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PSY 355 Psychology & Media in the Digital Age

This page was last modified on Februrary 26, 2017

The Neuropsychology of Media • I

The Impact of Techno-Digital Media on Human Cognition & Mental Activity

Segmented (Bimodal or Divided) Sleep {W}
A. Roger Ekirch (Dept. of History, Virginia Tech)
  • A traveller attacked at nightNighttime before the Industrial Revolution
    • The night was populated by "fear, fire, and Satan" (Refford, 2009, p. 780)
    • If daylight was the time of goodness and God, the night was the time of evil and the Devil
    • In a world of streets that had little or no light, the chance of crime increased. Higher levels of drunkenness, violence, and murder.
    • What was available to the ordinary family who had shut themselves into their homes?
      • Locks, doors, & bolts.
      • Dogs and weapons.
      • Fireplaces of coal or wood, candles, oil lamps
Nighttime in Summer &
  • "Segmented" or "Biphasic Sleep" in Pre-Industrial Societies (Ekirch, 2001, 2005)
    • Examining the day-night map above for Syracuse, note how in the winter (Dec. 21) there are a total of 15 hours between sunset & sunrise.
    • Ekrich, an historian at Virginia Tech, has argued that Pre-Industrial Europe experienced "segmented sleep" patterns
      • "First Sleep": from about an hour or two after sunset until ca. midnight (about 4-5 hours)
      • Quiet Wakefulness ("First Waking"): about an hour or two
        • Period to complete unfinished housework. Contemplation & prayer. Sex. Conversation by spouses.
        • Sometimes students studied. Others read by whatever light was available.
      • "Second Sleep": from about 1-2 am until the beginnings of dawn (about 4-5 hours)
    • This pattern was clearer for poorer people, that is, those who had no or few sources of light.
    • Ekrich's thesis has been contested by Yetish et al (2015) who found little evidence of segmented sleep in three contemporary societies in the Southern Hemisphere relatively near the Equator (2 in Africa, 1 in South America) which function without industrial factors such as electricity.
    • Ekrich (2016) counters that there is clear evidence that bi-phasic sleep has been found " well beyond the bounds of Europe and North America in other cultures and continents, including the Middle East, Africa, South
      Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Latin America, thereby heightening the likelihood that throughout the preindustrial world this form of sleep was not at all uncommon, including in equatorial cultures" (2015, p. 715; see also Ekrich, 2015)
Circadian Rhythm
  • SCNThe human sleep-wake cycle is circadian (ca. 24 hours) and controlled principally by light.
  • The "biological clock" which regulates this cycle is found in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a collection of about 20,000 neurons located right above the optic chiasm in the hypothalamus.
  • The SCN receives signals directly from a special group of "intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) which contain a blue light sensitive photopigment called melanopsin. They fire when struck by light of ca. 464-484 nm wavelength
Visible light 
  • If these melanopsin ipRGCs signal the SCN, it causes the brain to stop the production of melatonin which is necessary for sound sleep. Note, too, that melatonin has also been found to be a potent antioxidant and inhibits cancer. 
  • In the morning, the light which comes at dawn as we awake serves to stimulate these ipRGCs and "reset" the circadian cycle. This process of resetting is called "entrainment"
  • Changes brought by the Industrial Revolution & Techno-Digital Culture
    • Indoor Lighting (Pauley, 2004)
      • 1840 Modern kerosene lamps (oil lamps using fuel from petroleum)
      • 1870-1880s Introduction of first incandescent bulbs
      • 1910s New tungsten filaments extends life of bulbs for long periods
      • 1930s Spread of fluorescent lamps (which produce more blue light than incandescent bulbs)
1885 300,000 lamps/year
1914 88.5 million lamps/year
1945 > 795 million lamps/year
  • The average illumination level in modern offices is 300-500 lux (lx). The average level in a private home is 150-180 lx. (The light of a full moon is 0.1-0.3 lx.).
  • Research shows that melatonin is suppressed at 0.1 lx of blue light but can generally experience 100 lx of red light without much response. Sources of blue light include high intensity discharge (HID) and fluorescent lighting.
Lighting types
    • Shiftwork {W}
      • Refers both to work that is done at night (night shifts) as well as work that cycles through a 24-hour rotation (e.g., 1 week from 8 am to 4 pm; 1 week from 4 pm to midnight; 1 week from midnight to 8 am)
      • About 29% of Americans are shiftworkers
      • Demonstrated health problems with shiftwork include
        • Shiftwork Sleep Disorder (SWSD)
        • Breast & colorectal cancer
        • Cluster headaches
        • Exacerbation of other chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, substance abuse
    • Transatlantic Travel {W} & Jetlag
      • The Great Western steamship crossed the Atlantic in 15.5 days (1838).
      • In the late 19th century, ships crossed in 6 to 7 days
      • The Mauritania carried 2,300 passengers in 4.5 days in 1907.
      • The record speed for ocean liners was set in 1952 by the liner United States at 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes.
      • German Zeppelin (blimps) took 43 to 61 hours to Europe and 53 to 78 hours to the US from Europe
      • In the 1939 Pan American passenger-carrying planes could go from Long Island to England in 24 hours 30 minutes.
      • In the 1956, PanAm traveled from NYC to London, UK in 10 hr 50 min.
      • Travel across the Atlantic by jet planes did not emerge until late in 1958 when the time went down to 6 to 7.5 hours
      • Jetlag (or jet lag) is a chronobiological problem caused by the rapid crossing of multiple time zones in a short period of time (e.g., a day). This problem shows up in problems of general fatigue, difficulty concentrating, difficulty going to sleep or remaining asleep at the destination, decreased appetite and food consumption, etc. (Waterhouse et al., 2002). 
    • Entertainment & Communication Media & Light
      • Computer & tablet self-luminating screens emit light. A brightly lit screen projects about 80 lx but a dimly lit screen only about 1 lx.
      • Recent work on whether such screens inhibit melatonin by viewers has been ambivalent.
        • One research study found no effect on adolescents using tablets for 1 hour before sleep (Heath et al. 2014).
        • Similarly, another study failed to find suppression of melatonin in the evening by watching a 70-inch television (Figueiro et al. 2013).
        • On the other hand, the same research team did find a trend toward melatonin suppression when viewers were exposed to a 30 lx light level on computer screens (Figueiro et al., 2011) and a significant effect after 2 hours of exposure to an Apple iPad (40 lx; Wood et al., 2013)
        • LED
          Exposure to light-emitting diodes (LED) backlit computer screens (vs. non-LED computer screens) for 5 hours in the evening has been found to cause not only significant reduction of melatonin production but also increased levels of feeling sleepy. There is more than a 2 times greater level of short-wave "blue" light emitted by the LED computer screen (see figure on right). However, compared to non-LED screens, the LED screens also led to higher levels of cognitive performance (including sustained attention & better declarative memory; Cajochen et al., 2011).


