I was so excited about the idea of living without artificial light.
Ever since I read this illuminating article on the science of sleep, going to bed at sunset and rising with the sun had turned into a health goal I wanted to try out—when I had the time and motivation. Like the Paleo diet, or going gluten free.
I’m not crazy. There’s a wealth of data to suggest the merits of an artificial-light-free lifestyle. Too much exposure to artificial light can increase the risk of breast cancer, along with diabetes and heart disease Artificial lighting in the industrialized world: circadian disruption and breast cancer. Stevens, RG. Cancer Causes and Control, 2006 May;17(4):501-7 . There’s speculation that artificial light is linked to the rise in obesity. Plus, the blue light from modern devices is especially bad for our sleep.
As it turns out, the eight-hour sleep shift is just a modern invention. Before Western cities were lit at night by lamps and then bulbs, people tended to sleep in two shifts: going to bed early, waking up in the middle of the night for a couple hours for sex or meditation, and then going back to sleep until morning.
In a recent study, eight people (admittedly a small sample) were sent on a weeklong camping trip without any lights or devices, and they came back as morning people. And I remember Colin Beavin, in his book "No Impact Man," switching off the circuit breaker in his apartment and getting more sleep. Everyone, of course, told him and his wife how great they looked.
Clearly, someone needs to try this out.
The Experiment: Rules, Goals, and Parameters
Dubbed the No Artificial Light Experiment (NALE?), I set out to discover if the modern city dweller could switch to a no-lightbulb or lit-screen existence as easily as switching to a vegan diet. I wanted to know: Have I never been truly awake before? Is eschewing artificial light even possible when you live on the grid? When it's over, will I feel amazing, or about the same? And if I feel amazing, how long will that feeling last?
The rules were as follows:
- The experiment would last for two weeks.
- No turning on electric lights, ever. Light would be provided only by candles or other types of fire.
- If I used my computer or phone, it had to be during daylight hours, in an area well-lit by natural light.
- I had to be inside with the curtains closed by nightfall, to avoid exposure to light pollution from the city.
- I would take a picture of my face every day of the experiment in order to track any visual changes.
- The experiment would start in late October, just as the daylight hours started compressing.
Of course, this experiment was only possible because I’m self-employed and can set my own hours. But I wanted to complete this in a way that gives a nod to everyday modern life, which is why computers and phones were allowed during daylight hours and I didn’t simply go on a camping trip.
What follows is a chronicle of my experiences attempting to live for two weeks without exposure to artificial light.
Pre-Experiment: THE PREPARATIONS
The challenge starts even before I unscrew the light bulbs, when I have to turn down invitations to anything that starts after 5 p.m. for the next two weeks.
I prepare by buying candles, and spend an hour at department stores looking for a real alarm clock (instead of my iPhone) that doesn't glow. But even the one traditional alarm clock I find boasts a backlit face. I explain what I'm looking for to an employee and he says, "Wait, so would falling asleep with the TV on be bad for you, too?" I look at him with horror.
The night before the experiment starts, I leave my phone in the living room. I unscrew the light bulb from the refrigerator. My curtains are closed in my room, and I set my alarm for 7:01 am, which is the exact time of sunrise. I fall asleep at midnight.
The First 9 Days
Day 1: Thursday, October 17th
I wake up at 9 am. My alarm didn't work. I light a candle to bring with me into the pitch-black bathroom to brush my teeth, and then the kitchen to make breakfast (neither rooms have windows for natural light). It’s not perfect (I lose my candle by leaving it in the fridge and wax is dripping everywhere), but this candlelit living seems doable, so far.
I don’t check my email until 9:30 am. This is a triumph, since usually it’s the first thing I do. I’ve moved my workspace to my bedroom for the duration of the experiment. I know working in my bedroom is not ideal—separation of work from sleep space and whatnot—but I have to be by a window. The clock is ticking on my productive hours, so I dive in.
I head out to run some errands, and it's not until later that I realize I spent about an hour in artificial lighting at Best Buy looking for an alarm clock that works. I’m so used to walking into a giant, lit department store, it didn’t even register.
