The fascinating neuroscience of color – And what it means for design


#thedress. You will have seen it.

Tweeted over 10 million times, with everyone from Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber to David Duchovny and Ellen DeGeneres chiming in, you either saw it was blue and black (Jaden Smith, Demi Lovato) or white and gold (Anna Kendrick, Katy Perry) depending on… what exactly?

Some said it was the conditions you saw the photo in, others that it depended on the brightness of your screen.

But the real answer is… your brain.



You saw it as either blue and black or white and gold because you brain decided on one or the other and then wouldn’t let go. #thedress gave millions of people an insight into the complex world of colour perception and the incredibly lengths you brain goes to in order to make sense of the world around us. The tale of colour, and our perception of it, takes in emotion, culture, language, art, as well as neuroscience, and one group at Harvard Medical School in the U.S. has been at the forefront of the research into this fascinating subject.


01. Why #thedress is different for everyone, and what that means for design

In the feverish spasms that followed the viral image, one man was called on above all others to try and get people to understand why some saw blue when others saw white, and why their brains just couldn’t make up their minds.

Bevil Conway is an Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Wellesley College and a Lecturer on Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. He is also an artist. It is the blending of the two and his lifelong fascination with colour that has driven much of his research.

Conway understands why, when presented with what should be an unambiguous decision, such as the colour of a dress, that the brain can get confused.

When asked by the tech magazine Wired to explain the issue with the colour of the dress, Conway said it all comes down to daylight:

“What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis, so people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.”

Humans are diurnal animals – we evolved to live during the day, and our visual system evolved to see during the day. But light changes dramatically during the day. Think about the striking, solid blue of midday compared to the pink tones of the evening. You brain is constantly compensating for these changes in natural light conditions, trying to subtract them from everything it sees to figure out the objects real colour. In most cases it does an outstanding job, but sometimes things go a little awry.


With #thedress, some people’s brains decided to try and subtract the blue, and some people’s brains decided to subtract gold. And once that choice was made, it was very difficult to go back (though possible – When I first saw it I was convinced it was white and gold, but when I showed it to my wife later in the day it was suddenly blue and black! Magic).

That is why it was possible for two people sitting next to each other to see two completely different dresses – one white, one blue – and argue for the rest of the day.

Conway knew this objectively because of his scientific work, but he also knew it subjectively through his art. In a paper he wrote in 2012 on the history and philosophy of colour, his first lines quote Henri Matisse:

“It is only after years of preparation that the young artist should touch colour—not colour used descriptively, that is, but as a means of personal expression. A great modern attainment is to have found the secret of expression by colour.”

Colour is incredibly expressive and incredibly subjective. For an artist it has an intangible quality.

If you draw a line on your canvas, it will be the same shape now, later, tomorrow, and forever. But make that line red and suddenly everything changes.

The red you put in the canvas will not be the same red once it dries. It will not be the same red in a different light, it will not be the same red if you put a blue next to it, and, most importantly, it will not be the same red to everyone else. It is this striking ambiguity in colour that Matisse told his young artists to be careful with, and which Conway has spent his academic career trying to understand.

Conway believes that the experts on colour are not scientists like himself, but rather artists like, er, himself. He cites Matisse as the ultimate go-to guy on how to deal with colour, particularly contextual colour changes. How we perceive certain colours depends on what other colours are around it, the context. Take a look at the image below:

Albers illusion

In the top row the two Xs look different colours. The left looks brown while the right looks yellow. But if you put those Xs on the same background you can see they are both the same colour. It is the different contexts that make our brains perceive them differently. Matisse understood this, and would sometimes leave a white-spaced border around colours that he didn’t want blemished by their surroundings.

The reason for this problem is unknown, but might have something to do with how the brain is wired to process colour. Conway’s main research has looked into how the brain processes different colours. In 2008, Conway looked at how the monkey brain reacts to the four unique hues that make up our vision – red, green, yellow and blue. Using brain imaging, he found that specific regions of cells in the monkey brain that reacted to each of these hues distinctly. What’s more, some of these areas were far more sensitive to certain hues than others. For instance, neurons in the visual areas of these brains were more sensitive to red than any other colour, then green, then blue. A very small percentage of cells were tuned to yellow, but it seems that red was the colour that always got the biggest response.

But what is most interesting is that all the colours we perceive are made up of just these four hues. When colours are presented so close to each other, then brain probably has difficulty determining exactly what colour is what and simply has to make a guess.

For designers, this is particularly important. If colours can be incorrectly perceived just by their juxtaposition with other colours then you may have to rethink your design. You have to consider what you want your final effect to be and then prepare the design from this ultimate idea. This all might sound scary. But really it shows that perfection can never be completely nailed down. You should seize this chance to experiment with colour.

