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We Can Use Colour to Enhance Our Cognitions

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As part of my PhD research project, I studied memory. I specifically looked at the differences between shape memory, showing people a range of shapes, and colour memory, showing people a range of coloured squares.

My PhD results told me that people do recall shapes and colours differently and that people will often remember colour changes more accurately than precise shape changes. The differences in colour and shape memory were then supported by my work which looked at the differences in the brain areas which were activated during the processing of shapes and coloured squares. For example, when people look at small changes in shape size, the frontal lobe is often activated within the brain but when people look at colour changes, the posterior parts of the brain are activated, such as the parietal occipital lobe. Of course, there could be many other explanations as to why the different brain areas were active at different times (and my own PhD research discussed such ideas) but in general my PhD research has shown me how important the use of colour is within everyday life.

When I teach psychology, I tend to use a lot of colour in my teaching materials. Not only do colours make the PowerPoint slides visually appealing, but different colours can often support students when they are learning different material. I often teach about different theories of working memory and when I draw working memory diagrams in my lectures, each part of the memory diagram will be drawn in a different colour. Remembering the colours of the diagram (and associating colours with the different memory functions) can help students to remember which areas of memory are represented by the different parts on the diagram. I will always let my students know that they can change the colours on the diagrams as some students may prefer different colours, and some students may have visual impairments where they can only use certain colours.

Research has demonstrated that colours such as reds and blues can enhance cognitions, in particular in terms of memory and learning. One of the reasons as to why these colours can enhance cognition and memory is because these colours can also increase emotion – and we strongly link emotion to our own cognitions. For example, if someone views the colour red then this may be seen to symbolise anger and a person may then recall the colour at the same time as any angry feelings. This could encourage someone to remember events or times when they have felt intense angry emotions. Colours such as blue can represent sadness and depression whereas colours such as yellows and oranges can symbolise happiness and pleasure. Obviously, colours may have different meanings to different people. For some, the colour purple may be seen as a dark and negative colour, but for me, it’s my favourite colour as it can be created in so many shades ranging from lilac to a plum colour.

In our daily lives, colours are used to represent actions and our actions occur due to our own cognitions, so we technically think before we act. Green signs will often represent that we can do something, so when a traffic light turns green, we can proceed to drive, and red signs will represent things we cannot do, so if we see a red road sign it can mean stop or a warning that there is danger ahead. This is very similar when shops are advertising different products. You will often find bright and colourful designs to attract attention rather than dull or basic black and white images with little colour. In psychology, when we are presenting posters at academic conferences, colour is really important. As psychologists, we like others to be interested in our research and in my own poster presentations, I have used a range of colours and designs to present the different studies that I have done.

Another application of the use of colour can be in the form of how therapists use colour when supporting clients. Therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy will encourage clients to consider their own internal thoughts and behaviours. The client is often encouraged to draw out these thoughts in different diagrams and this is where colours can be useful. Clients and therapists can use the colour red to symbolise more negative thoughts (or maladaptive thoughts that may need changing) and can then use colours such as purples or greens to symbolise the more positive thoughts or the thoughts that someone would like to have after therapy. There are also therapies that include colours, and therapies such as art therapy can help someone to process and become more aware of difficult cognitions. These are just some examples of the importance of how colour can help and support (and in some ways enhance) people within their daily lives and cognitions. 

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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