The mind-bending power of colour


IF you give the patient one pill, he perks up. If you give him another pill, he calms down. That might not surprise you. What might, though, is that it still works even when the pills contain no actual medicine.

Studies show that red pills are more effective stimulants than blue pills; blue pills are more effective as sleeping tablets than orange tablets. Green, white or blue pills aren’t as effective as red ones as painkillers. But these were all placebos, administered in a series of experiments in the Sixties and Seventies, looking at how our perception of colour affects our minds and bodies. There was no painkiller, there was no stimulant.

The idea that colours affect our mood – red makes us angry, or sexually receptive; blue soothes us, or saddens us; that sort of thing – seems vaguely hippyish. Alternative medicine types push “chromotherapy”, treating unwellness with colour; an odd amalgam of Victorian pseudoscience and cod-eastern mysticism. But now, the body of scientific research into colour is growing. And it all points to one thing: our perception of colour really does affect our minds, and our bodies.

A 2004 study found that football teams wearing red were statistically more likely to win than teams in other colours. Another, in 2008, found that male volunteers shown photos of averagely attractive women on red and white backgrounds rated the women on red as more good-looking. Meanwhile, an experiment in the Seventies found that male prison inmates became physically weaker when they were housed in pink-painted cells.

The allure of red certainly appears to cross cultural boundaries. A 2012 study conducted in Burkina Faso, in West Africa, where red has explicitly negative associations, still revealed it to be a sexual trigger. Paintings with red in fetch far higher prices than those without, and Brett Gorvy, chairman of contemporary art at Christie’s international, has described it as the “most lucrative colour”.



42 thoughts on “The mind-bending power of colour

  1. I always found synesthesia very interesting.

    ” Most synesthetic experiences are visual, but synesthesia can involve any pair of senses, the researchers said. Such experiences can range from seeing the letter A as purple, to conjuring mental images of a triangle shape when suffering a toothache.

    Among the 31 people with autism in the study who had synesthesia, the most common forms of the condition were “grapheme-color,” in which letters are seen as colored, and “sound-color,” in which hearing a sound triggers a visual experience of color. Another forms of synesthesia reported were either tastes, touch, or smells triggering a visual experience of color.”


    • Synesthesia is indeed interesting. I have synesthesia–a few “forms” as do two of my daughters, and one of my friends does as well. My daughters have grapheme-color synesthesia as well as another common form of synesthesia wherein numbers have personalities. The number 12 is rude while 14 is shy. I see words when people speak much like an LED stock ticker constantly playing. Being in a noisy crowd is interesting. Words are showing up in front of me constantly. Learning foreign languages, however, has been easier. I don’t know why. And, I do have the form of synesthesia wherein certain words provoke a physical sensation. I hear them and feel a physical sensation at the same time. It’s VERY strange. One word registers and nausea. Another feels like I’m being tickled. Another causes me to feel immediate euphoria. I have temporal lobe epilepsy as does my friend who also has synesthesia. Epilepsy is often common to synesthetes. Our brains are wired differently so our senses are affected. It is, however, amusing to watch two synesthetes get frustrated with each other. If my friend gets upset with me, she says one of my synesthetic trigger words that makes me feel nauseated. I say the trigger word that I know makes her taste ear wax. And on and on it goes. Life with synesthesia.


      • That’s just fascinating. I wonder, is there a similar sensation to similar sounding words?


      • No, there isn’t. Isn’t that weird? It must be the exact word. One of my daughters has this form of synesthesia as well. When she was very little she would walk around the house saying ‘cup’ over and over again until it made her giggle. Kids are strange sometimes. I thought nothing of it. About seven years later, we were all sitting around the table talking about synesthesia, as one does, and what it’s like, and my daughter mentioned how much she loves the word ‘cup’. It makes her feel happy and ticklish at the same time. Ah, that’s why she kept saying ‘cup’. She was tickling herself with the word ‘cup’. And the young synesthete’s very typical response is always: “Isn’t everyone like this?” No. The human brain is just amazing.


      • So do people who use the “f…k” word feel that this word triggers a response in others? Does this mean that synaesthesia is more common than we realise?


