Think about the environment in which you're reading this.

Specifically, how's the lighting?

I ask because a new laboratory study out of Michigan State University suggests that working in dim lighting can "change the brain's structure and hurt one's ability to remember and learn," according to a university press release.

The study tracked the brains of Nile grass rats in a lab experiment. Half the animals were kept in an environment where the lights were dim, simulating what humans might encounter in typical indoor lighting like an office, or outside on a cloudy midwinter day.

The other half were kept in an environment with much brighter lighting--think of a sunny day outside.

Results: The animals that were kept in dimmer light "lost about 30 percent of capacity in the hippocampus, a critical brain region for learning and memory, and performed poorly on a spatial task they had trained on previously."

"This is similar to when people can't find their way back to their cars in a busy parking lot after spending a few hours in a shopping mall or movie theater," said Antonio Nunez, a psychology professor and co-author of the study, which was published in the journal Hippocampus.

Obviously, this is a classic "lab rat" study. The researchers said they chose Nile grass rats because they share an important attribute with humans: They're diurnal, meaning they naturally wake and work during the day and sleep at night.

Also, of course, the scientists could control the amount of light that they were exposed to over a significant period of time. Try doing that with humans.

Nevertheless, the results comported with expectations. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the researchers believe that reduced lighting led to a significant reduction in a brain substance called  "brain derived neurotrophic factor." 

Reducing that substance makes it more difficult for neurons to connect with one another in the brain. 

"Since there are fewer connections being made, this results in diminished learning and memory performance that is dependent upon the hippocampus," explained Joel Soler, a doctoral graduate student who was the study's lead author.

"In other words," Soler continued, "dim lights are producing dimwits."

So, what to do with this information?

The study authors' immediate thought is about how we could possibly improve cognitive performance in elderly people, or those with glaucoma or other eye and brain conditions, by increasing their light exposure.

But you might well be thinking exactly what I was when I first heard about this study: Should my office be brighter?

So many of us work in open offices now, with lighting limited to fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling and, if you're lucky enough--a seat by a window. Is that factor alone enough to negatively impact our performance?

Is that why our company's CEO can ask me about an email I sent two days ago -- and leave me feeling like an idiot when I can't remember it at all for a minute?

It sounds quite possible, and I wonder how many of us are experiencing the same thing. Are we all in the same dimly lit boat, so to speak?

Let us know in the comments what you think. I'd also like to know informally--where are people reading this, and is the lighting around you bright enough to make you feel like you'd be doing your best work?

Published on: Feb 9, 2018