What colour represents depression? (a perceptual investigation)

In the following article, our main aim would be to find out what colour represents depression through a detailed perceptual investigation on the effect of colours on mood and vice versa. We will also answer the question if colour perception is metaphorical or  biological in people suffering from depression.

Which colour pops your mind when you hear the word “depression”?

Maybe a dark shade of grey mixed with dull blue? 

When I think of depression, the dominant colour that pops my head is grey,a dull version.

The word depression is not so easy to be represented by a colour. Depression is not just sadness, it is a phase or maybe combination of phases where a person has no enthusiasm, motivation or interest to attend to the boldness and beauty in any colour no matter how warm or bright it is. Maybe,for them, the vibrance in the glowing petals of a red rose seem as dull as a foggy dusk. 

Why is color such a powerful force in our lives?

The famous artist Pablo Picasso once uttered, “Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.

The above quote conveys the idea that colours are just like our facial features. Our features are expressed differently with different emotions.You smile when happy, frown when disturbed. Similarly, colours are an expression of our emotions. 

Colours are a powerful force in our lives because it is a useful communication tool. It is used to represent signals, indicate mood, influence reactions and so on.

Even though the perception of colours vary across culture, nation, individuals, but certain colours depict universal meanings. Such as love is depicted by the colour red universally.

Let us look at some categorical divisions of colours.

Let’s categorize colours 

Based on intensity and effects on mood, colours can be classified into two categories namely :

  • Warm – Warm colours are produced when sun rays pass through a prism and verge on the colour red. Example : red, yellow, brown, orange. 

  Effect of warm colours on mood

Warm colours evoke emotions like love,comfort,liveliness and give energy to            individuals.We may feel happy, optimistic and joyous while looking at these colours. It also expresses rage, hatred, and danger. 

  • Cool- Cold colours are those which have less vibration like blue, grey, purple.

Effect of cool colors on mood

Cool colours usually make one feel calm, composed, tranquil and expresses a sense of security. It may also reflect sadness, melancholy and words like “dull”, “mundane”, “pale”.

What is colour psychology?

Colour psychology is the scientific study of the effect of colours on human mind and behaviour. This field of study aims to determine how colors influence our decisions, emotions and perceptions.

Common psychological effects of colours are as follows: 

Colour white

  • purity
  • innocence
  • cleanliness
  • sense of space
  • neutrality
  • mourning 

Colour Black

  • authority
  • power
  • strength
  • evil
  • intelligence
  • thinning / slimming
  • death or mourning

Colour red

  • love
  • romance
  • gentle
  • warmth
  • comfort
  • energy
  • excitement
  • intensity
  • life
  • Blood
  • happy
  • energetic
  • excitement
  • enthusiasm
  • warmth
  • wealth prosperity
  • sophistication
  • change
  • stimulation

Color Yellow

  • happiness
  • laughter
  • cheery
  • warmth
  • optimism
  • hunger
  • intensity
  • frustration
  • anger
  • attention-getting

The Color Green

  • natural
  • cool
  • growth
  • money
  • health
  • envy
  • tranquility
  • harmony
  • calmness
  • fertility

The Color Blue

  • calmness
  • serenity
  • cold
  • uncaring
  • wisdom
  • loyalty
  • truth
  • focused

 Color Purple

  • royalty
  • wealth
  • sophistication
  • wisdom
  • exotic
  • spiritual
  • prosperity
  • respect
  • mystery

 The Color Brown

  • reliability
  • stability
  • friendship
  • sadness
  • warmth
  • comfort
  • security
  • natural
  • organic
  • mourning (in some cultures/societies)

The Color Pink

  • romance
  • love
  • gentle
  • calming
  • agitation

Color psychology can be used especially when dealing with children who face depressive symptoms. The positive use of colors can be manipulated used art therapy for small kids.

Mood, vision and perception

How feeling sad may impair colour perception

A research study was conducted to determine the correlation between mood and colour perception by incorporating 127 students. The students were randomly assigned to see a movie which was emotionally charged – one had a happy ending, another sad. After making the students watch the video they were presented with 48 muted colour patches. They were then asked to indicate if the patch was yellow, red, green or blue. The results conclude that those participants who had watched the sad video lacked accuracy in identifying colours falling on the blue-yellow spectrum than those who watched the happy clip.

The above study can be interpreted as : those who were feeling blue had difficulty in identifying blue and yellow. 

Research says that the neurotransmitter dopamine is responsible for mood regulation. It is also known as the happy hormone. At the same time, it has links with colour perception (especially in the blue-yellow spectrum), mood-regulation and vision.Thus, it is not surprising that mood vision and colour perception has a relation.

Depression can be measured in the eye of the diseased 

A study conducted by Dr. Emanual Bubl at Albert-Ludwigs-University of Frieburg in Germany and his team with 80 participants – 40 healthy individuals, 40 who had depression ( 20 were taking antidepressants, 20 were not) to find the pattern of visual sensitivity in people suffering from depression. They used an unique technique pattern electroretinogram (PERG), to measure perception of contrast. The results showed significant decrease in retinal sensitivity even for those who took medicines. They also found, the more severe the depression, the more the vision impairment.  

