Why Do We See in Color? From the Little Black Dress to Orange Shoe Laces

Why do we see in color?  “For a hundred years, we’ve thought that color vision was for finding the right fruit to eat when it was ripe,” says Mark Changizi, a theoretical neurobiologist and postdoctoral researcher at Caltech.

But now we know the truth, according to a 2006 Caltech study – your eyes evolved to see rosy cheeks. The eyes in humans and their closest relatives in the primate world are geared to detect subtle changes in skin tone caused by blood oxygen levels, according to that study.

So we know when the other person might be ready to be seriously romantic because they would be blushing!

But even if that fundamental reason is why most of us see in color, there are many other subtle and  not so subtle effects of hue and shade in our daily lives.

A couple of fellow authors and I were discussing the home renovation project one friend was undertaking and when he mentioned he was redoing his writing room in chartreuse, most of us reflexively said something like, “Wow, I’d never do that, it’s too bright! How do you concentrate?” (Chartreuse, by the way, is halfway between bright yellow and bright green and is named for its resemblance to the color of a French liqueur called green chartreuse introduced in 1764.) But when he shared photos with us and we saw how he’d decorated and accented the area, it did make sense as a writing spot for him, since he loves really bright colors.

That incident left me thinking about the topic of colors and the next day I kind of fell over an unusual article containing advice about using color in your daily life. (More on that in a minute.)  Everyone knows the standard wisdom about color – bright ones makes you happy; lift the spirits…darker shades can bring you down…black is slimming…. Apparently the science is based on the way the eye and brain process the different wavelengths of colors, as well as associations you made with certain colors as a kid.

Following a link in the article, I took a personality assessment test based just on colors today, which was fun. The website has a lot of scientific backup and of course ultimately they wanted to sell me stuff BUT the assessment was free. The program showed me 20 pretty little blocks of different colors including white and black and had me pick my favorite until all had been eliminated. Here was the top level result:

Best Occupational Category: You’re a CREATOR


Nonconforming, Impulsive, Expressive, Romantic, Intuitive, Sensitive, and Emotional

These original types place a high value on self-expression. They enjoy working independently, being creative, using their imagination, and constantly learning something new. Areas of interest are far beyond the expected fields of art, drama, music, and writing. There are many occupations that allow creators to express, assemble, or implement ideas and maximize resources.

WOW! That is definitely so me!

My mother always said I was a gypsy because I love lots of colors and patterns (her closet was full of navy blue and white – boring to me!). My favorite colors to this day are purple and turquoise.

According to the article I was reading in the February Cosmopolitan, purple means I want to laugh, be carefree and goof off. Not sure I agree. I just find it peaceful to look at.  According to Cosmo, if you want to be focused when giving a presentation, wear red nail polish because red has the longest wavelength in the spectrum so people have to stare at it longer to process it, so you will have their attention longer. (And of course there’s the classic advice to wear red when you’re presenting, to project authority.)

Write your thoughts with blue ink, because when you look at the color blue your imagination goes into high gear, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia. Motivate yourself with orange laces in your running shoes – orange stimulates.

The Cosmo article had nothing to say about chartreuse, sadly. But if you want to be “totally desired,” according to them, wear a little black dress! Who didn’t know that????

And then watch for the rosy cheeks, I guess…

What’s your favorite color and why?

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