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Lighting Psychology: Cognitive and Emotional Responses to Lighting

In this white paper, Robert Davis, Director, Product Innovation & Marketing at LiteControl provides some insights on how lighting designs are perceived by the brain. Davis, who holds a PhD, is a Fellow of the Illuminating Engineering Society.

Stimulus – Response. It serves as the foundation of any basic Psychology class. It defines our relationship to the world around us. From Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell to you quickly pulling your finger away from a hot pan, familiar examples of an involuntary response to a stimulus abound. And it all seems pretty simple – present this sort of stimulus, and you can count on a certain response.

Lighting practitioners work
hard at getting the stimulus right to attain a desired response. Historically, that has in large part meant a detailed and careful characterization of visual tasks under different lighting conditions - the stimulus – and a variety of important methods for measuring visual performance as those conditions are varied – the response. From Blackwell’s Visibility Level to Rea’s models of Relative Visual Performance, we have learned much about the nature of the stimulus-response relationships relating to human visual performance.


But what about those responses to lighting that go beyond considerations of task performance? Lighting can help create excitement in a themed environment. Lighting can help a person navigate through a new space. Lighting can help to bring about a sense of calm and peacefulness in a sacred setting. Lighting can help to add mystery in a theatrical production. And, lighting can cause us to strongly dislike a room which we would otherwise find appealing. How does our mind process the visual stimulus to produce these sorts of responses? What do we understand today about the way that we light buildings that enables us to link the stimulus of a lighted environment to the full array of cognitive and emotional human responses?