The Neuroscience Behind Color

As graphic designers, we spend a lot of time thinking about color, and how color choice can impact your business, sales, and marketing objectives. Neuroscientist Bevil Conway spends a lot of time thinking about color, too. When not working on his latest art project, Conway can be found studying vision and perception at Wellesley College and Harvard Medical School. Though he’s a scientist, his research remains strongly tied to art (you may remember him from his collaboration with Margaret Livingstone in 2004, when they postulated that Rembrandt may have suffered from flawed vision). In recent years, Conway has almost entirely focused on the neural machinery behind color.

Les toits de Collioure, Henri Matisse
Les toits de Collioure, Henri Matisse

His research into the brain’s color systems isn’t just interesting, or a fun fact to discuss at a party. His research has real, obvious value for designers and artists. Someone that understands and appreciates how our brains process color will be able to use color to communicate more effectively. It also has larger implications for society at large, even those of us that don’t spend our days thinking about typography, color, and imagery. Conway believes his findings on color processing could provide clarity on fundamental questions about human cognition.

One of Conway’s biggest findings came while researching how monkeys process color. Using a brain scanner, he and other researchers found “globs” of specialized cells that detect distinct hues. This finding suggests that some areas of the primate brain are “encoded” for color. And, even more interesting, not all colors are given equal “glob” treatment. The largest cluster of specialized neurons was for red, followed by green, blue, and yellow.

Because primates are such close evolutionary relatives of humans, Conway’s research suggests that humans might also be hardwired for certain hues. This theory could be a gateway to understanding the neural properties of emotion. Researchers already know that certain colors provoke strong emotional feelings. Blues and purples are more pleasant and calming than yellows, and greens are the most arousing. By framing this knowledge in the context of hardwiring, resrachers can work backwards to figure out the basic mechanisms behind certain feelings. Designer and artists can use the emotional connections to color to match color schemes to the feeling they want to evoke in the audience.

Emotions are just the beginning of the applicability of this new knowledge. If researchers can trace the neural circuitry behind our ability to distinguish one color from another, we could understand how the brain categorizes things more broadly. Then, we’re much closer to defining the architecture of human decision-making.

But wait…there’s more! The brain activity that makes us prefer color TVs over black and white can tell us about rewards and nonverbal communication. Our tendency to pick out a bright colored shirt in a crowd could lead to a better understanding of the system of attention.

At the heart of Conway’s research is, of course, color itself. He has been looking into the fact that a color looks different depending on the colors around it. Master artistis have approached this problem in different ways. Cezanne developed multiple areas of the canvas at once to see how some colors were adjusting to others. Matisse left white spaces in parts of his paintings to avoid color contrasts.

“The best access we have of what color is and whait it does to us is by studying the work of people who have studied it obsessively. Matisse is one of those people,” Conways says. “I think it’s extremely valuable, and there’s been very limited work treating that corpus as the sort of scientific evidence that it will turn out to be.”

While all of this information gives us access to broad, overarching knowledge of how our brains work, there are also some findings that are easily applicable right now for designers. For example: science has told us that we detect color and brightness in different areas of the brain. By giving different colored objects equal brightness, we create a quality of motion. Varying luminence (and not necessarily different colors) can make an object appear to be three dimensional.

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