Inspiration comes from many places. Today’s article comes from somewhere in between Valentine’s Day making me reflect on things that make me happy, my recent run in The Color Run (recently reviewed by Penny) and the fact that I moved house last week.
So what do my red rose, purple-stained scalp and new, rainbow lounge have in common? The red rose makes me feel loved. The purple hair reminds me of the look I had going last weekend and makes me feel happy. The bright cushions on our lounge make our new apartment feel like a fun place. All of these colours make me feel some emotion – so what’s going on?
Colour itself is our brain’s reaction to light of different wavelengths hitting our eyes. Think about a rainbow – it shows off all of the colours that the human eye can see. Violet has the shortest wavelengths (the distance from the peak of one wave to the peak of the next), then as the waves of light get progressively longer, we go through the spectrum of blue, green, yellow, orange and red with the longest wavelengths. As the light enters the eye, it hits various, specialised receptors in the retina which then send signals to your brain which are interpreted as different colours.
Kurt Nassau wrote an entire book devoted to the topic of colour and what actually causes objects to emit or reflect the specific wavelengths that we see as colour. These include the energy of sub-atomic particles (like me, particles get bright when they’re excited) or the arrangement of atoms in a substance (the colour of some gemstones is determined by rogue atoms disrupting the crystal structure).
But what makes a clear, bright red ruby more valuable than a cloudy, pink one? I can hear Firefly’s Kaylee calling “It’s just shiny, Cap’n!”, and to an extent, that’s quite true. We really like shiny things – humans have been using precious materials like gold and gemstones to decorate objects or their bodies for millennia. This is the excuse I use whenever my Mum accuses me of suffering from ADOS – that is, Attention Deficit…. OOOH, SHINY!
Research has shown that colours do evoke emotions, and though most of this is innate, our cultural upbringing does have a minor influence. Red colours increase our energy, whilst more blue colours decrease it. Perhaps this is where we get sayings like “feeling blue” from, or why we associate the colour red with passionate emotions like love or anger. One paper has even drawn links between the brightness and colour of light in the workplace and workers’ mood, whilst another found that young children were more happy and active in a room painted pink than in one painted blue. Similar results have been found in adults, although we don’t tend to consciously notice it. I’m starting to think this is why I was originally drawn to my apartment, with its little study painted cream and bathed in the warm afternoon sun.
It has also been shown that the reverse is true – a study in 1977 asked people to read excerpts from Shakespearean plays and then name a colour that they felt was appropriate to how the text made them feel. The colour-mood associations in the results were similar to an even older study, published in 1954, which asked people to point to coloured pieces of paper which they felt best went with a particular emotion, like cheerfulness or tranquility. More recent work has looked at the physical responses like brain activity and heart rate when people do work surrounded by particular colours.
All of this work seems to allude to our colour preferences and resulting moods being a combination of environmental and biological factors. Environment includes learnt associations, such as pink being a girls’ colour, while blue is appropriate for boys. The biological effects of colour have been documented, yet the original reasons why we feel the way we do about colour is not something I have seen explained (apart from some wild anthropological hunter-gatherer speculations).
Maybe this is a great topic for future research. In the meantime, I’m just going to continue twirling around in my red skirt until I fall in a heap on these rainbow cushions (which, yes, I made myself!).