At 5 p.m. I haven’t gotten as much done as I wanted, but I want to get a run in. (I can’t go to the gym or a studio class with artificial lighting.) This is when I realize that I have to break my rules just to leave my apartment building—the hallways, stairwell, elevator, and lobby and are windowless and fluorescently lit. I do it anyway—what choice do I have?
We go to sleep at 11:30.
Day 2: Friday,October 18th
My new alarm clock goes off at 7 am. My boyfriend remembers we both bolted awake at 3:30 am, convinced it was 6:30 am, before forcing ourselves back to sleep. Is this the broken sleep phenomenon of the olden days?
At 6:20 pm I'm lighting candles, and I realize I didn't really plan for dinner. I can't go out to get food, and I can't order food on my laptop or phone. So I do a lot of snacking and rummaging in the fridge and cupboards, then spend a lot of time reading.
One pleasant side effect of the experiment is that I'm thinking a lot more. I can't check my phone or computer, so I end up staring in space, staring at my candle, staring at a point on the wall, and just ruminating about my life direction. This is nice.
By 10:30, I’m sleepy and lay down my book. I don’t set my alarm, because I’m sure I'll pop out of bed by 7am. That’s how this works, right?
Day 3: Saturday, October 19th
Nope. I wake up at 10:30, having slept without waking for exactly 12 hours. I take my yoga mat up to the roof for an outrageously refreshing yoga session. I vow to myself to do this as often as I can until the weather gets too cold.
Next it's a shower by candlelight and off to brunch with friends. We can't get an outdoor seat, but I cajole the host into seating us by the window. After brunch, I catch up with work until the light fades, then spend the evening reading. A lot. I'm asleep by 10 p.m., having made more progress on my book in a day than I have in the past three months.
Day 4: Sunday, October 20th
I wake up at 6:15 am without an alarm (finally!), open the curtains, and watch the light slowly brighten, the grey clouds breaking up into a sunny day with blue skies. I hear the newspaper hit my front door, and take it back to bed with me, accompanied by a smoothie. I text my boyfriend, who has just gotten home from a party. I’m experiencing some serious FOMO.
But that's OK. My day is turning out to be seriously productive. First it’s yoga on the roof again, followed by meditation. And I still have the whole day ahead of me—a wealth of time! I decide to bike to Brooklyn and do some more reading in the park.
When I get home, it’s time for … more reading. I fall asleep at 11 p.m.
Day 5: Monday, October 21st
I'm up at 7:30 the next morning. I don't exactly feel imbued with superpowers. I catch myself yawning at 10 am as I work by my window.
I have a friend over for dinner that night, and we stay up until past midnight talking. When is the last time I had a conversation like this? Summer camp?
Day 6: Tuesday, October 22nd
I sleep fitfully and wake up to my alarm at 7 am, exhausted.
I’m beginning to resign myself to the fact that modern life requires artificial lighting. I've given up 80 percent of my social life, but I still have to do things in artificial lighting to live. I bike four miles to my doctor’s appointment. Go me! …But then I have to sit in a fluorescent-lit waiting room for 45 minutes. When I leave, I have a mild headache, which is cured by my sunny bike ride back downtown—where I go inside for another meeting.
Perhaps all this cheating is why I feel … normal. My skin isn’t glowing yet, and while I’m proud of my progress through a biography of Catherine the Great, I’m falling seriously behind on the kind of work that pays the bills.
Days 7 and 8: Wednesday and Thursday, October 23rd and 24th
I would love to say I’m staying in tip-top shape, but I’m still struggling to fit my workload and other life tasks (eating, showering, running errands) into my day—which, in October, is 11 hours long. That is, if I wake up on time. I have been intentionally not setting my alarm to see if my circadian rhythms have normalized. Today, they did not, and I slept until 8 am.
I miss my spin classes. I miss my yoga. I miss city things. I miss my friends. I miss my life.
Day 9: Friday, October 25th
Friday is when I really fall off the wagon. I wake up at 4:45 am, flip up my radio clock to check the time, fall back asleep, wake up again at 5:15, spend an hour ruminating in my bed, then give up and scroll through my email on my phone. I’m sorry! I was bored, and didn’t want to do more reading.
