Thursday, March 29, 2012

Red, Green, and Blue, part 5: Color As Emotion

I’ve explained why there are three main colors, why the colors are specifically green, blue, and red, and why, among these colors, green is the most important color, blue the second most important, and red third. But I am afraid none of this is much help in explaining one of the bigger questions about color: why colors are so directly linked to emotions.

We know from experience that green, blue, and red, and all the intermediate hues, trigger emotions in ways that white, gray, and black, and the neutral colors that are variations on gray, do not. Somehow the rods, the retina cells that detect specific colors, have a pathway to emotion that the cones, the retina cells that primarily detect lightness, darkness, shape, motion, texture, and shadow, do not share. Perhaps it is merely that with all the cones do already, triggering emotion too would be too much to ask. Or, there may be something about color that connects to the primal sense of place, and from there to everything that may be associated with a place.

Some of the mood of a color is a reflection of our physical experience of the color: reds, warm and quick; greens, strong and abundant; blues, cautious and expansive. But more than this, we may latch on to seemingly arbitrary colors with emotional intensity. There are the colors of sports teams and commercial brands and even the colors of the U.S. political maps. These maps have been in widespread use for only 12 years, but their red and blue have entered the political lexicon. The same may happen next with the dispute over the color of money: green or gold? In these cases, it seems that colors do not cause emotion so much as anchor it. The emotion comes first, and then we look around to see what colors are present and what they mean.

This connection between color and emotion may be a particular human quality. Dogs, for example, see colors but don’t seem to care much about them. It was barely 20 years ago that researchers determined that dogs see the same colors as humans. It took so long to find out because dogs do not easily attach any emotional meaning to the colors they see, particularly when the colors are just the color-coding typically used in color experiments. Humans, by contrast, almost automatically look for meaning in color-coding even when there is none.

Some of the emotional responses to colors can present a problem, but there are too many colors, and too many contexts in which they appear, for anyone to go through all the colors one by one and reprogram their responses. What may help, instead, is to look at way the problem color is connected to all other colors by connecting the color back to the original color, green. Every color is a variation on green, or a balance of green and other colors, or a contrast to green; those are the qualities of the color that originally gave us the ability to perceive that specific color. Fitting a color into this story can make the color seem less singular, and more like a branch selected from the tree of color.