Oh the shame of it! This blog is all about seasonal depression, winter blues, call it what you will – and I’ve been too disorganised and lazy to mention the just-passed solstice. Happy equinox for those in the northern hemisphere, for whom this was the longest day. And for those in the southern hemisphere, for whom this was the shortest day – bear up! The days will only get longer from now on.
I’ll finish with a nice picture of a fruitcake, as one of my workmates has the very civilised custom of bringing a large home made fruitcake in to work on both the summer and winter solstices. What a truly civilised custom. For my part I’ve promised to do the same on the two equinoxes – we’ll have to see how I go.
We tend to link Seasonal Affective Disorder solely to lack of light, but it’s worth considering that an excess of light at the wrong time of day can do a good deal to disrupt ones circadian rhythms. Thanks to electric lighting, we run our lives at maximum brightness until it’s time for bed at eleven or twelve, and expect our brains to obediently switch off after a day of stimulation.
I’m not ready to give up my precious tiny slice of personal time on the laptop once the day’s work is done, but perhaps there’s a way to have my cake and eat it too: An application called ‘F.Lux’ from stereopsis.com takes control of your computer screen’s colour profile. During the day, the screen is its normal sharp, blueis white colour. As the night proceeds, F.Lux gradualy adjusts the tones and brightness of your monitor, making the light softer and yellower, and less glaring.
The idea behind the program is that the harsh blue-white light tells our brain that it’s daytime and that it accordingly tries to stay awake and alert. Then, when it’s time for sleep…
So does it work? I use it, and while I initially found the nighttime screen a bit disconcerting, I got used to it after a couple of minutes. When the software is running there’s a little control panel which you can click to momentarily see what the screen would like if left to its own devices. Whenever I try this I end up doing a good imitation of Count Dracula, flinching from the harsh sunlight and drawing my cape across my face. Then I go down to the crypt and lie in a box of earth until I feel better.
So maybe it does something. And it’s free. Did I mention that? Free free free. And it runs on pretty much everything. You may as well give it a go.
We’re used to hearing about light therapy as a treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the consensus seems to be that it does do some good. We tend to think of the light as entering via our eyes in the traditional manner though, and there seem to be some other options:
Valkee have started producing SAD lighting treatments which are delivered via the ear canals, directly into the brain. Users wear what looks like an mp3 player (available in black and white and rather pretending to be an iPod) with a pair of earbuds which shine bright white light instead of playing sounds. Their idea is nothing to do with the ears themsleves – the ear canals just provide a simple way of getting light onto the surface of the brain, which they claim is photosensitive.
I suppose if you’re wearing them on public transport and someone asks you what you’re listening to, you can always say it’s The Velvet Underground’ s _White Light White Heat_.
Is the idea flakey? Rather. Is it real and effective? I have no idea as yet – it will be interesting to see what eventually comes out of this – whether it will be remembered as just another piece of quackery or the birth of an effective treatment. It has been written up in a peer reviewed journal, but as the following link indicates, perhaps not all that peer reviewed: http://www.arcticstartup.com/2012/02/14/valkee-peer-reviewed.
One tangentially interesting bit of research – there’s been some talk about light absorbed through the skin affecting haemoglobin and indirectly affecting seasonal affective disorder. We talk about it here.
In the meantime perhaps you should do what my wife suggested when I told her about this research, and stick some Christmas tree lights in your ears 🙂