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Q&A-The Brain

The Effects of Color on the Brain

How does color affect our memories?

Which is the greater influence upon human colour response - nature or nurture?

How does color affect our memories?

A number of people have investigated this area...two I know of off the top of my head are briefly as follow: Survivors of the Kobe earthquake in Japan described themselves losing color memory during the most stressful parts of the quake. They remembered the events occuring there in black and white. Another study done in Italy showed young students who had access to black and white AND color drawing materials most often chose to represent stressful events with black and white and happy events with color. As for your post which poses the query from a slightly opposite viewpoint I don't recall any study I've seen on it. Perhaps you will be the first? *smile* It calls for a well thought out test though.

Good question Alicia! [As I stare at my computer screen (white) - my mind goes 'blank' :) Hmmm?] I suspect one could write chapters in response to your question. Does color have an affect on memory? My answer: Yes - somewhat. Yes - but in partial ways. The main color I've seen discussed and researched and linked to memory is 'yellow'. "They" (note: that is a four-letter word!) say it (yellow) promotes clear thinking, bla bla bla. I hope you haven't slid into a mental rut Alicia (into thinking that a blue sheet of paper will affect a person in a markedly different way than a yellow sheet)- "Man glances at Blue Paper - Forgets Entire Life!". I suggest you steer away from any notions that - a paper written (with black text) on pink paper is going to be more memorable than one written on yellow or white paper. ok? An analogy to help perhaps? Uh, ok. If a musical composer wrote a symphony and then came to me and said....will the audience remember my music better if I write it in the key of G or the key of F flat (ha ha ...little joke) I would shrug and say....it doesn't matter much. Does that makes sense to you? Color and Memory is a complex topic. Why? Because humans are not static, they are dynamic, adaptive, homeostatic, and so forth. Hence, a simple answer to your question is not at hand... Still wondering? Hmmm...did you want to read all of those chapters now? * * * Chris - in your response to Alicia's post you bring up some really neat events - the B & W recall of traumatic events, etc. Right away, I see 3+ great topic areas in your comments. I've research those areas a bit....wish this were a little bit more of a flowing medium to discuss them in. Regards, Mac

For recent research about color and memory see Why Color Matters

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Which is the greater influence upon human colour response - nature or nurture?

Editor's Note: This is a very interesting discussion between two individuals who raise some very significant questions about the "nature or nurture" issues surrounding color.

I would be very interested to hear people's opinions on this matter as I'm currently writing a dissertation, attempting to answer the question 'Which is the greater influence upon human colour response - nature or nurture?' I am covering many different areas with this - the more research I do, the more I feel it is a Darwinian survival response. I also think that colour is a resonant experience, which, like painting or music, is impossible to articulate...and is certainly different for each of us depending on personal experience. Is it too much of a melange of influences to attempt to quantify? I am conducting my own experiments, and wish to draw a conclusion as to which is the greater influence by the end. Opinions please! Jen

Jen, Without much hesitation and given the way you worded your specific question, I'll vote for 'nurture'. But I'll only go predominantly for the 'nurture' side because your quote seemed to me to infer - an individual's actual elicited response (and not as much the individual's inner feelings or subconscious unevoked reactions). Oh, and if you toss in your Darwinian survival thought, it gets pretty messy - and I'll withdraw both nature and nurture! since that (to me) does not directly correlate to color firstly - at all.

And yikes...I don't agree that color as an experience is impossible to articulate. The position that some take - saying certain experiences are so relative they are beyond a collective agreement - doesn't hold-water to me. If I jab a needle or a sword into someone many might say it will hurt...and surely someone will come along and argue with me that the jabbing was pleasurable (like a devout masochist). But who do they think their kidding? It requires we look past such positional inversions. Agree? Color articulation and color perception surely gets twisted and it seems they have followed a rather torturously twisted interpretive path through history. In the end, I suspect a remarkably consolidated perspective (understanding) will emerge. And that will be a lovely day. Regards, Mac

Mac Thanks for giving me your opinion. BUT....!!!Why do you think that colour does not/could not relate to survival means? Certain animals don't have colour vision as we know. Why? Because for them it is unecessary for their existence. The simpler life forms don't require it. Human smell and hearing is not as relatively acute as it is in other animals. Sight has been our most important means of survival. Would a human born without colour vision have survived as well as those with? If, to a human, who couldn't smell out food, the berries did not vibrate bright red in their green setting, or black and yellow didn't repel him away from poisonous animals/insects, would 'natural selection' grant him survival? I am certainly playing the devil's advocate to a large extent, because I haven't found enough evidence to support this argument, although it seems to make relative evolutionary sense. And it isn't messy because this would fall into the nature category, our genetics causing us to have instinctual reaction to colour, as means for survival. Even experiencing blue as cooling might have helped draw us to water to cool down, or quench thirst...and so I beat on, like a boat against the current... Jen

