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Let There Be Light: MIT's Dreary Spaces Could Stand Some Illumination

Elaine Y. Wan

Are you feeling down? Putting on a few pounds lately? Having difficulty getting up for your 1:00 class? All MIT students experience these symptoms to some degree because of stress, lack of sleep and heavy work schedules. Is there any hope for us? There certainly is: light therapy.

Remember the warm winds, the sweltering rays of the sun, and the songs of the birds in the ninety degree weather last week? Everyone was smiling and bathing in the beautiful weather, all thanks to the sun.

Daylight Savings Time means we now have longer days and shorter nights to do problems sets and papers. For most Americans, it means goodbye to the dreaded hibernation response, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is marked by lethargy, weight gain, oversleeping and sadness. Lack of light is believed to cause mood changes. In more extreme cases, it can cause disruptions in our personal and academic lives. The only therapy for this order is light. Most health experts recommend daily exposure to bright light for at least fifteen minutes.

Could the symptoms we suffer from be due to a lack of light? Are we victims of SAD? Possibly. Our emotional lives are constantly affected by the fear of low exam grades, peer competition, and family demands. Our evenings are spent either working in the dormitory or tooling in the lab while our days revolve around scrambling for a few hours of sleep.

I am not saying light is the answer to decreasing the number of calls to Nightline, cases of depression or, therapy sessions at the Medical Center. But light may improve our work production, or at least decrease the number of eyeglass prescriptions at the end of the year.

The lecture halls, dormitories and study areas do not provide the proper lighting we need to learn. How many times have you fell asleep in lecture because the lights were too dim? Well, perhaps you were also too tired from studying for that big exam yesterday.

The reading room is a great place to work. Some of my most productive hours were spent in the reading room. However, I do wonder whether better lighting would further improve my productivity. The libraries are not sufficiently lit either. In the evenings, the fluorescent tubes in the cubicles are barely sufficient to keep the books readable. The only study area which has somewhat fulfilled my ideals for a well-lit study area is the McCormick penthouse. Unfortunately, it is not accessible to all students on campus and it is large enough to house only a handful of residents.

SAD is related to the chronobiological cycles in our biological clock which control our circadian rhythms. The amount of light that reaches our eyes regulates the production of hormones, which in turn regulates the timing of other rhythmic cycles in our bodies. Normal room lighting has an intensity of 200 to 700 lux. The intensity of light necessary for the treatment of SAD is 3,500 to 10,000 lux. A bright noon sky provides 100,000 lux. Evidently, the normal room lighting supplied in our lecture halls, dormitories and study areas are not sufficient to supply us with the daily dosage of light we need.

Sufficient lighting is an important part of a student's life. The cost of providing sufficient lighting may be of concern to the Institute, but it is an investment well worth making. We pay more than twenty thousand dollars each year for tuition. Funds should be invested to provide us with the proper study environment. Proper lighting may affect the future success of students and the Institute. If cost is an issue, energy-efficient environments can be designed to minimize costs.

In 1986, the U.S. Postal Service improved lighting in its main post office in Reno, Nevada, hoping to make the facility a "minimum energy user." The post office's energy savings hit $50,000 a year and its mail sorters became one of the most productive staffs in the West. The improved productivity was worth nearly $500,000 a year, much more than the cost of the new lights.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing joined the Environmental Protection Agency's Green Lights program by installing energy-efficient lighting in more than 1 million square feet of its assembly plant in Seattle. Its lighting costs fell 90 percent and its assembly workers were able to see much more clearly. The quality of workmanship has increased, and flaws were detected earlier.

While we eagerly await the coming of summer and as the thermometer struggles to rise to 60, we must bear the indoors and the meagerly lighted rooms. On the bright side, though, it is supposed to be partly sunny today.