The Remarkable Link Between Colors, Moods, and the Brain

The Remarkable Link Between Colors, Moods, and the Brain

Are you ready to put away a few myths about how colors affect mood? Great, because color is everywhere. It affects the way we think and feel but not in the way popular culture would have us believe.

For starters, ‌look at the chart below.

Do any of these color-mood associations resonate with you?

Some people might feel these color-mood associations are spot-on. Others might think the associations miss the mark entirely. Why is that?

The answer to that question has a lot in common with an onion; it’s layered. The good news is, we’ll only need to peel back three of those layers to uncover the remarkable link between colors, moods, and the brain.

Layer #1: Cultures

Different cultures assign different meanings to colors, this we know, but we sometimes underestimate the extent to which we are primed by our culture to perceive the meanings of color differently.

For instance, in western cultures, purple is the color of royalty, while in China, that color is yellow, hands down.

Western cultures associate blue (depending on its shade) with sadness or depression, but in Ukraine, blue is a color that represents healing.

Depending on how well our culture of origin has primed us to draw meaning from specific colors, we may experience vastly different emotions than someone of a different nationality when exposed to the same colors.

Layer #2: Personal Constructs and Preferences

Studies show that beyond culture, people create their own personal constructs around color. Personal experiences and preferences create and shape these constructs.

To illustrate the point, imagine getting a pair of bright magenta running shoes as a gift from your partner. The color feels jarring and you struggle to smile in appreciation of the gift. When your partner isn’t looking, you shove the shoes under your bed and hope to never see them again.

Funny thing though: now, each time you see the color magenta, you feel a wave of anxiety come over you. The color reminds you of the shoes, and you’re worried it might also remind your partner of the shoes and prompt questions about where they are.

To appease your partner, you wear the shoes on your next outing, darting into a convenience store to escape the stares of onlookers. Feeling your luck can’t get any worse, you buy a lotto ticket.

That night, the winning lottery numbers come up, and they’re all on your ticket! Suddenly, you feel differently about your magenta shoes. Maybe they’re lucky shoes.

Going forward, every time you see the color magenta, you can’t help but feel excited and confident, like something good is going to happen.

This is the power of personal constructs and preferences. Our color-mood associations can change from positive to negative and vice versa based on our experiences.

But is our relationship with color purely subjective?

Science says no.

Layer 3: The Things We All Have In Common

For years, scientists have observed that certain colors, specifically as light, cause predictable physiological changes in our bodies and our moods[1], regardless of our culture or personal constructs.

It all has to do with the true nature of colors: they correspond to various wavelengths.

When waves of various lengths (color) hit the retina of our eyes, they trigger a cascade of biological and biochemical responses. They can cause our bodies to produce mood-elevating dopamine or sleep-inducing melatonin. They can speed up healing or deregulate our circadian rhythm.

In the end, the remarkable link between the colors we enjoy, the moods we experience, and the processes taking place in our brain is the fact these reactions are all stimulated by waves. Long waves, short waves, the ones we see, and even the ones we don’t.

The next time you’re basking in a warm yellow sunset or feeling relaxed in a lush green garden, take a moment to appreciate the power of waves!

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