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The Colorful Mind by Ibrahim Saad

Sensation and Perception


Research has shown that color affects our minds in a number of ways in every aspect of our lives, but what is the reason? How does it affect us the way it does? Why does the color of an object affect us? In what ways do the colors of our world and environment affect our perception of people, taste, and our emotional state? The goal of this paper is to show how color affects our minds through compiling and elaborating on color research conducted by psychologists and marketers. Only in the last decade has there been a major increase in the amount of research conducted in this area of study. As more psychologists have started exploring this area, they have found many amazing and surprising effects on the mind from the visible spectrum. It affects our psychological state and our perception of our surroundings more than anyone could imagine.


            The effects of color have affected us since we were born and have been around for centuries. Color is one of the biggest influences used in the business world – business marketers have been using color for many years to influence our minds and buying decisions. However, only recently, have researchers started seriously studying the effects of color on the brain. In the last decade, there has been an explosion in the amount of research conducted on how color affects the brain, to the point that a whole new field called “Color Psychology” has developed. As more research is conducted in this area, psychologists have been able to make improvements in the society through things as simple as painting prison holding cells pink, or hospitals light green.

            Research has shown that color affects our minds in a number of ways in every aspect of our lives, but what is the reason? How does it affect us in the way it does? Why does the color of an object affect us? In what ways do the colors of our world and environment affect our perception of people, taste, and our emotional state? In the following paper the goal is to show how much color effects our minds through compiling and elaborating on the research of color conducted by psychologists and marketers. There has only been a major increase in the amount of research conducted in this area of study in the recent decade. As more psychologists have started exploring this area, they have found many amazing and surprising effects on the mind from the visible spectrum. It affects our psychological state and our perception of our surrounding more than anyone could imagine.

How We See Color

            Vision is one of the most amazing and important senses in our lives. It allows us to navigate our environment successfully and to see the beauty of the world around us, but one of the most vital functions of the eye is to see and process color. To grasp how color affects us, we must first know how the eye works.

Anatomy and Function of the Eye

            The eye is made up of many nerves and muscles. When we look at an object, our eyes receive light patterns and turn them into images. The cornea, which is the first part of the eye to receive the light, bends it and allows us to focus. After the light passes through the cornea, it enters the pupil, the small black dot in your eye. The iris regulates the size of the pupil to adjust the amount of light that enters our eyes. The lens then receives that light and focuses it on the retina, –at a point called the fovea, by changing its curvature in a process called “accommodation” (Meyers, 2006). The retina contains rods and cones. The rods are more numerous, more sensitive to light, and located in the periphery of the retina. The cones, on the other hand, are located only in the fovea and are the cells that allow us perceive color.

Trichromatic Theory

            In the nineteenth century, two scientists – Thomas Young and Hermann von Hemholts – proposed the theory that since any color of the visible spectrum can be made by combining the three primary colors of light– red, blue, and green – there must be three types of receptor cells in our eyes, one for each of the primary color wavelengths. Each of these wavelengths has a different size so the receptor cells differ as to which wavelength they receive; red sensitive cones receive the long wavelengths, green sensitive cones receive the mid-sized wavelengths, and blue sensitive cones receive the short wavelengths of the visible spectrum.

The Effect of Color on the Mind

An Attractive Color

            As we live our lives, we are affected by color, and different colors affect us in different ways. Research has been done on the color red, and its effect on the female mind. One study tested female perception of a man’s attractiveness and status. Women that viewed a picture of a man wearing the color red, or surrounded by the color red, perceived him as more attractive and having a higher status than women who viewed same man wearing the color blue, green, grey, or white (Elliot & Kayser & Greitemeyer & Lichtenfeld & Gramzow & Maier & Liu,2010). One possibility for this observed increase could be that long wavelength colors – such as red – appear slightly nearer to a person than short wavelength colors – such as blue – or achromatic colors – such as gray – due to light refraction difference in the eye (Marcos, Burns, Moreno-Barruiuso, & Navarro, 1999).

            In another study on the attractiveness of the color red researchers found that the same was true for men rating women (Elliot & Niesta, 2008). Surprisingly, both studies yielded the same results. Both women and men rated the opposite sex as more attractive when wearing the color red, or having the color red in the background, but it did not affect their perception of likability or kindness. These results, since they applied to both males and females, and since the participants in the studies were varied in their ethnic backgrounds, show that there is an effect of the wavelengths on the mind outside of the color that our mind consciously processes.

            Another reason for this attraction to the color red could stem from our instinctive animalistic nature. In the animal world, red serves as a sex attractant and as a way of showing superiority. Research into associations to color words and color stimuli has demonstrated that red is perceived as a color of strength, power, and competitive dominance (Little & Hill, 2007; Schaie, 1961; Wexner, 1954). There has been extensive research done on the subject of status and attraction, and has shown that status and physical attractiveness are considered to be core aspects of mate evaluation (Buss, 2008; Fletcher, 2002; Hill 1999).

            Attraction is not the only thing affected by the color of things, nor does the red wavelength only affect attraction. Red has been found to enhance the performance of tasks, but blue has also been found to improve the performance of tasks, so which color is the superior color for improving tasks? In a recent study (Mehta & Zhu, 2009), researchers looked into these seemingly conflicting effects of the two colors. Through a series of tests, they found that red improves detail oriented tasks, whereas blue improves creativity oriented tasks. The reasons for these effects have been found to be associated with peoples’ interactions with the specific color in their lives.

