Exploring The Human Relationship Between Colour and Mood


“Synaesthesia is a bit like an orgy; everyone has heard of one happening but few have actually been there. The condition remains the domain of a few creatives who use it to mystify and enchant their artistic process.” – Sam Bompas, co-founder, Bompas and Parr


Synaesthesia is a condition in which a person experiences a kind of ‘mixing of the senses’. About one in a hundred people experience a combination of colour, sound, words, numbers, shapes, textures, and even personalities, as intrinsically associated with one another.

Whilst most of us aren’t blessed with this fascinating perspective on the world, there is one aspect of synaesthetic response that is largely universal: the relationship between colour and mood.


This association between colour and mood may have an evolutionary basis. One study has shown that primates avoid humans dressed in red, as opposed to green or blue. Another primate study found that the brains of monkeys were most triggered by red, followed by green and blue, and colours with the most saturation. Human studies into the relation between colour and mood have also been interesting.


In one experiment, time was overestimated in a room lit with red light, but underestimated in a room lit in green or blue. Another experiment presented workers with a black box to lift. These workers complained they were too heavy – until they were painted green. In green, the workers reported the boxes felt much lighter.


When Blackfriars Bridge in London was painted black during the Middle Ages, it became a notorious suicide spot. Suicide rates at the bridge decreased dramatically once the bridge was repainted in bright green.


One of the earliest works exploring our relationship between colour and mood, which remains relevant today, appears in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ‘Theory of Colours’ from 1810. Goethe published one of the very first colour wheels, and explored the psychological impact of colour on our thoughts and emotions as part of his lengthy study.


Of yellow and shades of orange, Goethe writes: “The feelings they excite are quick, lively, aspiring”. Yellow, in particular, “always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character.”


Interestingly, on the other hand Goethe defines blue in rather negative terms, as a ‘cold’ colour that has an “affinity with black”. Though blue is, of course, on the cold side of the colour wheel, more modern thinking associates the colour with more positive emotion: calm, authority, trustworthiness.  


Of perhaps most fascinating note, however, is Goethe’s oblique reference to synaesthesia:


“Colour and sound do not admit of being directly compared together in any way, but both are referable to a higher formula … They are like two rivers which have their source in one and the same mountain … Both are general, elementary effects acting according to the general law of separation and tendency to union, of undulation and oscillation.” (p.299-300)


Goethe’s theory, nonetheless, is not without its faults. To this day, colour theory in relation to human psychology is plagued by pseudo-science, and open to a lot of subjective interference. Essentially, it is not an area that is well understood, with little in the way of simple explanation.


Red walls, for example, are reassuring to some, whilst being discomforting for others. Is that a physical response, an emotional response, the result of learning, or a combination of all these factors? How can we possibly tell?


“Some studies indicate that red tends to increase perspiration, excite brainwaves and raise the blood pressure, pulse rate, and respiration. Noticeable muscular reaction or tension and greater frequency of eye blinks result. Blue tends to have a reverse effect by lowering blood pressure and pulse rate. Brain waves tend to decline and skin response is less. Reactions to orange and yellow are similar to red, but less pronounced. Reactions to violet are similar to blue.” – Responding to Color’, University of Kentucky


Our associations with colour may be related to our culture and/or environment, solidifying the notion that the relationship between colour and mood is a subjective one.