Creativity & Darkness
Updated: Mar 31
Can we utilize "artificial darkness" as effectively as we do "artificial light"?
“Darkness endows the small and ordinary ones among mankind with poetical power."
― Thomas Hardy (1874)
The looking glass obscures
The theater is first awash in darkness;
then, the curtain rises;
the spotlight reveals, finally, the player.
There is something very pleasant about beginning such an experience in the dark. Before we see an entirely new world, it cleanses our palates somehow to see nothing—it frees us from expectations of the constraints of the known world and gives us permission to enter another that will be built, illuminated, brick-by-brick from nothingness.
How does being primed with darkness help prepare our minds to imbibe a fantastical reality?
In his treatise Emile, or On Education (1762) Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes:
“Accustomed to perceive objects from afar and to foresee their impressions in advance, how—when I no longer see anything around me—would I not suppose there to be countless beings, countless things in motion that can harm me and from which it is impossible for me to protect myself?”
Rousseau then elaborates upon something that many of us know anecdotally to be true and that science has since shed much light upon (so to speak): When deprived of one sense, our other senses become primed to help us perceive the danger and take steps towards our survival. If you cannot see the lion approaching, you will at least hear its footsteps booming all the more loudly.
Rousseau continues on to say that “Everything that ought to reassure me exists only in my reason. Instinct, stronger, speaks to me in a manner quite different.”
So, as Rousseau has put his finger upon here, the state of darkness—and the functional uselessness of the visual sense within it—can affect the way we perceive and respond to our world. In the dark, we tend to bring different skills to the forefront, even take actions that reason would not dictate.
If these unreasoned instincts sound to you like the seeds of imagination and innovation, they should…
The world delights in stories of famous artists or innovators (those aptly-credited with imaginative skill) who do their greatest work just before dawn or in the wee hours of the night. Often, this is correlated with the biological influences of their circadian rhythms—that is, of the nighttime and how the brain tends to work differently at this time.
But darkness does not exist only in the night. Many natural spaces are consistently dark, even when the sun reigns bright: caves, for instance. Can entering a space of complete darkness, even when the body knows it is daytime, provide us with some of the effects that have often been associated with nocturnalism?
The results of a set of studies published inThe Journal of Environmental Psychologyin 2013 demonstrated that even thinking about actual physical darkness (as distinguished from the biological circadian rhythms of nighttime) seems to have an effect on cognition.
“Elicits a feeling of being free from constraints”
“Triggers a risky, explorative processing style”
Helps with generating creative ideas rather than evaluating existing ideas (Consider this last point in tandem with the fact that many offices are consistently brightly lit, possibly undercutting employees' ability to devise innovative solutions)
Intuitively, it makes sense that darkness might stoke the imagination. When we can’t see what is in front of us—when we are not awash in the stimulation of a million defined things that elicit memory recall—our mind will fill the space with a whole panoply of characters and objects of its own devising. Looking open-eyed into the darkness is in a way like a conscious dreaming, though you are entirely awake—it is your imposed vision upon a blank canvas.
The invention of the light bulb—the ability to artificially illuminate—has been widely hailed as a coup for the progress of the human species; we forget to similarly revere the power of another aspect of nature that is also very much under our control: darkness. In this newsletter, I will discuss ways that you can use “artificial darkness” to improve creativity in your work life and in your leisure.
YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)
“People talk about paleo diets. Let’s pay attention to paleo lighting.”
- Randy Nelson, professor of neuroscience at the West Virginia University School of Medicine
LIGHTS-OFF FOR IDEA-TIME
It might be understandably difficult to write down your exciting new thoughts while immersed in darkness or to work out problems upon the page when you can't see what you're writing. Fear not—studies show that creative thinking is stimulated even following several minutes of thinking about darkness; a short leap of logic will tell us that experiencing darkness is a surefire way to think about darkness. When you have to come up with a creative solution, tactic, or idea for work, try taking your brain for a dip in darkness first.
STEP 1 Every workspace setup generally include some lighting source, either overhead or as a lamp (almost cliche, to the extent that the image of a desk lamp connotes intense mental focus). The same way that you might outfit your workspace with a lamp, come up with an easy, convenient, "one-click" method for plunging your space into darkness. This may involve blinds/curtains that you can easily reach over and close as you simultaneously switch off the overhead light; or (and especially if you share the space) it might be some way of covering your eyes, as with a sleep mask or blindfold. The important thing is that creating darkness should be just as functionally easy as creating light (if it isn't, you're likely never to bother with a difficult setup during a busy workday). STEP 2 When an issue requiring your creativity arises (perhaps a clever presentation idea, or a proposal for a new project), turn on your system of darkness. You may choose to set a timer for 5-15 minutes, or you may decide to navigate the time more intuitively. STEP 3 Think. Here in the dark, your thoughts should hopefully be less encumbered by realistic constraints and by the logical, rational, inhibitory responses of your own mind. STEP 4 Once the timer goes off (or once you feel you have have experienced an "aha!" moment, or possibly when your coworkers begin to look at you askance...), turn the lights back on. Without distracting yourself with anything else (it doesn't matter who has emailed or messaged you during this short time), take out a piece of paper and work out your ideas in writing. You might choose to type on your computer, but generally a physical blank sheet of paper and a writing implement is most distraction-proof, since the paper serves little function other than to receive your thoughts. Hopefully, your mind will still be in the creative state for which it was primed by the darkness, and the ideas will flow.
