Can a bit of darkness help me with my PhD?

I spent the last 10 days of December up on the edge of the Cairngorm mountains where twilight begins around 3.30pm and the sun so long rising in the morning so that it can be at least 9am before it feels properly light. Although I am someone who loves the summer and finds these long winter evenings challenging, lately I have been wondering what we might be missing out on because our lives have become so out of tune with the passing of the seasons with their natural rhythms of light and darkness.

The writer Alexander Shaia, in his interview with Rob Bell, reminds us that in the Jewish tradition the day begins at sunset, that the day first rests in an extended period of darkness before it gets busy with its first streaks daylight; so, what is new is birthed out of that which first dwells deepest in darkness. Shaia, speaking here as a spiritual guide, therefore encourages us to develop a practice of what could be akin to mindfulness, where we try to sit quietly with the present darkness rather than wishing ourselves into the future where we hope for sunnier, happier days. In this way he encourages us to respect what the darkness is able to teach us now in this present moment, indicating that this could perhaps help us reach the point where we notice the darkness has sacred and most beautiful qualities.


But even if we do not feel the pull to venture into a realm where the language of the sacred is used, Shaia also notes that science can offer a complimentary way to appreciate the benefits of all things dark, dim and twilight-like.  

Research results showed that working in dim rather than bright fluorescent lighting helps encourage creative thinking because it nudges our brains to enter ‘exploratory mode’. “The idea is that dark places suggest a freedom that loosens our thoughts” says Eric Jaffe, whereas too much bright lighting inhibits us and keeps our thoughts from straying off the conventional, well trodden path of thought (see previous blog post on footpaths and thinking).

Think about these expressions:

That is an insightful idea, The argument is clear. I see what you are saying. Could you please elucidate your remarks? It looks different from my point of view…..

Why would we ever question the connection between light and enlightenment given how often we use these expressions of this kind? Lakoff and Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By note these examples. They argue that that metaphor constitutes both our contemporary language and thus also constructs our reality. One of their examples is how in the English language metaphors construct ideas as light sources, understanding becomes seeing clearly and discourse becomes a light medium (p.48-49).

As creatures who generally enjoy understanding things and often need new ideas it is perhaps then unusual to chose to sit with the long nights of winter, not to curse them, but to try welcoming the darkness they bring. Common sense (which takes up residence in the linguistic idioms like the examples above) teaches us to think that we need light to see and understand and that ideas are light sources, thus to be stuck in the dark, is exactly that, a place we get stuck in rather than somewhere we chose to rest in for a time, a place to be revered even. 

I wonder what it is I am trying to say here then.

In practical terms I am at the start of this 4 year PhD journey and at times am tempted to react in anxiety feeling that the way ahead is unseen and unknown at the moment. At the moment having to submit an upgrade paper in May is pretty much the only thing about my project I am sure of.  A reminder that the day begins at sunset followed by a good many hours of darkness before we see dawn break over the path that needs to be trod is a reassuring reminder then.

I also like the idea that sitting in the dark does something to our brains to nurture creativity. Maybe I will hesitate more often when I next automatically reach out for the light switch in the dull grey of a January morning, waiting for my kettle to boil. There are probably numerous ways to experience a bit less loud electric lighting throughout our days.

But I as well as this, I wonder how if we see darkness as a metaphor for not ‘seeing’, not understanding, and I apply my experience in Scotland to thinking about the actual labour of thinking and writing, I wonder what then I can learn.  

Maybe some ideas take time to emerge in the darkness. Maybe we do need to allow ourselves to say ‘I don’t know’ more often. Perhaps grasping the dim outline of something is more than enough for some moments in time.


Patricia Thomson writes on Giorgio Agamben’s ideas about studying in her wonderful blog on the challenges of getting to grips with theory. She reassures us there it is perfectly normal for there to be quite a time lag between the act of reading and then proceeding to understanding. In this in-between stage of not understanding, things may appear hazy, a bit like when you are trying to make out where the track curves and winds its way through a pine forest at dusk Scotland. This is the moment, Thompson says, when we students are often tempted to give up and stop making an effort but in fact this in between stage is a part we must make our peace with if we are to continue well. Agamben describes this effort saying the “shuttling between bewilderment and lucidity, discovery and loss, between agent and patient, is the rhythm of study.” (quoted in Thomson’s blog, my emphasis).

I wonder if it is possible to entertain or even enjoy a certain amount of bewilderment in my study? And if I can feel free to accept a certain sort of lostness, maybe it helps to believe it is surely part of this rhythm of learning; a rowing back and forward between knowing and not knowing; a rhythm as sure, let’s hope, as the way our new year in the the UK begins in darkness, as that the earth always tilts on its axis and as sure as the fact that long summer evenings will eventually turn up again soon.

In the meantime it is January here and now. Present tense. And it will be with us for a little while yet. 20180302_174748

One thought on “Can a bit of darkness help me with my PhD?

  1. What a lovely and insightful post! Something to sit with and ponder. Loved the links you’ve drawn between darkness and creativity. Reminds me that in the night-time we need real deep natural darkness (dark sky reserves) to get the best view of (all the other) stars.

    (P.S. If you’re a late-night sort of researcher and you haven’t done so already, you could explore the lux programme – free to download – that cuts out blue light on your screen at night!)

    Liz x

    Liked by 1 person

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