How Color Shapes Our Lives

The social, historical, and evolutionary signals of colors. Plus, a video that shows how Newton arbitrarily named the colors of the rainbow.
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Jay Neitz has cured colorblindness. At least he thinks he could cure colorblindness, if the FDA would let him operate on humans. What Neitz, a vision expert at the University of Washington, has done for sure is given monkeys the ability to see red.

Like most mammals, squirrel monkeys have only two types of cone cells in their eyes—blue and green—and can, therefore, only see those colors. But by doing some genetic kung fu, Neitz, along with his lab partner (and wife), the neuroscientist Maureen Neitz, was able to convert some of the monkeys’ green cones to red, giving them the same trichromatic vision that humans have.

Well, most humans. Squirrel monkeys in nature actually see things more or less the same way humans who are red-green colorblind do. “People that are red-green color blind have only 1 percent of the color vision a normal person has,” Neitz says, “which is a heck of a lot closer to having none than to what everyone else has.” Neitz believes his technique could give the estimated 10 percent of American men who are red-green colorblind the ability to see like the rest of us.

But even if color restoration surgery was to become as affordable and commonplace as, say, a laser eye procedure, Andrew Lavigne wouldn’t be interested.  “[The color blindness] is part of what makes me, me,” says Lavigne, a New York-based graphic artist who is colorblind. “I don’t want to pay to chip away at my personality.” Color, for Lavigne, is not integral to the human experience. Sure, he grew up having to read the labels on crayons to make sure he was coloring with Fern and not Scarlet, and he still wears lots of black and gray so he doesn’t have to worry about making funny clothing choices, but it’s not like his world is somehow drained of meaning.  

Humans make all sorts of color choices, every day. We color-code our children’s genders from birth—blue caps for boys and pink caps for girls in the hospital nursery—and paint our bedrooms sea foam green and lemon meringue yellow for serenity. We are intimately familiar with Coca-Cola’s red script, McDonald’s golden arches, and Starbucks’ green mermaid. Red means “stop” and green means “go” in contexts far away from the traffic light—using the colors on food labels has been shown to lead people to make healthier choices. This just goes to show how deeply colors can become lodged in our mind. 

Though our world is awash in colors, valid empirical research on how color affects the human mind and behavior has, until recently, been severely limited. Perhaps it is because color seems frivolous—surface level, just icing on the cake. Or perhaps it is because for years scientists thought color best left to the poets. Either way, as a result, the “science” of color has ended up just above phrenology and parapsychology in the barrel of debunked pseudosciences.

But a trend has emerged in the field of behavioral science that has researchers beginning to take color seriously. Cognitive psychology posits a dual system of the mind, explains Jerald Kralik, assistant professor of psychology and brain sciences at Dartmouth University. In the first, there’s a quick response that happens in the lower levels of the mind—our gut reactions, so to speak—and then there is the second, more deliberative, thoughtful thinking that happens on top of that. Influences like color work their effects on us, “to the extent that even our highest-level cognition and intelligence are biased by these low level impressions,” Kralik says.

Pink Is For Girls

In the late 1970’s, a researcher up in Tacoma, Washington named Alexander Schauss began testing the behavioral effects of colors. Using himself as a subject, he found that a certain shade of pink could cause a loss of muscle strength and a slowed heart rate. Schauss then convinced the directors of a local Navy prison to paint some of their confinement cells the pink color. Of 153 male subjects tested in the study, 98.7 percent were weaker after only 15 minutes of confinement in the cells painted Baker-Miller pink (named after the two prison directors).

There’s no evidence that this is some innate animal response to the color pink; it is much more likely to be driven by social associations. “When burly men are exposed to the color pink, they’re primed to think of the concepts that we associate with pinkness,” says Adam Alter, a professor of marketing and psychology at New York University, and author of the book Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape Our Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors. It’s also a fairly new behavioral response. “It’s a pity we can’t go back in time to run the study in the 1800’s,” says Alter, “because we’ve only recently come to associate pink with weakness.”

It wasn’t until the 1940’s that pink became a “girly color.” Historian Jo Paoletti, in her book Pink and Blue:  Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, uncovered a 1927 article in Time accompanied by a chart showing that the top U.S. department stores (including Filene’s and Best & Co.) were telling parents to dress boys in pink. But once marketers made the decision to switch, it had a lasting impact. Just run a Google image search for “baby boy” and then one for “baby girl” and compare. Differences in the brains of boys and girls are learned and it is this type of social conditioning that leads us to internalize gender roles. As we age, they don’t go away; when surrounded by pink, men who grew up in blue feel their gender identity threatened, and their behaviors are modified by the environmental color, whether they notice it or not.

 

Why We See Red

Sophomore year of high school, a small group of like-minded friends and I formed a “philosophy club,” mostly meant as a middle finger to our politically and socially conservative private high school. We met at a McDonald’s by the side of the Garden State Parkway and followed typically unsophisticated lines of inquiry into the meaning of life.

At our first meeting, the only question to really gain any traction was about color. I pointed to the bright red and yellow wrapping of my Big N’ Tasty (since cut from the menu) and asked, “How do I know what we call ‘red’ looks the same to us all?” After all, we’ve agreed to call the color of the sky “blue” and the color of blood “red,” no matter what our individual experience of each is. And why do encounters with these colors, on one level such a personal and individual experience, tend to create such universal emotional responses?

