Andrew Huberman's Light Lore
scientizing Early Rising
If you’ve been on any social media platform or even just talked to a man who goes to the gym in the last three years, you’ve heard of Andrew Huberman. His podcast’s “science-based tools for everyday life” are so popular with a particular kind of high-achieving biohacker that TikTok has taken to calling them “Huberman Husbands.”
Fans are putting red light bulbs in their lamps because Huberman said in an episode once that they’re good for sleep — citing a preliminary study seeking to improve the performance of shift workers that is still ongoing. “Beautiful,” he says of studies he likes, but they’re often new, feature small sample sizes, and haven’t yet been repeated.
He often appeals to quantity, talking about the “many studies” or the “decades of research” backing up his points, but neglects to mention that quantity of study does not necessarily mean quality of evidence, and that neuroscience as we know it is only a few decades old, anyway. Science moves slow, and the things we think we know today, we might laugh about in fifty years.
Huberman dresses up his health advice with brain words and neurotransmitters, but it really boils down to basic tenets we’ve been told for a very long time already. Get good sleep, exercise, eat a balanced diet, hydrate. He gives specific, quantified protocols for following these tenets, though, which I think appeals to people who prefer to find their truth in data and their priests in scientists.
His claim to fame is perhaps his advice about morning sunlight, something he is uniquely qualified to speak on, as his neuroscience lab at Stanford specializes in ophthalmology. Everyone needs to get several minutes of early morning sun in their eyeballs immediately upon waking, he says, for brain chemical reasons.
In Huberman’s lore, human beings are just machines controlled by their chemicals, and if we learn how to tweak those chemicals through specific rituals, we can control our own bodies.
But does this practice really benefit everyone like Huberman claims? And does he even owe his own productivity to the light lore he professes to the rest of us, or does he perhaps have some special conditions that make high-achieving more possible for him?
Because I’m currently operating on the hunch that Gilded Age health crazes are coming back in vogue under the banner of neuroscience, it only took a little bit of research paper surfing before I found some literature about a subset of post-Industrial Revolution health reform movements that promoted what they called “Early Rising” as a moral practice.
Sleep patterns were different before the Industrial Revolution, with many people sleeping in two shifts separated by a period of wakefulness in the night — referred to as first sleep and second sleep. Historian Roger Ekrich writes that in the 1800’s, “propelled by uncertainties over the dramatic pace of economic and social change,” health reformers started to really push self-improvement among the middle class.
This included telling people that second sleep was bad for them because it could cause headaches, constipation, and even lead to young men losing their “vital force” to sexy dreams (of course this is also connected to No Fap!) so the right thing to do was just to get out of bed instead.
As early as 1674, the author of The Art of Thriving: or, the Way to Get and Keep Money had urged this course in order to avoid the twin perils of lethargy and lust. ‘What a shame it is to spend half one's lifetime in dreams and sleeps; leave your bed thereof when first sleep hath left you, lest custom render your body sluggish, or (which is worse), your mind a cage of unclean thoughts’1
An 1855 booklet on Early Rising (which appears to have been misattributed to Benjamin Franklin, who died in 1790) talks about the health benefits of early morning sun like this:
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