Apple Computer has quite emphatically changed almost all of our lives. It did so in many ways, but probably the most impactful was the iPhone, that wondrous little thing that quickly became the most essential tool of humanity. Seriously, think about it…if you were leaving the house and could only bring one thing with you, what would it be? In the not-so-distant past it would have been a close race between a wallet/purse and keys to the house and car, but now you can use Apple Pay, and with the right security system and phone apps, you can unlock your house with the phone too.
The iPhone was my first “smartphone,” and that’s a key line of demarkation. My telephonic evolution started with just the standard family landline. Then things then took a mildly different trajectory when my mom made me keep her old carphone in my 1989 Grand Prix, you know, that thing that looked like a normal phone hidden inside a leather-bound encyclopedia? After that I got my first cellular phone, the old Nokia, and later a sweet flip-phone, the Motorola Razor, of course.
Each new phone model made life a little easier, but they were still just phones. The iPhone, however, was different. It stretched phones horizontally as they started doing everything else that you used to have fifty different gadgets for and put them all under one screen. Phones were once used for just making phone calls. Then texting came out and began altering the view of what a phone should do. Then the iPhone was unveiled at one of Steve Jobs’ iconic presentations and made “phone call” just a neat little feature of one of the most versatile devices ever designed. The smartphone concept changed everything, made millions of people happy, and made billions of dollars for Apple.
A lot has changed since the iPhone revolution, though. Steve Jobs has passed away, and Tim Cook is trying to keep Apple ahead of ever-increasing competition. Other companies make very good devices now too, and it’s harder to claim that Apple is the undisputed top dog. In fact, many have said that Apple hasn’t really had a game changer since the iPhone, downplaying the whole Apple Watch thing. Some even go so far as to say that the last couple iterations of iPhones aren’t even really true upgrades, that they don’t offer enough to justify paying the steep price for the pleasure of owning the latest model.
There is one thing, though, that recently caught my attention, and that’s the Night Shift feature that came with the iOS 9.3 upgrade back in March 2016. No, seriously…let me explain…
What Is Night Shift?
Night Shift allows you to alter the “color temperature” of the display to a “warmer” setting at night with the goal of being less detrimental to your sleep efforts. Actually, you can adjust the time settings however you like, so if you want, you can (and I do) use the warmer setting all day long. It also gives you a range of color temperature to slide through to decide where exactly you’d like to set it.
There have been other ways to accomplish this before, either externally by wearing blue-blocking glasses and using screen covers like the Zen Tech from Bulletproof, or internally by downloading software like f.lux, but Apple is the first phone company, to my knowledge, that decided to “bake it into” the product, if you will.
All you have to do is go to Settings -> Display & Brightness -> and then Night Shift. Then you slide the “Scheduled” button, pick your times, and pick your preferred color temperature that applies during those scheduled times. No really…go on! I’ve even got a picture here for you:
You can preview the look as you test the different temperatures. As you make things warmer, they start to dim and look a little more red. As you go cooler, they start to look brighter and more blue…or is it “bluer?” Anyway…perhaps you’re an expert on this color temperature topic (a photographer, a painter, an interior designer, or a fashion expert), but it was confusing and counterintuitive to me at first, so let’s address that for other noobs like me.
What Is Color Temperature?
Color temperature basically refers to the frequency of the visible electromagnetic spectrum (how fast the wave cycles per second), and each frequency appears as a slightly different color. Visible light is the narrow range of electromagnetic wave frequencies that human eyes are able to see, but it is only a very tiny part of a large spectrum as shown courtesy of the graphic from Wikipedia below. If you’re an avid reader here, you’ll have noticed how obsessed I am with spectrums.
On the far right we have the weaker energy waves, those with longer wavelengths and lower frequencies. The longer a wavelength is, the longer it takes to cycle, thus the lower the frequency (measured in cycles per second). These are the frequencies that are used the most for communications, things like radio, TV, and cellphone signals.
The lower frequencies were chosen for widespread use since the lower energy prevents them from creating any substantial heating effects on matter, meaning they can’t physically melt our bodies. As we’re coming to understand, however, they can subtly interfere with cellular signaling, so you may have seen more discussion lately on the effects of WiFi and cellular signals with regards to biology (perhaps even here on this blog).
On the left side of the spectrum, you have the higher energy waves, those with shorter wavelengths and thus higher frequencies, things like x-rays and eventually gamma rays (if this graph carried out further to the left), the ones that can melt the atoms of your face like a killer metal guitar solo. These are very obviously dangerous, no disagreements from anyone, and strict precautions are taken with them such as protective gear and exposure limits to x-ray technology. Also the earth’s own magnetic field does a good job of protecting us from gamma rays that would otherwise bombard us from outer space.