            Red is used for stop signs, warnings, and when a teacher marks an answer wrong. This color therefore is thought of as a color to avoid, so our brains need to focus more; hence the improvement in detail oriented tasks. The color blue is the color of the open sky, and oceans, so this color is associated with peace and openness, therefore improving a person’s performance on a creativity oriented tasks.

The Pink Effect

            Interestingly enough, there is a color in the visible spectrum that causes people to actually lose energy when surrounded by it. That color is called Baker-Miller Pink and its approximate RGB formula is R: 255 G: 145 B: 175. It has been shown that even if people try to be angry in the presence of pink, they are simply not able to. This is due to the fact that your heart muscles can’t race fast enough. This tranquilizing pink color that saps energy, even affects the color blind (Walker, 1991) which is further proof that we are affected by a colors’ wavelength and not just a person’s mental association with that color.

            Of course, that does not disprove the theory that color is perceived by association. If a person were to witness their child hit by a bright blue car, their heart might race and they might be disturbed by that color blue, even if their child were to survive the accident. This is due to the trauma they experienced in the instant they saw that bright blue car. The same color, however, can have a positive association for another person depending on their experiences.

            Some research, however, says that the effects of color are only from experience which is incorrect. Let’s take the color red for example: Red is used for warnings on the road, medicine bottles, and generally anywhere there is a hazard. So it can be argued that the reason the heart rate increases is because of a person’s experience to the color red, but that is taking it only half way. Why do we use the color red for warnings? The answer to this can be found in the natural world. Red is a warning color, and is naturally used since it is an attention grabbing color.

Color and Our Other Senses

            Color can also affect our other senses, like smell and taste. This condition is called synaethisia and is how our senses work together. When a person smells something, sometimes they can taste it – when they see a certain object or color, they associate a taste or smell with it. Each sense has a pathway to the brain, but sometimes a cross from one pathway to another occurs. Our brains also makes judgments based on the color of things. Humans rely heavily on visual information to make decisions and navigate their world (Hoegg & Alba, 2007).

            In a study, conducted by JoAndrea Hoegg of the University of British Colombia, and Joseph Alba of the University of Florida, color was found to influence a person’s perception of the taste of a drink, regardless of actual taste or brand. Researchers tested how color, price, or brand influenced a person’s perception of taste. When researchers gave a test subject two cups of orange juice, where one of the cups was enhanced with food coloring and the other untouched, the subject perceived the one with added food coloring as sweeter, even though there was no difference in the actual taste. Surprisingly, when researchers sweetened one cup with sugar and left the other untouched, both having the same color, the same people who perceived taste change in the colored cups did not detect any change in taste.


In all of these studies and research color has been shown to be a major influence on a person’s psychological perception and their subconscious decisions. Much of the influence of the visible spectrum on the mind comes from the given wavelength that a color has because of the specific cones that they are received by. While there are also effects of the visible spectrum that come rom a person’s individual experiences or the culture that they have been influenced by much of those effects come from the fact that a given color is usually a color that intuitively works for the thing that it is being used for. The field of color psychology is still in its beginning phase and needs more research conducted in it so that we can expand our knowledge of the colors of the visual spectrum and even those outside of it. Hopefully psychologists will see the importance of this area and pursue it with more energy so that our lives can be further enhanced and we may be able to find cures to some psychological disorders using color therapy.


Color clearly affects us from the day we are born. There are some color effects that are universal and affect most everyone. Whether a person is from Africa, Asia, or the United States of America; whether they are young, old, male, female, or even color blind, it has only minimal effect because we are subject to a given color’s wavelength. There are also effects of color on our mind that are the result of a person’s personal or cultural experiences. The effect of color on our mind, emotional state, and decisions are clearly present and deserve more research so we can better understand these effects and improve our lives with the power of the visible spectrum.


Sources & Additional Reading*:


Meyers, D. G. (2006). Psychology (8th ed.)

Elliot, A. J., Greitemeyer, T., Gramzow,R. H., Kayser, D. N., Lichtenfeld, S., Maier, M. A., & Liu, H. (March 26,2010). Red,Rank, and Romance

Marcos, S., Burns, S. A., Moreno-Barriuso, E., & Navarro, R. (1999). A new approach to the study of ocular chromatic aberrations. Vision Research

Elliot, A. J., & Kayser, D. N., (March 12,2008). Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men’s Attraction to Women

Little, A. C., & Hill, R. A. (2007). Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology

Schaie, K. W. (1961). American Journal of Psychology

Wexner, L. B. (1954). Journal of Applied Psychology

Buss, D. M. (2008). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of mind (3rd ed.)

Fletcher, G. J. O. (2002). The new science of intimate relationships

Hill, G. E. (1999). Mate choice, male quality, and carotenoid-based plumage coloration. In N. J. Adams & R. H. Slowtow (Eds.)

Mehta, R. P., & Zhu, R. (2009). Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances

Walker, M. (1991). The Power of Color

Hoegg, J., & Alba, J. (2007). Taste Perception: More Than Meets The Tongue


*None of the content in "Additional Reading" resources is related to, nor do we confirm the authenticity or views expressed therein.