02. If you wanna win, go red

So, red always get a big response in the brain. Why could this be?

Red has a long history as being the colour to be. Throughout the animal kingdom, red is associated with dominance and high testosterone in males. Even in humans, a red face usually means an angry person.


It could be that we have evolved to be switched on to the colour red, either for sexual purposes, or just a means to stay alive whenever angry monkeys/humans/squirrels are around. Recent research has showed that this colour does indeed have an effect on our competitors – it makes them lose.

Two different studies have looked at the use of red colour shirts and uniforms in sports, and both have found that the people in red win more than the people in blue.

Why? Well, it is thought that the colour red influences our moods and emotions meaning that we cannot but help to see the person in red as the winner, and act accordingly.

OK, some of this research is a bit spurious (maybe red is just easier to see on a soccer pitch than blue) but the effect of colours on our emotions certainly isn’t. Certain colours are seen as more calming or arousing than others. In 1994, Patricia Valdez and Albert Mehrabian from UCLA looked at the effect of different colours on emotional reactions. They found that there were distinct reactions to specific colours. Blue’s and blue-greens were always the most pleasant colours, whereas yellow and yellow-green’s the most unpleasant. But green-yellow was the most arousing, whereas purple and red was the least arousing. Interestingly, considering what we have already heard about red, the researchers here found that green-yellow also induced more dominance than red.

So if you want something to pop and stand out, make it red.

Because the majority of our visual brain cells are geared to respond to this colour, it automatically stands out form all the rest. But if you want something to be appealing or pleasant, then blue is the way to go. A lot of designers, particularly those involved with advertising and marketing may already know this – they specific design in order to manipulate emotion. But it is important for all designers to know what effect their art and design is having on their audience.

03. Why language matters when it comes to colour

The Himba are a group indigenous to Northern Namibia that have been the subject of a fascinating study into how language frames our understanding of colour. Have a look at the image below and see if you can spot the odd one out.

Himba green colour wheel

Most westerners will easily be able to point out the blue square against all of the other green squares. But the Himba have a hard time differentiating the two. Why? Well, it comes down to language. They do not have a separate word for ‘green’ and ‘blue’ as there is in the west and this seems to have made it far more difficult to tell them apart. Don’t believe me? Watch this video from the BBC science program Horizon of the Himba taking the test (partially NSFW).

Before you start scoffing at the Himba though, take a look at this image:

Himba green colour wheel

Spot the odd one out this time? To us these are all ‘green’, but the Himba’s colour-naming system does differentiate between different shades of green, meaning this is an easy test for the Himba (the odd one out is the one at 2 o’clock – I promise you).

This input of language onto our ability to understand and interpret colours is something seem throughout history. In all cultures the language of colour seems to have evolved in the same sequence. We first develop worlds for black and white, then red, then other colours, and finally, blue. It is thought red comes first because it is an earthy colour – the colour of clay. If watched the Himba video you will see that they are painted in red clay, and this was likely something all our ancestors did.

But blue comes way, way behind. The bible has no reference to blue. Neither does Greek literature. The Greeks described the sky as ‘golden’. The Himba describe it as ‘black’.

The ability of language to define colour for us doesn’t just relate to age-old civilizations – it still goes on.

Using the results of a colour survey performed by Randall Munroe at the webcomic XKCD, Stephen von Worley visualized the different names men and women gave to different colours. The results can be found on his website here.

Whereas men generally stick to the most common names for colours – red, blue, green, yellow, purple – women are far more expressive and use far more selective names for colouring. It is not necessarily that they see more colours (though women, due to their double-X chromosomes do have the ability to be tetrachromats, with the ability to distinguish more colour that normal trichromats), but they use more expressions for the colours the do see, more nuance and more complexity.

Try combinations you wouldn’t have thought of, and also elicit feedback. Someone might see your colour combinations completely different from you. If your ‘blue’ is their ‘dark periwinkle’, then you might find, by simply using someone else’s eyes to see you design, an entirely new palette opening up in front of you.

04. Why designers should embrace the fact we all see the world differently

These findings by Conway and other scientists may be chilling for some artists and designers. If you have spent hours selecting just the right shade of blue for your banner, then to suddenly realize that no one else will see that blue in exactly the same way could cause despair.

But these differences should be embraced. From a purely artistic point of view, it means that your art and design are fresh and new at every viewing. Every individual, in every type of lighting, whether you are presenting something on a screen, in print, or live, will see a unique piece of art. You can be standing next to someone staring at the same canvas and be having two completely different experiences.

That is a wonderful thing.

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