Color is an important part of everyday life. Bring the importance of color up with people and there will seldom be any real disagreement. Most people agree that color is an important, even vital, part of life. However, there’s a larger question about how well people really understand that fact on a fundamental level.
When people talk about the importance of color, it’s often in a somewhat abstract sense. People know that color is important. However, they can’t really express why color is important or what lack of it might mean to someone’s quality of life. This ambiguity makes the importance of color well worth delving into.
Why Do Humans Appreciate Color?
To understand why color is so important we need to first take a moment to consider why humans see in color in the first place. It’s only fairly recently that we’ve been able to understand just how wide our color perception is in comparison to other forms of life. We’re hardly at the very top of the color spectrum for life in general. The mantis shrimp, for example, has over five times as many color receptors as most humans.
However, we are capable of seeing an impressive range of colors with the three types of color receptive cones in our eyes. Our eyes are capable of seeing a wider range of color than a large amount of other lifeforms on earth. Why is that the case?
One of the big reasons for our impressive eyesight is that our ancestors relied quite heavily on color to survive. Humanity is especially notable for our jack-of-all-trades approach to life. We can eat meat, but we can also eat plants. We can enjoy both fruits and vegetables. We prefer to be active in the day but can also work under a diurnal or nocturnal schedule. Even primitive tool use gives us access to almost every climate on Earth.
In short, our environment and dietary choices are wider than almost anything on the planet. Adapting to so many environments requires a finely honed sense of color. Our ancestors needed to judge subtle differences between edible plants and animals at a glance. Those ancient humans also needed to differentiate a tiny bit of color on an animal or berry within a lush or overgrown space.
The Next Big Thing in Vision
It’s clear that humanity is well prepared to see a lot of detail in any given environment. However, the capabilities of our species can rise beyond an already impressive high. Most people perceive color through a combination of three types of photoreceptor cells called cones, but a small percentage of people, always women, have four types of cone cells.
We’ll never really know what role this extraordinary potential played in human history. It’s often hard enough to locate women with this abnormally acute form of color vision even within modern populations. But it’s easy to imagine that they could have acted to dramatically help hunter gatherer societies.
A Skill From the Past Empowers Us in the Present
It’s important to keep in mind that unused traits tend to fade away over time. Color vision is still going strong. We’re clearly getting a lot of use out of it. There’s a number of reasons why this is the case. One of the biggest reasons is that humans are one of the most social creatures on earth. We gain both survival and psychological value from human interaction. It’s such an important part of human life that a portion of our brain is entirely devoted to recognizing each other’s faces.
Color plays a huge role in human interaction. We’re far better able to recognize each other due to the fact that we can see in such a wide range of color. It helps us recognize distinctive personal combinations such as eye or hair color. What’s more, we can often tell a lot about someone’s recent past simply by glancing at them. Time spent in great weather is obvious from tans or slight sunburns and the like.
We’re able to perceive emotional changes thanks to our eyes’ impressive color perception as well. Think about how easy it is to notice a blush or flushed face during conversation. Or even how you might be drawn to someone’s strikingly beautiful eyes. Much of how we relate to each other is heavily influenced and aided by our ability to see in a rich and vibrant range of colors.
On the other end of the spectrum we can also note issues with people’s health through subtle variation in color. A very slight yellowing of the eye can indicate early issues with someone’s liver. Discoloration on people’s hands can indicate age as lipofusion begins to add pigment onto thin skin. One can sometimes even note melanoma before it spreads by seeing color differences in moles.
The Importance of Natural Environments and Natural Colors
So far it should be clear that color is useful to people on a purely utilitarian level. But this is somewhat akin to talking about a great meal in terms of vitamin, mineral and protein content. Obviously we get practical use out of those essential elements. But when we eat a great meal there’s so much more to it than the nutritional facts. The sensory experience from the taste and smell of a great meal simply adds a huge amount of meaning to life. The importance of color is less obvious unless we focus on it. However, it’s equally important to quality of life in the long run.
