How to Bring Color Science into Your Life

In partnership with our friends at Morgenthal Frederics

Experience tells us that color makes us feel things—and scientific research is beginning to help us understand the role color has in our lives. To learn how to use color to our advantage, we wanted to understand how color science actually works. So we dug into the existing research and found some pretty cool stuff.

Of course, if you’re curious, the best way to test how you feel is to simply try—and see.

Color is a function
of the brain.

Physically, color doesn’t exist. What we perceive as colors are rays of energy with specific wavelengths. This spectrum of visible light—the range from approximately 400 nanometers to 700 nanometers in wavelength—is part of the much larger spectrum that our brains can visually process.

Physiologically, these visible light wavelengths can be detected by sensors at the back of the eye, in the retina. This is where the cones come in: Cones transform light into nerve signals that travel to different areas of the brain—not just to the visual cortex but also to the region of the brain that processes memory and emotion.

Color can elicit a psychological response.

  1. Ophthalmologist and vision researcher Siegfried Wahl is part of the ZEISS Vision Science Lab, a team in Germany laying new groundwork in color science: In their lab, Wahl and his research team measure people’s physiological responses to wearing blue-, green-, yellow-, and red-tinted lenses. “Color affects everybody, physiologically and emotionally, everywhere, all the time,” says Wahl. Being aware of this influence, he adds, is the first step to using color in a useful way. Sometimes all it takes to know how a color personally affects us is a little observation.

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  3. Wahl’s team has collaborated with eyewear brand Morgenthal Frederics to produce a line of color-tinted glasses that let us give their research a go. The idea is that if pops of color in your field of vision—like a brightly colored object—can affect how you feel, filtering your entire field of vision with a single color might have profound results, too. Take their yellow lenses, named Focus: In the lab, participants wearing yellow lenses were more focused on potential hazards during a simulated driving test and were less likely to get distracted than those wearing no lenses at all.

Some colors may have universal effects.

  1. While a large part of how we respond to color is learned, Wahl says, research can help us determine what effects are universal. We may be able to use blue filters to prompt feelings of wakefulness and activity. Wahl’s team at ZEISS is commissioning research on using colored eyeglass lenses to enhance certain mood states, and one of the first colors they tested was blue. In their tests, the ZEISS Behavior and BrainLab found that wearing blue lenses can promote alertness and faster recovery after a calm, low-energy situation. That means the simple act of putting on a pair of glasses and tinting your field of vision blue may be able to wake you up a little—maybe something to try first thing in the morning or if you hit the occasional midday slump.

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Context is important.

Color is processed not only in the visual cortex of the brain but also in more complicated regions responsible for memory and emotion. “Colors are far more than just visual information; they are able to evoke emotional reactions,” Wahl says. These associations of color and meaning are learned with repetition over time, but they amount to a reaction that becomes automatic. How we react to red, for example, may hinge on personal or cultural relationships with the color: Subconsciously, some of us might link red with success and prosperity, while others may align it with error, failure, or the signal to stop. It’s the same way that in the US, we equate pink with femininity and blue with masculinity. That these are learned reactions makes them no less real—but it is something to keep in mind when we’re thinking about why color has meaning to us at all.