How Colors Affect Brain Functioning
By Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D.

Key points

  • Colors can increase our visual memory and arousal level.
  • The effect of emotions on memory can sometimes depend on color.
  • We can use colors to brighten our winter days and make us feel better and healthier.

Color is an important stimulus for the brain because 80 percent of our sensory impressions come from our visual system. Some research suggests that the pituitary gland, which is responsible for body temperature, energy level, sleep pattern, metabolism, and sexuality, is sensitive to color stimulation (Gruson, L. 1982).

Colors are light waves of different lengths, and they affect us even when we have our eyes closed. Therefore, we should pay attention to the colors in our homes and workspaces.

Colors can do more than we think. They can affect not only your mood but also your energy level, sleep pattern, blood pressure, and even sexuality (Elliot, A. J, 2015; Elliot, A. J., and Niesta, D. 2008).

Colors can also increase our visual memory (Spence 2006) and our arousal level. Research suggests that physiological arousal was higher during the viewing of the color red than it was for green (Wilson, G.D. 1966). Other research suggests that the effect of emotion on memory depends on the color type (Kuhbander& Pekrun, 2013). The results indicated that the color red strongly increased memory for negative words and the color green strongly increased memory for positive words.

Some colors aren’t good for us in the long run, while some will make us feel better and healthier, will motivate us, and will improve our concentration. Therefore, it’s important to know how to use them. For example, the color white commonly used in most public spaces and schools can increase stress and decrease concentration (Grube, K.J. 2014)

Warm colors, such as yellow, orange, pink, and red can motivate and energize us. However, if they’re too intense, they can also be irritating. Cool colors, such as green, blue, and violet can have a calming effect on us. Gray, which is commonly used in professional settings or formal events, can be more depressing than black. During the winter months, especially in the northern states, when everything looks white, gray, or black, it’s good to wear bright colors because they can make us feel better. They can be our “emotional vitamins.”

My favorite color is yellow because I love sunshine and warm temperatures. In my office and my home, all walls are in shades of yellow to remind me, especially on dark and cold winter days, that spring and sunshine will come again. I also like pink because it’s an uplifting color. Most of the beautiful wild or garden flowers are pink or fuchsia. When we wear shades of pink, we communicate to the outside world that we are sensitive and imaginative. Let’s get creative with colors so we can brighten our outside and inside environment.


About the Author

Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico with over 30 years of clinical experience, and the author of How My Brain Works: A Guide to Understanding It Better and Keeping It Healthy. Her book has won 2 International Book Awards and 5 National Book Awards.


Elliot, Andrew J. “Color and Psychological Functioning: A Review of Theoretical and Empirical Work.” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (April 2, 2015): 368.
Elliot, Andrew J., and Daniela Niesta. “Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men’s Attraction to Women.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 95, no. 5 (November 2008): 1150–1164.
Spence, I., Wong, P., Rusan, M., & Rastegar, N. (2006). “How color enhances visual memory for natural scenes”. Psychological Science, 17.


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