Living in a triple in Palmer Residence Hall is truly not as bad as I thought it would be. My legs are stronger from the lengthy walks to class, there are salt and vinegar chips in the vending machines and the amount of complaining each resident does has really cultivated a sense of community among the hall.
However, the one thing that is extremely unsettling about the room is the distinct lack of windows. The one “window” in the room is really just a clear panel that leads into the hallway, which is reminiscent of an observation room used during science experiments. As I started to feel more like an experiment, I slowly realized what the actual research would be studying.
In the scientific field of chronobiology, there is a concept that describes a human’s internal clock called “circadian rhythm.” Controlled by both genetic and environmental factors, the human body works on an intangible “clock” that runs just over 24 hours. Circadian rhythm determines when your body starts to feel tired through release of hormones in a region of your brain called the hypothalamus. One of the most influential outside determinants of circadian rhythm is light, which is why sleep schedules tend to coincide with the day and night.
With this pathetic sheet of glass that has the audacity to call itself a window, I have no view of the outdoors for the extended periods of time I spend in my room. What the window does provide, however, is the constant presence of hallway light through the shades.
There have been multiple occasions where I have missed an entire rainstorm or taken a nap, then attempted to go get dinner only to realize it was 10:00 p.m. because I have no view of the outside world. It also turns out that, without a visual to the outdoors, circadian rhythm can become desynchronized with a traditional sleep schedule.
There are a range of sleeping disorders that describe the malfunctioning of a person’s circadian rhythm, the most common in college students being Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS). If you have ever wondered why your body feels wide awake at 2:00 a.m. and you are able to deeply sleep until 1 p.m. without waking up, there is a chance you have DSPS. This disorder does have a genetic link in many cases, however it is possible to develop it through unhealthy living conditions, which leads me back to the importance of windows and light.
Without the shining sun to wake up to in the morning or the dark sky to remind you that it is time to sleep, there is no environmental signal affecting circadian rhythm and your body will slowly begin to shift towards a delayed sleep phase. Previously, I would have found this difficult to believe because I assumed people just sleep when they are tired, however I have had the pleasure of experiencing this phenomenon firsthand. As I lie in bed for hours at night waiting, attempting to shield my eyes from the sliver of light, what is really happening is a process very aptly named “Lights at Night.”
Being exposed to prominent light at night, which can include anything from the light spilling from this pane of glass to the brightness on an iPhone screen before bed, can disrupt one’s circadian rhythm and cause difficulty with a normal sleep cycle. A lack of proper sleep can result in decreased focus, lowered immune system functioning and depression.
Internal clocks aside, windows and natural light provide a view to the outside world, which is proven to be beneficial to mental health. By simply having a view of nature, a person’s focus can sharpen and feelings of stress can decrease.
Companies like Amazon have taken the theory of biophilia, or a human’s innate desire to connect with nature, to the extreme by creating large working spaces in Seattle called the Spheres, which are completely transparent and filled with greenery. Scientists are also beginning to develop special glasses for night shift workers that help control when melatonin is released to prevent sleeping problems and correct circadian rhythm. Until Wake Forest brings these ideas into fruition, my best suggestion is to appreciate the light you have and always choose the seat by the window.