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Expert comment: How Autumnal colours stimulate emotions and memory

Prof Galina Paramei Thursday 22 September 2016

As Britain welcomes the first day of Autumn, Professor of Psychology Dr Galina Paramei explains how the vibrant colours of the season can influence psychological wellbeing.

In Autumn, plants produce carotenoids (organic pigments) which are perceived as yellow, orange, gold and red hues, while anthocyanins delight our eyes with a rich gamut of vivid and deep reds – scarlet, claret, crimson, wine-red, and imperial purple. These colours make for a real visual feast and stimulate a whole host of associations and feelings.  

Colour and context become integrated at a very early stage of visual processing, without us even realising it. Studies have shown that we can recognise the meaning of a scene, or the "scene gist," within an astounding 80 milliseconds of us starting to look at it. When we view a scene full of colour, our visual cortex is activated at the back of the brain, as are the temporal areas, at the sides of the brain. These temporal areas are also the ‘seat’ of our memories, and it is where we hold emotional associations and conceptual information. 

When we look at a natural scene, such as the bright gold, crimson and wine-red leaves of Autumn, our perception of that scene is mediated by our emotional memory of colour. Thus, colour is an implicit affective cue, influencing our wellbeing, our mood, and our psychological functioning in a subtle, unconscious way.

Red is the flashiest of hues, and is extremely significant for humans. In nature, it is the colour of blood, of fire, of sun – the colour of life. It is the colour of ripe fruit. Vivid red – especially against a green background – allows ripe fruit to be detected from afar. This helps explain why a natural red colour has an appetitive meaning for us. It may even explain why, when we talk about autumnal fruits that have these same hues, that we can find ourselves referring to them in quite an indulgent way – as ‘sumptuous’, ‘opulent’ or ‘lavish’.

It is not surprising that among all colours, red is the most poignantly emotional and prominent tone. ‘The Psychology of Red’ has been studied a lot over the last decade. These studies have shown that red evokes more positive emotions and arousing responses than other colours. Apart from attracting attention, looking at the colour red improves our performance in detail-oriented tasks. Red is a colour of action: it stimulates us and is beneficial for us in achievement situations. It can be a great stimulus as the weather gets colder and the nights get longer.    

Natural orange, gold and yellow, all warm colours, in a great degree share with red its effects on human wellbeing and emotions, such as positive perception of a scene and cognitive performance. 

As a Russian, I cannot help but think about one of my favourite poems, “Autumn” by the great Alexander S. Pushkin. Pushkin's genius of expression conveys how we experience Autumn's darker days while enjoying its flashes of colour: “A melancholy time! So charming to the eye!/Your beauty in its parting pleases me – I love the lavish withering of nature,/The gold and scarlet raiment of the woods,/The crisp wind rustling o'er their threshold,/The sky engulfed by tides of rippled gloom,/The sun's scarce rays, approaching frosts,/And gray-haired winter threatening from afar.”

While we are exposed to all of these wonderful colours, decrease in light intensity and increase in cloud cover can also be an issue in Autumn. Less daylight can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the greater production of melatonin, the "hormone of darkness", that is contained in photosensitive cells in our retina and regulates our sleep-wake cycle. With shorter days the SAD sufferers secrete melatonin for longer periods than in summer. 

While we cannot say for definite that looking at stimulating colours such as red, gold, yellow and orange, can combat seasonal affective disorder, we should all try and make the most of the magnificent burst of colours that Autumn brings, and the way those colours can make us feel."

Dr Paramei's comments originally featured in Top Santé magazine.

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