Close your eyes and think about your favorite shirt or dress. What colors do you see? Close your eyes again and picture your training room or elearning template. What colors are you using? How are you using them? Do you intentionally choose some colors over others because of their effect on the brain, or is the decision made by default to match the other rooms in the office, or the colors in the corporate logo?

In this post you will learn about recent discoveries relating how the brain processes color and how a deliberate and informed use of color can support the learning process.

Color is Processed in Multiple Parts of the Brain

Originally, neuroscientists thought they knew how the brain processes color because they had discovered a color processing region in monkeys, our closest living relatives. However, neuroscientists at Harvard medical school were surprised to find an additional region in the human brain that is also active in response to color. The fMRI measures the blood flow to various parts of the brain while subjects are performing a task. When the monkey study was repeated with human subjects, scientists found that the human brain doesn’t process color in just one region. Even more remarkable than the locations of color processing is what our brains are doing with this information. From the color center, information travels simultaneously to areas of the brain that are responsible for detecting motion, shapes, edges and transitions. This happens even with subjects who are color blind. They may not be able to recognize different colors, but their brain still knows how to use this information to gain a more nuanced view of the world. This parallel use of color in multiple regions of the brain suggests that our response to color is far more significant than what we have previously supposed, so I write this post knowing that much more information is needed on the subject. But let’s think about what we think we know today and how it might help us build more effective, more memorable training and education materials.

Color Aids Pattern Recognition

In 2002, researchers discovered that subjects performed five to ten percent better on standardized pattern recognition tests when they were administered in color rather black and white. The use of color can also boost long-term memory, presumably because color forces the brain to encode and store the information in more regions of the brain. The advantage of using color was only demonstrated when the color was “realistic.” When the objects were depicted in random colors, it appeared to have no effect on memory or pattern recognition. This results suggests that our ability to discern color is linked to our ability to survive in the natural environment. For example, think about all the different colors of green you would have to recognize if you lived in a jungle. Each shade might indicate food, shelter or danger. So we have developed multiple ways to use color information as a learning tool.

The Brain Fills in the Color on Black and White Images of Known Objects

Another group of scientists discovered that when we look at photos of objects that are known to us, our brain fills in the expected color, even though it isn’t there. We still see, for example, that the image of the banana is black and white, but our brain accesses our complete memory of bananas, including the fact that they are usually yellow. If you have a need for learners to recognize specific colors, such as alert lamps on a dashboard for example, you may not need to show them in color every time after you have established the “realistic” color of each lamp. This ability to recognize objects partly based on colors we expect to see came into play in 2015, when an image of a striped dress was perceived as either blue and black or white and gold on social media. Even when told the “real” color of the dress, participants continued to see the same color combination. An fMRI study showed that the dress was being processed in different parts of the brain for each group.

Color Plays a Significant Role in Learning

While there is much that we still don’t understand about how the brain perceives and processes colors, there are some indications that you can use different colors for different purposes in your learning design.

Color increases attention.

No matter what colors you use, presenting material in color causes the learner to pay more attention than a black and white page. Since we are always competing for the learner’s attention, this fact alone makes it worth printing your training materials in color.

Color-coding related or similar items helps the learner recognize and remember connections.

A study involving chemistry students showed that when presented with different types of chemicals or processes together with the same color representation students understood and remembered complex chemical reactions better than students who viewed the same information in black and white. A similar approach might help learners make sense of a complex series of tasks.

The color of your classroom walls will affect learners’ moods and performance.

A study in Science magazine suggests that red stimulates accuracy and attention to detail, while blue may stimulate creativity. However, exposure to strong or bright reds over an extended period of time may create a feeling of fatigue, because the brain is more stimulated by red than by other colors. Yellow has been found to be preferred by students performing a repetitive task, where the yellow color seems to help the brain resist boredom.

We Don’t Have a Full Understanding of the Effects of Color – Yet

While the suggestions above are fairly well-documented, the literature is still full of contradictions. One study may find a positive response to a particular color, while another one may find a different result. Neuroscientists also recognize that color perception is highly individualized. You and I might agree that an apple is red, but the pattern in your brain that represents “red” will be unique to you. Cultural differences also affect our response to color, as well as individual experience. For example, for your learners from parts of Asia, white is associated with death.

The Bottom Line on Color and Learning

What’s the “bottom line” for learning professionals? While psychology and neuroscience continue to study our reactions to different colors, we can focus on a few simple conclusions:

  • Use as much color as your budget will support for training materials, to increase attention.
  • Use the same color consistently for related concepts or topics.
  • Match the color of your classroom or screen to the type of task being performed or demonstrated.
  • Consider cultural color preferences and meanings for each learning audience.

Let’s close with this observation by photographer Joel Sternfeld:
”Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world.”