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The Fascinating Neuroscience Of Color

This seemingly simple area of study offers insights into all sorts of behavior—from attention to decision-making.

Neuroscientist Bevil Conway thinks about color for a living. An artist since youth, Conway now spends much of his time studying vision and perception at Wellesley College and Harvard Medical School. His science remains strongly linked to art—in 2004 he and Margaret Livingstone famously reported that Rembrandt may have suffered from flawed vision—and in recent years Conway has focused his research almost entirely on the neural machinery behind color.

"I think it's a very powerful system," he tells Co.Design, "and it's completely underexploited."

Conway's research into the brain's color systems has clear value for designers and artists like himself. It stands to reason, after all, that someone who understands how the brain processes color will be able to present it to others in a more effective way. But the neuroscience of color carries larger implications for the rest of us. In fact, Conway thinks his insights into color processing may ultimately shed light on some fundamental questions about human cognition.

Step back for a moment to one of Conway's biggest findings, which came while examining how monkeys process color. Using a brain scanner, he and some collaborators found "globs" of specialized cells that detect distinct hues—suggesting that some areas of the primate brain are encoded for color. Interestingly, not all colors are given equal glob treatment. The largest neuron cluster was tuned to red, followed by green then blue; a small cell collection also cared about yellow.

Conway hue. via Current Biology.

Knowing that humans might also be hardwired for certain hues could be a gateway into understanding the neural properties of emotion. Since researchers know that certain colors provoke strong feelings in people—blues and purples are more pleasant than yellows, for instance, while greens tend to be the most arousing—they might then work backwards to uncover the basic mechanisms for these feelings. (Designers, meanwhile, could use these emotional connections to help them match color schemes to the mood of a room or a brand or a website.)

Emotions are just the start. Take, for example, the crisp and effortless way you distinguish a green from a blue. If researchers like Conway can trace the neural circuitry that guides that distinction, they might enhance our understanding of how the brain categorizes things more broadly—relevant or not relevant, left or right. From there it's a short step to the architecture of human decision-making.

That's not all. Whatever neural processes help us spot an orange sweater in a crowd could grant access into the larger system of attention. Whatever brain activity leads us to prefer color televisions might tell us a lot about rewards and nonverbal communication. In that sense, says Conway, color could become "a model system for something much more than color."

Of course, color itself remains at the core of Conway's work. Much of his research has tackled a problem he knows all too well from his own art: the fact that a color looks different depending on the colors that surround it. Take a look at the visual demonstration below (attributed to the artist Josef Albers). In the top pair of rectangles, the embedded X's appear to be different colors. Now look at the bottom pair. When the X's are separated from the colors surrounding them by white space, they're revealed to be the same.

via Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Master artists have handled this problem of contextual color change in various ways. Cezanne developed multiple areas of the canvas at once to gain feedback on how some colors were adjusting to others. Matisse took a more direct step: leaving white spaces in parts of his paintings to avoid color contrasts. These so-called breathing lines achieve the same clarity found in the example above.

Conway believes scientists can learn a lot from examining the strategies artists use to clarify color. "The best access we have of what color is and what it does to us is by studying the work of people who have studied it obsessively. Matisse is one of those people," he says. "I think it's extremely valuable, and there's been very limited work treating that corpus as the sort of scientific evidence that it will turn out to be."

Les toits de Collioure, Henri Matisse. via Wikipedia

Artists and designers can also benefit from the lessons of color science. One example is the scientific recognition that we detect color and brightness in different areas of the brain. Giving different-colored objects equal brightness therefore creates a quality of motion—an effect most famously seen in the quivering sun from Monet's Impression, Sunrise. Alternatively, varying luminance (but not necessarily color) can make an object appear three-dimensional.

Impression, sunrise. Claude Monet via wikipedia

"To the extent that anyone would find it informative to know how the nervous system works, and through that would gain an appreciation for these phenomena, I think artists and designers could benefit," Conway says. "This provides them with another lens through which to consider what they're doing when they make those kinds of choices." And it provides the rest of us yet another reason to be glad we don't live in a world of black and white.

