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May 5

The New Chicken and the Egg: Color and Emotion

Color and Emotion

As we grow older and more self-aware, we begin to notice more and more that how we feel can change the way we experience things. If one is in a bad mood, little things that would not otherwise be irksome could make it seem like the world is against us. Those same small annoyances, if they happen when we’re in a good mood, are more likely to be passed by without notice – or even laughed at!

Much in the same way our mood can dictate our perception of what’s happening around us, the way we feel can make things seem different visually. In a recent study, more than 100 undergraduate students were randomly given a video clip to watch. Half of the participants were assigned a happy video; half watched a sad clip. Following the viewing, students were asked to identify each of 48 colors as green, blue, yellow, or red. The study found that those who had watched the sad video were not as accurate in their task of assigning colors to the blue-yellow spectrum as participants who had seen the happy video. (For colors on the red-green spectrum, accuracy was the same in both groups.) In other words, students who were feeling “blue” couldn’t accurately identify blue – or yellow – as those who were happier.

The fact that only perception of blues and yellows were affected – and only amongst those in the sad clip group – is notable. Psychologists believe the answer to this one resides in dopamine. This research suggests that dopamine, our body’s feel-good neurotransmitter, is linked with perception of colors on the yellow-blue spectrum. Because those who watched a sad clip would have lower levels of dopamine than those who watched the happy clip, the difficulty identifying blues and yellows suggest a correlation between the two. Similar results have been studied in patients with ADHD; these patients sometimes would struggle to perceive blues and would also have lower dopamine levels. Because dopamine has been proven to be involved in our mood regulation, vision, and even some mood disorders, it’s important to know how its levels in our bodies change.

The way we experience a color isn’t always the same, and these findings show us another reason that happiness and optimism is important for overall health. What’s especially interesting is that, just as emotions can affect how we perceive color, researchers are studying how colors may affect our emotions.

Color psychology has been used for decades in design, art, and marketing. Red and yellow are often used in food marketing, for example. Red is an eye-catching hue (our eyes tend to look to red first) that is thought to trigger appetites. Because red is often found in ripe fruits such as berries and tomatoes, it’s thought to be more linked to positive associations with food. Yellow is common in food marketing because it’s one of the “happiest” colors – our brains have been found to release serotonin at the sight of something yellow.

While color psychology as a science is still being researched, using color to affect mood change is nothing new. Ancient cultures such as the Egyptians and Chinese practiced the use of colors to heal, or chromotherapy. Chromotherapy, also known as light therapy, is used today, as well. In this treatment, blues are used to soothe pain and illnesses, and yellows and reds are used to stimulate the mind and body.

Indeed, color is proving to affect our feelings, moods, and behaviors. One study has found that warm-colored (reds, yellows) placebo pills were reported as more effective than cool (blues, greens) placebos. Another study found that past sports teams that dressed in mostly black uniforms were more likely to be associated with negative qualities – and even receive more penalties. Colors are also important and have different meanings in different regions, religions, and cultures.

Studies show that emotions and moods can affect how we perceive the world around us, and as we’re learning, there are many things that can sway our emotions and moods. Though more research is needed on these topics, these influences make it a good idea for us to try to be objective and aware when we perceive our world. Our emotions affect our lives – even our eyesight! – so do something today to make yourself healthy and happy, and you’ll see things a little more clearly.