Red is a good place to start, because of all the colors in the visible spectrum, it may have the strongest hold on the human mind. It was the first color to be used in artistic representation: By grinding ochre, a clay colored red by iron oxide, our Stone Age ancestors were able to add a deep brownish-red—not far from the color of blood—to the paintings in their cave dwellings.

Fast forward 400,000 years and now we send red roses and Valentine’s cards, put on red lipstick and skirts, and go to red light districts when the former strategies don’t work out. A University of Rochester team, led by professor of psychology Andrew Elliot and psychology graduate student Adam Pazda, has worked on a series of studies that have shown that women dressed in red are more attractive to men than women dressed in any other color. Of course, it would be one thing if these results were culturally or geographically bound, but it turns out that the “come hitherness” of red cuts across peoples: In a 2012 study, Elliot and Pazda found that the red was equally powerful as an attractant in Burkina Faso—where the color actually carries explicitly negative connotations—as it is in the U.S. The discovery led the team to conclude that red “may operate as a lingua franca in the human mating game.”

It should be obvious that red doesn’t always signal attraction; red is also the color of stop signs and of warning and of error (the teacher’s proverbial red pen). Moreover, red can create so much hostility, in certain contexts, that it can actually be used as a tool for dominance. After the 2004 Olympics, two anthropologists in the U.K put together a study showing that, in combat sports, those wearing red beat those wearing other colors at a significant rate.

Context is everything. Just like “goddamn” can mean one thing in some circumstances (“Goddamn that’s good pizza!”) and something entirely in a different setting, (“Goddamn it, I’ll never be able to eat pizza again”) flashing red is a sign that depends on the situation. A knife can cut vegetables for dinner or it can cut skin.

There’s a connection between the two meanings of red, though, that helps explain how we came to develop a use for color as a signaling tool. Most mammals, including most primates, are dichromatic, meaning they can only detect two color wavelengths: green and blue. Certain primates, though, have evolved to see a third: red. It turns out that these primates—humans, chimps, gorillas, and orangutans, to name some—all have one thing in common: bare-skinned faces. Based on this trend, experts have hypothesized that the development of trichromatic vision was, in fact, the result of an evolutionary advantage that certain primates had over others: namely, that it helped our ancestors better understand the emotional states, socio-sexual signals, and threat displays of their brethren.

The upshot was huge. Once we could actually see the red that coursed through our veins, it became a secondary communication tool: ovulating females would redden in the face and in their sexual organs to signal sexual readiness; angry males displayed dominance by reddening in the face. Modern humans might still get red in the face while angry, but we’ve also branched out to using signaling tools like cocktail dresses and soccer jerseys. While the medium has changed, the message remains: displaying red means you’re serious.

Color Sometimes Isn’t Color At All

But what about Lavigne, and others, who can’t see red at all? When he calls a stop sign red, is he speaking a different language entirely?

While it is entirely possible that those without color are less susceptible to the socially constructed meanings we’ve agreed on, there are some experiences of color that are so ancient they go beyond the human and mammalian brain, and even past the reptilian brain, all the way back to the simplest and earliest organisms to roam the earth.  

 “Organisms that had no eyes had color vision,” says Jay Neitz, the scientist working to cure colorblindness. What he means is that even before living things evolved to experience colors, they had receptors that could recognize the difference between differently colored lights.

Here’s the story Neitz tells: In order to survive, these very, very early organisms—which lived in the ocean—had to expose themselves to sunlight. That’s what they ate, kind of like plants. But too much sunlight would kill them. So they developed a mechanism by which they could tell when it was the best time to go up and get their sun-food. Specifically, when the skies were orange with the rising and setting sun, these simple organisms would stir, move up to the surface, and soak up the easy rays; when they “saw” blue in the high midday skies, they settled down low, essentially sleeping. Neitz tested the phenomenon on fish, and argues that we humans still have the same innate responses to the different ends of the color spectrum.

“There is a cell in our retinas that communicates with our master clock that is inhibited by short wavelength light and inhibited by long wavelength light,” says Neitz. “So it completely makes sense that blue is calming to us.” Furthermore, the cells that get excited by orange light and calmed by blue light don’t just connect to our circadian pacemaker; they also go to areas of the brain that control things like mood. This partially explains things like seasonal depression, but also helps make sense of our intuitive feelings that blues are calming and reds are energizing.

It also gives credence to many other theories that kind of sound like urban legends but are starting to be borne out by real, empirical studies. Some studies argue that exposure to the color green can enhance a person’s performance on creativity tasks; and blue light can make us more alert and perform at a higher cognitive level. What’s more, for reasons that are unknown, the installation of blue lights at Japanese train stations has been shown to reduce the rate of people jumping in front of trains to commit suicide.

Ultimately, the meaning of color is messy. On one level, there seems to be some universal experience of the electromagnetic spectrum on living things, where short and long waves cause different effects to our being on the most basic level. But on another it is highly personal. Color doesn’t exist within a thing; it is the experience an outside agent has of the thing. The ocean gives off a clear set of wavelengths, but we all interpret them differently. The Greeks wrote odes to the “wine dark sea,” and that sounds nothing like the Mediterranean I’ve seen.  

But that doesn’t make color meaningless. Given the fact that our vision is so specifically tuned to the colors of the rainbow, they should matter to us. As more serious research is done on the effects of color exposure, we may shift from a world where colors are chosen to sell more smartphones to one where the choices are made to save lives.

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Elijah Wolfson is the editorial director of Medical Daily and International Science Times. He is also a Langeloth Health Journalism Fellow at the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime, and Justice.

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