See it to believe it: How color shapes our world

From the real color of your eyes to the color you can't see, discover extraordinary facts from CNN's award-winning Colorscope series.

Posted: Apr 26, 2018 6:54 PM
Updated: Apr 26, 2018 6:54 PM

Color permeates all aspects of our lives. It shapes how we perceive the world, it's an essential part of our cultural identity, and it benefits our health and mind.

But we often are hesitant about incorporating color into our lives, says Lauren Rosenberg, an interior designer and CEO of Elaine Ryan LLC home decor company.

Rosenberg discovered that it was nearly impossible to talk to her clients about color. They loved the spectacular colors of the outdoors and their gardens but believed that, in their home lives, they could not actually live with "so much color" and thought they'd grow tired of it.

Sound familiar?

Even if we don't realize it, color has a significant impact on our lives. For starters, it can make us less violent.

The color pink has been found to calm those experiencing violent episodes. This is why a number of prisons in Switzerland and the United States are painted pink.

But it is also at the center of debates about gender, masculinity and femininity. Pink is strongly associated with femininity and delicacy, which is why it's easy to conjure an image of a girl in a pink tutu playing with a pink Disney Princess Barbie but it may be harder to grasp the idea of a boy dressed head to toe in the color.

However, the gendering of pink is changing, with more boys and men wearing the color. Companies like Pink in London and Ralph Lauren's pink polo shirts have made it a more popular color among men. Rapper Tyler, the Creator has been outspoken about his love for the color, getting his male fan base and other stars such as Drake to follow in his footsteps.

But attitudes won't fully change until men stop justifying or defending wearing pink, believes Jo Paoletti, academic and author of "Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America."

Being comforted -- and confident

When you need some comforting, the color orange is what you need.

"It combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow," said Sara Petitt, a member of the faculty of fabric styling at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Singer Frank Sinatra called orange the happiest color, and Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky described it as "red brought nearer to humanity by yellow."

Imagine a stressful day at work and the relief you feel when coming home to snuggle up with a book next to the warmth of a fireplace, with its orange glow -- or soaking in the beauty of a dramatic sunset. That is the power of orange.

If you are striving to be a more confident person, orange can also help you do that.

Petitt says the color is associated with inner magnetism. "I don't think shy people wear orange. You want to be noticed if you wear orange," she said.

Removing fear

It doesn't take much to realize that the color black is linked to darkness, but it has many dimensions. It is associated with grief, through experiences of death, but also sophistication in fashion.

Experts argue that we need black to make our wardrobes radiate sophistication but also to overcome our fears.

But most human cultures dislike the color of darkness, which is why in language, black often refers to negative things such as witches, unlucky cats and the Grim Reaper.

Prehistorically, people would have been more at risk of being attacked by predators or by enemies in the dark, said Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of "The Anti-Anxiety Workbook." Through evolution, humans have therefore developed a tendency to be scared of the dark.

"In the dark, our visual sense vanishes, and we are unable to detect who or what is around us. We rely on our visual system to help protect us from harm," Antony said. "Being scared of the dark is a prepared fear."

But black is not as dark as we think. The word black originally meant shining white or flashing. The Chinese thought black ink captured every color in nature, and French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir called black the queen of all colors.

A sign of life

Though the color black may take your mind to outer space, it's believed that purple might have been the color of the earliest life forms on Earth.

No, this doesn't mean everything was purple, as this would have been before complex, multicellular organisms even evolved. This was when single-cell microorganisms, such as bacteria and protozoa, dominated the planet and possibly created a purple hue that could be seen from space.

Purple organisms may have existed in varying concentrations across the planet, said Shiladitya DasSarma, a microbiologist and professor at the University of Maryland. DasSarma has studied one of these microorganisms and created the Purple Earth hypothesis.

Purple could therefore give us insight into what life on other planets, or exoplanets, might look like.

"That's where it might make a difference when we look at exoplanets. We would want to consider that the pigments on an alien planet might be different than what we have on modern Earth," DasSarma said. "And if the Purple Earth hypothesis was correct and there was a dominance of purple organisms in the early Earth, then we might be able to find another planet that's at an earlier stage of evolution of the planet, where the purple pigments might have dominated."

