Is Color Perception a Sixth Sense?: A Victorian Psychologist Tells All

Is Color Perception a Sixth Sense?: A Victorian Psychologist Tells All

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Carolyn Purnell
Sep 16, 2014
(Image credit: Wikipedia/ BeWallpaper)

According to the psychologist Grant Allen in his 1879 book, The Colour-Sense: Its Origin and Development, "There is no element of our sensuous nature which yields us greater or more varied pleasure than the perception of colour" (1). As people interested in design, I would wager that many of us are tempted to agree with him, but have you ever thought about why, precisely, color gives us so much joy?

Given that Allen was a psychologist writing in the nineteenth century, there are plenty of things in his text that modern science, psychology, and aesthetics would tell us don't hold up, but for sheer entertainment and food for thought, I found this to be a worthwhile text with which to grapple.

Allen presents a fascinating narrative of the love of color, and he claims that it exists as a sixth sense throughout invertebrates and vertebrates alike. Smitten with the relatively new theories of evolution advanced by naturalists like Charles Darwin, Allen claimed that human interactions with color were the result of a lengthy evolutionary process that went something like this:

While colors exist in the world apart from our perception, the development of bright colors was due to the influence of the color-sense, a sense that developed as a means of self-preservation. Brilliantly colored flowers, for instance, marked off foods like fruits and flowers that could be beneficial for insects, animals, and birds. Bright coloring developed as a trait to enhance sexual preferences, as with the male peacock, whose vibrant tail attracts females. Colors often aid in protection and deception, and varying colors adapted to attract particular insects at particular periods of development. While evolution, in many cases, changed the color of the birds, plants, animals themselves, Allen argued that it also helped animals develop a keener sensory capacity so that they could recognize vibrant hues. Developing a finer appreciation for color was a biological necessity.

Humans, Allen argued, acquired this sense through their mammalian ancestry, and we have refined the color sense in a way that other animals have not. In many species, color perception remained a means of self-preservation, but after humans formed societies where self-preservation became a less pressing need, aesthetic pleasure had the space to develop, and our sense of color became, to a large extent, divorced from its life-serving function. In other words, in a primitive human, bright colors would strongly excite the nervous system, commanding attention, but delicate stimulation would only come to be appreciated later in our aesthetic evolution.

Allen's evidence for the anthropological side of things, as you might expect from a nineteenth-century naturalist, is not always the most racially sensitive. He conducted a number of surveys among "savage races" to see if they perceived color in the same way as civilized peoples. (I've written about other historical/ racial approaches to color in this article on chromophobia and colonialism.) It turns out that their color sense was identical, but he did discern some differences in specific preferences. And here's where we get back to decorating…

According to Allen, "The red and orange end of the spectrum is decidedly the most pleasurable: while the central colours, green and blue, are decidedly the least so" (226). Greens and blues, being the most common in nature, attract us less, while the unusual warmer hues form a natural attraction. In "savage" societies, red is a more dominant color because they don't have a sophisticated aesthetic eye, whereas green appears more commonly in "civilized" nations because they have highly cultivated eyes: "It would seem as though the use of green in decoration were almost exclusively confined to those people who live an indoor life. It is among the civilized or semi-civilized nations that we see it most employed" (233).

This is also why we have certain associations with certain colors, as in color psychology: red is stimulating, pungent, attractive. It ties to war, excitement, love, and other vibrant experiences and emotions. Green, on the other hand, is restful, reparative, and natural. It can almost function as a neutral color, which Allen proves by showing that we use foliage as a backdrop for our bouquets, while brightly colored blooms take center stage. As for the other colors? "Purple, orange, lilac, mauve, and so forth—their effectiveness depends mainly upon their similarity to red on the one hand or blue on the other" (234). Our varying home decor, according to Allen, display the human capacity for a sophisticated color sense that has moved beyond its original function to a plane of pleasure, joy, and appreciation.

When it comes to reading historical texts, it's easy to find objections to a number of their social and cultural tenets, and Allen is no exception, but in its essence, I found this to be a really interesting argument for why certain colors inspire certain emotions and how cultural preferences relate to natural structures. Allen's description of "physiological aesthetics" gives a great deal of room to both nature and nurture, showing how they mutually construct one another. While you may not accept the science behind his text–which, if you're interested, there's a great deal more about aether-waves, optics, and insect development–all in all, it offers a novel perspective when it comes to understanding why we prefer certain colors in our homes.

You can find Allen's book in its entirety here, and go here for more biographical information about Allen.

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