Jen, I enjoyed your comments. :-) I agree with some of your thoughts and observations too - certain animals don't seem to have much if any color vision. You say color is unnecessary for an animal's existence. I guess so. But I'll bet a lot of pets and animals would love to sit in front of a color t.v. with a remote and flip thru the color-tv channels (if they had color vision). I suppose people could get along with out color in their world, pretty much - lose the color tv's and go back to the black & white sets in the 1950's. We'd survive, yes? But it would probably be a blander time watching Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?...etc.

Color images have more information (data elements) than black and white images. Heck. Added information probably comes in handy at times, so sure, color vision is probably a helpful thing - even for survival - at a point. If dogs and cats drove cars and couldn't see red & green, how could they survive driving thru a signalled intersection!? How could they choose drapery colors? What would their wardrobes look like? Anyway.... I have a question for you. Can you determine and state what the specific difference is between
1. a black and white world and
2. a color world ?
3.Do living creatures that have no faculties for seeing color think differently? Do they have no feelings? Do they have emotions? If they can only see 'shades of grey', light and dark, black and white, do you think they lack some perceptive ability or cognizant processing ability that color-able living beings have? This might sound sort of trivial. But I don't intend it to be. It's pretty 'core-stuff' to me. A penny for your thoughts. :-) Regards, Mac

Mac, To try to answer your questions -1. Firstly their is no difference between a colour world and a black and white world. The difference is in the perceptive ability of the viewer, whether or not they possess the biological means to 'perceive' colour. It could be argued that the world is indeed black and white and grey - that we respond to differing wavelengths as what we know to be colour. The advantage of a colour world, is that there is another dimension of information available to a being who has the means to perceive it.
2. The other living creatures that have not got the ability to interpret wavelengths as colour don't think differently, because I would argue that they don't 'think' at all, in the terms that we would regard 'thinking'. They don't possess the ability to 'reason' so therefore they wouldn't have the complex 'emotions and feelings' that we experience. They respond to basic stimuli such as light and dark. Their response is instinctual, does not require reasoning and therefore does not equate to feelings.
3. They lack the ability to respond to the visible spectrum in the same way as humans. It is a biological ability or function, they have never needed to survive. But I don't think this is what you meant by your question...you mean have they a dimension of existence denied to them...maybe...but if you'd never known colour...would you miss it....hmmmmmm

As beautiful as colour is, and as aesthetically pleasing as it has come to be for humans, we must also be aware that we can see a minute amount of the light spectrum. Some animals can see other areas of the spectrum - moths for instance, see each others wing patterns completely differently from what a human sees.

Anyway, the answer to my nature to nurture question is seemingly more and more complex. I have found that there are general consistencies in colour preferences across the world. And that cultural variations are more to do with perceptual differences of the event or purpose, rather than regarding the colour itself. However, dissertation unfinished... conclusion not yet reached.... Thanks for your input. I didn't realise Who Wants to be a Millionaire was a world wide phenomenon. Crikey! Jenni

Jenni, Gosh,this is fun. :-) Your last posting is interesting. A few comments: 1. You say "Firstly there is no difference between a colour world and a black and white world." Literally, I think there is a difference...I guess in your second sentence you immediately state the differential. A black and white (only) world would lack specific, distinct colour frequencies. Yes? I've heard this "the world is black and white and grey" thing, but my opinion about that logic is probably colored. :-) Yes, I agree - color perception is surely adds information to the scene one views.

2. I suspect non-colour sensing creatures might think differently. I think they think (ha). They are just thinking-challenged because they don't have quite the same set of sensing tools and bio-structures we do - they work with what they have. Sure. Little creatures use hard-wired instinct, that's how they are built. I wonder about your last sentence though. If you say "...does not require reasoning and therefore does not equate to feelings." Does that mean that little creatures - porcupines 'n beavers 'n rabbits - have no feelings? I wonder. (I've seen dogs smile and animals that lose their mate cry. Hmm.) I mean, I don't think a tiger has mixed feelings about the sociological implications of human cloning. But just because he doesn't reason at that level, does it mean he has no feelings? And what are these feelings anyway? Are feelings - things like - expectancy? anticipation? calmness? relaxation? tension? fear? contentment? aggression? thirst for adventure? Aren't those feelings? I haven't discussed such stuff with paramecium or fish or snails or polar bears, but I wonder if these creatures have some degree of feeling in them. What do you think? "...but if you'd never known colour...would you miss it" No, I don't think so. If I did....then (as you mention in your moth comment) I'd be missing all of the great infrared and UV things I haven't seen in the world. Just think if we could see Radio and TV and microwaves - lord - what a mess the skies would appear to be.

