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Memory Enhancement: Your Brain on Color

Have you ever purchased an item or decided not to purchase an item, based on its color? This is a common experience for most people. Think about your wardrobe. Consider the color of the car that you drive. Or the color of your dream home. Research has found that 62-90% of your reactions are based on color [1].

Color is everywhere, all around us. And color is an important memory strategy that we can use to boost memory performance.

Vision and Memory
To begin, let’s consider a simplified memory model [2]:
A stimulus first passes through one or more of our sensory organs (eyes, ears, touch) to our sensory memory, which in turn, impacts our short-term memory and long-term memory. Sensory memory can last from a fraction of a second to a few seconds but information that is processed through our visual system takes about 0.15 seconds [2].The brain processes visual information very quickly and relies heavily on information from the senses especially vision. Color is believed to be the most important visual experience for humans [3,4].

On average, our brains are over 50% visual and over 90% of information that enters our brains is processed visually [5]. When it comes to information processing, upwards of 50% of our neurons is dedicated to our vision, which is more than the other four senses combined [5]. Color stimulates multiple areas of our brains.

Simply stated, vision rules our brains. Our visual system is a powerful information channel to human cognition including memory, attention and perception. Color is a rapid stimulus that can we can amplify to support our memory performance.

Your Brain on Color
The role played by color in enhancing attention is undisputable [6]. Color is a strong stimulus to the brain. It increases attention levels and cognition. Why does attention matter? Attention is the first step to memory. Essentially, improved attention leads to improved memory.

Colors have a clear advantage when the goal is to improve memory. Recall and retention are better with colored rather than colorless objects [6]. The wide variety of colors can commonly be grouped into ‘cool’ colors and ‘warm’ colors. ‘Cool’ colors are calming while ‘warm’ colors stimulate the brain.

Although the following list of ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ colors is not exhaustive, these colors are used in daily life. We notice warm colors like red stop signs and orange traffic cones. Warm colors (red, orange, yellow) stimulate the mind and increase our ability to recall facts since these colors are more memorable [4].

Cool colors are calming and less stimulating compared to warm colors. Cool colors (blue, green, purple) are used in bedrooms to promote relaxation and sleep while promoting creativity.

External Memory Aids
Memory aids are reminder tools to boost memory. They do not require us to use internal memory strategies to recall information. People utilize a wide variety of external memory reminders designed to support memory such as calendars, notebooks, electronic devices, apps, lists, post-it notes, picture boards and many more.

Memory Enhancement Strategies Using Color
Attention is the initial starting point for memory. Since color is a strong attention-grabbing stimulus to the brain it can be a powerful memory tool for organization and daily planning. Color attracts attention, boosts memory and influences our motivations. Color cues offer a quick, applicable strategy to increase our short-term memory and recall [6,7].

Studies have examined the debate of red versus blue since both colors have been found to boost memory performance. Findings suggest that red is useful to increase performance on detail-oriented tasks by almost 30% while blue was useful for creativity and brainstorming, resulting in twice as many outputs compared to red [7]. Different colors focus our attention and various cognitive processes such as thinking and remembering.

No single color has been reported to provide optimal performance but it is important to note that, over our lifetime, we have learned associations with color that can likely impact our performance. For example, many of us have had a paper graded with red pen from a teacher that has influenced our behavior. We are more likely to pay close attention to the suggested edits and feedback marked in red.

Color coding: This is a common memory enhancement strategy. We may have organized our school supplies by color to designate a particular class. There are multiple uses for color coding in everyday life and can also allow you to rank important tasks. Think about ‘flagging’ an email. Red might indicate a task that requires immediate attention or follow-up.

Use of colors on paper
For better recall and retention of information, use a white background with a colored foreground [6]. Choosing and manipulating colors can also help achieve better results for attention and memory [8] .

Print your to-do list or important documents on different colors. Finding documents for a particular project or a specific list will be much easier.

To summarize:

  •        Color is believed to be the most powerful of all sensory stimulations
  •         Use of colors offers a definite advantage as it improves attention and cognition
  •         Warm and cool colors have a different effect on the brain
  •         Manipulation of background and foreground colors can help improve memory and recall
  •         Color coding can help to rank tasks
  •        Utilizing color is an inexpensive yet efficient way to boost your memory

How will you use color to support your memory?
Attempt to implement one or more memory enhancement strategies utilizing color. Give yourself time to see how color works best for you and see if your organization and memory improves.

I hope this post inspires you to try different memory strategies utilizing color.



[1] Singh, S. (2006). Impact of color on marketing. Management Decision. 44(6). 783-789. Retrieved from: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/00251740610673332

[2] Reference link for photo. http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_07/d_07_p/d_07_p_tra/d_07_p_tra_2a%20copy.jpg

[3] Thorpe, S. J., Fize, D., & Marlot, C. (1996). Speed of processing in the human visual system. Nature. 381. 520-522. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Simon_Thorpe2/publication/14567385_Speed_of_processing_in_the_human_visual_system/links/02e7e518217d2bb8b0000000.pdf

[4] Adams, F.M., Osgood, C.E. (1973). A cross-cultural study of the affective meaning of color. Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology.4(2),135–156. Retrieved from: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/4/2/135.abstract

[5] Bowan, M.D. (2008). Integrating vision with the other senses. Retrieved from: http://simplybrainy.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/2008-Int-Vis-Other-Senses-All-Illustrations.pdf

[6] Dzulkifli, M. A., & Mustafar, M. F. (2013). The Influence of Colour on Memory Performance: A Review. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences : MJMS, 20(2), 3–9. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3743993/

[7] Cernin, P., Keller, B., Stoner, J. (2003).  Color vision in Alzheimer’s patients: Can we improve object recognition with color cues? Aging Neuropsychology, 10(4), 255–267.

[8] University of British Columbia. (2009, February 6). Effect Of Colors: Blue Boosts Creativity, While Red Enhances Attention To Detail. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 23, 2016 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090205142143.htm.

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