You've had your pre-game warm-ups and you're feeling loose, confident and aggressive as you lumber off the football field, down the tunnel and into the visitors' locker room. As you stare at the walls, you begin to relax and reflect, anticipating a win over the University of New Mexico. You're favored. You smile. It starts to feel like a good day.
Then you go out and get hammered. Absolutely shredded. Why?
Part of the answer may lie in the fact that a former athletic director at the University of New Mexico knew which crayon in the box was the one that made you think of peace and good will toward your fellow man and which was the one that made you want to beat your fellow man to marmalade. He made sure that the visitors' locker room was painted a calming blue and the home locker room a jangling red.
While you were feeling blissed out, the home players were stalking around in their crimson cage like gorillas on a caffeine binge, getting meaner and nastier by the minute.
That's how dramatic the effects of color on our bodies and minds can be, said Barbara Colby, an interior designer and author who specializes in the use of color.
Colors, she said, can affect us profoundly, both psychologically and physically, depressing or elating us, distressing or healing, calming or agitating, leading us to different thoughts, behavior, moods and states of well-being.
"Most people don't realize how light and color relate to shaping our lives," said Colby, who operates the Glendale design and color marketing firm of Chromanetics.
"It's used," she said, "to sell products, to move people in and out of restaurants quickly, to avoid accidents. Doctors diagnose by the color of your skin, your eyes, your tongue, your throat. You can use it to energize people, to sedate people. You can create almost any emotion or mood with color. I can't even imagine life without it."
Our response to the stimuli of colors is complex, Colby said, and begins in infancy.
A newborn does not perceive color, only contrasts of black and white, but after a few weeks, she said, color perception begins and, "depending on your socioeconomic background, those perceptions take shape in different ways."
The more educated, sophisticated and wealthy a person is, she said, the more the person is likely to prefer more complex mixtures and more sophisticated colors. Those lower on the socioeconomic scale tend to prefer starker, more basic colors.
Emotional responses to colors, she said, "are bound to time, place, geographic location, cultural development, age and gender." Cultural conditioning, in other words, determines how we think about colors.
Conditioning, however, does not figure in what Colby said is an automatic bodily response to certain colors.
Your favorite color may be red, but "if I sat you in front of a red wall for as little as 15 minutes," Colby said, "your muscle activity would increase, and your breathing and blood pressure would increase also."
Red--or any color of the visible spectrum--produces waves of certain lengths, which are perceived by the eyes, Colby said, and have a direct effect on the adrenal glands next to the kidneys, called the adrenal medulla.
The wavelength of red, for instance, causes the glands to secrete adrenalin. Conversely, "you can keep (adrenalin) from being shot off by putting a person in a blue room, which would render the adrenal medulla sedated," she said.
"Your glands don't know what color red or blue or yellow is," Colby said, "but by virtue of the fact that you have certain built-in responses, your body will react automatically."
Each color has a particular effect on people, both emotional and physical, said Dana Eggerts, a designer with the Costa Mesa interior design firm of Creative Design Consultants.
These effects, she said, can be heightened or muted, depending on the shade and tone of the color used.
Perhaps the strongest response, she said, is produced by red, which tends to "increase hormonal or sexual activity, raise your blood pressure and your pulse rate and actually activate your adrenalin. It increases restlessness and nervous tension. It also induces creativity, but people tend to lose track of time."
It also tends to increase the appetite, Eggerts said. It is no accident that so many fast-food outlets are awash in reds, oranges and yellows--all stimulating colors that encourage people to eat a lot, and eat quickly.
Yellow, Eggerts said, "is the most highly visible color your eye sees. It's the most vibrant. It stimulates a bright and cheerful mood."
However, she added, the unrestrained or unmitigated use of yellow "causes people to lose their tempers more often. They don't use that color in homes for the elderly, and babies cry more often if they're in yellow rooms. If you're in a yellow room too long, you get too stimulated. It can aggravate people."