The tiny little sliver in the middle of the electromagnetic spectrum is where the visible light resides. Listing in order of highest energy/frequency to lowest, we have violet (right on the edge of the “ultra-violet” range…makes sense, yes?), then blue (our star of the show today), green, yellow, and red. Just past red is infrared, so we can’t see it, but we feel it as heat. Infrared waves are also commonly known in modern tools like infrared saunas and the lamps that keep McDonald’s hamburgers warm for hours so you can eat that garbage later and still think it’s “fresh” off the grill.
Sidebar: I always found it confusing that warmer color temperatures have lower energy levels and lower frequencies while cooler temperatures have higher energy levels and higher frequencies, but it’s true. When I went to pick out paint for my house and everyone was talking about cool colors like blue and green and warm colors like red and yellow, I felt very lost, but I feel lost a lot when it comes to fashion and design, so nothing new here. Moving on…
The Role of Blue Light and its Biologic Impacts
Here’s where that whole Night Shift thing starts to make sense, it shifts your iPhone towards the warmer temperature settings which have less energy and away from the cool, blue temperatures which have more energy. Now that should turn on some lightbulbs in the head, right? Ah, puns…
Blue light is most prevalent in sunlight during midday and is designed to stimulate and energize us to be active. It bumps up chemicals like cortisol to let us run around chasing our food, building pyramids, and protesting presidential candidates we don’t like. When the sun is at its highest point in the sky, more of those shorter wavelength, higher frequency waves (like UV and blue) can penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and reach our skin and our eyes, hence the blue sky we see at that time.
The red light dominates at dusk and dawn as the lower angle of the sun prevents those higher-frequency blue and UV rays from reaching us. The the longer wavelength red light, though, still penetrates quite well at this angle and thus we see sunrise and sunset as very red-looking events. The red light (and eventually absence of light) starts to drop our cortisol and stimulate melatonin production for sleepy time. It’s really a beautiful duality for our natural circadian rhythms.
Cold temperatures (literal cold air temperatures, not color temperatures) also help stimulate melatonin after dusk. Again, this is confusing because blue is considered a “cool” light temperature but is highest at midday when the air temperature is warmer, but try to hold that contradictory thought throughout the rest of the post. This cold temperature link to melatonin is another clue as to why cold thermogenesis is conducive to improving sleep at night and promoting regeneration. Warmer air temperatures, of course, do the opposite; they excite and expand our tissues, catabolizing them and liberating energies to be used to do work.
Let’s summarize and eliminate confusion:
- Cooler colors (blue) team up with warmer air temperatures during the day to raise cortisol, excite/energize tissues, and prepare us to be awake and active (catabolic, breaking down for usage)
- Warmer colors (red) team up with cooler air temperatures at night to raise melatonin, calm/condense tissues, and prepare us to sleep and recover (anabolic, rebuilding and growing)
Life Tip: If you’re a meathead looking to boost testosterone and build muscle, consider this duality next time you’re up at 3:00 AM staring at your phone…especially without Night Shift. You can’t be anabolic without sleep (unless you’re shooting up anabolic steroids…but that’s a bad idea for many other reasons).
Our Modern (Distorted) Usage of Light
Of course, blue light has its place, but it’s contextual. It’s obviously found in nature, so if we’re leaning on the old organic/natural theory, we can’t say it’s inherently bad. The problem lies when we bring it back into our lives at night via phones, TVs, computers, and overhead lighting, confusing the hell out of our cells which become like sugar-filled children who won’t listen when you tell them for the eighth time that they need to GO TO SLEEP! Moreover, while blue light does exist in nature during the daytime, it only makes up a certain percentage of sunlight. When we live indoors with these added blue lights, we’re now overdosing during the day too.
As you can see from the graphic above, blue does make up a lot of sunlight, during midday, but there’s still a well-rounded balance between the frequencies. Now take a look at fluorescent and cool white LEDs. These are mostly what you find indoors these days (under the guise of an otherwise noble mission to save electricity).
While I haven’t found a visual graphic for phone or computer screens, they would likely be most similar to the cool white LED graph. The blue light absolutely dominates in the cool LEDs (as remember blue is a “cool” temperature color), and there isn’t much of the others to round out the spectral output. The fluorescent is different in another way in that it’s almost entirely one spike of green and another of red with very little of any other frequency.