CONJURED AMIDST THE DARK
Often, certain things can be accepted in darkness that seem “irrational” in the light of day; the visual sense bears the burden of testifying to a reality when light is present, but in the absence of any illumination, imagination routinely acts as a substitute for perception. In the dark, one’s fancy can impose images on the mind that mere sight cannot.
According to Holley Moyes, an anthropological archeologist and an assistant professor at the University of California Merced, darkness has long shared an association, even since the era of the neanderthals, with "divine" communication. Moyes explains in her TEDx talk that permanent “dark zones” in caves—spots impractical for living or dining—were commonly used as ritual spaces, ossuaries, or burial sites. Many spiritually-inspired cave paintings can be found in such spaces.
Indeed, cave-dark is a very formidable kind of dark. As Will Hunt writes in“What happens when humans spend too much time in the dark,”“In cave darkness not a single photon penetrates. Here lies a heavy, ancient dark, Book-of-Genesis dark.”
Hunt describes the neurological basis of the brain’s propensity to seemingly “invent” things during these moments of visual darkness. He cites one of the sources of knowledge as the United States’ CIA’s sensory deprivation experiments conducted during the Cold War. Deprived of sight and all other senses, subjects of the study reported hallucinations as fantastical as the following:
“One participant reported seeing a parade of squirrels marching ‘purposefully’ across a snowy field, wearing snowshoes and backpacks, while another saw a bathtub being steered by an old man in a metal helmet. In a particularly extreme case, a subject encountered a second version of himself in the room: he and his apparition began to blend together, until he was unable to discern which was which.”
Why does this happen? Why does the brain conjure images that are so unlikely to be “true”? Is this useful or evolutionarily adaptive in some way? Hunt describes a scientific basis for the shocking (if amusing) images that appeared to some visually-deprived subjects.
The brain is primed to look for patterns—when you eat at an orange, your brain will put together the visual of the orange, the taste, the touch, the smell, and the sounds of the fruit to signal to you that this is an “orange” and you should behave accordingly. In a dark room, since the brain does not have enough sensory input to devise a full pattern of what is happening, it grabs onto any clue it can find and then combines it with images already stored in the memory in an attempt to create a pattern. This is the reasoning behind the strange collage of images smashed together in the dark as if to create a cohesive reality.
In 2014, Psychologists Anna Steidel and Lioba Werth conducted a set of experiments probing the connection between darkness and creativity. As I mentioned earlier in the newsletter, they concluded that thinking about darkness encouraged a more exploratory processing style, lowered inhibition, and bolstered creativity.
In one of Steidel and Werth’s studies, participants were first asked to describe either a light or dark location. Then, they were asked to draw a picture of an alien from another galaxy. Interestingly, those participants who had been primed with thoughts of darkness were judged to have given their aliens more creative features than did those who had been primed with thoughts of light.
In another experiment by Steidel and Werth, participants were asked to solve business interview-type puzzles (for instance, the famous Duncker’s candle problem—“How can you fix a candle to a corkboard wall and light it—without causing drippage—given only a box of tacks?”). This puzzle is used to gauge an applicant’s ability to creatively problem-solve. (If you are curious, you can follow this link for potential answers).
Participants were separated into three groups, and each group was given an environment with a different level of light—workplace standard, television studio, or cloudy day. In alignment with the results of the alien-drawing experiment, those in the dimmest lighting were able to solve more creativity-based problems. When it was time for logic problems requiring intense levels of analysis, however, participants in well-lit environments performed better.
This sends an interesting message to the interior designers of workspaces, demonstrating the intense effect that lighting can have on different types of problem solving. Perhaps offices that require a mixture of cognitive tasks (analytical and creative) from their employees should also create an environment with a mixture of levels of darkness.
"How darkness influences imagination" by Holly Moyes [TEDxVienna] "What happens when humans spend too much time in the dark" by Will Hunt [Popular Science]
"Darkness Boosts Creativity and Objectivity, Making Us Think Better" by Yasmin Tayag [Inverse] "Why Creativity Thrives in the Dark" by Eric Jaffe [Fast Company]
If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to my monthly newsletter:
If you're ready to take that first step towards creating a shift in your life, send me a note to learn more about receiving a free 60-minute session!
If you have any comments or questions, drop me a message!