017 by the researcher and lighting designer Martina Frattura, who is a tale in two voices with Natalia Olszewska, a neuroscientist, and medical doctor, illustrates the founding aspects of the project that makes beauty the determining variable for achieving ideal light by expanding the discussion on the complex mechanisms that link neuroscience and lighting. 

“One of the hypotheses of the experiment is that the perception of beauty can be linked to a phenomenon described as soft fascination. This is one of the four characteristics of an environment that helps to restore a fatigued mind and can be described as a space, or an object, that captures the attention of users in a spontaneous form.

The other three characteristics are compatibility, i.e., the correspondence between what the person wants to do and what the environment requires and allows one to do; a sense of being away, which means moving away from the daily routine; and extension understood as the ability of an environment to encourage exploration of it. 

The idea is that environments can activate so-called involuntary attention which is driven by external stimuli whose characteristics influence its effects, for example visiting or seeing natural environments can have restorative psychological effects, while exposure to the man-made environment typically has less positive effects. 

Considering that we spend most of our time in closed and artificial spaces, the need to create suitable stimuli to overcome this problem becomes a design necessity. However, the positive perception of a given factor does not depend entirely on the characteristics of the stimulus itself, but also on the meaning people assign to it. This translates into the possibility of having positive reactions to an environment due to one’s personal association, and not only predefined physiological responses. 

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It is with these premises that the aesthetic experience becomes an object of research and study, always searching for a better understanding of the relationship between humans and their environments. And it is a combination of aesthetics with the potential effects of a controlled lighting scenario and their impact on people, that the ‘A Beautiful Light’ project was born from. 

The idea is that a light stimulus becomes essential to trigger the benefits of mentioned above soft fascination. This experiment was inspired by the investigations of environmental psychologists, to explore two hypotheses: first, that aesthetic experience can decrease attention fatigue; second, that lighting can replicate the effects of aesthetic experience.”

The link between light and an individual’s wellbeing is complex and multi-faceted as Martina Frattura explains: “Light affects people in three ways: as radiation that has an impact on psychophysical wellbeing; as an illuminator that operates through the visual system and can influence attention levels and, finally, light that influences the circadian rhythm and modulates our lifestyle, in particular the sleep cycle. Light, therefore, influences perception, performance, preference, behavior, and mood. 

Researchers have agreed that light is powerful in eliciting a wide range of circadian, neuroendocrine, and neurobehavioral responses in humans. These types of responses to light have been termed non-visual. In humans and the vast majority of animals, patterns of light and darkness that reach the back of the eyes via intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs), or melanopsin-containing retinal ganglion cells (mRGCs) are converted into neural signals that promote synchronization of the biological clock. 

Without this synchronization, research has shown that we may experience long-term decrements in physiological function, sleep, and are at increased risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. 

The sense of well-being is also influenced by visual comfort, which contributes to increased performance. Good lighting quality also ensures physical safety.

People’s sense of well-being can also be improved through personal control. Modern lighting and room concepts partly meet the individual needs of people when performing various tasks.”

Scientific research on neuro-design, therefore, lays the foundations for a truly ‘human-centred’ design. 

As stated by Harry Malgrave – author of the book “Empathy of Spaces: Architecture and Neuroscience”, professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology and faculty member of Neuroscience Applied to Architectural Design at the IUAV University – neuroscience offers the opportunity to shift the focus towards the human experience and not be concentrated only on the functional and aesthetic aspects of buildings or environments. But how can neuroscience be applied to architectural lighting projects? 

Natalia Olszewska explains: “There are many tools enabling control and monitoring of the physiological responses to certain stimuli, in the case of both individuals and groups. Some are already in wide use such as the blue light filter for screens, others are less well known such as sensors to record the time of exposure to natural light in a day. In both cases the ultimate goal is to have immediate feedback from our body to the space we are in and the activity we are performing. It is at this juncture that neuroscience becomes a fundamental design tool. 

Even if we don’t start from personal data readings, but with the help of experts in the field, the recording of brain activity in specific spaces and for specific activities becomes a useful control tool for all those designers who have as their goal a specific design impact of the environments they are creating. 