The article from endmyopia.org (from which I borrowed the chart) explains how fluorescent lights contribute to eye strain because you have less available light within the spectrum for your eyes to use in rendering the image. Myopia, by the way, is nearsightedness; not the topic we’re specifically discussing, but another example of how these altered light spectrums can cause biologic disruptions.
Take a look at the halogen chart for a moment. They are probably the closest looking thing to natural sunlight but are a little more heavily weighted towards the warm red colors and less towards the cool blues. When having to use artificial light, this would be a much more natural choice, especially later in the day given it’s preference towards the warm spectrum.
The incandescents have almost a total inverse curve with very little blue light and are instead dominated by the warm red side of the spectrum. If one has to have lights on after dark in his or her house, these would make the most sense as they at least mimic more of a late dusk spectrum rather than midday sun.
But again, most of our LED screen gadgets, like the iPhones, not only are dominated by blue light but have a far higher percentage of blue light than even midday sun. Given what we now know about light and its effect on melatonin and circadian rhythms, it’s pretty easy to see how these screens can be very detrimental in that regard.
Looking at a phone, it may not appear as though it utilizes mostly blue light because obviously we see other colors when we peer into the screen. What we think we see isn’t exactly what is coming into our eyes, however. The inputs are filtered, and the brain creates a rendering of an image to give us the mental picture it deems necessary to navigate the environment. Our phone screens don’t have to use every color of the spectrum, just different combinations of red, green, and blue pixels. It’s a bit of an illusionary trick, if you will.
Not convinced yet? Try checking out this article and playing along with the video. And read this article here to understand how the basic receptors of the eyes take in color inputs to project an image in our brain. If that still doesn’t suffice, just watch someone stare into their phone at night when the surrounding environment is relatively dark. No matter what color they see on their screen, you can see a ghostly white/blue glow on their face, can you not?
So Does Night Shift Help?
My honest answer is that I don’t know, but all else being equal, it can’t hurt. I still firmly believe anyone would be much better off not using artificial light devices at night, but if you must, using Night Shift would be better than not using it. The question is how much does it actually change the frequencies (color temperatures) of the light, and does it actually reduce the amount of light (brightness) that’s reaching our eyes?
To my knowledge, Apple hasn’t released the specs to answer those questions, but just based on my subjective eyesight testing (highly scientific), I can certainly tell it does make a noticeable shift towards warmer, redder coloring, which I would imagine has to help to at least some degree. Again, though, my preference is still just not using the phone after dark unless I absolutely have to.
The real reason I find Night Shift to be a big deal is simply the fact that someone is paying attention. And it’s not just anyone, it’s Apple, an extremely large, for-profit corporation that is economically motivated to make better products to improve people’s lives. There has to either be enough people demanding it, enough scientific evidence that’s it’s a good idea, or a combination of the two in order to drive the demand for such a feature.
Light impacts our biology more than we ever could have appreciated before we started manipulating it. It was only a matter of time before those impacts became apparent. They were stealthy enough to stay beneath our radar for so long because, admittedly, we can’t feel those impacts. We can’t feel our cortisol rising and our melatonin being suppressed. We can’t feel our atoms and cells becoming over-energized and out of step with our natural rhythms. We can’t feel the effect consciously, but our cells are certainly paying attention.
Before germ theory became widely accepted in the late 1800’s, people used to think we got sick by smelling certain odors that carried diseases. Until the microscopes existed to show us, one would have thought you were nuts to believe that a person’s fever, chills, and vomiting were actually symptoms of an immune system response to bacteria, parasites, and viruses too small to see with the naked eye, but now we know that to be the truth. It’s amazing what we find when we have the tools to look for it. It’s even better when we know what we’re looking for and where to find it.
I read a gem of wisdom from a recent Jack Kruse blog, the source that’s most opened my eyes (more puns) to effects of light on our biology. I’d like to share that with you here:
“…how our “third-eye sense,” called intuition, is needed to visualize concepts like the picture is painting for our brain. This explains why people miss the concepts on (non-native EMF) wave effects on biologic systems. I really wish our eyes had the ability to see (non-native EMF) waveforms, because everyone would call it out for what it is: artificial light pollution that ruins our discriminatory ability built into our senses and ruins mitochondrial function. It derides our 5 senses of their sensitivity and specificity. Without them we cannot recreate the world we live in accurately. We essentially become blind to reality.” – Jack Kruse
It’s easy to ignore what we can’t see, especially when the direct effect it has is to blind the very senses built to perceive it. I’m glad Apple is starting to shed some light on the subject, and I have hopes that others will follow. I believe it’s only the beginning.