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  • Katrina Martich

The Beauty of Darkness

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

Day and night. Light and dark. These contrasts permeate religions and cultures around the world. It’s easy to imagine why, when looking at the development of human beings as one creature among many on Earth.

Fire, and the light it provides, is one of our oldest technologies and differentiated us from other creatures. Archaeological evidence points to fire first being used by Hominid species almost 2 million years ago. That predates Homo sapiens! The light from fire made it possible for our ancestors to seek shelter in caves and made it safer to be active at night.

Until relatively recent times, our ancestors were prey for many animals. Fire, and its accompanying light, was one way to ward off predators. It’s only a short step from warding off real predators to protection from demons and other perceived threats.

Because of this history, our feelings and attitudes toward light may be held within the instinctual part of our brains, the amygdala. Its fight or flight reaction does a great job keeping people alive. It also presents challenges, since the amygdala reacts to all perceived threats, whether they are a real or not. The reaction is faster than the cognitive part of the brain. It causes us to respond in ways we might not if our rational brain were engaged. There’s even a term for this reaction – amygdala hijack. The obvious example is an unexpected angry outburst.

Many effects of the amygdala are more subtle, such as an internal physical reaction in response to seeing fearful faces, fear inducing images, and fear conditioned cues. Medical research indicates an amygdala response to the last one may create implicit bias against people of color. People then act on the bias without their conscious mind ever realizing it. Within Christianity, some church leaders are acknowledging the church’s habitual use of light/dark as a metaphor for good/evil may provoke the amygdala’s implicit bias and perpetuate systemic racism.

Similarly, the amygdala’s instinctual response to the perceived threat of being outdoor at night may create an implicit bias against darkness. People react on the bias by wanting more light, without their conscious mind ever realizing it. Research shows light reduces amygdala activity. Meaning, we feel safer (i.e., less threatened) with more light. Our habitual use of outdoor lighting to feel safer creates an environmental problem - light pollution.

Light pollution is misdirected and excessive light that goes into the sky instead of illuminating human activity. The New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness shows the extent of light pollution. Nearly everyone in the U.S. lives with some level of light pollution, and most of us can’t see the Milky Way Galaxy where we live. The problem is more significant than not seeing stars. Light pollution negatively affects natural systems and is detrimental to our own health.

Surprisingly, more light does not necessarily make us safer. I’ve been researching studies of safety and outdoor lighting and can’t find a clear connection between the two. In some studies, outdoor lighting improves safety. In other studies, it does the opposite and increases crime! In all the studies, outdoor lighting contributes to light pollution.

Fortunately, the problems of safety and light pollution have a common solution: intentionally designing outdoor lighting to put light only where it’s needed. Many counties and cities have responded to this challenge by adopting lighting ordinances that regulate the design of outdoor lighting. At a larger level, 17 states have passed dark sky legislation to change lighting design within their jurisdiction.

For lighting outside your home, the Illuminating Engineering Society has five principles for responsible outdoor lighting. They collaborate with the International Dark Sky Association, which maintains a list of certified outdoor light fixtures. These fixtures direct light where it’s needed without causing light pollution. The association also has information on the basics of outdoor lighting design.

Maybe the most important step in fighting light pollution is to develop an appreciation for the beauty of night and its darkness. If you live in a rural area, you might be able to step outside your home and gaze into the darkness. I live in a metropolitan area, so periodically I go places where the sky is darker than where I live. The Dark Site Finder can help you find a place to go.

Standing quietly in the night, listening to the night sounds, and looking up into the vastness of the dark sky is spellbinding. No telescope is needed to see our Milky Way Galaxy and to view more stars and galaxies than I could ever count. When I do this, I’m reminded of the beauty of darkness, its life-giving role in creation, and the wonder of the cosmos. It’s humbling, and it’s inspiring – all at the same time. Afterwards, I return home motivated to reduce light pollution.

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