[Image: Les toits de Collioure, Henri Matisse. Via Wikipedia]

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  • Deepak Lahoriya

    thank you very much eric ...i loved your post...this one and coolness once too...

  • Another implication of this is how companies decorate their offices, old school thinking said paint everything neutral and pale to avoid distracting the workers. I've always found the mind numbingness of such pale neutrals to be a huge distraction. Which colors are associated with high productivity and creativity or innovation? Which colors promote community and collaboration?

  • I agree completely. My pet peeve is when institutional building use the color paint that is the cheapest one they could get in bulk. They are usually a green, blue or tan that all have lots of grey in them. Very depressing.

  • I've long wondered if hue preference, such as listed here, is more of a western orientation or if its global. For example, do Chinese and Europeans respond to red in the same way? Does it illicit the same emotions?

  • Good question. Color may be cultural. I do know that a red door is considered very auspicious. Also, color plays a major role in feng shui, an Eastern philosophy of design.

  • Jane E. Sleeth

    Enjoying this discussion as both a person of science/neurology ie a Physiotherapist who spent many a week in the neurology lab and as a visual artist and collector. My one wish is that the science does not become so refined that the artists journey and practice may or may not lead to understanding how to apply paint and colour. We still need art and other parts of life to be left to chance, practice and an artistic ability to keep life magical and fascinating I think. JESleeth

  • I agree, Jane. Art is meant to be spontaneous. Otherwise it becomes a scientific study. Did they artists exemplified in this article calculate their color placement or was it spontaneous? Josef Albers is another story. He is on the cusp of art and science like architecture. You don't have to worry about a painting falling apart. You do have to worry about a building falling down.

  • Good question, Ben. But I think there is an important difference between 'color theory' and the 'neuroscience of color'. Even though both topics would likely include similar information such as the definitive Josef Albers study of color, the topics are from different perspectives and for different purposes.

    As first year design students, we all labor over Josef Albers' system that he taught at Yale. Using our 'Color Aid' kits , we learn to manipulate color based on proximity. But the emphasis is not on the brain, 'emotion' or 'neuroscience'. The emphasis for design students (at least where I went to school) is simply how we see colors when placed near each other.

    The goal of 'color theory' was to learn how we see color via proximity as part of 'Design 101' as Allison mentions. But that course does not focus on how our brains experience/interpret color. Therein lies the difference. Psychology, neurology or biology students would study color from that perspective.

  • This is really design 101. If you work with a designer who doesn't already know this then they are just not qualified! it's not new info, nor "neuroscience" but something most of us learned in beginning design classes- even those of us who don't work in design!

  • Yes, very informative, posing all sorts of possibilities for branding decisions regarding appeal to different genders, races, demographics and so on. As for women to be more in tune emotionally in general, biologically speaking..., I don't think so. I'd be interested in being proven wrong. I believe there are sensitivities [in tune-ness] that designers/artists/creative/intuitive types might share, regardless of gender. Now color blindness offers a whole world of wonderment.

  • Jeff, It took me about 30 years to see what we were supposed to learn in 'color theory' as college students. It happened one day when I was driving. I was at a red light when it turned green. Somehow there were two green lights. One has more yellow in it and one had more red or blue. It was the first time I ever could see the distinction. From that day on I could. So much for greater female sensitivity to color.

  • very interesting and inspiring. I am wondering about color blindness and how it often seems that men suffer from it more often than women. Do you think this speaks biologically to women being more in tune emotionally in general?

  • I think it has to do with genetics, dominant and recessive genes. I don't remember the exact science but men and women manifest dominant and recessive genes differently. I think it is strictly 'hardwiring' and not 'emotional'.

  • Debora Christensen

    The most common cause of color blindness is x-linked, which is why males are most affected. There is a small subset of individuals, mostly female, who are tetrachromats (four types of cones), allowing them to distinguish between closely related hues better than trichromats (three types of cones, which is most of us).