Why Colors (And Our Brains) Don’t Work Like We Thought They Did, and What it Means For Design

Why Colors (And Our Brains) Don’t Work Like We Thought They Did, and What it Means For Design

Ash DelVillan

You’ve heard it before. Colors have meanings: red is the color of love, pink is for girls, blue is for calmness, and green represents health, wellness, and well-decorated yoga studios.

And maybe you’ve heard the other versions, too: red is for sports, pink is for prison walls, blue is for dieting, green is for the freaky realization that color itself is at least partially a figment of human language.

The Himba people have difficulty identifying the different colored square in the left circle, but not in the right one. (Can’t see it? I don’t blame you.) Why? Their language distinguishes color differently than ours.

And that’s besides the fractal cultural implications and studies proposing two people (or monkeys) don’t necessarily perceive the same colors anyway, a recent discovery which quickly begins to erode the guaranteed unified color perception, let alone any dependable psychological rubric with broad design applications.

There’s overwhelming bushels of research available assessing what, precisely, colors do to your brain. Some investigations conclude the universal value of legibility and contrast rather than color, some illustrate how much lighting matters, some are oddly specific, and some conclude entirely conflicting results. For instance, if blue makes us calm, what’s with all the studies about blue light waking us up and improving alertness? And how is red both making us take more risks and causing more success in sports while simultaneously making us perform less effectively?

Oof. What we’ve managed to science out about color and our brains seems to be marbled at best.

Except that it all changed a few weeks ago.

A quick science lesson: the way we process visual information is not unlike a camera. The photoreceptors in our eyes are tasked with detecting light – which is responsible for color – and the information they receive travels from them through the optic nerve to neurons in the visual cortex.

We’ve been thinking for a while now that our brain processed color and shape with different sets of those neurons, suggesting that color had its significance, and shapes had their significance. Our brain would then combine and interpret the collection of information to make up what we “see” in a further, higher-functioning part of the brain, and viola, humans can now see food, predators, art, Stranger Things, and spreadsheets.

But that was wrong. In June, Science magazine published new research from the Salk Institute. Neurophysiologists there discovered that the human brain processes colors and shapes using overlapping visual circuits. Specifically, they uncovered that some neurons respond to only combinations of shape and color – meaning that the brain encodes color and form together.  

So what does it matter if the brain encodes colors and shapes separately or together? Well, kind of everything about color psychology, actually. If you let the word “objects” replace “shapes,” the conflicting information about color psychology starts to make sense: your brain is processing pink prison wall not as “pink,” but as a pink wall. And, it’s processing that pink wall differently than it’s processing a pink dress, which is processed differently than a pink sunburn. Suddenly the belief that pink on its own – or any other color -- could present any universal feeling in us no longer seems applicable.

The neurons don’t lie: context matters.

Make no mistake – color matters. It does affect us, mostly in ways we’re still working out. But it doesn’t do it on its own, because the neurons don’t lie: context matters. As designers, it’s our job to understand these subtleties and not blindly rely on color alone to shape an environment. An holistic design, one that takes advantage of color, context, and culture is required to design truly intentional, meaningful spaces.

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