The Fascinating Neuroscience Of Color

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

The Fascinating Neuroscience Of Color
[Image: Les toits de Collioure, Henri Matisse. Via Wikipedia]

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.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).