Real Work Happens in Dark Rooms

March 27, 2008

Sometime when I was young, my family got dimmer switches in our family room.  I used to make it my goal in the evening to set the switch to the lowest possible setting that would still emit light from the bulbs.  It was fun to see just how little light could illuminate objects across the room.

In bed at night, I often kept a flashlight with me, so that I could read surreptitiously under the covers past bedtime.  Naturally, I used the flashlight to illuminate as little as possible in my bedroom too.  I had an alarm clock with a bright red digital display.  The less light was visible, the larger the contrast between the red display and the rest of the room.  The red seemed to burn into my brain.  But turn the lights on, and it didn’t seem very bright.  So I tried keeping the flashlight under the covers and rotating it in an arc to linearly grade the amount of light that went into the room.  The more light that escaped into the room, the more color was available.  I could get so little light out that it seemed like everything, even though I could still see it, was in shades of gray.  This was before I learned the ROYGBIV mnemonic for the visible light spectrum, but I started to get pretty interested in light and quickly learned of it.  It seemed like a discovery at the time, albeit only a personal one.  Looking back now it seems obvious.

I prefer greatly working in quasi or complete darkness.  I thought this was simply an artifact of early experiences, mostly of reading in the dark.  Lately I’ve been wondering if I like working in the dark because it’s the natural state of intellectual work.

I suppose that’s the first point of clarification.  “Real work” should be defined as anything that requires some level of intellectual processing power.  Perhaps a better description would be “creative work” happens in dark rooms, which doesn’t encompass all types of work.  For instance, there certainly is very real work that occurs outside.  This is, in the general case, a different sort of brain function.  When I’m laying on the driveway underneath a car, I’m not working out the location of parts of the vehicle for ideal polar moments given a certain mass and wheelbase.  I’m working to get the predefined correct amount of camber, or making sure a spring is aligned properly.  I’m focused much more on the concrete rather than the abstract.  “Real work” of the type I mean can be roughly defined by the level of abstraction required.  Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • Creative Arts
  • Academic and Humanities Research
  • Math (real math, this does not mean repetitive exercises)
  • Writing
  • Engineering Design
  • Software Development

We’re specifically considering any task that requires a certain level of abstraction and creativity, something that requires intensive focus or concentration.  Does this have to happen in the dark?  No, it doesn’t have to, but if it doesn’t, it’s severely hampered.  Consider the image that comes to mind when you think of a scholar pouring over a book in a library, a writer attempting to capture thoughts in book form, or even a hacker furiously typing at a keyboard.

St. Jerome Writing (from Wikipedia

Most people typically think of these sorts of activities occurring in darkness, with a swaddling pool of light surrounding the object of interest and the interested.  This image comes immediately to most of us, but it generally goes unnoticed.  Artists noticed it, naturally, and depictions of those in study are often surrounded by darkness.

It turns out that the very focus and demand for concentration that cerebral tasks require is the impetus for operating in a dark environment.  Humans are incredibly sensual.  When our senses are aroused to action, our capacity for focus on anything else decreases rapidly.  A friend of mine can do a fair bit of carpentry, which I’ve helped with at various times.  If I ask him the simplest question while he’s doing something with his hands, he doesn’t even hear me.  I have to yell to get his attention, and then I have to make sure he’s looking at me so he’ll hear the question.

The greatest of our sensual reliance comes from our vision.  One of the reasons mountain vistas are so breathtaking is the simple amount of space that registers - our brains need time to compute and understand it.  Conversely, when our vision is somehow limited, the world beyond, almost literally to our brains, ceases to exist.  It’s much easier to focus on what’s within our world if there’s less of it.  Our brains can only hold a certain space at any one time - we can sometimes do somersaults with a small problem space - but the entire mountain vista will take a long time to really grasp.  The easiest way to limit ourselves to one exclusive space is darkness.

Lago di Como, Italia

It’s interesting to note that there’s a difference between limiting the world with darkness and limiting it with physical boundaries.  In civic design, there’s the idea of an active and permeable membrane for public spaces.  The idea is that a public space has edges that are well defined, but that objects (people, goods, waiters from a restaurant, etc.) can go in and out easily.  Imagine a public square rimmed with bakeries, shops, restaurants, and churches.  (Incidentally, it’s not really possible to understand this ideal without visiting Europe.)  This is what makes the public space feel alive.  In the same way, defining a small space for our world will result in a small set of ideas that can’t grow.  But in darkness, it’s possible to bring objects (pens, pencils, paper, books, ideas) in and out as necessary.

What darkness actually provides is a consistent, comfortable, and confident environment to attack a scary, difficult problem.  It enhances one’s level of mental acuity by allowing the rest of the world to, quite literally, melt away.

This isn’t to say that it’s the only way to work.  Everyone needs daylight, preferably a lot of it, and especially in contrast to darkness.  In fact, like sleep, a daylight break will often allow fairly startling revelations to pop out.  It’s also the easiest place to collaborate.  People tend to be more forthright and communicative in natural light than they are in darkness or artificial light.  It’s no wonder that the brilliant tech companies out there have huge window filled lounges with ping-pong, pool tables, and couches for their employees to hang out in.  These types of environments actually enhance the level of work being performed.

So why is turning the lights off in most office spaces a corporate faux pas?  Most jobs, quite frankly, don’t take a great deal of mental heavy lifting (employers often like to think they do).  If that heavy concentration is required, it’s generally tackled off hours, either before or after the normal workday, with minimal distractions.  It always seems like the people that really get a lot done either get in early and leave early or get in late and leave late.  The typical 9-5er’s, often, simply take up space. *

Office Space

The real problem exists when a job commonly calls for this sort of real work and the corporate culture doesn’t exist for it.  Software development generally remains disregarded as a creative art, and so managers gloss over these sorts of creative positions.  This is bad news for developers.  But think about it - by providing florescent lights that hum lightly, a manager (or company) is really asking a developer only for status updates, requirements, and metrics, rather than any sort of creative effort.  Sometimes, that may be the point.  It’s less risky, creative works have far higher standards than maintaining the status quo.

So the next time you encounter something you want to put some real mental effort towards, try turning off the lights.

* This is just a general rule, and definitely does not apply in a good environment.

Greg Olsen
Hi I'm Greg. Occasionally, I do things.