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Color Symbolism and Culture

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Western world:

Traffic lights: Red means stop, yellow means caution, and green means go. Yellow signs also warn drivers of upcoming curves, pedestrian crossings, and animal crossings.


Most, if not all countries have a flag. The colors of each flag are usually seen as patriotic. Red, white, and blue symbolizes patriotism in the U.S.A.


Red and green are favorite Christmas colours. Colors of Autumn such as orange, brown, yellow and red are associated with Thanksgiving with black and orange associated with Halloween. Pastel colors are used for Easter. Because flowers are a common gift for Mother's Day, colors such as yellow, pink, and red are used frequently.

The perception and processing of color has fascinated neuroscientists for a long time, as our brain influences our perception of it to such a degree that colors could be called an illusion. One mystery was: What happens in the brain when we look at black-and-white photographs? Do our brains fill in the colors? Neuroscientists showed study participants black-and-white photos of bananas, broccoli, strawberries, and of other objects associated with a typical color (yellow, red and green in the examples above). While doing so, they recorded their subjects' brain activity using functional imaging. The true purpose of the study was unknown to the subjects, and to distract their attention they were shown slowly rotating objects and told to report the direction in which they were moving.

After recording brain responses to the black and white objects, the scientists presented real colors to their subjects, in the shape of yellow, green, red and blue rings. This allowed them to record the activity of the brain as it responded to different, real colors. It turned out that the mere sight of black-and-white photos automatically elicited brain activity patterns that specifically encoded colors. These activity patterns corresponded to those that were elicited when the observers viewed real color stimuli. These patterns encoded the typical color of the respective object seen, even though it was presented in black and white. The typical colors of the presented objects could therefore be determined from the brain's activity, even though they were shown without color.

Whether we're listening to Bach or the blues, our brains are wired to make music-color connections depending on how the melodies make us feel. People in both the United States and Mexico linked the same pieces of classical orchestral music with the same colors. This suggests that humans share a common emotional palette -- when it comes to music and color -- that appears to be intuitive and can cross cultural barriers, UC Berkeley researchers said. The results were remarkably strong and consistent across individuals and cultures and clearly pointed to the powerful role that emotions play in how the human brain maps from hearing music to seeing colors.

Try to imagine reddish green - not the dull brown you get when you mix the two pigments together, but rather a color that is somewhat like red and somewhat like green. Or, instead, try to picture yellowish blue - not green, but a hue similar to both yellow and blue. Is your mind drawing a blank? That's because, even though those colors exist, you've probably never seen them. Red-green and yellow-blue are the so-called "forbidden colors." Composed of pairs of hues whose light frequencies automatically cancel each other out in the human eye, they're supposed to be impossible to see simultaneously.

The limitation results from the way we perceive color in the first place. Cells in the retina called "opponent neurons" fire when stimulated by incoming red light, and this flurry of activity tells the brain we're looking at something red. Those same opponent neurons are inhibited by green light, and the absence of activity tells the brain we're seeing green. Similarly, yellow light excites another set of opponent neurons, but blue light damps them. While most colors induce a mixture of effects in both sets of neurons, which our brains can decode to identify the component parts, red light exactly cancels the effect of green light (and yellow exactly cancels blue), so we can never perceive those colors coming from the same place.

People Can Hallucinate Color at Will National Geographic - December 8, 2011

People can hallucinate colors just with the power of suggestion, a new study says. In a recent experiment, scientists asked a group of prescreened people to look at a set of gray patterns and try to visualize color. Eleven members of the group had been identified as highly susceptible to hypnosis while seven of the subjects were not susceptible. The new study found that all the subjects who were easily hypnotized reported seeing a range of colors even while not under hypnosis, McGeown said. The scientists didn't just take their word for it - MRI scans showed that the parts of the subjects' brains linked to color perception lit up when they saw the imaginary hues.

Brain study explores what makes colors and numbers collide PhysOrg - November 17, 2011

Someone with the condition known as grapheme-color synesthesia might experience the number 2 in turquoise or the letter S in magenta. Now, researchers reporting their findings online in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on November 17 have shown that those individuals also show heightened activity in a brain region responsible for vision.