Sunshine and happiness

Some believe yellow is the color of sunshine, warmth and happiness. Others think it makes you agitated.

Leatrice Eiseman, color specialist and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, which helps companies decide which colors are best for their brands or products, pushes for the former.

She has conducted color word association studies on thousands of people over the past 30 years. The first words that consistently come to mind when people see the color yellow are "sunshine," "warmth," "cheer," "happiness" and sometimes even "playfulness."

During World War I, hospital wards were painted yellow in hope of healing shell-shocked soldiers.

Yellow's mood-improving traits can be assumed to help seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that occurs each year during fall and winter, believed to be influenced by lack of sunlight, or the color yellow.

Some people with seasonal affective disorder choose to wear yellow-tinted glasses to feel better, and others have used light therapy that gives them the feeling of standing outside on a pleasant sunny day.

Keeping you calm and healthy

Humans are trichromats, meaning we perceive three primary colors: blue, green and red. The retina in a human eye can detect light between wavelengths of 400 and 700 nanometers, a range known as the visible spectrum.

In the middle of the spectrum resides green. This wavelength is where our perception is at its best -- and keeps us healthy.

The color green is why, despite not residing in the forests anymore, we are able to tell apart the foods we should and should not be eating. Our eyes can catch a wilted brown piece of lettuce in our salad or a banana that is not yet ripe.

The color green also keeps us calm. Some scientists and researchers believe that because our eyes are at the peak of their perception when they detect the color green, the shade may calm us down.

Green is supposed to relax our retinas and calm our nerves, which is one of the reasons why there is so much of the shade in many hospitals.

Providing medicine -- and emotion

Gold is known as a color of grandeur and extravagance, and as a result, we are psychologically drawn to the color.

But we need gold for the important role it has played in health and medicine, according to the book "Gold: Nature and Culture," by art historian Rebecca Zorach and filmmaker and critic Michael Phillips Jr.

Chinese alchemists believed that drinking potable gold in the form of elixirs, eating from gold plates and using gold utensils helped attain longevity.

"Before the 20th century, gold was used to treat conditions as varied as syphilis, heart disease, smallpox and melancholia," the authors note.

Today, gold compounds are still thought to have some anti-inflammatory effects.

However, our eyes are also attracted to gold; looking at it can evoke emotion.

"The color gold causes the eye to move because of the glistening and seemingly moveable surface, similar to the way water moves," Eiseman said. " Humans need water in order to survive."

According to Donald Hoffman, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine, "it is the chromature that targets the human emotions more specifically than uniform color patches."

Hoffman believes that the reason chromatures can target human emotions more specifically than uniform color patches is that they contain far more information.

He demonstrated the concept with two pictures: a section of brown grizzly bear fur and the same brown color in plain background. When looking at the chromature, our mind can immediately grasp that we are looking at a bear, he explained.

"Evolution would have more success training the emotional system to be wary of the bear fur chromature than to be wary of the uniform color patch of the same average color."

The color of your body -- and love

Red is our color. Our bodies produce 2 million red blood cells every single second. Many creation myths claim that the first humans were made from red earth. The name Adam is derived from the Hebrew word for red. Humans are some of the only mammals who can see red.

We need the color red because it has a powerful effect on our brains. Scientific studies have found that the color makes us stronger, more alert, more competitive.

Many of us get red in the face from increased blood flow when we are angry, flushing from embarrassment or blushing after being given a compliment.

Red can also make us appear more attractive to one another, which is why red lipstick is on billions of lips.

Individual relationships

"We all have different relationships with colors," Rosenberg said.

Though some of us may have a positive relationship with black and enjoy the sophistication of a black dress or suit, others may have a more negative relationship with the color, reminding them of the grief they faced after the loss of a loved one.

Regardless, color permeates all aspects of our lives. It can make us less violent, comfort us, bring us happiness, make us healthier, be used as medicine or make us stronger. Living a colorful life has its benefits. Take time to contemplate what colors resonate with you, make you happy, calm your nerves and energize you. Take advantage of the benefits a colorful life has to offer.

As Russian artist Kandinsky noted, "color is a power which directly influences the soul."

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