Observational Study on Lighting Design and its Impact on Behavior and Cognition


This paper aims to understand the relationship between lighting design and an individual’s behavior and cognition. Physically observable behavior will be recorded as an individual is engaged in a cognitive task in different lighting settings to determine what interior spaces involved will create a more suitable environment for these activities to be completed. In this study, two observational studies will be conducted in two private locations.

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Ideally, this study could potentially be replicated in multiple different public settings to gain a fuller understanding in how an interior spaces’ lighting design in impacts a group’s behavior and cognition.

Keywords: behavior, cognition, environment, interior design, lighting design, observational study, spatial arrangements

Observational Study on Lighting Design and Its Impact on Behavior and Cognition

The natural rhythm of life’s biological processes is deeply affected by sunlight. Both diurnal and nocturnal organism’s circadian rhythm is heavily influenced by the presence and abundance of sunlight to determine what processes they must engage in for survival. Diurnal organisms are categorized by their biologically predispositioned schedule of being awake during the day and asleep at night. Nocturnal organisms are categorized by being asleep during the presence of light and alert during its absence. During their active period of the day, both diurnal and nocturnal organisms rely on the presence of light for carrying out their necessary functions for survival, such as hunting and digestion of their food, defending their territory from invaders, and procreating to increase population size. While these two patterns of behavior expressed in diurnal and nocturnal organisms are opposite in the time they are active, they still both rely similar cues from certain quantities of sunlight to keep their biological clock ticking on the correct beat. The quality and quantity of available light plays a vital role in biological processes that allow for life to be sustained and thrive.

The quantity of photons of light are important in determining if the most capable organism is can process the visual stimuli….

As patterns of light slowly change over time, the differences in light become important indicators to several species in synchronizing to environmental rhythms. Circadian rhythm, “a biological process that displays an endogenous, entrainable oscillation of about 24 hours,” is one of the main influences on organisms ability to maintain their own internal clock. Daylight savings can either increase the onset amount of darkness or increase the amount of brightness in the evening, requiring organisms to gradually recognize these changes and respond with biological adaptations. “The orbiting of the tilted earth around the sun causes circadian changes in the length of the daylight or duration of photoperiod at different seasons of the year.” (SOURCE). “Seasonal variations in the photoperiod are perceived by the photoreceptors of the mammalian eye sending signals to the SCN, Suprachiasmatic nucleus, “a tiny region of the brain in the hypothalamus, situated directly above the optic chiasm and responsible for controlling circadian rhythms.” The SCN then drives the nocturnal melatonin rhythm. Long days have more available daylight and less hours of darkness; therefore the secretion of melatonin is reduced in season with less hours of darkness such as late spring and summer. Melatonin is a vital regulator of an organism’s circannual rhythms in consumption and digestion of food, reproductive processes. These organisms can easily allow thier bodys to adapt it’s temperature to climate differences, maintain homeostasis and remain a balanced with the availability of light. Because all organisms depend on the presence of light to allow for their own body’s stimulation, it is a necessity of life.

Humans are no different that the vast amount of other species that co-inhabit this planet. Despite individuals becoming more focused on the artificial constructs made in society, our primitive biological processes are deeply ingrained in the cyclic patterns of the sunlight’s presence and abundance. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “To stay completely in sync with day and night, however, the internal clock accesses external cues. This process of adjusting or cueing the internal clock with signals from the environment is called entrainment.” (SOURCE) Because the internal clock is relatively flexible, human bodies can keep up with seasonal light fluctuations. One of the current problems of today’s society is how light pollution is change how humans interact on a micro and macro level with their environment. Individuals are not only disrupting the biological clocks within themselves, they are systematically destroying the biological clock of surrounding ecosystems. Artificial light is changing how our brains misperceive time, disrupting out diurnal cycles, and create attentional problems when performing cognitive tasks. To allow for maximum productivity, the lighting design of interior spaces should best be able to mimic natural settings. It must be vibrant enough to keep the mind stimulating, yet not too intense to create discomfort and agitation. When an individual is surrounded by the colors of light most pleasing to them, they are able to maintain a relaxed state of comfort.

Literature Review

Fulfilling the Need for Environment

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the first level an individual must be able to satisfy in order to be capable of motivationally is physiological. After fulfilling this instinctual and primary need, individuals then aim to secure “safety” in their environment, “love/belonging” in their social roles, “esteem” for their individualistic selves, and finally, attain “self-actualization.” Humans aim to fulfill their need for food, water, shelter and light.