Are you in a gray mood today? How about a blue funk? Maybe you're seeing red, because you're green with jealousy. The colors we use to describe emotions may be more useful than you think, according to new research. The study found that people with depression or anxiety were more likely to associate their mood with the color gray, while happier people preferred yellow. The results, which are detailed today in the journal BMC Medical Research Methodology, could help doctors gauge the moods of children and other patients who have trouble communicating verbally.

Red vs. Blue: Why Necktie Colors Matter Live Science - February 7, 2009

In high-stakes politics and business, there are only two colors of ties: red and blue. Oh, sure, you might spot purple or yellow now and then, but those are clear statements of aloofness, be they calculated or careless. Few world leaders or CEOs want to be seen as aloof. But does it matter whether one wears red or blue? Yes, suggest several studies, including a new one out today in the journal Science. More on that in a moment.

Using color as a medicine BBC News - January 20, 2002

Sitting by the pool surrounded by bright reds, blues and oranges in a modern abstract design, you would be forgiven for thinking you were at a spa in a hotel rather than in the hydrotherapy room at a major London hospital. The colors in this room make you feel good. In fact, you may even want to take a dip.

Color Preferences Reveal Your Personality

Ever wonder why there are so many colors of new cars to chose from? What about the color of your shirt or blouse? What color is your bedroom? Your preferences for certain colors is a very personal one and psychologists - as well as marketing researchers -- have studied at the best Universities and accredited online colleges to decipher the question of why certain colors appeal to certain people for years. These answers may lie in our attitudes towards life, as well as our emotional states.

Color Symbolism Chart

Red: Excitement, energy, passion, love, desire, speed, strength, power, heat, aggression, danger, fire, blood, war, violence, all things intense and passionate, sincerity, happiness (Only in Japan)

Pink symbolizes love and romance, caring, tenderness, acceptance and calm.

Beige and ivory symbolize unification. Ivory symbolizes quiet and pleasantness. Beige symbolizes calm and simplicity.

Yellow signifies joy, happiness, betrayal, optimism, idealism, imagination, hope, sunshine, summer, gold, philosophy, dishonesty, cowardice, jealousy, covetousness, deceit, illness, hazard and friendship.

Dark Blue: Symbolizes integrity, knowledge, power, and seriousness.

Blue: Peace, tranquility, cold, calm, stability, harmony, unity, trust, truth, confidence, conservatism, security, cleanliness, order, loyalty, sky, water, technology, depression, appetite suppressant.

Turquoise symbolizes calm. Teal symbolizes sophistication. Aquamarine symbolizes water. Lighter turquoise has a feminine appeal.

Purple: Royalty, nobility, spirituality, ceremony, mysterious, transformation, wisdom, enlightenment, cruelty, honor, arrogance, mourning, temperance.

Lavender symbolizes femininity, grace and elegance.

Orange: Energy, balance, enthusiasm, warmth, vibrant, expansive, flamboyant, demanding of attention.

Green: Nature, environment, healthy, good luck, renewal, youth, spring, generosity, fertility, jealousy, service, inexperience, envy, misfortune, vigor.

Brown: Earth, stability, hearth, home, outdoors, reliability, comfort, endurance, simplicity, and comfort.

Gray: Security, reliability, intelligence, staid, modesty, dignity, maturity, solid, conservative, practical, old age, sadness, boring. Silver symbolizes calm.

White: Reverence, purity, birth, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, humility, precision, innocence, youth, winter, snow, good, sterility, marriage (Western cultures), death (Eastern cultures), cold, clinical.

Black: Power, sexuality, sophistication, formality, elegance, wealth, mystery, fear, evil, unhappiness, depth, style, sadness, remorse, anger, anonymity, underground, good technical color, mourning, death (Western cultures), austerity, detachment.

Color Symbolism

Eastern World:

Marriage: White and pink are favorite just as in the western world.

Green: Eternity, family, harmony, health, peace, posterity

Happiness: Red

Helpful: Gray

Wealth: Blue, gold and purple

White: Children, helpful people, marriage,

mourning, peace, purity, travel

Gold: Strength, wealth

Evil or sadness- Just like in the western world- black.


