Positive psychology and colour

Is the sky blue?  If it is, do you see the same blue that I do?  Can my cat see blue or does he select from a range of options for how to perceive the world depending on his needs, like mouse hunting mode, infra-red mode, spooky mode?

Philosophers have discussed these sorts of issues for millennia.  Over the last few decades there has been a growing body of research suggesting that how we interpret what we see is subjective and contextual, with many influencing factors such as social context we’re faced with, and our prior learning and habits.  For example there are a number of languages in Africa and in Europe (such as old Welsh) that have only a small handful of words differentiating colours.  One African tribe had just five words to describe colours and used these words to group colours in ways which Western eyes could not comprehend.  The tribe lived on the red dusty savannah and had developed a unique and useful way of perceiving their environment in order to extract the maximum nutritional value and beauty from their environment.  Their language developed as their perception developed and may have helped shape how they experience the world. When faced with a range of similar colours and asked to choose the odd one out, Westerners typically found it easy to pick the odd one out whereas tribe members struggled.  Tribe members however, were able to pick out different shades of the same colour which were imperceptible to the Western eye.

Recent research suggests that in addition to the construction of language and social preferences, our emotional state also has an influence on colour perception.  People feeling more in control of their lives, confident and upbeat about the future can perceive a greater range of colours with a greater degree of accuracy compared to people feeling they have little control over their lives and the future.  They are also better at identifying solutions or opportunities when faced with complex problems or decisions.  Positive Psychology suggests that we can use these influences to alter not only our perceptions of the physical world such as colour perception, but the construction of our mental world – attitudes, biases and ways of representing information.  When we experience a healthy balance of positive to negative emotions we are able to process information in a more accurate manner than people who have a lower ratio of positive to negative emotions.

Far from the Dr Pangloss school of rose-coloured spectacles and naive optimism, positive emotions help us observe the world in a more accurate balanced way. With more joy and laughter we are able to face life’s ups and downs with tenacity and optimism.  It’s a relatively new area of research, and creates useful data to explore questions that reach beyond the scope of its origins in cognitive psychology, such as positive psychology (as joy evaporates does colour and vibrancy leave our lives? Does joy return when we are surrounded by colour?), developmental neuroscience (how and when does the brain change in response to changing habits or new social contexts?), decision science/economics (imagine going shopping on a Saturday morning without the mood-influencing music!), sociology/education (what social outcomes might be influenced by the level of negative v. positive news stories?).

On a day to day basis life can seem tough but the world is full of new opportunities and beauty.  Most of us in the West have opportunities to educate ourselves, have sex with who we want, vote for who we want, protest when we want, eat what we want and travel where we want. Most of us will cram our lives with amazing things and live into our 80’s .  And when we have gone the world will still be a beautiful vibrant place full of colour and light.

Applied Positive Psychology is a useful field because it has developed many interventions designed to improve the ratio of positive to negative emotions. These cognitive games help us to reflect on the good stuff in our lives.  This helps us remain aware of the bigger picture and not to get bogged down in the daily dramas of life.

Our last blog was about Maori proverbs.  One of these that is still my favourite speaks of the wonder of life and how reflecting on this wonder helps us feel full of life, energised, in the moment and ready for a great adventure.

Whakataka te hau ki te uru

Whakataka te hau ki te tonga

Kia mākinakina i uta

Kia mātaratara i tai

Kia hī ake ana te atakura

He tio, he huka, he hauhunga

Tīhei mauri ora!

Let the cold winds from the west and from the south, that assail the lands and the seas, desist.

Let the red tipped dawn come

with a touch of frost, a sharpened air, the promise of a glorious day.

Behold we are alive!

Link to the Horizon programme:


Posted on September 6, 2011, in Coaching, Meditation etc. and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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