* * * Maybe part of the difficulty you're having with your nature/nurture question is due to the inherent overlapping of nature and nurture. If I equate nature with the way your computer is hardwired and equate nurture with the inputs that come are moved into your computer - and try to assess how your computer is working, I may arrive at a similar dilemma. When your computer crashes - did it crash as a result of the inputs? or from the hardwiring inside? or both? are they too intertwined to make a distinction?

* * * You said that you've found general consistencies in colour preferences across the world. Have you? Hmm... what are they? More importantly, have you examined and been able to determine the attributes of color that preceed color proference? Huh? Think about that, ok? Wait. Before you answer that, what are the drivers for any preference? "preference" What leads a person to 'prefer' at all? Your thoughts? Regards, Mac


It would seem my nature nurture debate has disgressed but to interesting subject matter nonetheless. Dissertation is nearly complete - and my findings... that human colour response is an incredibly complex reaction, occuring at a number of different levels, from a basic innate, to memory associations...

But to answer a few things you asked - Well, for a start I have to take back my surmises on animals not experiencing feelings. My uncle stated quite categorically over the christmas turkey that they do, and he substantiated his argument with reference to many scientific statistics regarding degected dogs, and pining parrots. Hmmm. Not wholly convinced, but definitely softening on that view point. Colour vision or no colour vision, I suppose it is something we can't be sure of.

The general consistencies in colour preference are - blue red green in the top three. Brown and yellow tend to be lower down, as does orange and purple is subject to the greatest movement up and down the scale of preference. In the preference tests I did, this held true, although I was surprised by the overwhelming majority of blue favourers. But you have an interesting point about preference... what WOULD lead someone to 'prefer'...I think instinct coupled with association. Hmm. The attributes of colour that preceed colour preference? By this do you mean saturation, hue, lightness? What do you mean? And by the black and white only world being the same, I meant that with reference to us being able to perceive our surroundings, differently to a bull, or a moth, and yet the world remains unchanged...do you see? (pun intended) so therefore the black and white world is the same as the colour world, different only to those who look at it with different perceptive abilities. I think we are born with a very basic set of responses to colour - and as we age, our 'preference' comes into action due to association of colour from nature and our associations from experience. I think this becomes more and more of an influence as we age, and more and more complex, although we still have fundamental physiological reactions to such colours as blue and red. Would you agree? Jen


Jen, Read Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall's material on animals and feelings. Like your uncle's comments, it's interesting. And back to "what WOULD lead someone to prefer....you said......I think instinct coupled with association". Off the cuff, to me, to "prefer" - might tie to 'differentiation and priority' and tie to want and desire. But that still isn't clear enough for me. What is it that urges a person to want? to desire? Is it really instinctual? (only?) toss in 'associative' too. Could 'preference' be driven by something else? Your thoughts? And as far as - "the attributes of color that preceed color preference" - no, I didn't really mean saturation, hue, or lightness. I was looking for attributes of color that tie into the 'preference' issue in the prior paragraph. You wrote that you think that our preferences come into action due to association of color from nature and our associations from experience. But I'm still a bit lost - given your statement. If I am exposed to much Blue in my life (from experience) does that in itself make me prefer (or want) Blue? Maybe if I associated with Blue a lot - I'd dislike it! I don't really know what to make of the "assocaition of color from nature" phrase. I'm lost a mile back in the fog. Help. Nature and Experience don't seem - in themselves - to be what drives "preference". What is the basis of preference? Regards, Mac


Mac, I think what drives preference can only be innate forces. If there are general commonalites of preference throughout the world, preferences can't be developed by learning through individual experience or through collective human experience of the natural world. And by natural world, I mean, humans collectively experiencing and learning to associate blue with water and sky, green with trees and grass etc. I had wondered if these associations could affect preference, but given that red is usually in the top three in preference tests, this wouldn't follow. Maybe it is more to do with the experience of the wavelength - blue long, red short, that we prefer the most distinctive differences in wavelengths? In part of my research, I read about several cases of blind people being able to distinguish colour by touch - do you think this could be to do with the emissivity factor you mentioned in another posting? To prefer is surely simply to like one thing more than another. Do you think if people associated blue with blue skies and sunshine they might prefer blue? Because sunlight is incredibly good for us, might we be hard wired to respond in this way, to a blue sky? The truth is out there... Jen


