Sunday, July 19, 2015


A few winters ago, Rachel read the book "Farmer Boy" by Laura Ingalls Wilder to Henry and I in the evenings after dinner and chores. We chose to turn off all our lights and use only oil lamps while we sat down to read and listen, which was a nice complement to the book. Henry enjoyed listening to the stories (based on her husband Almanzo's experiences on an upstate New York farm in the 1800s), as did I. For me, they were also quite instructive!

Despite being interested in the content, I always found myself quite sleepy after the reading. I assumed at the time that this had something to do with the dim light of the oil lamps. As it turns out, I was right, but there's far more to this effect than I was aware of.

I've lately been reading the book Lights Out by TS Wiley, which explains this effect and its tremendous implications. A researcher focusing on diabetes, the author found herself constantly returning to the role played by light in triggering the various hormones that control our sleep, appetite, addictions, and sex drive.

Though it should come as no surprise, the artificial extension of daylight through our use of electric lights (and computers, televisions, smart phones, etc) is in large part the driving force behind the appetites that drive us to favor carbohydrates and sugars. Since these are no longer as difficult to come by as they were in the age our bodies are designed for, we eat far more than our bodies can use. The resulting chronic high blood sugar we experience is what makes most of us insulin resistant and prone to a wide variety of the diseases that have risen dramatically during the 20th century.

The book is largely a highlight of various studies performed by the CDC and NIH. They interview Dr. Thomas Wehr of the NIH, who suggests that on less than 9.5 hours of sleep (a conservative minimum before the age of electricity), people will most likely develop either diabetes, heart disease, cancer, infertility, mental illness, or premature aging. When the authors asked him if he felt this should be made public knowledge, his response was, "Well, yes, they do have a right to know. They should be told; but it won't change anything.  Nobody will ever turn off the lights".

Considering that 35% of Americans are now obese, and 69% of us are overweight, most of us will suffer heart disease (our #1 cause of death), 50% of us will experience cancer, a third of us are expected to develop diabetes, and 13% are on anti-depressants, it might do us some good to learn a little more about this. Though the author's style is a little shrill, the subject matter appears to be quite sound and is a real eye opener.

Another related book which I found quite interesting is Clark Strand's "Waking up to the Dark", It focuses on sleep patterns, comparing historical (i.e. normal) patterns with today's electrically enhanced patterns, focusing on the implications for spirituality and mental health. Anyone with sleep issues will definitely be interested. James Howard Kunstler recently interviewed him in this podcast, which may pique your interest as it did my own.


Shirley J said...

I am in a condo development of individual houses. Most folks here are age65 and up. Those that are leading on the board are insistent that the street be blazing with lights. Constant reminders to turn on our porch and garage lights. In addition they have added 4 bright lateens throughout. They are convinced they are safer - in spite of the only two thefts we have had being right under a street light and a porch light. I sent them a report on a study in England that found more light increases crime rather than reducing it. Maybe I am the only one that has a problem sleeping with light flowing in the windows. A black mask for sleep helps some, but a friend read a book on sleep that reported even shining a tiny light on an exposed bit of skin (not the eye) was enough to disturb sleep.

David Veale said...

Well, I suppose there's always the Alaskan / Marijuana grower's solution of aluminum foil over the windows... and now that the latter is legal in Washington, your neighbors won't even feel the need to report you if they suspect a grow operation behind the foil! said...

Hi David,

One of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, addressed this topic in

The chapter about The Fuse Box depicts what is was like before artificial light became commonplace and taken for granted. Some facets are as you might expect, such as just how fatally dangerous walking at night was in this period. Other aspects point to a now seemingly lost ability to read and conduct household activities lit only by a solitary candle or similarly today-regarded complete inadequacy of illumination. To my modern eyes, that ability borders on a veritable super-hero power.

David, I wonder how you would regard a curious class of devices such as this:

--a gizmo that seeks to marry the best of old-timey low tech with hyper-modern tech to blend desirable elements from both. In light (so to speak) of your recent "Light" and "Old Stuff" posts I am curious what your perspective is on this and similar devices.

Good stuff--keep posting!

David Veale said...

Hi Chris! Bryson is a great author -- I've read "A Walk in the Woods" and "1927", but will definitely put At Home on my list.

We've lately been experimenting with non-electric lighting, which is almost invariably dimmer. Our wood stove is always burning this time of year, so provides some light, and we've been working with candles from our own beeswax. The 100% beeswax look more like Carlsbad Caverns than a candle once they're halfway burned. We tried a 50/50 tallow/beeswax combo which worked better, and finally broke down and bought some stearic acid, which raises the melting point considerably. These candles burn quite well, but still drip a fair amount near the end. My next step is to try some candle followers, which supposedly eliminate the dripping issue.

A candle in a moderate sized room makes it possible to do just about anything, though you want it close if you're reading with it.

We've also used kerosene lamps quite a bit. They're nice, cheaper to use (at least if the beeswax is purchased), and put out a lot of light (Aladdins are equivalent to about a 30 watt bulb), but there is a fair amount of nasty exhaust. We just recently picked up a sconce with a mercury reflector for a kerosene lamp, which I'm interested to try. Just placing the reflector behind a single candle, I was able to make quite a powerful beam and illuminate things across the room very well.

The candle powered LED is an interesting idea, though I suspect that the ultimate solution will be something we can all make on our own (i.e. beeswax and tallow candles) in a world with much less industrialization.