We all know that part of “setting the mood” is dimming the lights or lighting some candles — and that’s true whether you are getting ready for a romantic dinner for two or it’s time to snuggle with your kids before they go to sleep. Turning down the overhead lights or switching on some lamps seems to change things up just enough to create some mystery or calm wiggly little bodies.
But why does dimming the lights make for a better mood? A series of studies meant to test the effect of lighting on emotions shows that brighter lights intensify emotional responses. Participants in one study judged a man in a video to be more hot-headed when they were sitting in a room lit by bright, fluorescent lights than participants who were shown the video in a room lit only by the glow of computer screens. In another study, those in the brightly lit room wanted spicier hot wings than those in the dimmer room. And the dimly lit room also caused people to be more conservative in their evaluations of how attractive models were. This suggests that the amount of light in a room has the ability to amplify our emotional responses.
On the one hand, this seems self-evident. As I mentioned before, lighting is critical in setting the right mood whether it be calm and cool, or mysterious and romantic. But knowing that brighter light actually intensifies emotions means that I can be more intentional in my use of lighting to shape the mood of my domain. I remember in elementary school my teacher sometimes turned the light off when my classmates and I were getting a little out of hand. It had the immediate effect of catching our attention, but I wonder if it didn’t also make it easier for us to sit still.
Certainly I can take advantage of that trick as well: whenever things get crazy in my little apartment and everyone is crying and throwing things, maybe a flip of the switch would help all of us calm down so we don’t lose control. Or when my husband and I have to have one of those intense discussions, it might be better to start by turning off the bright overhead light and turning on a soft lamp. And when I’ve had a rough day and am feeling out of sorts, perhaps I should keep the lights off and open the curtains instead — and then curl up on the couch with a good book.
photo: Lizzie Heiselt