Wherever we find ourselves, there is colour. It is everywhere we look – and everywhere we’re not looking, too. Part and parcel of our lives, it not only colours our own little world; colour, colouring and colour/art therapy are increasingly used to improve our mental state of mind.  How we actually perceive colour is fascinating. “Normally, we attribute colour directly to the objects that we see, but the latest psychological research is revealing things about colour that previously we had not considered. For example, a psychological study conducted in 2009 showed us that colour is not an attribute of specific objects, but rather a mental construction that is invented by the brain,” explains clinical psychologist Daniel Rabinowitz at Akeso Psychiatric Clinic in Umhlanga.


So, what does this mean?

“Well, to understand colour, we need to understand how the brain makes sense of the biology of what we see. There are three different cones in the back of our eyes: red, green, and blue. With only three colours, it is really our optic nerve and our brain that integrates the three wavelengths of information into the extensive kaleidoscope of colours that we see,” explains Rabinowitz.  According to Steven Shevell, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who specialises in colour and vision, ‘Colour is in the brain. It is constructed, just as the meanings of words are constructed. Without the neural processes of the brain, we wouldn’t be able to understand colours of objects any more than we could understand words of a language we hear but don’t know,’ Rabinowitz points out.



“Every human being’s brain makes sense of colours in a highly personal and unique way.

Factors such as gender, age, language, culture, and geography all influence how every individual perceives colour. Therefore, we can safely say that interpretations of colour differ greatly between people. Likewise our perceptions of colour are as different as our personalities,” says Rabinowitz.


Are there certain conditions or situations in which colours all influence us in the same way?

“The specific focus of colour psychology is how it influences our general emotional, mental, and physical states. It has long been accepted that colour has a dramatic impact on one’s moods, feelings, and emotions, but there has not been rigorous scientific study in this area.


“The scientific research in this area is still in its infancy, so reliable answers are hard to come by, but there are some studies that are starting to show us that colours do have a more universal impact on people. For example, it is more likely that you will feel anxious in a yellow room than a room than a white room. And, generally, a green field more than a concrete building makes you feel calm and relaxed.  Moreover, we are now also learning that colours may have an effect on our lives in ways we never previously thought about, says Rabinowitz.


“Recent research has shown that colours have the ability to enhance the effect of placebo medication – so if a patient is told that a pill is a stimulant, if the pill is red, it does a better job of keeping you awake than if the pill was another colour. Colours also have the ability to reduce the crime – in certain places, the crime rate was shown to drop if the streetlights were changed to blue,” he says.


Mental well-being

So, if coloured light has this kind of effect on people, perhaps mental illnesses, such as depression, can be treated with coloured lights too?


Confirming this, Rabinowitz says a study already conducted in Australia in 2002 showed that ocular light therapy could reduce depression. “Today, many clinics and treatment centres are using colour in their treatment centres to help people recuperate from mental illness. In these settings, people find activities such as mosaics, collages, and colouring books beneficial. Although the effectiveness of these activities is mostly about mindfulness (getting lost in or distracted by the activity), there is still much to learn more about the colours themselves and what effects they may have on a recovering patient’s mood,” he adds.


Colouring, art therapy

Indeed, like in America, Britain and France colouring is all the rage in South Africa, these days. And it’s not only children that colour between the lines, more and more adults are taking to colouring as a form of alternative therapy to help relieve stress and anxiety. (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/10/07/colouring-books-for-adults-stress_n_5944298.html)

A case in point is the wonderful Mandalas meticulously created and coloured by the talented Afrikaans singer and songwriter Lize Beekman. She openly admits that this art form helped her in no small measure to emotionally deal with the death of her partner a few years ago. Today her art pieces are sought after collectables, with one, titled Flower of Life, adorning a wall of a Pretoria psychiatric clinic.


Fostering mental well-being

Likewise, art therapy plays a valuable role in addressing mental health issues and problems. In fact, it is considered a full time profession and many a psychologist use colouring and art therapy as a tool to improve a patient’s mental state of mind.  According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is a mental health profession in which the process of making and creating artwork is used to “explore feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behaviour and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem.” (http://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/06/health/adult-coloring-books-popularity-mental-health/index.html)

Besides using colouring and art therapy, mental health professionals can even purposefully and subtly arrange the colours in their office depending on the needed colour therapy for each patient. http://www.prweb.com/releases/mental_health/color_therapy/prweb2777914.htm)

Elizabeth Oosthuizen, practising psychologist at Akeso Psychiatric Clinics, says the main role of colouring is to create an opportunity for self-nurturing. “The process of self-nurturing is being informed by a renewed ability to contain yourself, as you have to focus on colouring in small spaces; a release of emotions, as you allow yourself to be in a quiet, safe space where you can acknowledge any emotions that you are experiencing; a safe space where you can release your anger without taking it out on others; and a form of relaxation that slows you down and brings you more in touch with the present moment.”

In her award-winning book, Color Alchemy, author Jami Lin points out that the mind is the key to connecting the beneficial influence of colour to the physical, emotional, and spiritual parts of yourself. “People who need extra courage, stamina, and strength to get through a situation should focus on red. Those craving greater happiness, creativity, pleasure, and intimacy in relationships should focus on orange. Greater ambition, personal power, drive, and commitment benefit from yellow. Green helps people with forgiveness, compassion, trust, love, and balance. Blue provides greater focus and clarity, leading to better communication and decision-making. Indigo puts one in tune with inner psychic powers and intuition. Violet brings about a greater sense of peace and inspirational bliss,” Lin advises. (http://www.prweb.com/releases/mental_health/color_therapy/prweb2777914.htm

Concludes Rabinowitz: “The field of colour psychology is an exciting new field. We have a lot more to learn about the perception of different colours, the specific impact of colour on human behaviour, and the effect of colour on a person’s mood. This field in psychology has much scope for further investigation and exploration, and the potential for further learning and insight in this field is, well, colourful.”



Physical healing

While colouring and art therapy nowadays are used to aid mental wellness, several ancient cultures, including the Egyptians and Chinese, interestingly, practiced chromotherapy, or the use of colours to heal. Chromotherapy is sometimes referred to as light therapy or colourology and is still used today as a holistic or alternative treatment.

In this treatment, red, for example was used to stimulate the body and mind and to increase circulation, yellow was thought to stimulate the nerves and purify the body, orange was used to heal the lungs and to increase energy levels, blue was believed to soothe illnesses and treat pain and Indigo shades were thought to alleviate skin problems. (http://psychology.about.com/od/sensationandperception/a/colorpsych.htm)


Akeso Clinics is a group of private in-patient psychiatric clinics that prides itself on providing individual, integrated and family-oriented treatment for a range of psychiatric, psychological and addictive conditions. Akeso Clinics offer specialised in-patient treatment facilities.


Please visit www.akeso.co.za or contact us on 011 447 0268 for further information.

In the event of a psychological crisis, please call 0861 4357 87 for assistance.

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