Effects of prior light exposure on early evening performance, subjective sleepiness, and hormonal secretion

Behav Neurosci. 2012 Feb;126(1):196-203. doi: 10.1037/a0026702. Epub 2011 Dec 26.


In sighted humans, light intensity, timing, exposure duration, and spectral composition of light are important to entrain the endogenous circadian pacemaker to the 24-h day-night cycle. We tested the impact of two realistic office lighting conditions during the afternoon on subjective sleepiness, hormonal secretion, and cognitive performance in the early evening hours. Twenty-nine young subjects came twice and spent 8 h (12:00-20:00) in our laboratory, where they were exposed for 6 h to either artificial light (AL) or to mainly daylight (DL). In the early evening, we assessed their salivary cortisol and melatonin secretion, subjective sleepiness, and cognitive performance (n-back test) under dim light conditions. Subjects felt significantly more alert at the beginning of the evening after the DL condition, and they became sleepier at the end of the evening after the AL condition. For cognitive performance we found a significant interaction between light conditions, mental load (2- or 3-back task) and the order of light administration. On their first evening, subjects performed with similar accuracy after both light conditions, but on their second evening, subjects performed significantly more accurately after the DL in both n-back versions and committed fewer false alarms in the 2-back task compared to the AL group. Lower sleepiness in the evening was significantly correlated with better cognitive performance (p < .05). In summary, even short-term lighting conditions during the afternoon had an impact on cognitive task performance in the evening. This rapid effect was only distinguishable on the second day of training, when a difficult task had been sufficiently practiced.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Lighting
  • Male
  • Melatonin / metabolism*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Wakefulness / physiology*


  • Melatonin
  • Hydrocortisone