November 26, 2012 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

My family set up the Christmas tree over the long weekend, next to the fireplace as usual, while the kids were home from college. It’s an old artificial tree that we have had since they were little. This year, instead of putting on plain basic strands of lights, we bought new LED lights shaped like evergreen cones. I found their soft colors and decorative shape to be a pleasant change from the old-style Christmas tree lights.

So far, so good. But we have two sconces over the mantel, with bright incandescent bulbs. Turning them on at the same time as the new Christmas lights produced a horrid glare. The problem was easily solved, of course, by turning off the sconces and leaving the room dark except for the tree lights.

But I wonder what might have happened if we’d had incandescent bulbs only on the other side of the room, farther away from the tree. We might not have consciously noticed that the two different kinds of lights clashed. Maybe we’d have spent the entire holiday season feeling that there was something not right, but never knowing what had put our nerves on edge.

Modern technology can irritate people’s senses in ways that are below the threshold of conscious perception. We’re all born with senses that evolved over many millennia to process natural inputs such as those from forests, grasslands, and other natural vistas. But instead we find ourselves in cities that look very different from the surroundings our ancestors knew. Humans are a very adaptable species; but although we can learn to function in many different environments, it’s kind of like installing new software on a computer with an older operating system. There are bound to be incompatibilities, like not being able to deal with my new LED lights and the existing incandescent bulbs at the same time, as well as unexpected glitches.

As science advances our knowledge of the human brain and how it processes sensory inputs, I expect researchers will learn how to design more comfortable environments. That should go a long way toward reducing our stress levels. Perhaps the homes and workspaces of the future will be creatively designed to give us feelings of serenity, confidence, and joy.

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