      • Well, the F word would have to be a synesthetic trigger word. Synesthesia is actually a neurological malfunction in which the the parts of the brain responsible for receiving sensory input and then properly communicating the input are “wired improperly” i.e. the color red has a taste or the days of the week are experienced in space/time. If ‘f*ck’ were to be a trigger word, more often than not, if wouldn’t retain its given meaning. It would provoke some odd sensation or taste, or it would be seen in color or have a personality. One of the most common tastes that these trigger words provoke is the taste of ear wax. Can you imagine that? Saying that word to someone and they always taste ear wax? I’ve not met too many synesthetes so I couldn’t tell you if anyone experiences ‘f*ck’ synesthetically. I do, however, wonder sometimes if a person does have a form of synesthesia when they say, “Don’t say that word. I just don’t like it.” And it’s an innocuous word like “goat” or “comb”. When it’s not a culturally sensitive word and a person really dislikes it because it makes them “feel funny” somewhere in their body, they might be having a synesthetic response to a word. I find that fascinating and always want to ask the person more questions.


    • Since synesthesia interests you as does color, you might be fascinated to know that there is a form of synesthesia wherein chords and notes appear as color. The same note, say middle C, may always appear as aquamarine in some way to the synesthete. There is an online test somewhere through a university that actually tests this form of synesthesia. Some synesthetes have perfect pitch, in part, because of this. It makes going to the symphony a grand experience if you’ve got this form of synesthesia! Like the Fourth of July…


  2. I think hippies are often quite maligned 🙂 They hover around many truths but they tend to lose track.

    I find it also interesting to watch how people dress and what colours they wear and how it often tends to reflect their personality. Those who tend to always wear neutrals, grays, etc and those who are over the top with ‘loud’ colours.


    • …….”They hover around many truths but they tend to lose track.”
      Sorta like the long-term-stoned hippie who finally got it all together,
      …….and then forgot where he’d put it? 🙂


  3. By visualising a colour and attaching a mode of being to it, you really can alter your behaviour.

    See red lights and imagine feeling active and energetic.
    See orange and imagine being joyful in company.
    See yellow and imagine clarity of mind.
    See green and imagine harmony and peace.
    See blue and imagine serenity in reaching for what is right..
    See purple and imagine responsibility and self control.
    See white light, the totality of all these, and feel your spirituality


    • Okay folks,
      At this stage of the week, Strewth and I are planning on being at Southern Cross (Spencer St) Station in Melbourne for our much anticipated meeting with a couple of our gang. We estimate mid or more likely late morning on this coming Thursday 1st May.

      Oh and Kathleen, dont be too concerned about your sociability or lack of. We’ve become something of a close family together on this blog for some time. So you would be among fiends. (oops, I mean friends.)

      The weather forecast is for 17 degrees in the city, with some cloud, but, it appears, with no rain. I will make sure that I have enough warmer clothing for emergencies. Final decisions about just where we meet are still in the balance.
      I suggested that since Strewth and I will be arriving at Southern Cross, unless we luckily manage to cadge a welcome car ride provided by a close mate, some spot to settle for our meet reasonably close to that part of town. In any case, even if we dont come in by train, the likelihood is that we will be returning to our home town via train anyway, so will be advantageous to be near the station then.

      The other thing I would suggest is that we might all be wise to bring a bit of a lunch with us from home. We could always find some places and some way to supplement with purchased hot drinks or whatever.

      So over to the rest of you, Just for the record, Dabbles and I would be pretty easy to spot. Both of us with scruffy or longish white hair, and white beard. Almost like brothers! I will be wearing a flat wide-brimmed leather hat and jeans, and will be hobbling along on a walking stick. And a bag slung over my shoulder. I will be the good looking one of the two. He will look the more intelligent of the two. (or is it the other way round???)

      Over to the rest of you??? Would just love to meet you Kathleen if it is poss.