It’s easier to see the impact of color deprivation by considering an unpleasant experience which most of us have gone through at one time or another. Think of an indoors environment which is saturated in a single shade. Windows are absent or provide little to the room other than dim light. Complex photographs are absent and decoration is instead limited to only the simplest and most banal corporate art. Finally, consider the poor fluorescent lighting those environments seem to cultivate.
Put all of that together and consider how people feel when they’re stuck there day after day. How do people react when they’re working in those environments for years or decades? Anyone who’s worked in an environment like that can attest to how soul crushing it feels. Far fewer people know that describing it that way is more medical fact than subjective complaint.
The Psychological Impact of Colorful Environments
For a long time people knew that long term exposure to bland environments puts a certain mental strain on their psyche. Today this experience is better understood as the end result of removing the essential element of environmental enrichment. The term enrichment might be familiar to people who’ve recently visited a zoo. Zoo’s use the term enrichment to describe how they recreate an immersive environment which caters to a species’ particular needs. Basically, an animal’s mental health depends on its ability to get everything it needs from the local environment.
Humans are similar in that we need a certain level of environmental complexity to feel at ease. Reconsider just how important color vision was to our hunter gatherer ancestors. Even just going back three or four generations will show a culture where people constantly used their color perception to gain important information about the natural conditions around them. The past few generations have had to struggle with environments which didn’t provide these important points of mental interaction.
Eyes and brains suited to judging the important and subtle differences in natural foods would instead have heavily processed and uniformly packaged meals. Perception tailored to see a storm from minor changes in cloud color and density would instead see plain ceilings. And a mind in love with the bright colors of a warm summer day would instead have the flicker of fluorescent lights. Thankfully modern psychology has finally recognized the importance of colorful and enriching environments. Workplaces are often slow to change, but change is happening.
Taking Control and Enjoying a Richer Life Through a More Colorful Environment
The good news is that we don’t have to fully rely on outside forces to give us the color our minds so desperately need. For example, green exercise has been growing in popularity as more and more people experience its wide range of benefits. Green exercise is basically just any kind of exercise done in colorful natural environments. This can range from long term high impact trail running all the way to a light hike. In fact, mental and physical benefits were seen from as little as a five minute walk in the park.
Even minor changes in the workplace can provide a big benefit as well. Few people would argue against some nice office plants. At the same time it requires someone to speak up to actually request it. The same goes for policies on open windows, colorful artistic expression and similar improvements. Some people might be resistant to the idea of making any change in an office environment. But those reluctant individuals will often be far more willing if they realize it can improve overall morale and productivity in the long run.
The simple fact is that people are happier when surrounded by color. The previously described environments with dim fluorescent lights and drab walls sound crushing to most people. At the same time most people’s eyes light up when they think about the beautiful skies and shimmering water of a summer day spent at the beach. Well decorated indoor environments bring about a similar feeling. Rustic cabins filled with nature’s bounty make people feel relaxed and in tune with the world. The bright colors and whimsical imaginings often seen in paintings make trips to a museum worth devoting hours to. And the impact goes on and on.
A World of Color Only Needs a Little Extra Intent
It’s not really a matter of how one enriches an environment. It can be done by hand indoors or by the forces of nature in action outside. But humans simply need color within our lives in a similar way to how we need flavor within our meals.
The importance of color in our lives isn’t always obvious without some level of self reflection. Our essential need for color becomes a lot more apparent if we stop and consider how we feel in different environments. We realize how tired and defeated a bland environment makes us feel. Or, conversely, we may notice how enriched we feel in environments bursting with color. People can take this further by considering how different colors and patterns nurture different moods.
You might draw inspiration from how energized you feel when thinking about your favorite woodland path when trail running. Or we might consider how the blues of a clear sky are perfectly replicated in a painting within a newly furnished and wonderfully relaxing living room.
It’s important to consider one point no matter what the specifics of those feelings. The world is naturally saturated in a wide range of amazing and enriching colors. It’s only in human made environments that we really see a true absence of color. But at the same time this means humans can change that as well.
Now that we know how important color is to a healthy mood, we can take steps to ensure it’s ever present within our lives. We can decorate with color in mind. We can make sure to stretch our legs under a clear sky or even under a canopy of leaves. And most of all, we can just remember to take a moment every now and then to appreciate the beauty around us.