Those most sensitive must take every opportunity to recognize and avoid stressors that cause or contribute to symptoms. That includes evaluating not just the electronic displays you spend time looking at, but also the work space in which it’s located.
Today we identify some basic strategies to consider.
Sunlight is the highest quality light and should be used whenever possible. It’s rich in color and contains relatively equal amounts of each color. Furthermore, our brains have evolved over millions of years to best handle this type of light. Use this to your advantage.
For those light sensitive this may seem counter-intuitive as sunlight is a frequent enemy for being too bright. The solution is to carefully control the amount of sunlight you’re exposed to. The availability of sunlight obviously depends on the time of year, time of day and even the weather. Getting the right amount of sunlight into your work space might require frequent adjustments to window coverings. Also, when insufficient sunlight is available your work space lighting will need to be supplemented with light bulbs.
We recommend those most sensitive avoid LED and fluorescent lights due to common flicker and color characteristics of each. Instead, try old-school incandescent or halogen bulbs. The incandescent bulbs work by sending electricity through a filament inside the bulbs thereby causing it to superheat to the point where it’s glowing hot, thereby emitting light. The light produced by these bulbs is very high quality. Like the sun, it contains all visible colors but much lower levels of troublesome high-intensity blue and much higher levels of lower energy colors such as greens, yellows and reds.
Creativity for Office Spaces
But what can you do about poor office lighting you have no control over? The good news is you have a few options. Consider adding light to help make up for the deficits of the office lighting. A good quality incandescent or halogen bulb facing down over your work space will mix with your office lighting to effectively fill in any gaps that may exist with respect to color and even flicker. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s likely to help. You’ll need to choose the brightness of this light to compliment the existing office lighting.
Other options for difficult office environments is to soften the light reaching your eyes by way of specialized colored glasses. Colored glasses won’t solve problems with flicker if flicker is present, but it will alter the color characteristics enough to perhaps provide some relief. You don’t need to jump straight to buying expensive glasses, either. Your local hardware store sells construction safety glasses in yellow, orange and other colors, for only a few dollars. Start there and experiment with what you find helpful before graduating to more expensive glasses sold online and through optometrists. Whatever you choose ensure they are large enough to provide good coverage around your eyes for not only light in front of you, but also covering the entirety of your field of view.
Darker is not always better. Studies have shown that low levels of light impair cognition and interfere with melatonin production necessary for healthy sleep cycles. Instead, allow in as much light into your work space as you can comfortably tolerate. Find that balance between brightness, symptoms and productivity. The amount of light each person can tolerate is different, and it may further depend on the visual tasks being performed. Not only does the presence of light help with cognition and melatonin regulation, but it also results in your pupils narrowing, the importance of which we will get to in a moment.
Second to that concept is that the brightness of your computer display needs to compliment your work space. A computer display too bright for the surrounding environment will be uncomfortable to use. Conversely, a computer display much darker than the surrounding environment will be difficult to see.
We recommend users configure the brightness of their computer display to be slightly darker than the surrounding work space.
To understand the synergy you get from this arrangement you need to first understand the basic biology of your retinas. The center of your retina (the fovea centralis) is packed tightly with a high density arrangement of photoreceptors. This is what gives you sharp vision of what you look straight at. In fact, the density of these photoreceptors is almost 200 times higher in the center of your retina than the outer areas of your retina responsible for your peripheral vision. This is also why you are far more sensitive to what you’re looking directly at, like a harsh computer display.
Also present on your retinas are photosensitive ganglion cells. These are partly responsible for your pupillary light reflex, ie. how your pupils adjust to the light you’re exposed to.
The benefit users get from having ambient light in a work space brighter than the computer display is that the ambient light will still reach your retinas in less sensitive areas responsible for your peripheral vision. These less sensitive areas are also home to photosensitive ganglion cells. As it reaches these areas it activates your pupils to narrow thereby reducing the amount of light reaching your retinas. Since working on a computer requires looking directly at the computer screen and therefore directing the harsh light emitted from the computer display right into the most sensitive areas of the retinas, the activation of your pupils by way of ambient light will provide some relief for those most sensitive. Every bit helps.
Achieving very low brightness on computer displays
Some of your will require low light environments and an even lower brightness computer display. The reality though is that the minimum brightness settings available on most computer displays may still be too bright. Making things worse is that the sunlight that is (hopefully) present in your work space will change constantly throughout the day and will require you frequently change the brightness of your computer display. Computer display controls are cumbersome and not well suited for frequent adjustment.
The solution to this is third-party software, like Iris (~$15). To configure this software properly, first set the brightness on your computer display to the maximum brightness you’ll use on any given day (this might be the lowest brightness setting). Then, in the Iris software settings under ‘brightness’ select ‘use extended values’ and select ‘manual brightness control’. The Iris software is now setup to darken the image being transmitted from your computer to the computer display. The result is more convenient software controls and effectively unlimited darkening suitable for any work space.
Location of Light Sources
The simple approach to the placement of work space lighting is that lights should be above you, or behind you, but not in front of you or anywhere in your field of view. Similarly, any windows should should be behind you.
Configuring your lighting this way avoids glare (as long as you avoid glossy computer displays) which can contribute to symptoms even if it’s in your peripheral vision. Having the light first illuminate nearby surfaces also acts to alter the color composition of the light, often in a helpful manner, before it reaches your eyes.
Distance between the Computer Display and Your Eyes
One often overlooked consideration when configuring a work space is the distance between yourself and your computer display. The closer the display is to your eyes the harder your eyes and brain need to work.
Do your best to move your computer display further away from you. With increased distance it may be difficult see the user interface and read text, so be sure to use scaling features to increase the size of these elements. Both Windows 10 and OSX have scaling features built-in.
One aspect that makes this community so challenging is that diversity of sensitivities and symptoms. Put some thought into these strategies and take it further with your own. You may find that taking several steps to improve your work space will result in a measurable improvement.