Sunday, January 18, 2009

Color Wonders

I tend to go for houses painted in unconventional ways. But did you ever stop to think about why we respond to specific colors? Is it just an emotional reaction, or do different shades trigger physical changes on some bioelectric level?

When light hits the photoreceptor cells of your retina, it is converted into little electric impulses which dash right up to your brain and trigger a release of various hormones. Sunlight contains all wavelengths of color in the visible spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and magenta) in addition to infrared and ultraviolet light, which we can‘t see. The body's various responses to the collection of colors contained in the sun's rays may contribute to why we feel so euphoric after a day at the beach.

Color has played a role in healing ever since the early human figured out that gazing at a calm blue sky eased a headache almost as well as chewing on white willow leaves. Indian Ayurveda -- the oldest healing modality in the world -- teaches that specific colors correspond to specific energy centers in the body. Ancient Egypt’s temple of Heliopolis contained compartments designed to break up the sun’s rays into different colors -- each thought to positively affect a different ailment. Even Babylon’s famed Hanging Gardens were touted as containing plants of all colors of healing.

When Newton played around with prisms and figured out how to fraction out the colors of light’s visible spectrum, physicians over the next century were so impressed with this magical discovery, they believed that targeted use of those colors could treat everything from smallpox to hysteria. Enterprising doctor Edwin Babbitt published a groundbreaking work on a new model of healing called chromatotherapy: Principles of Light and Color. Babbit’s work was followed up by a student Dinshah Gahdiali who spent years developing colored filters and specialized light fixtures known as Spectro-Chrome lamps. These devices were prematurely thought to be a cure for tuberculosis, diphtheria, gout, venereal disease and diabetes.

While these early docs appear to have overestimated color’s plausible healing potential, Swiss psychologist Max Luscher honed in on color preference as a marker for mental illness. (Supposedly if you liked dark colors, you were in bad emotional shape. Luscher would have definitely diagnosed most modern day creative types as wildly unstable due to our preference for black clothes. Then again, maybe he was on to something…)

Luscher’s contemporary Russian researcher S.V. Krakov devoted his work to studying the way different light wavelengths affected body responses like blood pressure and adrenal function -- studies that contemporary color therapists still recall, and justification for why hospital rooms are never painted bright red.

Rudolph Steiner and Theo Gimbel also investigated the therapeutic uses of color. They both suggested that the vibrational quality of different colors have either regenerative or destructive effects on living things.

In the last few decades, studies have shown the positive effects of full-spectrum light on everything from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to insomnia and infertility. (Sunlight suppresses daytime release of melatonin and increases serotonin.) Full-spectrum light is also the first line of treatment for neonatal jaundice. And of course, in upscale spas all over the western world, new age types will offer high priced “treatments” in the form of various colored bottles of essential oils or tiny colored flashlights directed at acupuncture points.

I have no idea what physical ailment I may potentially heal by lingering at the steps of this colorful porch ... but I feel better just looking at it!


dbdubya said...

Laurie - That's way too much information early this early in the morning. Colorful porch, though.

Laurie Allee said...

What are you doing up at 2:00AM?!

Why am I still up? :-)

Eki said...

Very interesting and useful essay, Laurie! I learned a lot from it. Thanks. And I like the geometrical precision of your composition ... the color combination too.


Is it ironic that I'm listening to a song called "Colour Co-Ordination"? Hmm....

But yes, I think there are certain colour connotations that sometimes we don't think about. Like I love the colour red, but I know that it's the colour of danger and fire. And also love and passion!

Scarlet xx

Mister Earl said...

The conventional wisdom was always that green is calming. I heard that studies show that red can be agitating. I recall hearing that they've done studies with prisoners and found that they become more agitated in red rooms.

San Diego Farmgirl said...

I think the different values cultures assign to colors is interesting, too. Like JamJar, I used to wonder about my fondness for red, until I dating a Chinese American. At his house, I learned that red means happiness and luck. Very different than in our culture - what's up with that?

Most pro athletic teams paint the visitors' locker room blue or another calming color to keep them from getting too fired up before the game or during half time. And McDonald's, BK, Wendy's and most of the fast food peddlers use red and yellow because that combo incites hunger in the brain.

(insert "so that's why people eat that crap" remark here ...)

Great post! Yet another nerdy topic you and I could excitedly discuss into the ground, whilst the other dinner guests sit bored, waiting for a chance to cut in. haha

Virginia said...

Is that fence blue or purple? If so this porch really rocks. Good one L.

Mister Earl said...

Hey Farmgirl:

Speaking of athletic teams, I'm dismayed that so many pro teams have gone to black in their color schemes in recent years. The Raiders created the black and silver mystique, and several other teams have since adopted black, like the LA Kings and Atlanta Falcons. I liked the Padres' original brown and orange scheme, but they decided to go with navy and pinstripes. like the Yankees. I say, stick to your original colors (like the NY/SF Giants and Brooklyn/LA Dodgers), and be true to your school!

Anonymous said...

