Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Evidence That Colors Are Emotions, Not the Properties of Light

Understanding colors is the first step to understanding the nature of things.

Key points

  • Colors are deep patterns of emotions and neural connections, not the intrinsic physical properties of light.
  • We cannot discern the components that make up color any more than we can discern the ingredients in a breakfast cereal.
  • Understanding the subjective nature of rainbows is the first required leap to the true nature of things.

What is red? Green? Blue? This may seem like a question too dumb to merit a moment’s contemplation.

Understanding colors is the first step to understanding reality.
Source: ElisaRiva/Pixabay

The answer is not what you were taught in school. As explained in the new book The Grand Biocentric Design, the answer lies deeper than anyone thought. It involves our very selves.

To understand, let’s start by coming to a stop at a traffic light. We all agree the stoplight is “red,” even though we can never prove that the exact visual experience I call “red” is the same as yours. It doesn’t matter because, whatever it is, it stays consistent, and it has since someone thought to name the colors in the first place.

One of the big puzzles of consciousness is why we experience something called “red” to begin with. To understand the problem, consider the fact that visible light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is a gradient of electromagnetic radiation running from shorter to longer wavelengths, and includes gamma rays, radar, radio, and micro-waves (none of which we perceive as “color”).

Such fields are not “responsible” for the perception of color; indeed, they themselves are wholly invisible. At best, we should experience the visual spectrum as a grayscale continuum ranging from dark to light―a simple quantitative experience. But, for humans and some other animals, it isn’t. Instead, we have a unique qualitative experience.

Colors Are Associated with Deep Built-In Patterns of Emotions

In 1965, researchers discovered three types of cone-shaped cells in the eye that, when stimulated, are associated with the unique visual sensations of red, green, and blue. Stimulation of each type of cone is associated with a unique experience. But how and why? A clue comes from the fact that fully two-thirds of these cone-shaped cells are the “L type” responsible for the sensation of red. This lopsided majority suggests that perceiving light in that range of the visual spectrum is of higher priority than perceiving other wavelengths of light.

Red likely gets extra attention from the brain because it’s associated with alarming, important events like injury and blood. In life, the sudden presence of that color in your consciousness usually meant either that your bicycle had gone off the road into a field of begonias, or, more worrisome, that blood was pouring down your arm, requiring immediate attention.

This possibility of a life-threatening situation made red the traditional signal of bad news that shouldn’t be ignored. We know this instinctively, which is why no one except a contrarian teenager would dream of painting their bedroom a bright red, at least not if they valued a tranquil environment. This explains why red was universally agreed on as the color for things like warning notices and railroad and, later, automobile stop signals. And why even culturally distinct nations and those antagonistic enough toward the West to want to thumb their noses at new modern conventions didn’t buck this rule. Obviously, the qualitatively attention-getting experience we call “red” is associated with a deep built-in pattern of emotions and neural connections.

A similarly distinct circuitry comprising labyrinthine clusters of cells is connected with the other colors and cones—each associated with separate areas of the brain. When these cell architectures are stimulated via their respective cones in the retina, we have distinctive experiences: blue evokes the vastness of the sky and yields a much calmer feeling than red, and green conveys countless bygone centuries of plants and vegetation and is a comforting invocation of life.

We Cannot Discern the Mix of Components That Make Up Colors

We believe that these three most basic colors and their various combinations must have had unique survival value during early evolution, and thus they are associated with their own functional pathways in the brain. When the complex relational logic associated with these distinct clusters of cells is brought into the actively entangled region of the brain associated with consciousness, we have discrete sensations even if we rarely give a second thought to the components that make up each of these colors, any more than we can discern the ingredients in mayonnaise or a piece of Cap’n Crunch.

The unquestionable reality is that colors could not be present without our consciousness. Indeed, on a more fundamental level, photons of light themselves only arise upon observation and wave function collapse; experiments clearly show that particles of light themselves do not exist with real properties until they are actually observed.

Understanding Rainbows―The First Required Leap to the True Nature of Things

When contemplating colors, it’s hard not to consider the colors of the rainbow. The sudden appearance of those prismatic colors juxtaposed between mountains can take our breath away. Like colors, rainbows occur entirely within our skull. But unlike other objects, they have no shared tangibility with other observers.

Indeed, three components are necessary for a rainbow. There must be sun, there must be raindrops, and there must be a conscious eye (or its surrogate film) at the correct geometric location. If your eyes look directly opposite the sun, the sunlit water droplets will produce a rainbow that surrounds that precise spot at a distance of 42 degrees. But your eyes must be located at that spot where the refracted light from the sunlit droplet converges, to complete the required geometry. A person next to you will complete their own geometry and will be at the apex of a cone for an entirely different set of droplets and will therefore see a separate rainbow. Their rainbow is very likely to look like yours, but it needn’t be so. Then, too, if the sunlit droplets are very nearby, as from a lawn sprinkler, the person nearby may not see a rainbow at all. Your rainbow is yours alone.

But now we get to the point: what if no one’s there? Answer: No rainbow. An eye-brain system (or its surrogate, a camera, whose results will only be viewed later by a conscious observer) must be present to complete the geometry. As real as the rainbow looks, it requires your presence as much as it requires sun and rain.

Few would dispute the subjective nature of rainbows, which figure so prominently in fairytales that they seem only marginally to belong to our world in the first place. But it is when we fully grasp that the sight of a skyscraper is just as dependent on the observer, that we have made the first required leap to the true nature of things.

Adapted from The Grand Biocentric Design, by Robert Lanza and Matej Pavsic, with Bob Berman (BenBella Books 2020).


The Grand Biocentric Design, by Robert Lanza and Matej Pavsic, with Bob Berman (BenBella Books 2020).

More from Robert Lanza M.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Robert Lanza M.D.
More from Psychology Today