The brain is like a Swiss Army knife, stuffed full of different mental tools that are well suited to different situations. Sometimes, we want to flex the prefrontal cortex, and really exert our rational muscles. And then there are other situations (like picking a strawberry jam) where thinking too much can be a real problem, and we should rely instead of the subtle signals emanating from the emotional brain.
It’s no surprise that how we think – the particular mode of thought that we lean on at any given moment – can be influenced by our surroundings. For instance, when men are shown revealing pictures of attractive women, or what scientists refer to as “reproductively salient stimuli,” they become even more impulsive than normal. Because the photos potentiate their emotional circuits, they’re more likely to engage in risky, irrational behavior.
But I’m smitten with a new study, just published in Science, that showed how exposing people to different colors can subtly tweak how they think. Here’s the Times:
Researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted tests with 600 people to determine whether cognitive performance varied when people saw red or blue. Participants performed tasks with words or images displayed against red, blue or neutral backgrounds on computer screens.
Red groups did better on tests of recall and attention to detail, like remembering words or checking spelling and punctuation. Blue groups did better on tests requiring imagination, like inventing creative uses for a brick or creating toys from shapes.
“If you’re talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red color should be used,” said Juliet Zhu, an assistant professor of marketing at the business school at the University of British Columbia, who conducted the study with Ravi Mehta, a doctoral student.
But for “a brainstorming session for a new product or coming up with a new solution to fight child obesity or teenage smoking,” Dr. Zhu said, “then you should get people into a blue room.”
The linkage of red and accuracy makes some intuitive sense, since people tend to associate red (stop signs, the color of blood, etc.) with danger and caution. But why would blue make us more creative? I think part of the answer gets back to something I wrote last year in the New Yorker. It turns out moments of creative insight are best achieved when people are in a relaxed, peaceful state of mind:
The insight process as sketched by Jung-Beeman and Kounios is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain needs to control itself, which is why areas involved with executive control, like the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulated, are activated. The scare resource of attention is lavished on a single problem. But then, once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman says. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.” (In other words, it’s not an accident that Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” in the bath.) Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas.
My hunch is that blue is like a warm shower – because we’re more relaxed, we’re better able to eavesdrop on those remote associations that are most likely to generate the creative epiphany. (Being in a good mood also makes people better at solving insight problems.)
Of course, sometimes you don’t want to be creative – you want to be accurate. This is why it’s a good idea to have red and blue rooms in your home, a color for every mode of thought.