I hope Tash sees this; we were just discussing colors and our reactions to them on one of the blogs. Her thought is that some genetics is involved in the colors you like and hate. I tend to agree -- compare the pale colors used in Norway, with some very bright reds and yellows, to the the deep, rich colors found in Mediterranean countries.

Double "D" said...

Whoa, this is way to deep for me.
Nice photo though you wordy woman.

dbdubya said...

Laurie - I was up at 2 because, like you, I don't like going to bed. We went with a group of 10 to our favorite Greek restaurant, Papadakis Taverna, in San Pedro for a loud and fun evening. Ended up at a friend's house for some good Irish whiskey and got home late.

I'm glad to have some company, Double D, in being a bit overwhelmed with all the discussion on color. I've heard of the studies that show certain colors are calming, exciting, etc. I know the research shows that's true, but I also know what I like and don't like.

I agree with Mr. Earl - I don't like so many sports teams going to the color black. But, remember the hideous uniforms the Padres and Astros had in the 70's?

My sis-in-law moved to Eugene, OR a few years ago. She doesn't mind the rain, but misses the sun. So, she got a full-spectrum light and sits in front of it on cloudy days, which is most days, and is reminded of our beautiful sunshine.

Wayne said...

I like shiny things.

-K- said...

OK, that is just flat-out fascinating.

Sharon said...

When I opened your site, the photo made me smile!!

Judy Williams said...

I find the complementary colors so pleasing. Anything from pink to lavender to red to orange - I love anything with red in it. I am amazed at your scholarly approach to all of these images. Thanks so much for all the color info. YAY

Happy Sunday.

Petrea Burchard said...

I take it you didn't learn all that on Google.

Dixie Jane said...

OMG....if my recent hospital stays had been in red rooms I would have to have the color interjected to calm hysteria.

Absolutely beautiful porch, colors, everything. I feel better for having looked at it.

Where did you get all that information, girl? Fascinating, even though I will never remember it all. You are amazing!

Yakpate said...

Wonderfully inspiring post, Laurie.If you want to try an interesting experiment, sleep in a bed made with primary red sheets. It may or may not influence your dreams, but just knowing that your bed is red will keep you happy all day long.

As for the gorgeous house you photographed... I think the appeal is that it is not in typical "house" colors, but is painted in wildly atypical hues. Rebellion! Liberation! Fulfillment!

Gee... I wonder what would happen if you loved in a red house with green trim?

Yakpate said...

OMG! Freudian slip! I meant to say... I wonder what would happen if you LIVED in a red house with green trim!

Well, in your case... loved... lived... either way the question stands!

Anonymous said... my cabin at Lake Arrowhead - well the first thing I did was to have it painted red with green trim - and have burgandy carpet installed. Yes we lived and loved in it - in a way never to be forgotten . Oops, I'm getting toooo personal.

Then there is my recent eye problem, loss and regaining vision is an amazing experience. So, I watched A DVD with my "perfect" eye. Then with my recovering eye, it was in black and white at first. Red was the last color to return. I have learned from an artist friend that cats don't see red. I have always questioned what we see as opposed to what other creatures see. What is REAL really?

Interesting research, and something to continue to question, Laurie.

Laurie Allee said...

Hi everyone!

Thanks for wading through my post. Petrea, you're right -- this isn't just from Google. Blame it on years and years as a freelance writer. I have boatloads of trivial knowledge about a zillion things but remain a master of nothing!

I can't remember where I first studied the history of color in healing but it's something that has stuck with me -- and fascinated me in the same way all things related to waves and/or particles fascinate me.

I love all the additional color you all added! And Yak, red and green, yellow and purple, teal and brown... you know how I love houses that would be comfortable in a Dr. Seuss book.

Shanna, I thought of you when I posted this. It's amazing how you've been able to experience losing color vision... then getting it back. As an artist, I'm sure this has added another layer of visual understanding.

Dbdubya -- get some sleep! (Pot to kettle here.)

ALtadenahiker, I think there is a genetic component, too. Or maybe it's just cultural -- but why did the cultural preferences evolve unless there might be something else at play? I love the way so many Latin American regions use wild, bold colors -- similar to the ones in parts of Africa. Maybe tribes from hot areas have some need for the frequencies of primary colors? It's fun to think about it.

I appreciate you all for taking the time to read and respond.

Til tomorrow...

Anonymous said...

You should be on Jeopardy. I of course find this subject fascinating and am reading the links.

I have a recurring nightmare where I'm traveling on a train at the speed of light and it seems as if I'm standing still yet the colors around me start to melt and the world becomes a giant LeRoy Neiman painting. Can you see why that would bother me?

Mister Earl said...

Yes, PA, but it's worth it because you come back 40 years younger.

Jane Hards Photography said...

Colours are a wonderful way of expression of the soul.
I definitely have SAD. I recently learnt yellow is the first colour we register which is why danger signs are often in hues of yellow. Excellent post and the image is just so cool.

Laurie Allee said...

Pasadenaadjacent, that's a great dream -- I mean nightmare.

Remember that old Robin Williams movie "What Dreams May Come?" At one point he's traipsing around in a giant expressionist type landscape where the paint is still wet. I always thought that looked like fun.

Anonymous said...

very nice post!

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