The Vibrant Connection: Can color influence your curiosity mood?
Stefaan van Hooydonk and Soren Meibom
Color is a collaboration of the mind and the world"
— Paul Cezanne
Curiosity is often thought of as an inborn and deep-rooted character trait. That is not the case - it's a complex psychological and behavioral trait that can be enhanced or suppressed by environmental stimuli or the lack thereof. Our visual system is an important source of such stimulus. From when we open our eyes in the morning till we close them at night, what we see is an essential part of how we experience the world. Our eyes see millions of different hues, saturations, and intensities, and this vision of colors plays a critical role in our ability to navigate and interpret the spaces in which we live and work, and is central to how we think, feel, and act.
Nature is the ultimate color experience. In our natural environment — away from the concrete, metal, and glass of our inner cities — a wide and diverse range of colors are slowly and constantly changing with the seasons, the weather, and the time of day. Out there, we are experiencing the millions of different wavelengths of light that are being reflected from the soil, trees, mountains, the clouds in the sky and everything in between. The positive effect of nature on well-being, curiosity, creativity, and problem-solving have been demonstrated in numerous research studies1,2, and we have all felt how the changing brightness and intensity of nature’s many colors can affect our energy, mood, and cognitive abilities.
However, most of us no longer spend our days walking the fields and the forest. Instead we spend most of our time indoors in spaces lit by artificial lighting with fewer colors than sunlight, reflecting off of monochromatic and unchanging walls, floors, and ceilings. But how much does it matter? What effects does a limited and fixed color palette have on our thoughts, emotions, and actions — on our curiosity and our creativity? Can integrating complex, thought-provoking, and colorful visual art into such spaces bring them closer to nature by increasing the number and range of the colors we see?
Can such exposure to colorful art help activate sensory pathways in our brains and stimulate cognitive processes that will foster inspiration, imagination, curiosity, and creativity?
Research on how colors affect us
Recent research at the National Eye Institute using magnetoencephalography suggest that seeing different colors does indeed result in unique patterns of brain activity3. So despite the rainbow being a continuous gradient of hues, our brain naturally divides it into categories (colors). The research also shows that our brain’s activity varies more between light and dark warm hues than for light and dark cool hues. A finding that may explain why in a variety of languages and cultures, humans have more distinct names for warm colors (yellows, reds, oranges, browns) than for cool colors (blues, greens).
Other research on how specific (primary) colors affect us is also revealing fascinating results. For instance, researchers have discovered that we taste food not only with our mouths, but also with our eyes4,5. When people are asked to sample odorless and flavorless jelly beans, they consistently perceive red ones as sweeter (strawberry), yellow ones as more sour (lemon), green ones as tangier (green apples), and blue jellies as somewhat peculiar (associating the color blue with spoiled food). Even though these jelly beans lack odor and flavor, our minds trick us into perceiving differences based on the colors we see. Another fascinating study has unveiled how our learned color associations affect our expectations and sensations6. Participants were asked to place their hands on red and blue surfaces who’s temperatures were slowly increased, and to signal when the respective surfaces felt warm. The result: the temperature of the red surface had to be higher than the blue before it registered as warm. The explanation: we have learned that red means hot and blue means cold, and so we anticipate the red surface to be warmer than the blue. It therefore takes a higher temperature to make us register the warmth in the red surface.
More broadly, the field of cognitive neuroscience has also revealed interesting correlations between colors and our mental and physical abilities. For example, studies have shown that people exposed to the color green before brainstorming, generate higher-quality ideas compared to those not exposed to this color, suggesting that green fosters greater creativity and problem-solving. Green has also been found to helps us to better focus our attention and has environmental benefits, reducing mental fatigue and anxiety. Some scholars argue that because we have evolved to associate green with fertility, life, renewal, and growth, perhaps green is intrinsically inviting and motivates us to tackle challenges, broaden our thinking, and reduce mental constraints and stress. Similar to green, hues of blue can encourage open-minded thinking and enhance the perception of abstract concepts. It is also associated with creating a welcoming environment (often used in airline cabins) and to foster a pleasant ambiance. Interestingly, blues and greens have been found to measurably increase cognitive alertness and improve performance on tasks requiring creativity. Shades of yellow can also stimulate thinking, boosting problem-solving and cognitive performance, and tests presented on yellow-colored paper tend to yield higher scores for students. The color red is special and different. It is the first primary color human babies can discern, and the first color (after black and white) to be named in most cultures and languages. This is likely because red signals risk and tells us at a deep biological level to be alert. While red has been shown to boost performance in simple tasks and competitive contests, it seems less able to aid complex thinking or foster a curiosity-promoting environment.
