Apple’s iOS 9.3 Uses Science To Help Cure Our Insomnia

Here's the science behind Apple iOS 9.3's Night Shift feature, which dims your screen around bedtime

This airline passenger can't sleep because she's glued to her tablet — (REUTERS)
Mar 22, 2016 at 11:58 AM ET

Apple knows you need your beauty sleep—and that your iPhone is one of the only things standing between you and your pillow. In fact, studies suggest the bright, blue light of an iPhone screen may be to blame for our zombie-like sleep deprivation, and that warmer tones could help lull us to sleep.

Fortunately, iOS 9.3’s Night Shift feature is here to help.

“A lot of waking hours went into thinking about sleep,” Apple writes of its new iPhone tech. “Night Shift uses your iOS device’s clock and geolocation to determine when it’s sunset in your location, then it automatically shifts the colors in your display to the warmer end of the spectrum. In the morning, it returns the display to its regular settings…Pleasant dreams.”

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To oversimplify decades of neuroscience: Our brains and bodies are wired to a sort of internal clock or circadian rhythm. Scientists suspect that these internal clocks are synced to light patterns, so that our bodies wake up during the day and relax in the evening. This process is likely mediated by melatonin, one of the hormones involved in sleep. Briefly, when the sun is shining in your eyes, your body produces more melatonin and you feel wide awake; when the lights go out, melatonin floods your system, tucks you in and kisses you goodnight.

Or, it used to—now we have iPhones.

Anne-Marie Chang, neuroscientist at Harvard, recently told Scientific American that light-emitting devices like iPhones are messing with our circadian rhythms:

In 2014 my colleagues and I examined the effects of reading on a light-emitting device compared with reading a printed book. Participants who read on light-emitting devices took longer to fall asleep, had less REM sleep [the phase when we dream] and had higher alertness before bedtime [than those people who read printed books]…At home, I would expect people do not have the motivation to turn off their devices and go to bed, so they would stay up longer and experience even more circadian delay and shorter sleep times.

A recurring theme in these studies is blue light. Back in the 1990s, researchers conducted hundreds of experiments to determine how different wavelengths of light affected melatonin production. They found that humans are especially sensitive to light in the blue wavelength region of the spectrum.

Now, most natural light sources cast a minimal amount of a light within the blue wavelength region. But light-emitting devices such as iPhones, iPads and laptops emit quite a bit of that blue light, and this puts the squeeze on our melatonin. The result is that almost nothing keeps us awake quite as effectively as our iPhones.

Apple is aware of the problem, and even willing to cite the science, “Many studies have shown that exposure to bright blue light in the evening can affect your circadian rhythms and make it harder to fall asleep,” Apple writes.

The solution? Night Shift. The new Night Shift mode on Apple products will apparently shift the color temperature of your iPhone or iPad display away from blue light and toward warmer, sleepier tones that get your melatonin flowing. The feature is strikingly similar to the popular F.lux app, which also purports to decrease the amount of blue light emanating from your screen so that your phone doesn’t keep you up. Curiously, F.lux has disappeared from the app store.

In theory, the science makes sense. In practice, however, not everybody is thrilled. “Apple doesn’t care about your sleep,” writes Curtis Silver, consumer tech writer and humorist at Forbes. Silver argues that all the Night Shift app really does is keep us up later, under the false premise that our iPhone are helping us wind down. “You’ll download apps late at night because now, they’ve got you thinking that some warming screen app is the same as no screen blasting in your eyes.”

Indeed, studies have shown that blue light really isn’t the only problem. Light of any shade, and other distractions on our iPhones, are keeping us awake too.

“The solution is not relying on your phone to dull that harsh light at night so you can keep injecting social media and apps between your toes,” Silver writes. “The solution is turning off your goddamn phone before bed.”