      • Thanks Rian, maybe one day but I don’t think at the moment. That’s dad’s dialysis day and mum is quite sick at the moment, not getting any sleep and bedridden throughout the day. xo


      • Yeah Kathleen.
        The way to overcome your trepidations is to confront them!
        We know you’re a Mick, but you could pretend you’re a real christian and in the Colosseum: say a little prayer and beard the lion.
        Or even a jew named Daniel.
        Promise you won’t be devoured on the spot.
        (It’s well known that thick-skinned catholics need marinating for a week ~
        ….and even then a lot of ’em end up like rollmops ~ something of an acquired taste!) 😉


    • See red lights and imagine danger, then stop. Unless you want to be hit by another car. The only energetic and active you will feel depends on whether you are frustrated by being held up.
      See orange/green and imagine get ready to stop (if you can).
      See green and imagine disharmony and war if you don’t stop (and hit someone).

      I wonder how traffic lights fit in with this colour theory.


      • Yes Davinci, you are right in as much as being alert is linked to physical reactions. In this theory (not necessarily others) red is a warning to be alert and active.


    • goodonya Rebecca. Size DOES matter, doesn’t it?
      (Better take an anti-blushing pill first though; some of the stuff you’re likely to come across here even makes me go red.


  4. I wonder whether a redback spider is ‘sexy’ according to this colour theory. Or that red bellied black snake we see in southern states.


  5. We use colour in the rituals of our faith as well. I wonder how they came to these conclusions.

    White symbolizes Purity, virginity, innocence and virtue. It also symbolises holiness and is the Christian color for all high Holy Days of the Church Year, especially the seasons of Christmas and Easter

    Yellow colors symbolize renewal, hope, light and purity. Yellow is the Christian color for the season of Easter when used with white. When taken as an off-white color symbolizes degradation or cowardice

    Orange colors symbolize courage, endurance and strength representing fire and flame

    Green colors symbolize nature, fertility, hope and bountifulness. Green symbolizes freedom from bondage. Green is the Christian color for the season of Epiphany

    Red colors symbolize the Holy Spirit and is the color of Pentecost. Red also represents fire and is associated with power and importance. Crimson red also symbolizes the presence of God and the blood of martyrs. It is the Christian liturgical color for Pentecost and represents atonement and humility

    Black colors symbolize death, fear and ignorance and was also used to indicate authority and power. The color black is associated with Good Friday.

    Brown colors symbolize the earth, poverty and humility and closely associated with monastic life

    Blue colors symbolize heavenly grace. The Virgin Mary is often depicted wearing blue clothing. Blue also represents hope, good health and the state of servitude

    Purple colors are always associated with Royalty, Purple togas were worn by the powerful Roman Emperors. The symbolic meaning of the color purple was for penitence and mourning and is the liturgical color for the seasons of Lent and Advent


  6. This thread triggered a memory of reading about the Children of Fatima.

    “Witnesses later spoke of the sun appearing to change colors and rotate like a wheel.[7]”

    “Eye specialist Dr. Domingos Pinto Coelho, writing for the newspaper Ordem reported “The sun, at one moment surrounded with scarlet flame, at another aureoled in yellow and deep purple, seemed to be in an exceeding fast and whirling movement, at times appearing to be loosened from the sky and to be approaching the earth, strongly radiating heat”.[9] The special reporter for the October 17, 1917 edition of the Lisbon daily, O Dia, reported the following, “…the silver sun, enveloped in the same gauzy purple light was seen to whirl and turn in the circle of broken clouds…The light turned a beautiful blue, as if it had come through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral, and spread itself over the people who knelt with outstretched hands…people wept and prayed with uncovered heads, in the presence of a miracle they had awaited. The seconds seemed like hours, so vivid were they.”[10]”


  7. Synesthesia is mentioned again here in relation to auras.

    “In parapsychology and many forms of spiritual practice, an aura is a field of subtle, luminous radiation surrounding a person or object (like the halo or aureola in religious art). The depiction of such an aura often connotes a person of particular power or holiness. Sometimes, however, it is said that all living things (including humans) and all objects manifest such an aura. Often it is held to be perceptible, whether spontaneously or with practice: such perception is at times linked with the third eye of Indian spirituality.[1][2] Various writers associate various personality traits with the colors of different layers of the aura.[3][4][5] It has also been described as a map of the thoughts and feelings surrounding a person.[6]

    Skeptics such as Robert Todd Carroll contend that people may perceive auras because of effects within the brain: synesthesia,[7] epilepsy, migraines, or the influence of psychedelic drugs such as LSD.[8][9] Other causes may include disorders within the visual system provoking optical effects. Eye fatigue can also produce an aura, sometimes referred to as eye burn.”

