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Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Seeing Red

Rianna Ouellette

Humans receive about 70-80% of information about their surroundings from sight. Baring this in mind, it is clear that for humans, being able to see the environment in which we live can greatly determine how we interact with that environment. For people (as well as for other animals, although not all), color is an important component of sight. Socially, color is extremely important. For example, red, green, and yellow are all used in directing traffic. Stoplights and signs are red; a green light indicates that it is safe to proceed. Yellow symbolizes the need for caution, orange alerts drivers to construction. While all these signs could be executed in black and white (for the written messages would be the same), color is used to help drivers tell the difference between types of messages. Color usage in society is not limited to driving; advertising, school buildings, offices, etc. use color theory. Color theory is the idea that colors can influence people, and that different colors produce different reactions. A lot of people would agree that different colors mean different things or cause different moods, but cannot say exactly why or how. The answers are fuzzy to say the least.

One of the most widespread ideas is that different colors stand for or signify different things. However, one must keep in mind a basic fact; it being that "colors often have different symbolic meanings in different cultures. For example, white is the color for weddings in western societies but for funerals in traditional Chinese culture; red is associated with rage in America but with happiness in China. In American fashion and decoration, blue is for boys while pink is for girls, which is a symbolic use of color that are not shared by many cultures" (6). After saying something like that, the next question would be: does this mean that colors and the moods/reactions that they may (or may not) elicit are culturally constrained, or is there still some underlying biological reason for moods/reactions to alter due to color? A site on the server for Cornell University notes, "some of these responses seem to be powerful and fairly universal" (5). It is interesting to then look at the idea of chromotherapy; the use of colored light to heal. In a paper by Owen Demers he writes, "This [chromotherapy] is not a new age idea. On page 32 in his book The Power of Color, Dr. Morton Walker states that '...The ancient Egyptians, for example, built temples for the sick that were bedecked with color and light. They set aside special colored rooms as sanctuaries where the sick could be bathed in lights of deep blue, violet, and pink. Native American Indians also used color for healing ... to fight chronic illness and to heal injuries sustained during buffalo hunts and intertribal warfare' "(7). This being said and combining it with the fact that people still turn to color therapy today, leads me to believe that there may be actual, physical and emotional reactions of human beings to color (in the form of light and/or pigment). How is it that the body could respond to color in the form of light? While plants responding to light are not unusual (since they have the chloroplasts to do so), one does not normally think of people drawing energy from light, or having light change something about a person. According to William G. Cooper, "president of the Cooper Foundation, (a nonprofit educational organization offering natural methods of healing to the public), in The Power of Color (p.xiii), 'Light is a nutrient and, like food, is necessary for optimum health. Research demonstrates that the full spectrum of daylight is needed to stimulate our endocrine systems properly.' "(7). Whether or not this is actually the case, I am not sure; nor did I find any evidence pointing either way.

Color associations are also an occurrence that would point to the idea that color is more than just something pretty to observe. Color associations link mental or emotional reactions with specific colors acting as a stimulus. There has been quite a lot of research done in this field, or so all the websites say, but almost none of the sites cite any studies in particular, nor do they attempt to explain why the associations exist. It is as if the idea that colors elicit emotions is so innate that it does not require an explanation in order to be deemed credible. Interior designers, architects, and paint manufacturers all rely on color associations. On a site dealing with painting and interior design there is the quote "Without a doubt there is a psychology of color. Color impacts our mood, our appetite, our energy level. Years of color response research have shown that certain colors elicit specific--and often strong-responses" (1). Yet there is nothing more said before the information switches over to colors and their significances.

However, on a different site, how color can affect appetite is explained. It puts forth the idea that foods that are blue are not appetizing, and that eating in a room that is blue can diminish one's appetite. "Blue is known to curb appetites. Why is this so? Blue food doesn't exist in nature, with the exception of the blueberry. There are no blue vegetables, and hopefully, if you encountered a blue meat, you certainly wouldn't eat it. Because of this natural color deficiency, there is no automatic appetite response to anything blue" (4). By extending the concept that one does not normally find food that is blue, and then adding in the color association of blue (soothing-and thereby taking attention away from the food and directing it to taking a nap), one can perhaps understand how a color could provoke a behavioral change. And if behavior can be changed by a color, so could emotions. Some theories deal with the concept that "warm" colors produce "active and exciting" feelings, whereas "cool" colors will produce "passive and calming" feelings (3). Therefore, colors such as red would make a person feel active and perhaps aggressive (3).

Light in itself is known to produce reactions in the body; gamma rays are used to treat cancer; X-rays are used to view innards (2). Since the differences between visible light and those types of light is only the wavelength, there does not appear to be reason why visible light should not be able to produce physiological effects on the body. It appears, in fact, that it does: "Today we know that a blindfolded person will experience physiological reactions under different colored rays. In other words, the skin sees in Technicolor. This fact was confirmed by the noted neuropsychologist, Kurt Goldstein. In his modern classic, The Organism, he notes that stimulation of the skin by different colors leads to different effects. He states, 'it is probably not a false statement to say that a specific color stimulation is accompanied by a specific response pattern of the entire organism' "(2). So, taking the above information into consideration, one can see how colors of light can affect the body's physical reactions. But how does that continue into the realm of emotions?

First of all, there appears to be a link between the physical reactions of the eyes to the color spectrum and resulting emotions. This link may appear obvious to some, but is still worth mentioning. "Yellow, pure bright lemon yellow is the most fatiguing color. Why? The answer comes from the physics of light and optics. More light is reflected by bright colors, resulting in excessive stimulation of the eyes. Therefore, yellow is an eye irritant" (9). The next question that comes from this piece of information is how the color goes from being a physical irritant to an emotional one. In this case, I would mention that when a person is physically tired, when the eyes droop and movement takes too much effort, bothering said person is likely to produce an undesired effect; the person is liable to snap, be rude, or act otherwise annoyed by any act that prevents sleep. Physical conditions can produce emotional reactions. Also, the nervous impulses generated by the mechanisms that detect color do not always stop at the brain. They can travel to "the pituitary and pinal glands through the hypothalamus. It is logical to assume that what we see, especially color, can affect the systems of the body. Psychologists and physiologists believe this to be true and are investigating exactly what each color can do to our bodies" (8). The hypothalamus is an "important section of the brain that regulates body temperature, blood pressure, heartbeat, metabolism, expression of emotions and sexual behaviors" (8). Thus, it is not a radical idea to therefore say that color can produce emotions. An example of this is red, which "has been shown to increase blood pressure and stimulate the adrenal glands. The stimulation of the adrenals glands helps us become strong and increases our stamina. Pink, a lighter shade of red, helps muscles relax. While red has proven to be a color of vitality and ambition it has been shown to be associated with anger. Sometimes red can be useful in dispelling negative thoughts, but it can also make one irritable. Pink has the opposite effect of red. Pink induces feelings of calm, protection, warmth and nurture. This color can be used to lessen irritation and aggression as it is connected with feelings of love. Red is sometimes associated with sexuality, whereas pink is associated with unselfish love" (8). After considering this information, it is clear that color psychology is a long way away from being a clear line of study. However, I think that it is on the right track, and that color can, and does, affect a person's mood and physical state.

WWW Sources

1)Design Center

2)Color Matters, Science, Electromagnetic Color

3)Color Psychology

4)Light and Color at the Franklin Institute

5)Art, Design, and Visual Thinking

6)Color Psychology 2

7)The Psychology of Colors

8)Think Quest Color Psychology

9)Color Matters, Vision, Color&Vision Matters