Blue is seen as conservative. Red is power and aggression. Brighter colors such as yellow and orange represent warmth not only with emotions but also with temperature. Cool colors are blue, green, black or any color with a dark shade. When someone is feeling down or depressed, it is said they are feeling "blue." When someone is angry they "see red." When someone is seen to be afraid or "chicken" they are called "yellow."


Obviously green is the major color symbolizing ecology. The new phrase for people or companies who find ways to cut back on electricity, fuel, or things that damage the environment is "going green."


When something is seen as opposite, extreme, or a firm position, it is said to be "black or white." When something is not clear or not in a firm position, it is said to be a "gray area." The blues describe a form of music.


Colours are also used in religious ceremonies or represent aspects of religion. Native Americans include colors in religious ceremonies. The Navajo Nation considers four colors to be important: Turquoise, white, yellow, and black. These colors represent four sacred mountains. The Apache Nation also considers four colors to be important: Green, white, yellow and black. These are sacred colors of the white mountain and are also used in government. The Iowa Nation also considers four colors to be sacred: Black, yellow, red and white. They represent direction, their flag, and what they consider to be four races of man. [1]

In Tibetan Buddhism, blue is the color of Vairochana, a celestial Buddha, whose image is the immensity of sky blue. [2] Buddhist monks wear orange (specifically the color saffron) robes primarily due to tradition. That was the least expensive color dye at the time and that is what they continued to wear. The robes themselves symbolize "simplicity and detachment of materialism." [3]

Green is the traditional color of Islam. The Islamic flag is green. Green is also mentioned in the Quran as the color of garments, cushions and carpets in paradise. [4]

In Hinduism, saffron is their most sacred color. Saffron represents fire that burns our impurities. Yellow represents knowledge and learning. The color green of the Maharashtra represents life and happiness. The color blue is like infinity like the vastness of the oceans and sky. [5]

In Christianity, the color red symbolizes the blood of Jesus Christ and of sacrifice. White represents the body of Christ. Black represents sin in Catholic liturgy. Gray is the color of ash and this represents repentance in Catholicism. Purple is the liturgical color for the seasons of Advent and Lent. Heaven is described as having a lot of gold in buildings and streets. White and silver are used in liturgy during Christmas and Easter. [6]

The Bible says that many in the Middle East and Rome valued colored gems and jewelry. Red and white coral was used for beads and ornaments. Red rubies and light blue turquoise were given as gifts. (Ezekiel 27:16)

Use in Medicine and Therapy:

Colors are sometimes used in therapy (Also called Chromotherapy). Colors have a huge effect on people who have brain disorders or who are emotionally troubled. The color blue has a calming effect on many people and lowers respiration and blood pressure. Red has the opposite effect. Some therapists use green to sooth and relax emotionally disturbed people who suffer from anxiety or depression. Some claim that the color violet is good for migraines and in "cases of cellulitis caused by a poor elimination, heaviness or sluggishness after eating, disorders of the spleen, bladder and kidney." [7] Yellow helps energize people and relieves depression.

Color in World Culture

Color means many different things to different people and cultures. We all have our own favorite colors. People like different colors like they like different foods. Color also represents feelings, people, countries, cultures, and color symbolism. In the western world, the color red is seen frequently of symbolizing anger or aggression. Some car insurance companies charge more for red cars because some of the owners of red cars are more aggressive or take more risks.

Black: The History of a Color.- Black-- favorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists- has always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad. In this illustrated book, the acclaimed author of "Blue". now tells the fascinating social history of the color black in Europe.

Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism.- Does color have an effect on our feelings? The phenomenon of color is examined in new ways in John Gage's latest book. His study is informed by the conviction that color is a contingent, historical occurrence whose meaning, like language, lies in the particular contexts in which it is experienced and interpreted.

Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color.- Veiled Brightness reconstructs what color meant to the ancient Maya, a set of linked peoples and societies who flourished in and around the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and Central America. By using insights from archaeology, linguistics, art history, and conservation, the book charts over two millennium of color use in a region celebrated for its aesthetic refinement and high degree of craftsmanship.

Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color.- This authoritative guide presents hundreds of color combinations and color principles needed to create effective designs. Every lesson is demonstrated by example, enabling designers of all specialties and levels of experience to make the best color choices for every type of design.