Color: Is it Real and Does it Impact Behavior?

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Biology 202

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Color: Is it Real and Does it Impact Behavior?

Ebony Dix

Color is a lot more than the quantification and movement of light. It attracts attention, helps us recognize objects, distinguish among objects of varying hue and saturation, and it even appeals to our aesthetic sense 2). The sum of all these affects suggests that color is innate and can possibly effect our emotions and behavior. The scientific definition of color fails to capture the importance that color has in our world.

From a scientific perspective, color is defined as a sensation produced in the brain by light that enters the rod cells â€" one of the two types of photoreceptors found in the retina of the eye - via the absorption/reflection of different wavelengths and frequencies of photons (1). When light is transmitted from an object to the eye, it stimulates the different color cones of the retina, therefore making the perception of various colors in the object possible. This definition is limited because it does not answer the important question about whether color is real or just a function of our brain. It does not establish that color is extremely important in the way we perceive the world today, regardless of whether color is real or not.

The fact that those of us who can see color can generally recognize and distinguish between the main colors of the electromagnetic spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet), is evidence that color is innate. Additional evidence can be observed in blind individuals who have their sight restored later in life and are able to recognize colors long before they are able to identify objects (2). Being able to distinguish between varying hues and saturations of color in the absence of a learned skill also makes it plausible to assume that colors impact our behavior, just as our senses of taste, smell, touch, and hearing cause us to respond to a series of inputs.

Many argue that color is merely a fabrication of the mind, and not a physical reality, which is a valid point because color is intangible. But, it seems to me that the effect that color has on people is very real. The ability of the individual to distinguish between light and dark and between red and violet and to behave differently under circumstances where there is more dark and less light, or more red and less violet is a real phenomenon. Take for instance the theories behind seasonal affective disorder (also known as seasonal depression), which state that due to lack of sunlight, some people become depressed either as a result of a hormonal imbalance or delay in the biological clock affected by the reduced availability of sunlight (3). Sunlight in the physical sense goes hand in hand with color because sunlight represents the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation and color is the detection of this radiation by the nervous system. Because it is possible for the body to detect changes in light, it follows that the brain is able to detect variations in hue and saturation of color, which in turn evoke a response that impact behavior.

While the impact that certain colors may have on individuals can be the result of social and cultural conditions, it seems that colors in the most primitive context are able to induce a response in individuals. For example, some studies show that an individual who is placed in room whose ceiling, floor, and walls are painted a hue of bright red is more likely to experience and enhanced functions of the autonomic nervous system, evoking tension and excitement than one who is placed in a room painted in a similar fashion, but in a faint hue of light blue (4). While such responses to red may not be consistent among a large sample of individuals, it is still absolutely valid to conclude that colors have impact on the brain. It is difficult to determine whether those impacts are due to conditioning or an innate response to certain wavelengths of light. I can draw from personal experience to suggest that soft colors (pastels, light shades of yellow, pink and blue) do not cause tension or excitement, but, rather a calming sensation. Because I am one individual out of an enormous population and it is impossible to determine whether my response was due to conditioning or an innate disdain for the color red, I can only use my experience to support the reported experiences of others. I can say with certainty that each individual’s brain is wired slightly differently, therefore variations in the frequency and intensity of responses to color most definitely exist.

The ability of the brain to process information entering the eye and then furnish a response upon detecting this information is quite an amazing accomplishment considering that the information (visible light) is intangible. The light entering the retina and the perception of the colors due to that light is undoubtedly a function of the brain. But, whether it is mutually exclusive from physical reality is a difficult concept for me to grasp. I firmly believe that when an electron returns to its ground state from some higher excited state, and there’s no one around to observe it do so, it does still emit a photon, which has an associated wavelength and frequency.

It is clear that there are many schools of thought that have theories about whether color is based only on the brain’s perception of it, and not on reality. But it seems equally clear, that the concept of color as a function of the brain that is exclusive from physical reality depends on how one chooses to define what is physically real. While color may not be tangible or “physically real”, it is a very important phenomenon that impacts many dimensions of visual perception and behavior. Our world is made up of many colors, whether we can see them or not, and because the physics of electromagnetic radiation is a reality, color in some sense of the word must also be real.

1)Howard Hughes Medical Institute webpage, an article from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute website that briefly discusses how we see colors

2) Levine, Michael, W. Levine & Shefner’s Fundamentals of Sensation and Perception New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

3)Cleveland Clinic Health webpage, a website that describes the seasonal affective disorder, which is also know as seasonal depression

4) PDF file from Midwest Facilitators homepage, an article written by a Loyola University Chicago professor on the impact of color on behavior

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