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Coloring Our World

How Key Hues Can Help and Heal

by Judith Fertig

From relaxing in a hot tub amidst sparkling blue lights to sleeping soundly surrounded by soft-green walls, we continuously experience the subtle influence of colors in our surroundings.

Colorful rollersWhile humans have long appreciated nature’s chromatic displays, it wasn’t until 1666 that Sir Isaac Newton proved that white light from the sun refracted through a prism separates into the individual bandwidths we perceive as hues. A growing body of research by physicians, environmentalists, psychologists and alternative medicine specialists is now exploring how color—as light and pigment—can affect people physically, mentally and emotionally.

According to Pakistani research physicists Samina T. Yousuf Azeemi and S. Mohsin Raza, working from the University of Balochistan, “Colors generate electrical impulses and magnetic currents or fields of energy that are prime activators of the biochemical and hormonal processes in the human body.” Different colors cause different reactions, from stimulating cells to suppressing the production of melatonin.

Published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, Azeemi and Raza’s photobiology research, applied as chromotherapy, supports premises of ancient Chinese, Egyptian and ayurvedic healing traditions in which color is intrinsic to healing: for example, red increases circulation; yellow stimulates nerves; orange increases energy; and blue and green soothe everything from skin irritations to anxiety.

Blue light can reset our biological clocks. Science writer David C. Holzman, of Lexington, Massachusetts, reported in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2010 that what the human eye perceives as blue light is really bright white light produced by electricity. Although electric light attempts to mimic natural sunlight, the body does not sense it that way.  Instead, bright artificial light disrupts our natural sleep cycles by suppressing the production of melatonin. (People that engage in night-shift work are prone to this.) The irony, remarked Holzman, is that applications of blue light are now used to cure some of the very things it causes—sleeplessness and depression.

Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions. ~ Pablo Picasso

Sonya Nutter, a Kansas City mother of three elementary schoolchildren, can attest to the soothing effect of blue light when soaking in her Kohler chromotherapy tub in the dark: “It’s even better than lavender scent for calming,” she says.

“Color clearly has aesthetic value, but it can also carry specific meaning and information,” says Andrew J. Elliot, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, in New York. He and a team of researchers concluded that, “Seeing red is not good before [taking] a test measuring performance” (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General). In contrast, they found that seeing green enhances creative performance.

Photodynamic therapy, a recently developed, non-invasive cancer treatment, involves injections of a light-sensitive solution, followed by shining laser-emitted blue light on internal tumors or light-emitting diodes (LED) on surface tumors. A National Cancer Institute fact sheet explains how such light kills cancer cells and shrinks tumors.

Based on the success of NASA experiments and research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, red LED lights are also helping cancer patients deal with sore mouths associated with chemotherapy and radiation used for bone marrow and stem cell transplants. Treating diabetic ulcers is another application, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Endocrinology, Metabolism, and Diabetes of South Africa. Red light sessions at many medical spas help rejuvenate aging skin by stimulating collagen production.

Color as pigment can convey subtle cues to influence our perceptions, attitudes and behavior. In a study conducted at England’s Oxford University and Spain’s Polytechnic University of Valencia, for example, participants believed that hot chocolate tasted better in orange mugs than any other color, with white scoring lowest. “Color associations are so strong and embedded so deeply that people are predisposed to certain reactions” when they see a color, explains Elliot, a learned association that is often culturally based.

Because color can engender individual emotional response, it plays a major role in one’s preferences in surroundings, including wall colors, furnishings and appliances. Pantone, a leading provider of color systems to businesses worldwide, annually recommends a specific color that it feels best connects with the current zeitgeist, or prevailing spirit and mood, so that manufacturers of paints, kitchenware and fabric will produce the look people will want to have around them.

In 2011 Pantone picked a vibrant pink. Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, explained that “In times of stress, we need something to lift our spirits, a captivating, stimulating color that gets the adrenaline going.” Now sensing greater optimism, their 2013 color choice is a vivid emerald, described as “lively, radiant and lush… a color of elegance and beauty that enhances our sense of well-being, balance and harmony.”

 

Judith Fertig blogs at AlfrescoFoodAndLifestyle.blogspot.com.

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