In the article, “Psychology in Design. Influence of one’s environment representation over emotion”… Compared interior design projects exploring the hypothesis that specific elements inside the environment, human figures, doors and passageways, natural elements and everyday objects elicits a positive emotional reaction and an expression of preference in buyers (INSERT CITATION). A small sample of twenty-four college students who were shown 4 designs by IKEA and 4 other designs by other brands were more likely to choose from IKEA because the visual representations of these interior spaces were capable of “eliciting a more positive emotional response, a more alive visual exploration”. (INSERT CITATION)

Basics of Operative Design & Conditional Design

When considering how light is able to fill a space properly, individuals must first consider the shape and function of the interior space. Operative design is intended to be a “systematic framework to begin to differentiate how [architectural spaces] operate volumetrically.” The catalog of different 3D shapes serves as representational building blocks for architectural environments it allows both the reader and the designer to develop an “understanding [of] spatial formation as a process that can be derived from fundamental actions, here grouped into volumetric addition, subtraction, or displacement, which define a lexicon of starting points” for “the creation of space and also imply the relationship between oneself and the space created.” It provides the opportunity “to initiate spatial opportunities rather than to limit them.”

Light Sources & Luminaries

Luminaries are devices that include a lamp holder and the means of electricity and support for that device, characterized by lights distribution. Lighting fixtures are permanently attached to a building. Cannot be changed unless doing extensive reconstruction of the electrical grid. Direct lumineers emit light downwards while in-direct lumineers emit light upward bounce light from ceiling into space. Both direct and indirect lumineers have the ability to emit light upward and downward but not to the sides of the radiating source. When light is properly diffused it emils light in all directions uniformly, rather than having a central intensity fixated on a point and the perimeter of the glow becoming softer the greater the diameter grows from the central point. While direct lumineers are effective at flooding light onto the task area, “they are not generally recommended for workspaces due to “creating uncomfortable dark ceilings and upper walls.”

Lighting Color Temperature & Intensity

The color temperature of a light source is the temperature of an ideal black-body radiator that radiates light of a color comparable to that of the light source. [The color temperature of daylight varies with the time of day. It tends to be around 2,000 K shortly after sunrise or before sunset, around 3,500 K during “golden hour”, and around 5,500 K during midday. The color temperature can also change significantly with altitude, latitude, and weather conditions).] Color temperatures over 5000 K are called “cool colors” (bluish), while lower color temperatures (2700–3000 K) are called “warm colors” (yellowish). “Warm” in this context is an analogy to radiated heat flux of traditional incandescent lighting rather than temperature. The spectral peak of warm-coloured light is closer to infrared, and most natural warm-coloured light sources emit significant infrared radiation. The fact that “warm” lighting in this sense actually has a “cooler” color temperature often leads to confusion.

Integration of Natural Daylight and Electrical Light in a Room

The most ideal way to choose basic luminaries for a space is by first, “choosing an electric light source is appropriate independent of daylight,” then determining the adjustments that could be suited for the contextual situation and individual’s personal preference and finally, executing the lighting design plan as best as possible.


For the focus of my study, I will hold multiple small observational studies to fufill mty curspirtisty on how the interior design of a space, an interaction between the blocks of shapes and the arrangement of lighting effects work together to play a key role in behavior and cognition. Before beginning the experiment, I will record the current state of lighting, sketch out a floor plan of the room’s current arrangement of items and the methods of lighting available currently within the interior space. By taking note of the arrangement of furniture, I am noting into how light can shape the objects within an interior confinement.

For my private setting, I will observe the current lighting designs of two apartments. One college university dormitory, which happens to be a single studio for a student. The other apartment I will observe is a one bedroom and one living room as a single unit within a 3-floor home located in Roxbury. The two apartments differ in location which is relevant when thinking about where the source of light is rising and setting in regards to the windows being used as passageways for light to enter the interior space and diffusers for the intensity of the light. I will have two three-hour sessions in both my and my partner’s living accommodations to see how concentrated we can be while reading the same book. Under different lighting brightnesses and color temperatures. For the first hours, I will observe the room in an early sunrise mimicked setting, then for the second hour I will observe the room in a mid daylight mimicked setting and finally for the last hour I will observe the room in a later evening/sunset setting.