Cajochen, C., Frey, S., Anders, D., et al. (2011). Evening exposure to a light-emitting diodes (LED)-backlit computer screen affects circadian physiology and cognitive performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 110, 1432-1438. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00165.2011

Ekirch, A. R. (2001). Sleep we have lost: Pre-industrial slumber in British isles. American Historical Review, 106(2), 343-386.

Ekirch, A. R. (2005). At day's close: Night in times past. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Ekirch, A. R. (2015). The modernization of Western sleep: or, does insomnia have a history? Past & Present, 226, 149-192.

Ekirch A. R. (2016). Segmented sleep in preindustrial societies. Sleep, 39(3), 715-716. http://dx.doi.org/10.5665/sleep.5558

Figueiro, M. G., Wood, B., Plitnick, B., & Rea, M. S. (2011). The impact of light from computer monitors on melatonin levels in college students. Neuroendocrinology Letters, 32(2), 158-163.

Figueiro, M. G., Wood, B., Plitnick, B., & Rea, M. S. (2013). The impact of watching television on evening melatonin levels. Journal of the Society for Information Display, 21(10), 417-421.

Heath, M., Sutherland, C., Bartel, K., Gradisar, M., Williamson, P., Lovato, N., & Micic, G. (2014, January 7). Does one hour of bright or short-wavelength filtered tablet screenlight have a meaningful effect on adolescents' pre-bedtime alertness, sleep, and daytime functioning? Chronobiology International. doi:10.3109/07420528.2013.872121

Pauley, S. (2004). Lighting for the human circadian clock: Recent research indicates that lighting has become a public health issue. Medical Hypotheses, 64, 588-596.

Refford, B. (2009). [Review of the book At day's close: Night in times past by A. Roger Ekirch]. The Journal of British Studies, 48(3), 780-781.

Waterhouse, J., Edwards, B, Nevill, A, et al. (2002). Identifying some determinants of "jet lag" and its symptoms: A study of athletes and other travellers. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 36, 54-60.

Wood, B., Rea, M. S., Plitnick, B., & Figueiro, M. G. (2013). Light level and duration of exposure determine the impact of self-luminous tablets on melatonin suppression. Applied Ergonomics, 44, 237-240.

Yetish, G., Kaplan, H., Gurven, M., et al. (2015). Natural sleep and its seasonal variations in three pre-industrial societies. Current Biology, 25, 2862-2868.

This page was first posted on 2/24/14