Colour has always fascinated mankind, but new knowledge in neuroscience and cognitive psychology is now providing more insight into its effects. Further studies are nevertheless needed to understand fully our visual system and our relationship to colour. Colours are electromagnetic waves with light being captured by the eyes using waves of different lengths produced by particles that are reflected off the objects we see. The visible spectrum for humans, which is only a small part of the whole electromagnetic range, extends only from 380 to 780 nanometres, which correspond to dark purple and dark red respectively. When the photons of light from an image are emitted, they reach the lens of the eye and focus on the retina. The retina contains four classes of photoreceptors: three classes of cones and one class of rods. The cones allow us to see details during the day and are responsible for sensitivity to contrast, colour and fine detail, but do not effectively perceive the more general components. Each of the three classes is sensitive to a specific component of the dark violet, green or dark red colour spectrum. Rods are more numerous than cones and are not very effective in daylight or in normal indoor light. Furthermore, rods do not contain any colour information and therefore do not contribute, for example, to our perception of art. Humans perceive colours with specific emotional characteristics and our subsequent reaction to them can vary with our mood. Studies are under way on this subject.
When we look at a colour, we experience emotions and sensations. Our perception is the result of reconstruction and allows us to read the space and shapes around us. This ambiguity may explain why a single colour can elicit different reactions in different people or even in the same person at different times. Specifically, the visual sensory stimulus received is immediately processed by the amygdala, located deep in the temporal lobe of the brain, which moderates emotional states, and this in turn produces an unconscious response. The brain areas of vision and other senses are connected to the amygdala, which encodes and coordinates the response of neural circuits to these emotional stimuli, integrating them also with previous individual experiences. If these stimuli are new, it learns them. In this way, the individual emotional meaning generated by this visual sense influences our emotions and consequently other aspects of consciousness, such as perception, thinking and decision-making. The prefrontal cortex is fundamental to the inhibition of the amygdala and the integration of emotional, cognitive and social information, and has some capacity to limit impulsive choices. The hippocampus is important for explicit or conscious memory of emotional events. It is also involved in retrieving newly formed information, as opposed to the amygdala which is useful for unconscious emotional memory. In particular, Eric Kandel defines the sensation; in this case, this may be understood as analogous to the concept of emotions. Antonio Damasio defines it as actions triggered by an external and largely automatic stimulus acquired in the course of evolution and involving actions performed by the body – such as facial expressions – as a consequence of the sensory stimulus. In the case of vision, it is the photoreceptors in our eyes that are stimulated. They can directly influence our behaviour. Perception is instead the next step that integrates the information our brain receives from the outside world with knowledge based on learning from previous experiences and hypothesis testing, and this becomes coherent when the brain attributes value, meaning and usefulness to it.
For Antonio Damasio the feeling is conscious: it is a neural state that occurs in the wake of an emotion. Even primordial feelings, considered as images of a person’s internal state, are based in the brain stem and play an integral part in regulating our lives. They are common to both emotions and what we call bodily feelings, consisting of images of other aspects of the organism combined with those of the internal state, and to feelings of emotion, considered as complex variations of bodily feelings caused by a specific object. Concerning this aspect, the main area seems to be the insula, which evaluates and integrates the emotional and motivational significance of these stimuli and also acts as a coordinator between external sensory information and internal motivational states. While there are many parameters that greatly relativise the objective effects of colour on an individual, studies do nevertheless show conclusive statistical results.
Our perception is the result of a reconstruction allowing us to read the space and shapes around us. If colour is related to wavelengths, this implies that light comes before colour. Luminosity is the origin of our vision of colour and therefore the same object, depending on the time of day or the season in which we see it, may present different colours. However, if we see the same object, we can still recognise it and our brain associates it with the colour we are used to seeing. This ability of colour to persist is essential for an object: it is a mental reconstruction called colour permanence. If this property did not exist, we would not distinguish the different elements; colour does not belong to a reality of the world but is a reconstruction. Our ‘precariousness’ in seeing elements produces elaborations that change from one individual to another. We must also bear in mind the fundamental principle of our brain’s functioning, which takes in information from the outside world and then has this completed by the person seeing. This incompleteness produces different interpretations that change from one individual to another. Thus light is effective on an individual and produces powerful chemical effects. The light is immersive as the observer reduces his or her iris to adapt to the light flow. In front of a luminous work of art, the observer is an actor of what he sees, facilitating its projection. We can imagine that glass, for example, facilitates the warming up of the viewer’s senses and his appropriation, insofar as it creates light reflections and a mirror effect.