Interlude: A Change of Pace
For the second week of the experiment, I’ll be in Maryland visiting my family. I’m curious to see how I’ll fair at their house, which is smack in the middle of 12 acres of woods. No street lights means I can leave my bedroom curtains open to the east when I go to sleep, and actually be woken up by the sun.
I'm renting my apartment out on AirBnB, which means the apartment needs to be spotless. I switch the lights on in the kitchen. It’s disgusting. (Surprise! Cleaning by candlelight doesn’t work well!). All morning while I clean, I'm bathed in artificial light. Before, the lack of windows in my living room, kitchen, and bathroom was mildly annoying. Now it seems like a human rights infringement.
I take a bus down to Maryland, which is just fine until darkness falls. The interior lights are switched on, and I get picked up in a car and driven through the light pollution of D.C. and Annapolis.
It's not until 8:30 when I get out of the car at my parents' home and find darkness again. I had forgotten how bright the moon can be. It’s bathing us in a silvery light bright enough to navigate through the house without lights on. I’m rejoicing in this development when my stepdad flicks on the kitchen light, and I run off to hide in my bedroom. I fall asleep at 10 pm.
The Last 5 Days
Day 10: Saturday, October 26th
I wake up at 8 am. What is up with my body? I’ve slept 7 hours one night, 12 another, and 10 the night before. My body can't seem to settle on a good amount of sleep. At least here I don't need to use a candle all day. The bathroom, hallway, kitchen, and living room all have large windows.
This second leg of my experiment doesn’t go as well as I had hoped. It’s great that I can get the full benefit of natural light, but how am I supposed to say no to a big family dinner at a restaurant? I go. When I get home at 8:30 pm, I have to stand firm against some guilt tripping to watch a documentary with my stepdad, and retreat to read a book by the fireplace.
This must be what it was like to be a vegan in the 90s. Everyone is confused at first, then amused, then personally offended that I don’t want to partake in what they see as wholesome family activities. My sister threw a hissy fit when she found out about the experiment, crying, “How are we supposed to do anything together?” She has a point.
Day 11: Sunday, October 27th
In NYC, at least I could hide in my own apartment. Now I'm creeping around the house at night and running from the room like a cockroach when the light is turned on.
I succeed in forcing a candlelit dinner on my parents, but, of course, when we’re done eating they flick on the kitchen light to clean up. I shoot down another invitation to watch TV with my mom.
Days 12 to 14: Monday-Wednesday, October 28th – October 30th
I wake up at 6:30 am on Monday. I’m starting to feel like a real troll, so I agree to dinner with my sister that night, which goes until 9:30 pm As soon as I'm home, I'm in bed. I spend the last two days of the experiment working and getting in quality time with my mom during the day, then hiding at night with a book. Some vacation.
On the final day, I wake up at 8 am, and I feel exactly the same as I did at the beginning of the experiment.
Post-Experiment: The Takeaways
The bad news: I failed. I encountered artificial light every day in multiple forms. I cheated by accident and on purpose several times. My circadian rhythms never normalized. And I don’t feel fantastically alert and vibrant like I’d hoped. In short, I was looking for a transformation and didn’t get one. Most disappointingly, not one person has told me how good I look. Perhaps the benefits require a longer-term commitment, similar to eating organic or going toxin-free with your personal care products.
The good news: You don’t have yet another impossible health standard to add to your list. Are you relieved?
I don’t anticipate that artificial-light-free living will ever be the next big health trend. You can’t achieve it unless you live outside of town and your whole family and some friends are on board.
Still, it wasn’t an entire bust. I’ve picked up some excellent habits that I hope I can hold on to:
- Working more efficiently during the day so I can turn off my computer at night
- Working by the window (which makes me feel a little brighter)
- Biking whenever I can, instead of taking the subway
- Doing yoga on the roof or taking a jog outside
- Lighting candles and setting aside my phone for deeper conversation
- Leaving my cell phone to charge in the living room at night
- Reading more without the distraction of my phone sitting right next to me
But guess what? I’m writing this story at 10 pm so I can turn it in on time. God bless modern technology.
Alden Wicker is a freelance journalist and blogger living in New York City. She writes daily about how to live sustainably—and love life—on her blog, EcoCult.com. When she’s not writing, she’s spinning, practicing yoga, cooking, or dancing all night to electronic music.