    I don’t know whether there is such a thing as an aura and whether a person’s mental state of being actually does affect in a physical sense, their body makeup etc That anger has an energy vs. love etc. Causes ripples.


    • Interesting stuff, Kathleen,

      If anyone knows the great fresco (popularly termed as the ‘School of Athens’) painted by Raphael on a wall of the Stanza Segnatura in the Vatican, you will recall that the great central figures are Plato (based or modeled on the face of Leonardo da Vinci) and Aristotle. The robes they are wearing are interesting for their colours. Aristotle the rational philosopher of practical earthly wisdom, is garbed in the colours brown and blue – for earth and sky. Plato the transcendental philosopher by contrast is wearing the spiritual colours of Red and Purple.



      • Further to what I just posted,
        it is to be noted that Aristotle in that great painting, is bearing his book that tended to satisfy rational thinkers for centuries, – Ethica, AND he holds his hand out flat towards the material world. Plato by contrast, is carrying his most spiritual book, the Timaeus, and is pointing upward to the heavens in that mysterious gesture that Leonardo repeats over and over again in his paintings.

        Oh, and as far as my favourite colour is concerned? In the abstract, outside of what I might want to wear or be surrounded by, I love a lemon shade of yellow, and shades of grey. When I was a kid, I chose Red.



      • I’m curious to track down the painting now.

        Pretty lemon, lovely colour 🙂


    • It’s easier to see auras if the subject is against a suitable background and the light right. I haven’t often seen them, and then only a faint glow, like a light, without colour.

      The most memorable were two missionaries, a young married couple about to head off to Africa. The came to the local Presbyterian church, and talked to us from the pulpit, against a cream background. The colours around their heads and shoulders were beautiful.


      • So you’ve actually seen them Strewth? So many fascinating people on here!
        Interesting that the two people had the same aura.


      • I don’t know about them being the same, Kathleeen. They addressed us separately, so I saw only one at a time, and the colours swirl a bit as the head moves.
        I could see only a colourless light around our own minister/s head. He was a man who recognised he was more of a teacher than a pastor, and installed a pastoral team to compensate. Where as this young couple were a quite different stamp.


  8. Would’ve said ‘blue’ off the top of my head; but it occurs to me that colours can’t stand alone.
    (Sounds either, for that matter.) ~ and perhaps that’s from where the brain’s ‘confusion’ stems.

    Years ago I used to paint (on canvas, not houses!) and an early lesson learnt was that the ‘impact’ of a painting depended almost entirely on contrasts ~ including contrasting textures.

    (For the record, I quit painting when I realised it had corrupted my christian morality: Li’l Ol’ Ladies could be talked in paying twice as much for a portrait of their grandchildren if said grandchildren looked like their grandmas. 😉 )


    • You’re such a talented fellow Dabs 🙂
      and a shyster lol
      As a kid come Christmas or birthday, I never wanted dolls (hated them) or really any other gift but paints. I used to constantly, every year ask for them – but I never really used them (don’t ask me). I used to sketch but I’m not particularly talented.

      Blue is the most popular colour. Growing up I had definite favourites, Orange and Red.


  9. When a whitefella is afraid he go yellow
    When a whitefella is envious he go green
    when a whitefella is angry he go red
    when a whitefella is drowning he go blue
    And yet the whitefella has the guts to call me coloured!


  10. Very interesting post. Advertisers have been making use of color and it’s emotional reactins in peoples for years. I’ve noticed that with myself, red always energizes me. I write quite often about depression on my blog but I haven’t mentioned color yet. I will ping back to you when I do. God bless.


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