The Color of Creativity

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.


More like this

Virginia Woolf had the choice of colors for her book covers, since the Woolfs' created the Hogarth Press in their home on Tavistock Square. The colors of the covers provide me with a way to recall where certain passages are located, much as a pilot uses colored lights to land on an instrument landing system, (ILS), approach. From a practical standpoint the Hogarth Press editions of Virginia Woolf are available in used bookstores for about a dollar. Just look for a marginal neighborhood, such as immediately surrounding a large airport, where such bookstores are able to coexist.

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 16 Feb 2009 #permalink

When dealing with colors in this area, an excellent starting point would be the various books on color by Faber Birren, such as his COLOR & HUMAN RESPONSE.

Another approach is understading the reason why a particlar is associated with each of the 7 major chakras


By Lionel Giliotti (not verified) on 16 Feb 2009 #permalink

My brain is unorganized both awake and asleep, but I do awake at 2:30 every morning to write down a piece of art that summons me to record it - only then can I go back to sleep. I dream in color but one color dominates the others. I have primary color rooms in my house, my head and my art.

I think some artists process the color statistics right out of the studies and the norm response of others. Probably explains why on a cloudy weekend I could sit on the yellow line in the middle of the road and stare down. Am I Kidding? Oh - so light.

By Lee Pirozzi (not verified) on 16 Feb 2009 #permalink

I wonder how the idea of relaxation as a mode to creative release reconciles with accounts of mild mania. Some people who suffer from mild manic episodes experience hyper-creativity. Is the manic kind of creativity different from the kind of creativity referenced in this study? Or perhaps this reversal of mental states conducive to creative thought is simply a symptom of the disorder?

By Erika Jost (not verified) on 16 Feb 2009 #permalink

Just as sunlight can be refracted into its component colors so one's enlightened mind can be broken into 5 aspects of creativity that are associated with 5 colors: white, blue, yellow, red and green and the so-called 5 buddha families of Tibetan Buddhism. These 5 aspects of mind manifest as neurotic styles but can be transformed into their enlightened aspects through freeing up the energy of 5 associated negative emotions. Meditation is the primary tool used to do this. To isolate the perception according to a specific family appropriately colored glasses are worn or people assume special postures in rooms painted in the 5 colors.
This approach was first developed at Naropa University in Boulder Colorado by its founder, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, as a way to work with mental illness and is now taught at Naropa as a way to train therapists to experience and work with neurotic states of mind. It is called Maitri Space Awareness. It is also taught as a weekend program for artists at his meditation centers.

This study reminds my of my high school science project:
"The effect of angstrom units on the feeding habits of gold fish".

Red light produced more eating in the alloted time in the gold fish
than did the blue light. So eat in blue rooms, not read rooms!
Don't even ask how I measured the eaten and non-eaten food.

I have always believed color influenced the brain and memory. I remember
people by color rather than by names. Not always an efficient tool.
Color may also have something to do with the context of memory, like
how it is easier to remember information if we remember where
we were, the place in which something can be remembered.

synestesia (sic) is an interesting color phenom...

By greg sargent (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

PS: in terms of the Maitri Space Awareness practices mentioned above, blue has a pacifying effect and red, a magnetizing.

Very true, colors reflects our feelings and its always linked to the colors we see in nature

blue for the sea and always vacation, relaxations is linked to it. and if you are relaxed i believe you think clearer and make better choices.

By nehad tadros (not verified) on 21 Feb 2009 #permalink

Colors can also change your mood and states of mind. Different shades and tones will evoke special unconscious and conscious psychopysiological reactions, positive or negative emotions, subjectively and sensitively affecting your mind-set from moment to moment. Mornings, afternoons always depending on your meaningful past emotional experiences. How interesting and colorful topic.

By Patti Pizzi (not verified) on 22 Feb 2009 #permalink

From an artist's point of view blue is the color of the sky, the biggest most perfect blank canvas.

Louise Moore

By Louise Moore (not verified) on 23 Feb 2009 #permalink

Relaxation and creativity,

brings to mind the 1910 lecture of the mathematician Henri Poincare' to the French psychological society (which is quoted in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Manitanence") His method was to cram the brain full of fact and existing knowledge, then go on a fortnight's hiking trip and voila! the answer to his questions appeared as he was boarding the bus for home.

By David Kerlick (not verified) on 26 Feb 2009 #permalink

Red for facts, blue for conceptual integration? Hmmm... How will this affect college student test performance on factual and conceptual questions? Average scores on exams should rise if I use red backgrounds for facts and blue backgrounds for conceptual syntheses in my powerpoint lectures. That's my hypothesis and I'm gonna test it....

By Neanderthal Man (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

Very interesting topic.
I am "in-thesis" with something very similar.
The collective unconscious association of color and sound.
It would help me out if you would take my online survey.
Only 4 questions and NO WRITING. Just click the answer you think is appropriate.
Go here:

By James Bell (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

This study is at variance with earlier ones where it was pretty clearly determined that a red room is more conducive to creativity/brainstorming, following the comment about it encouraging a slightly hyper state.

How do you account for the change? It worries me that, like so many other "facts", a change in some variable has rendered the earlier one untrue.