While the findings outlined above are intriguing and establish that colors do affect our thoughts, emotions, and actions, how we are affected by colors in a given situation, and on any given day, is more complex. A color can mean different things to different parts of our brain, and our brain's response to color can be both innate and instinctual, or socially conditioned and influenced by our upbringing and culture.
The Colorful Psychology of Curiosity
Curiosity is more than what William James, the father of modern psychology, described as "the impulse to better cognition." While the desire to know is a fundamental aspect of understanding curiosity, it involves more than just intellectual interest. Curiosity extends to our interest in the world (intellectual curiosity), our interest in others (empathic curiosity), and even our curiosity about our inner selves (intrapersonal curiosity). If you'd like to assess your own curiosity score, you can do so at www.globalcuriosityinstitute/assessment.
The brain's cognitive processes, including perception and interpretation of visual information, are fundamental to the experience of curiosity. Complex and colorful visual stimuli, such as visual art, can play an important role in feeding and nurturing the different flavors of curiosity. If what we see is novel, interesting, unexpected or unfamiliar, it will grab our awareness, prompt us to pay attention, and lead us subconsciously or consciously down a path of wonder and discovery. We begin to think deeper and wider, and ask questions of the world, ourselves and others. This desire to explore and understand is associated with our brain’s reward system, evoking positive emotions and reinforcing our curiosity.
Art vividly illustrates the significance of color and its ability to capture our attention, convey meaning, and stimulate our curiosity. Colors in art can be intentionally applied to evoke curiosity and contemplation. A visit to an art museum or the movies makes it abundantly clear how colors can be used to create feelings from doom and gloom to happiness and bliss, and from chaotic uncertainty to ordered calmness. Old master painters portrayed colors as they observed them in reality, but with the advent of photography 200 years ago, painting no longer had to strictly replicate. Modern artists operate under a different paradigm, and a painting has become, first and foremost, a work of art where exploring color, seeking contrasts, gradations, and harmonies, can be the primary objective. Some such color-centric art can evoke intense emotions in viewers, as seen with e.g. Rothko’s multiform and Klein’s monochrome paintings. One might wonder whether modern art is particularly curiosity inducing. It certainly is. Modern art often features elements of abnormality, whether in shape, color, or proportions. Witnessing such abnormalities generates surprise and conflict/contrast with reality, which, in turn, heightens our curiosity.
So yes, we can bring some of the colorful benefits of nature into our indoor spaces. Colorful visual art not only makes our spaces more aesthetically pleasing and welcoming, it supplies a wider and more nuanced range of color into our environment that will result in benefits to our cognitive abilities and mental well-being. Furthermore, colorful and thought-provoking art can be a source of inspiration, sparking our imagination, and encouraging us to think creatively and consider new perspectives. It can not only create a more dynamic and inspiring atmosphere for us individually, but it also offers shared experiences and invites open-mindedness and a greater sense of collective curiosity and willingness to explore new ideas together. Modern art can be particularly intriguing and open to interpretation, encouraging us to explore and discuss our interpretations. Exposure to diverse visual art can thus broaden our horizons, help us think more outside the box, encouraging us to embrace different viewpoints and approaches to problem-solving. Importantly, art can also serve as a break from our routines, and a mental escape that can refresh our minds, and in turn lead to a more free and flexible mindset.
In conclusion, color isn't merely a visual element; it's a dynamic force that influences our emotional and cognitive experiences. Nature provide us with the ultimate color experience that improve our well-being and boost our imagination, curiosity, and creativity. By introducing colorful complexity into our indoor spaces, we can get closer to nature in terms of visual stimuli and harness the power of color to ignite and nurture curiosity in its various forms. Understanding this vibrant connection between color and curiosity can serve as a valuable tool to prime people for heightened curiosity, leading to deeper learning, improved problem-solving, and enhanced creativity.
About the authors:
Stefaan van Hooydonk is the founder of the Global Curiosity Institute and author of the bestselling book: The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto.
Soren Meibom is a Boston based SciArt artist, an astrophysicist (Ph.D.), and artist-in-residence at the Global Curiosity Institute.
Hartig, T., Evans, G. W., Jamner, L. D., Davis, D. S., & Gärling, T. (2003). Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23(2), 109-123.
Atchley, R. A., Strayer, D. L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PLoS ONE, 7(12), e51474.
Rosenthal IA, Singh SR, Hermann KL, Pantazis D, and Conway BR. “Color space geometry uncovered with magnetoencephalography.” Published online Nov 16, 2020. Current Biology.
Preconceptions of Taste Based on Colors Christopher Koch and Eric Koch The Journal of Psychology, May 2003, Vol. 137, No. 3, pp. 233–242
Colour and its Role in Sweetness Perception Christopher Strugnell Appetite, 1997, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 85