Neuroscience Of Color: Brain don’t like yellow

Posted on October 6, 2014

Neuroscientist Bevil Conway thinks about color for a living. An artist since youth, Conway now spends much of his time studying vision and perception at Wellesley College and Harvard Medical School. His science remains strongly linked to art–in 2004 he and Margaret Livingstone famously reported that Rembrandt may have suffered from flawed vision–and in recent years Conway has focused his research almost entirely on the neural machinery behind color.

Conway’s research into the brain’s color systems has clear value for designers and artists like himself. But the neuroscience of color carries larger implications for the rest of us. In fact, Conway thinks his insights into color processing may ultimately shed light on some fundamental questions about human cognition. 

Step back for a moment to one of Conway’s biggest findings, which came while examining how monkeys process color. Using a brain scanner, he and some collaborators found “globs” of specialized cells that detect distinct hues–suggesting that some areas of the primate brain are encoded for color. Interestingly, not all colors are given equal glob treatment. The largest neuron cluster was tuned to red, followed by green then blue; a small cell collection also cared about yellow.



Knowing that humans might also be hardwired for certain hues could be a gateway into understanding the neural properties of emotion. Since researchers know that certain colors provoke strong feelings in people–blues and purples are more pleasant than yellows, for instance, while greens tend to be the most arousing–they might then work backwards to uncover the basic mechanisms for these feelings. 

Conway believes scientists can learn a lot from examining the strategies artists use to clarify color. “The best access we have of what color is and what it does to us is by studying the work of people who have studied it obsessively. Matisse is one of those people,” he says. “I think it’s extremely valuable, and there’s been very limited work treating that corpus as the sort of scientific evidence that it will turn out to be.”


Artists and designers can also benefit from the lessons of color science. One example is the scientific recognition that we detect color and brightness in different areas of the brain. Giving different-colored objects equal brightness therefore creates a quality of motion–an effect most famously seen in the quivering sun from Monet’sImpression, Sunrise. Alternatively, varying luminance (but not necessarily color) can make an object appear three-dimensional.



“To the extent that anyone would find it informative to know how the nervous system works, and through that would gain an appreciation for these phenomena, I think artists and designers could benefit,” Conway says. “This provides them with another lens through which to consider what they’re doing when they make those kinds of choices.” And it provides the rest of us yet another reason to be glad we don’t live in a world of black and white.


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