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Seeing Red

Colours affect our emotional state, and maybe our motor control as well, new research has found

Seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses really does change things — but not how you might think. Scientists at U of T have found that simply wearing red glasses can make you point at a target more clumsily than normal.

There are many reports in the scientific literature about how the colour red influences our performance and behaviour. One team found that we have more trouble solving puzzles and anagrams when we see red. Another found that, although threatening faces tend to be perceived more rapidly than non-threatening faces, that speediness is erased when the faces are shown against a red background. Explanations for these effects vary, but the latter team’s work drew a connection between the colour red and emotion.

Camille Williams, in the department of rehabilitation science, and her colleagues, decided to chip away at the problem of red by examining how colours might affect movement control. They asked 14 volunteers to don eyeglasses of various colours — red, yellow, green, blue and clear — and to quickly move their index finger from one designated spot on a table to another at the sound of a buzzer. Their movements were recorded by infrared sensors and assessed for accuracy.

The researchers found that only the red glasses made a difference. Volunteers seeing red made more errors getting their fingers to the cross-hairs. “They were less consistent,” says Williams. “That suggested there was less regulation of the movement as it was going on.”

While wearing the differently coloured glasses, the volunteers had also filled out a questionnaire about their emotional state. Red glasses put them in a less sunny frame of mind than other colours, the researchers found. Williams and her group think that the colour red activates less positive feelings which in turn impair movement.

The team is now interested in knowing whether different types of motor tasks are similarly affected by red. Williams thinks the findings may prove important in sports training, for instance, or for computer-based rehabilitation. “People need to be aware of the effect of colour,” she says. “What we know for sure is that red should be used with caution.”

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