Colour - Why Does It Affect Us?

Guest article by Stephen Russell-Lacy

People vary as to their awareness of colour around them. When my wife and I moved house, she surprised me by stating she couldn't sit in our lounge because of its green furniture and purple coloured walls. I'm probably a bit unusual but, beyond my initial impression, I hadn't really noticed. However, I must admit, after the walls had been repainted cream, I appreciated the improvement. As interior designers know, different colour schemes have their effect on people. The field of colour psychology attempts to identify the effects of colour on human emotion and activity. So why does colour affect us the way it does?

Colour association

Warm colours are made with orange, red, yellow and combinations of them all. Used in interior design or fashion, a warm colour is said to arouse or stimulate the feelings of the viewer. A cool colour such as blue, green and light purple is thought to have the ability to calm and soothe.

Modern surveys in the United States and Europe show red is the colour most commonly associated with strong feeling.

To "see red" is to be angry or aggressive. To "have red ears / a red face" is to be embarrassed. To "paint the town red" is to enjoy the feeling of pleasure, usually with a generous amount of eating, drinking, dancing. To show "a red rag to a bull" is to cause someone to be enraged.

Esotericism and colour

According to science, the pure colours gained from the light spectrum form a continuous range of hue. The number of colours that the human eye is able to distinguish in a spectrum is in the order of 100. The apparent discreteness of a few main colours is due to human perception. This subjective human experience of discrete colours suggests there is a deeper process at work than mere physics.

Some would argue that the significance of colour is part of a higher degree of reality. This esoteric view is expressed by the well known maxim 'As above, so below' which derives from the following ancient text:

"That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing." (Hermes Trismegistus, pagan prophet)

One way of thinking about above and below is to consider the higher and low mind - the higher principles of life and the base emotions. Many people are open to a spiritual dimension to existence and are awake to phenomena that go beyond what the body notices. They perceive and respond to the enlightening experiences of the higher mind. However the worldly-minded materialist will only see life in terms of the physical and natural side of life.

Although many have an intuition that a colour they see relates in some way to something of spirit, they do not consciously understand what it represents. To learn about this it helps to consider more about the higher and lower mind.

Colour and planes of mind

Natural emotions of the lower mind it is argued arise from an independent sense of selfhood - a self-orientated attitude to life in which the person is prone to emotions of embarrassment, fear and anger. In contrast, spiritual feelings may arise from an awareness of a one higher divine reality - emotions for example of joy, guilt, and trust.

In line with this point of view, how a specific colour affects us will depend on what part of our mind is engaged at the time. I have already pointed out that the colour red for example appears to be associated with strong feeling. But the passions of the lower mind are different from those of the higher mind. It is thought that the former come from self-orientated feelings e.g. self-consciousness, conceit, greed etc: the latter are ethical feelings of care and concern for others and the community. The former can be seen as natural whereas the latter as spiritual.

Colour and correspondence

Emanuel Swedenborg, 18th century spiritual philosopher, writes that there is a correspondence between things on different levels of reality. When he noticed something like a colour, he was alive to what deeper qualities this might universally mirror and reflect. He would say there is a consistent way in which each colour has an inner significance. For him the effect of different colours derive from their correspondence with aspects of the one divine source of Love and Wisdom.

He emphasises the two colours of red and white as the pure representation of the good of love and the truth of wisdom. So if there is some love and light shown in our actions i.e. when we are not just self-orientated, some variation of the colours red and white can be relevant.

Because of this Swedenborg says that colour can be of significance in the world around us and in sacred writing.

The colour white

colourThere is more than a hint of this when one looks at the way culture deals with white. According to surveys in Europe and the United States, white is the colour most often associated with innocence, perfection, purity, honesty, and cleanliness i.e. qualities to do with what is true, e.g. to whitewash something is to conceal an unpleasant reality and a white lie is an innocent lie told out of politeness.

Black is the opposite of white. If white corresponds to what is perfect and true so black would signify what is imperfect and false. In western popular culture, black has long been associated with evil and darkness. A blacklist is a list of undesirable people or entities; the black sheep of the family is the ne'er-do-well and black propaganda is the use of known falsehoods, or partial truths to confuse an opponent.

Colour in the spiritual world

Swedenborg also says that the colours seen by people who are conscious in the after life of spirit depend on their inner state of mind and character. The sphere of an individual is due to what good of love and truth of wisdom are reflected in that person's character - their degree of virtue. He reports that in the spiritual world this determines the colours seen as an aura around a person where inner states of heart and mind are represented visually. Colour is something simple and yet profound.

As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialised in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.

His eBook Heart, Head and Hands draws links between the psycho-spiritual teachings of the eighteenth century spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and current ideas in therapy and psychology.