Jen, ~Preference is driven by innate forces.~ Hmmm. That's a tough one. I looked up 'innate'. It says: 1. existing in, belonging to, or determined by factors present in an individual from birth 2. belonging to the essential nature of something : inherent. Whew. If you meant definition #1 I would most likely disagree. But if you meant definition #2 - in a broad sense, I'd might agree. Are there general commonalities of preference throughout the world? If yes, could those common (shared/similar) preferences be developed as a result of exposure of individuals to similar if not identical experiences (stimuli)? If ApeManX puts his hand to a fire (and I mean In the fire) he probably learns experientially that it's not a preferrable thing to do (unless he has planned to roast himself). If ApeManY never ventures near a fire, he may never acquire the preference ApeManX did. If later ApeManY experiences fire, he too may acquire a fire-preference/avoidance set similar to that of ApeManX. ~To prefer is surely simply to like one thing more than another.~ If "to like" is what preference is, what does 'liking' do for a person? Anything? (Like, appeal to, enjoy, relish, fancy, prefer, want, desire.... etc.) What, if anything do all of those things do for someone? * * * As for color-touch and emissivity, I would have to think about that. Tactile discrimination of wavelength? Hmmm. Maybe. :-) * * * If people associated Blue with Blue skies, etc., sure maybe some would prefer Blue. Then the caricatures on the Adam's Family or Wynona Ryder (sp?) in Beetlejuice (sp?) come to mind, with their inverted dark gloomy preferences, and I suspect if they associated Blue with Blue skies and sunshiny days, they would detest Blue. Maybe we're physically hardwired to like sunny days, but not as much mentally hardwired to like them. Agree? Mac


Hi Mac, Yes I do mean inherent, but I also mean a predispostition from birth to 'prefer' or to respond in a similar way in general to colour. What if all the ApeMen experience (we're talking GENERAL here) the sun as being yellow and start associating yellow with heat - most of the apemen will see grass and bodies of water...this will result in a GENERAL associative pattern of preference.....maybe??? What does liking do for a person? Hmmm good question. Must be a set of chemicals in our brains being released, causing feelings of greater happiness. (??) Tactile discrimination of wavelength is quite likely I think - the electromagnetic energy as discussed in the science page of this website is picked up through the skin... I tried it on sighted people to see if the odds were even marginally in favour of this, but no results... But 'the skin sees in technicolour'. I think this has interesting implications for the clothing industry, and it figures that sports teams playing in red have been found to be more successful. Man U for instance. Jen

Jen, Hmmm. Nice to hear your thoughts, thanks. I was hoping you'd look at 'preference' (like, want, desire, appeal, etc.) to see if you could discover if any drivers existed in humans that would prompt such a preference or differential urge- not just 'chemicals' or 'gene' motivators. Those might be the components that drive preference, but what is it about them that leads to preference? Oh well... As for the ApeMan, the sun, and the grass - yes, sure, I agree, kinda. At that rate, I'd wonder if the same applies to nematodes, fungi, and most all living things. Heck, rocks might even have preferences - a nice shady place under a palm tree in the Bahamas instead of being in the middle of a sandstorm in the Gobi - but they probably can't do much about it. (I'm not trying to be sarcastic really either). Chemicals in our brains being released? Causing feelings of greater happiness? What does 'happiness' have to do with it? :-) Heck, what is happiness? * * * Uh, tactile discrimination of wavelength? Can skin really do that? The skin sees in 'technicolor'? Does it really now? If so, you're basically telling me that my fingers are spectroscopes. Are they? Do my tiny little skin cells have spectral sensors on them? I thought my fingers could sense pressure and temperature pretty well. But spectroscopy? Whew. That would seem to mean, that not only can my fingers feel color with some neat little sensors, but that they can pass that spectral data up to my head and it will get processed. That's stunning. Most of the technical and scientific journals I've read, do not discuss such stuff. I want to see Sally the synaesthia sensing seamstress sorting selected swatches of silk by spectra if that's the case. :-) Wait though. Did I say that skin seeing in technicolor was literally ridiculous? Uh, no - actually I didn't. :-) But the conversation might get really intense at this point, so, I'll stop. Regards, Mac

Mac, Well if you're stopping, I guess I'll call it quits. Thanks for all your input...food for thought... Jen.


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