Colour produces effects that influence our energies. Colour has a powerful effect on humans, producing effects that influence our wellbeing. Decades of research have led to a better understanding of its effects. Studies are being developed which aim to encourage consumers to buy by influencing their choice of colours. It is known that the choice of specific colours for the walls of a shop has a specific purpose. Red is a strong, optimistic and invigorating colour. Statistics show how much this colour influences our behaviour. A sportsman wearing a red jersey is more likely to win than another. Red is associated with winning and power. Red is the colour of decision-makers and induces a feeling of good energy. This colour contributes to feeling in a good mood. Red is recommended for meeting rooms, festive places, reception rooms, cinemas, theatres and concert halls. The show will be better appreciated if the environment is red. Also, when a man sees a woman dressed in red, his heart rate increases and she will be more successful than another woman. For example, red generates warmth and attracts, so it is often used in shop windows. Pink is an optimistic and soft colour. This colour will make you feel good. The softness of the colour is calming; it brings peace. Successful experiments have been implemented as a result of painting prisons pink: the experience is proving positive in calming inmates. Pink is also recommended for schools. Green helps re-order the mind: it allows us to concentrate and to find ourselves. This colour brings us back to nature, to our natural environment. It promotes calmness and organisation. This colour is suitable for libraries.
In the interior walls of shops, blue may be preferred, as this is a colour that relaxes and encourages customers to choose calmly. Blue clears the airways and purifies. It encourages our imagination. It is the colour of creativity. Experiments with children show that blue promotes creativity. It is used for brainstorming sessions in companies. Yellow, on the other hand, stimulates the digestive system. It is a sunny, positive and optimistic colour that tends also to make us feel good.
Memory and the recollection process in visual perception
It is important to bear in mind the ways in which the memory process develops, taking into consideration first of all the notion of memory, which is no longer seen as a static store of information over time from which it is possible to retrieve information in an unchanged way, but which, on the contrary, is now seen as a dynamic and reconstructive object on which depends our capacity to recall and transmit to others the content of memories. The memory device uses two processes: that of learning and that of memorising. Both procedures have phases of encoding, consolidation, storage and retrieval. Specifically, when an external stimulus selected by our attention arrives, it passes through our short-term memory, or, as Alan Baddeley calls it, our working memory, or ML, which temporarily stores information while simultaneously processing it to perform mental tasks. The working memory is articulated through a phonological circuit or articulatory loop which is used for the processing and maintenance of verbal and acoustic information, a visual-spatial notebook which is more responsible for the processing and maintenance of visual and spatial information, and a central executive system which coordinates the activity of the previous two systems, interacting also with the rest of the working memory. At this stage, the information is compared with the long-term memory before providing a definitive response. Long-term memory, depending on the knowledge to which it must refer, can be explicit or declarative when accessing information consciously; this in turn breaks down into episodic memory (personal experiences) and semantic memory (a repertoire of general knowledge stored on the basis of its meaning and the input of knowledge that the individual enters as a result of his or her experiences). On the other hand, non-declarative or implicit memory (where access to knowledge is not conscious) is in turn divided into procedural memory (unconscious ability to do something), conditioning memory and priming memory. It is possible to say that higher brain regions can influence lower ones and this allows us to explain easily how something new we have just seen in an image can remind us of something else seen previously, in an effect of so-called family memory. Memory is essential for perceptual and emotional response, especially in the case of short-term memory, and visual information is perceived by the inferior temporal cortex which is analysed and then transmitted to the prefrontal cortex which codes the behavioural response. Long-term memory, on the other hand, requires the involvement of the temporal lobe, the hippocampus in explicit memory, and the amygdala and striatum (which is involved in reward and expectation) in implicit memory.
Colour and smell
Colours can also create smells that are reconstructed by humans. An experiment to this end was carried out using washing powder. Red, then blue and then yellow were added to a white detergent. The many housewives who tested the products all came to the same conclusion: the red detergent worked very well, but it was too strong because it attacked the laundry. The yellow detergent did not clean so well and the blue detergent was perfect but above all it smelled good, unlike the others. Of course, it was the same detergent in every case.
Colour and sound
Studies have been undertaken in synaesthetic areas where, for example, colour is combined with music to help persuade the consumer to buy. There is also research that shows how our perception of a food or the smell of a food is partly influenced by the way it is illuminated and therefore by the colour it reveals when presented at table. Even the colour of the dish in which the food is served and the ambient lighting can create different impressions, with the food appearing more or less attractive or abundant as a result. For humans the colour of objects is essential in terms of marketing and advertising strategies. Indeed, using other terms to express this notion, according to Jean-Marie Floch, when we stand before an object, we perform semantic operations and in particular valorisation, which is to say we construct values that we individually attribute to this object. The term valorisation identifies the operation of that part of the world we want to analyse and which is obtained through appropriate semantic mediations that combine a certain object with our experience of the world.
Research conducted by the Institute for Color Research in collaboration with the University of Winnipeg has shown that consumers require only 90 seconds to make a judgment about a product with reference to its value and reliability. This colour accounts for 62-90% of this result. Therefore, various theories and research show that colour is able significantly to influence attitudes and perceptions of a brand.