“So and So is the picture of health.”
“So and So has a sickly pallor.”
This is the 21st century and with all the advances that have taken place in medicine, we still associate certain colors with health or the lack thereof. This is especially true when seeing someone’s face. Aren’t these things as arbitrary as associating the color pink for baby girls and the color blue for baby boys?
Actually no. A study done at National Eye Institute (NEI) provided evidence that the visual system of the human brain is more sensitive to the color of faces than to the color of objects. This study started from mere curiosity. Two graduate students in the lab of Bevil Conway, Ph.D., who is the head of the NEI Unit on Sensation, Cognition, and Action, saw that viewing people with a low-pressure sodium (LPS) lamp, which makes everything appear monochromatic, makes people appear to be sick. So, they decided to investigate this phenomena.
The students set up a study whereby 20 people were presented with over 30 visual stimuli under a LPS lamp. These items included objects that people associate with a certain color, such as orange for oranges, red for tomatoes; objects with random colors, such as toy cars and the pictures of people faces that represent different skin tones. After each picture was presented, study participants match the correct color to the picture.
When pictures were viewed under white light, people matched orange to orange, red to strawberries and faces and hands to a variation beiges and tans. When pictures were viewed with the LPS lamp they had a brownish yellow hue. The exception to this were faces, subsequently, the participants matched the pictures of faces to the greenish hues. In contrast, pictures of hands, necks and foreheads appeared to be brownish yellow to the participants. Yet, faces whose features weren’t scrambled weren’t matched to the color green.
While it can be argued that memory can lead to associating certain items with a particular color (i.e. red for tomatoes), for the most part human faces are not green. So, why would anyone attach the color green to faces when they are viewed with a LPS lamp when in reality, the lamp gives things a brownish tone?
One theory is that it has to do with the way people perceive how faces are to look. In addition, the light from the LPS lamp created a kind of optical illusion. It triggered an error signal and the illusion occurred because the brain was working to understand what was being seen. So, seeing the faces under the LPS lamp lead to the “explanation” that since the faces looked so strange, the people must be sick.
“The specificity of this error signal to faces tells us that the brain has special wiring for face color,” Conway said.
This study also suggests that color and face processing engage in similar brain mechanisms. So, color associations aren’t as arbitrary as they seem.