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We Live in a Colorful World. Does It Effect Our Creativity?

"I found I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn't say any other way; things I had no words for." Georgia O'Keefe


When I was in middle and high school, I went through a multi-year period of depression. I was anorexic and directionless, but there was very little anyone could do for me, since not a lot was known about depression at that time. Antidepressants were in their infancy, as were diagnostic tools. My parents had two other children and full time jobs to worry about, so didn’t have time or energy to put into their sad sack of a daughter. I think they figured that at some point I would simply snap out of it. 

The depression eased when I went away to college, and after that met and married my perpetually happy husband Larry. It came back with a vengeance after the birth of my second child and the postpartum issues that brought, and I subsequently spent several years in therapy.


An interesting symptom that emerged whenever I experienced depression was my inability to see color - the world turned into a sepia grayish blur during those years, something that’s now an established symptom of depression, caused by a lack of dopamine in the body. Today, it’s known that dopamine influences human drive and attention, and how we see the world, and its effect on the retina is measurable. In fact, some psychiatrists use color perception to measure how well antidepressants are working in their patients.


This experience started me wondering about color and its effect on creativity. Larry (a fine art photographer) and I have recently had many discussions on the role of color in the creative arts, and I became curious: is any particular color associated with stimulating creativity?


If you ask this question on the Web, you’ll find that depending on the source, a different color of the rainbow is thought to make us more creative. There’s no consensus out there on the answer to the question, it’s all subjective, depending on the experience or marketing goals of the person expressing the opinion.


The truth is that we all see color a little differently, and we all have different associations with certain colors. For instance, if you were a student who consistently received a red “F” on your homework, the color red might be an emotional cue to feel badly about yourself. We also use the color red to indicate “attention” or “danger” in things like stop signs, ambulances and fire trucks. So, depending on your life experience, red might not make you feel creative at all, but it could bring you to sudden attention.

Babies and toddlers, however, are all over the color red, as it creates excitement in their nascent lives. It’s only later that they form the associations that might change how they feel about it.


Back in Roman times, Tyrian purple was the first known “forbidden” color. The natural dye used for royal clothing was produced by snail mucus, but it took thousands of snails to make it. It was associated with power and wealth, so poor people were forbidden to wear anything made of this color. Julius Caesar wore purple, and his underlings wore white with a purple stripe. Seeing purple back then would certainly elicit a strong response from the Roman population!


Humans have three cone receptors for red, blue and green, so we only see color with those or some combination of them. Mixtures of these three “primary colors” are orange, yellow, indigo and violet. These seven colors are what make up the “ROY G BIV” colors (the acronym that helps us remember colors of the rainbow) in the order we always see them in the sky: red (on top), orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (on the bottom). 


Purple and pink aren’t considered “real” colors, because they’re a mixture of more than two wavelengths. Pink is created by combining red, green, and blue wavelengths (I know the “huh?” factor kicks in when we hear this anti-intuitive statement, but it’s proven science!).


Some people have genetic alterations in their cones, or a cone that is missing, altering their perception of color. Men especially are prone to this, since they only receive one X chromosome from their mother, and if it’s carrying the mutation, they will be colorblind. (Women get two X chromosomes, and they both must have the mutation for it to be causative). There is a wide range in how humans see color, from super color sense to color blindness. Gender, age and where we live (historical and cultural context) can also change color perception.


We can’t see some colors that actually exist. For instance, the mantis shrimp has ten cone receptors, so that little creature sees many more colors than humans. And when we try to picture what the mantis shrimp actually sees, we can’t invent or even imagine it – try describing the color green, for instance, to someone who is blind. It’s simply not possible to take a trip outside our known color perception.

However, those of us who can see and recognize color, store that color under its name in the left, or language, side of our brain. Learning the word for a color changes the way our brain handles color information. A new study reveals that before toddlers know the names of colors, they use the right side of their brains to categorize and store them. A toddler (who typically sees as many colors as adults) doesn’t know where to put the color, because like most other things in its short life, it doesn't have a name for that color yet. But as soon as a toddler identifies the color with a word, it gets moved over to the left side of the brain.


Not only is this a remarkable work around that a developing brain has to figure out, but it is a startling reminder that language changes how our brains process information!


Children also have a strong connection between color and emotion that is markedly different for adults. For them, blue translates to happiness (for adults it’s generally green and yellow), white equates to anxiety and grief (how adults interpret black), and red is an exciting color for a toddler, whereas adults have mixed feelings about red, but it’s the color we remember best.


But let’s face it, color is an illusion. We don’t “see” color, we see reflected light. If we’re standing in a completely darkened room, we won’t see any color. As soon as something lets in light, we begin to distinguish color, because the light is now bouncing off surfaces.


The bottom line with color seems to be that it ranges from somewhat to highly personal when it comes to stimulating creativity in humans. Red will get our attention, but blue will calm us and make us feel more open. Yellow and green tend to excite us, whereas white and gray calm us down and give us a blank palette with which to work. Purple is associated with wealth and luxury, and is often used in advertising those kinds of products, and pink suggests good health.


The truth is, we live in a stunningly beautiful, richly colorful world, one that has inspired billions with its varied palette. Maybe Louis Armstrong said it best in his song, “What a Wonderful World”:


I see trees of green

Red roses too

I see them bloom

For me and you

And I think to myself

What a wonderful world.


I see skies of blue

And clouds of white

The bright blessed day

The dark sacred night

And I think to myself

What a wonderful world.


The colors of the rainbow

So pretty in the sky

Are also on the faces

Of people going by

I see friends shaking hands

Saying, "How do you do?"

They're really saying

I love you.


I hear babies cry

I watch them grow

They'll learn much more

Than I'll ever know

And I think to myself

What a wonderful world

Yes, I think to myself

What a wonderful world

What a wonderful world.

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