I hypothesize that in the private settings I will observe the most optimal lighting will most resemble the natural lighting being provided by the sun during both sunrise and sunset, around 6:00am and 4:30pm, approximated for winter’s daylight savings adjustments. Known to photographers and filmmakers, the “golden hour” is the approximate period of time shortly after sunrise or before sunset, in which daylight is redder and softer in the sky creating a more favorable lighting environment. The opposite period during twilight, known as the “blue hour” occurs just before sunrise or just after sunset. In this lighting environment, indirect sunlight is evenly diffused. Many filmmakers and photographers agree that the noon sun is one of the worst settings to shoot content during because harsh shadows are created by the sun’s angle and the individual who is standing beneath it’s rays. After the sun has moved from the fixed point…


For my private experimentation, the two test subjects will be tested in their own apartments. Participant 1’s studio apartment is located in the Fenway/Kenmore and participant 2’s multi-unit shared apartment is located in Roxbury, to closely adjacent neighborhoods, Boston MA. While conducting the observational study, cognitive tasks will be directly compared to distractions that break the subjects’ attention to the task at hand. Wondering eyes, cell phone use, and other miscellaneous forms of fidgetting will be recorded the frequency of the to indicate the breaks in our attention. I will also note the time For my public experimentation, their will be multiple test subjects who are patrons at the Boston Public Library. Similar to my private study, I will observe individual’s ability to maintain their attention to their tasks at hand and note how frequently an individual will become distracted and direct their attention away.

Assessments and Measures:

Natural elements such as weather, quantity of trees, the height of the building and location level of the floor being observed will all be conditional factors that will influence the outcome of my observations. The weather will play a role depending on how many clouds are in the sky, how dense their canopy is, and if these obstructions will allow any sunlight to leak into the room and provide enough brightness to take an effect. The quantity of trees will also have a similar effect on blocking out sunlight and creating an overcast that may affect results.

To carefully be able to calculate the intensity of the light, I will be using a Urceri light meter to recording the values of the current lighting intensity. Then, I will take notes on the observable behaviors that occur within the confined space. Because the location of a public library is commonly intended to be a quiet and reserved space where people are able to remain focused on the cognitive tasks at hand on area dimly lit for comfortable reading ability y lit research room for the patrons. I would expect the individuals in the reading room to remain focused on the task at hands with the dim and soft lighting scheme. It will minimize glare and create a relating and restorative environment, to maintain optimum attention and competence in their cognitive abilities. Contrariwise, I would expect the individuals in the more brightly lit research room with a more white color temperature.

Participant 1: Observational Study on Lighting Design in Roxbury Apartment

The apartment is a single unit in a single family home that has been divided by the owner into 4 rentable units. The room’s in this building that are being considered for the observational study are Unit #3 on the second floor of the building. It has a small bathroom, a living room and a bedroom. Attached to Unit #2, there is a small kitchen that both occupants share the space.



Participant 2: Observational Study on Lighting Design in Fenway/Kenmore Apartment:

The apartment is a single studio bedroom that has a small kitchenette connected to the left wall, a full sized refrigerator and a simple bathroom, all with tiled flooring. The rest of the floor space is carpeted and intended for the bedroom area, including a small walk in closet.

BEFORE: Downlights, round lights that are and recessed in ceilings, consist of two parts. WHen the can above the ceiling and the trim installed from below the ceiling are assembled together, they create the entire lighting unit. Since the placement of this unit cannot be adjusted after the room is constructed, the light bulb emission of certain colors and intensities of light is vital on how the object interacts with the interior space.




For individuals to feel secure in their settings, the most ideal comforts provide a natural feel. While architecture aims to create good interior and lighting designs, there are many lessons that can be learned from nature and it’s harmony with sunlight. These design studies are not new, they have been refined for thousands on years through different civilizations techniques that are best suited for the geographic regions they are residing in. From the different materials that can be used to construct a home, to the different geometric shapes that are most ideal for a community structure… With the


Circadian Rythym. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://nocturnal-n-diurnal.weebly.com/circadian-rythym.html.

Eye Structure. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://nocturnal-n-diurnal.weebly.com/eye-structure.html.

Karlen, M., Ruggeri, K., Hunchar, K., & Kang, M. (2009). Space Planning Basics. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons.

Karlen, M., & Benya, J. R. (2017). Lighting Design Basics. Wiley & Sons Canada, Limited, John.

Mari, A. D., & Yoo, N. (2017). Operative Design: A Catalogue of Spatial Verbs. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: BIS.

Mari, A. D. (2017). Conditional Design: An Introduction to Elemental Architecture. Amsterdam: Bis.

Sleep and the Circadian System. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/sleep-and-the-circadian-system.

Suprachiasmatic nucleus. (2018, November 27). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suprachiasmatic_nucleus.

Vasantha, I (2016) Physiology of Seasonal Breeding: A Review. J Veterinar Sci Techno 7:331. doi:10.4172/2157-7579.100033. Retrieved from https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/physiology-of-seasonal-breeding-a-review-2157-7579-1000331.php?aid=72350. 

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