How Does Sunlight Affect Cognition?

You may know that going outdoors has a lot of cognitive benefits. But did you know about how sunlight affects cognition specifically?

Getting too much sunlight can have negative effects on our brains and bodies. However, studies show that moderate exposure to sunlight can improve aspects of our cognition and mental health, as well as our physical health.

sunlight cognition

Sunlight and cognition

According to research, exposure to sunlight can positively affect our memory, learning, and attention skills. One study found that exposure to UV rays from the sun can lead to a boost in glutamate. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that relates to learning and memory. Exposure to sunlight is essential for memory formation.

Other studies have found that exposure to bright light, including sunlight, promotes alertness and overall improved cognitive performance. Decreased exposure to sunlight has been linked to cognitive impairment.

In addition to glutamate, other transmitters such as serotonin and melatonin are highly affected by sunlight. These neurotransmitters are frequently discussed concerning mental health, but they are related to cognitive function as well. Moderate exposure to sunlight can help to regulate them so that we don’t experience a decrease in production. When we do experience a decrease, it can negatively affect our cognitive skills as well as our moods.

Sunlight and mental health

Sunlight’s regulation of these neurotransmitters contributes to both cognitive health and mental health. The link between sunlight and mental health is especially apparent when discussing Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a type of depression caused by limited exposure to sunlight, usually during the winter. A study found that a 1-hour walk in morning sunlight was a more effective treatment for SAD than exposure to artificial light, which is a conventional treatment for SAD.

One study found that exposure to sunlight reduced the hospitalization time needed for bipolar patients. Patients in a room with more exposure to morning sunlight showed faster improvement than patients in a room without this exposure to morning sunlight.

These effects on mental health may partially be due to the sun’s effect on our circadian rhythms. Exposure to sunlight is necessary for a healthy sleep schedule, and getting incomplete sleep is known to have negative impacts on mental health.

How to get more sunlight

Unfortunately, many people experience circumstances that limit their exposure to sunlight, including light pollution, and workplaces or homes with minimal windows to let in sunlight. So, how do we increase healthy exposure to sunlight to promote cognitive, mental, and physical health? Here are a few tips:

  • Go outside! This is sometimes easier said than done depending on your lifestyle. If you work or live in a space without much natural light, take breaks to go outdoors whenever possible.
  • Utilize your windows. If you do have exposure to sunlight from windows in your workspace or home, see if you can spend more time near the windows. Perhaps you can rearrange your desk to be close to the window so you get a little more sunlight in your day.
  • Change up your routine. If outdoor activities aren’t a normal part of your lifestyle, why not try something new? Try to complete one or two outdoor activities per week and see how you like them. You can read in a park, go for a walk with a friend, hike, or join an outdoor exercise group.
  • Opt for the outdoor option. When you go out for a meal, a coffee, or a drink at a bar, sit outside if outdoor seating is offered.

How much time should you spend in the sun?

Experts recommend getting between 10-30 minutes of midday sunlight several times per week. Or, spend more time in the sun if it isn’t midday. The amount of sunlight you need depends on your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. So if you burn easily, try going outside for shorter periods (10-20 minutes in midday sunlight). If you have darker skin, longer periods may be better (30-40 minutes in midday sunlight). Make sure to wear your sunscreen!


Sunlight has powerful effects on our cognitive health and mental health. Getting enough sunlight during our day can regular neurotransmitters such as glutamate, serotonin, and melatonin. This can improve our learning, memory, and attention skills, as well as regulate our moods. If you feel like you aren’t getting enough sunlight, try to incorporate outdoor activities into your week for your cognitive and mental health!

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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