The great revolution of neuroscience applied to architecture leads to the construction of a project around humans, and to be even more specific, around their perceptual and cognitive capabilities, such as attention, memory, learning, comprehension, next to emotions and sensations. Every time we enter a space, we have a particular sensation and response, and we might be able to understand and suggest a common and shareable reaction, thanks to the marriage of neuroscience and architecture”. 

“Neuroscience offers the possibility of delving into the brain mechanisms of neurobehavioral responses – adds Martina Frattura. This understanding can help us optimize lighting design solutions to adapt the light to the needs and specifications of the user, their experience, and the characteristics of the space in which they find themselves. 

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Neuroscience comes to our aid through a wide repertoire of research and neuroimaging tools, for example, Electroencephalography and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Then, research carried out in laboratories is basic research, which broadens the horizons of the scientific field and brings a deeper understanding by developing its scope. 

Another approach is translational research, the category of applied research, which draws on the results of basic research published in scientific journals and applies them in practice through recommendations/information for practitioners. Customized recommendations rooted in translational research can support the designer’s decisions and make it more oriented towards the well-being and needs of users”. 

Above mentioned considerations lead us to the reframing of the “human centric lighting” that, quoting Kevin Houser, professor at Oregon State University, has been a fashion term “tainted by misleading marketing claims”. 

“All the new knowledge about the non-visual effects of lighting on humans has created a real fertile basis for the development of new specific approaches to lighting design for all members of the lighting industry,” explains Martina Frattura. “What has been created, however, is a separation between the various influences of light on humans, limiting human-centric lighting to color temperature correction throughout the day. 

Technical lighting companies and manufacturing companies have invested heavily in the correction of light sources and luminaires based on these notions, but probably working too much on a compartmentalized basis. There is currently no comprehensive design guide for the visual and non-visual effects of light that designers can design for, but I strongly believe that this is the future of the lighting world.”

Even in the workplace, neuroscience is leading us to reconsider the objectives of lighting design. The tasks of employees are becoming more and more varied, and purely desk work is often mixed with creative and communicative tasks,” explains Martina Frattura.

“Modern workplaces favor a lighting concept that divides space into zones and, in so doing, responds to different types of use and the needs of individual employees, rather than a lighting general uniformity. Good visual and lighting conditions help to ensure that employees feel comfortable, both physically and mentally. For offices, in particular, we recommend adding biologically effective artificial lighting to incident daylight. Biologically effective artificial lighting solutions, based on daylight, stabilize people’s circadian rhythm.”


The discoveries in the field of neuroscience and consequent applied research in the field of light, as well as having reflections in lighting design, have given new impetus to the development of intelligent systems capable of detecting signals related to the behavior of people and their physiological reactions to certain lighting conditions. Applying these solutions in homes, offices, public spaces such as theaters, schools, museums, and commercial spaces, means offering an innovative service that places flexibility and customization of the lighting system at the heart of the project.

A lot of progress in terms of lighting and well-being, but it is time to go further. We must not stop, but continue to explore what collaboration between various professionals can offer to achieve the truly optimal result. In this sense, we can take as an example the work that Shelley James, a founder of Age of Light Innovations, is doing as she is trying to educate the general public about the power of light and the lasting impact it can have on both mental and physical wellbeing. 

Some aspects of her project are based on very interesting research that the Neuroscience Lab, the laboratory of applied research and development born from the partnership between Intesa Sanpaolo Innovation Center and Scuola IMT Alti Studi di Lucca, has been carrying out for several years. 

Starting by measuring the psychophysical parameters of a series of volunteers who find themselves in front of the masterpiece of world painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at the Cenacolo Vinciano, perceptions were recorded to understand what happens to the brain when faced with Leonardo’s work. 

The experimentation aimed to understand the fruition of the museum site and to understand how the current exhibition features, such as lighting, illustrative panels, and route, could positively or negatively influence the quality of the visit. This approach could be a new design method for all lighting designers, to be applied, as it has been done for cultural heritage, to all sectors. 

It would be interesting in fact to be able to understand, applying a series of devices, such as the electroencephalogram to record brain activity, or the galvanic skin response to detect, through sweating, emotional activity, or even through an eye tracker that follows the movements of the pupils to verify the pointing of the eye, the reactions, and perceptions of the end-user under a certain type of lighting. This would allow us to know the responses to light stimuli going to design a lighting system aimed at the welfare of the person.

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