Depression can change the way a person perceives the world around them.They may no more find vibrancy in colours like red, yellow etc which further affects their mood and make them feel more grave. 

The above studies gave us an idea about how our mood can be linked with vision thus our perception. 

Colour perception and depression: biology or metaphor?

Literature and art have always correlated  colours with sadness and depression in a metaphorical manner. There is very few research that shows the biological correlates of color perception and mood. 

 In a study by Christina B. Barrick, this question was answered based on the background that: Patients who suffer from mood disorders often report color-insensitivity which is not an area that is attended to. Anecdotal and empirical research suggest there is a relation between color sensitivity and mood. 

The research was a pilot study consisting of 120 inpatients and outpatients. Colour sensitivity was measured with the help of self-report responses. 

The results say, there is a correlation between colour sensitivity and depression. The ability to respond to colours is imparied in depression.

Thus it can be concluded that there is no such strong evidence to confirm if  color perception is a metaphorical or a biological phenomenon in people with depression. But a few findings like the above, tend to support the hypothesis that brain impairment leads to retinal disturbance.

What colour do people, suffering from depression, use, to express their mental state?

Let us look at some experiments and research.

  • In a study by Ireland et al, it was seen that individuals with high levels of anxiety and depression preferred dull colours like grey, blue when compared to individuals with less anxiety and depression.
  • Sevda Korkmaz conducted a study with 87 maes and 113 females to investigate whether there was a relationship  between colour and impulsive behaviour. The results showed, people who had depression and anxiety preferred to choose colours like black and grey to represent their mental states. It was concluded that impulsivity,anxiety and depression had an impact on colour preferences.
  • Peter Whorwell, Professor of Medicine and Gastroenterology at University Hospital South Manchester, conducted a research along with a team of researchers in the University of Manchester, UK, where they gave rise to an instrument to allow people choose a colour in response to questions.  He said, “Colors are frequently used to describe emotions, such as being ‘green with envy’ or ‘in the blues’. Although there is a large, often anecdotal, literature on color preferences and the relationship of color to mood and emotion, there has been relatively little serious research on the subject.”

The researchers formed a colour wheel which included colours of various intensities      including different shades of grey. The control group of healthy participants chose colours like yellow, red to depict their current mood. The experimenter group of depressed individuals chose grey to represent their current mood.              

 From the above studies, it can be inferred that cool colours like blue, grey are preferred more by individuals who suffer from depression.

Therefore it can be concluded that the colour grey, and hues similar to grey, represents a sad mood like depression.

Conclusion

From the article above, we gathered a perceptual idea of “what colour represents depression”. We also gained an insight on the various categorizations of colours, their effects on mood. We learned about the effect of depression on mood, vision and color perception, further knowing about a few research studies, finally getting an answer to the question.

FAQs: What colour represents depression?

Does depression make you see things differently?

Every person sees and perceives the world in different ways. People suffering from depression have a drastic way of looking at life. Their views and ideas are very different and grave compared to healthy individuals. Their way of looking at situations and difficulties are also very different.

What is the most stressful color?

The perception of colour is different in different people. What is stressful for you may not be stressful for others. 

But, a Minnesota University study reveals that the colours like red in one’s room causes more stress in that individual than those whose rooms are coloured blue, white or green.

What is the most healing color?

Babbitt represented a comprehensive theory on healing with colours which suggest that colours like blue and violet have a soothing effect and have anti-inflammatory properties.

What is colour therapy and how does it work?

Colour therapy uses the energy of different colours to regulate moods of people with various mood disorders.

What color relieves anxiety?

The colour green has a soothing effect on people’s mind. Blue also represents tranquility.

What is the color of hope?

Yellow can be referred to as a colour of hope. In families with loved ones at wars, yellow ribbons were used to depict their loved one’s hopeful home-coming. 

What do the 4 personality colors mean?

Hartman Personality Profile, sometimes known as “The People Code”, created by Dr. Taylor Hartman, divides personalities into four colors: Red (motivated by power), Blue (motivated by intimacy), White (motivated by peace), and Yellow (motivated by fun).

Do colored lights affect mood?

When it comes to some of the health hazards of light at night, a new study suggests that the color of  lights can make a big difference. In the study involving hamsters, researchers found that blue light had the worst effects on mood followed by white light.

References :

https://visionsource.com/blog/how-emotions-can-affect-color-perception/#:~:text=Previous%20research%20shows%20that%20the,and%20mood%20are%20closely%20linked!

https://www.ejgm.co.uk/download/the-correlation-between-color-choices-and-impulsivityanxiety-and-depression-7344.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_psychology

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016503270000358X

Divya is currently a Clinical Psychology Trainee in a Master of Philosophy program and holds a Master’s in clinical psychology. She has a special interest in Personality studies and disorders, having researched the subject before, and Neuropsychology; with an additional interest being Mood disorders. She likes to write about Psychiatric issues, having worked in multiple specialty setups during her time as a clinical psychology student, and in her free time she likes to cook and read.