Investigations into the therapeutic use of color were carried out in Europe during the early twentieth century, notably by Rudolph Steiner, who related color to form, shape, and sound. He suggested that the vibrational quality of certain colors is amplified by some forms, and that certain combinations of color and shape have either destructive or regenerative effects on living organisms. In the schools inspired by Steiner's work, classrooms are painted and textured to correspond to the "mood" of children at various stages of their development.
Rudolph Steiner's work was continued by Theo Gimbel, who established the Hygeia Studios and College of Color Therapy in Britain. Among the principles explored by Gimbel are the claims of Max Luscher, a former professor of psychology at Basle University, who claimed that color preferences demonstrate states of mind and/or glandular imbalance, and can be used as the basis for physical and psychological diagnosis. Luscher's theory, which forms the basis of the Luscher Color Test, rests on the idea that the significance of color for man originates in his early history, when his behavior was governed by night and day. Luscher believed that the colors associated with these two environments -- yellow and dark blue -- are connected with differences in metabolic rate and glandular secretions appropriate to the energy required for nighttime sleep and daytime hunting. He also believed that autonomic (involuntary) responses are associated with other colors.
Support for Luscher's theories was provided in the 1940s by the Russian scientist S. V. Krakov, who established that the color red stimulates the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system, while blue stimulates the parasympathetic part. His findings were confirmed in 1958 by Robert Gerard.
Gerard found that red produced feelings of arousal, and was disturbing to anxious or tense subjects, while blue generated feelings of tranquility and well-being and had a calming effect. The discovery that blood pressure increases under red light and decreases under blue light led Gerard to suggest that psychophysiological activation increases with wavelength from blue to red.
Although cautious about his findings and insisting on the need for further research, Gerard highlighted the possible therapeutic benefits of the color blue, and recommended it as supplementary therapy in the treatment of various conditions. Among other suggestions, Gerard pointed to the possible uses of blue as a tranquilizer and relaxant in anxious individuals, and as a way of reducing blood pressure in the treatment of hypertension.
Dr. Harry Wohlfarth also showed that certain colors have measurable and predictable effects on the autonomic nervous system of people. In numerous studies, he found that blood pressure, pulse, and respiration rates increase most under yellow light, moderately under orange, and minimally under red, while decreasing most under black, moderately under blue, and minimally under green.
Subsequent research on plants and animals conducted by the photobiologist Dr. John Ott demonstrated the effects of color on growth and development. Plants grown under red glass were found to shoot up four times quicker than those grown in ordinary sunlight, and to grow much more slowly under green glass. However, although red light initially overstimulated plants, their growth was subsequently stunted, whereas blue light produced slower growth initially but taller, thicker plants later.
Rodents kept under blue plastic grew normally, but when kept under red or pink plastic their appetite and growth rate increased. If kept under blue light, animals grew denser coats.
During the 1950s, studies suggested that neonatal jaundice, a potentially fatal condition found in two-thirds of premature babies, could be successfully treated by exposure to sunlight. This was confirmed in the 1960s, and white light replaced the high-risk blood transfusions in the treatment of this condition. Blue light was later found to be more effective and less hazardous than full-spectrum light (the most common form of treatment for neonatal jaundice).
Bright white full-spectrum light is also now being used in the treatment of cancers, SAD (seasonal affective disorder -- so called "winter depression"), anorexia, bulimia nervosa, insomnia, jet lag, shift-working, alcohol and drug dependency, and to reduce overall levels of medication.
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The blue light found to be successful in the treatment of neonatal jaundice has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. In studies by S. F. McDonald, most of those exposed to blue light for variable periods up to fifteen minutes experienced a significant degree of pain relief. It was concluded that the pain reduction was directly related both to the blue light and the length of exposure to it. Blue light is also used in healing injured tissue and preventing scar tissue, in the treatment of cancers and nonmalignant tumors, as well as skin and lung conditions.
In 1990, scientists reported to the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the successful use of blue light in the treatment of a wide variety of psychological problems, including addictions, eating disorders, impotence, and depression.
RECENT APPLICATIONS OF COLOR
At the other end of the color spectrum, red light has been shown to be effective in the treatment of migraine headaches and cancer. As a result, color is becoming widely accepted as a therapeutic tool with various medical applications.
A new technique, which has been developed over the past two decades as a result of pioneering research, is photodynamic therapy, or PDT. This is based on the discovery that certain intravenously injected photosensitive chemicals not only accumulate in cancer cells but selectively identify these cells under ultraviolet light. These photosensitive chemicals then exclusively destroy the cancer cells when activated by red light, whose longer wavelength allows it to penetrate tissue more deeply than other colors. PDT can be used for both diagnosis and treatment.
Dr. Thomas Dougherty, who developed PDT, reports that in a worldwide experiment more than 3000 people, with a wide variety of malignant tumors, have been successfully treated with this technique.
OTHER THERAPEUTIC APPLICATIONS
Color is also used therapeutically in a variety of non medical settings. In some cases its effects have been quite accidental, as in a report to me by the governor of a newly built prison in which each of its four wings had been painted a different color. Both he and his staff found that the behavior of the prisoners varied significantly depending on which wing they lived in, although their allocation to each had been random. Those in red and yellow wings were more inclined to violence than those in the blue and green wings.
Experimental research lends support to these observations. Viewing red light has been found to increase subjects' strength by 13.5 percent and to elicit 5.8 percent more electrical activity in the arm muscles. For this reason it is now used to improve the performance of athletes. Whereas red light appears to help athletes who need short, quick bursts of energy, blue light assists in performances requiring a more steady energy output.
By comparison, pink has been found to have a tranquilizing and calming effect within minutes of exposure. It suppresses hostile, aggressive, and anxious behavior -- interesting given its traditional association with women in Western culture. Pink holding cells are now widely used to reduce violent and aggressive behavior among prisoners, and some sources have reported a reduction of muscle strength in inmates within 2.7 seconds. It appears that when in pink surroundings people cannot be aggressive even if they want to, because the color saps their energy.
By contrast, yellow should be avoided in such contexts because it is highly stimulating. Gimbel has suggested a possible relationship between violent street crime and sodium yellow street lighting.
Research has also shown that color-tinted eyeglasses can be highly effective in the treatment of learning difficulties, notably dyslexia. This was first discovered by psychologist Helen Irlen, but was regarded skeptically until recent investigations by the British Medical Research Council confirmed Irlen's claims. In June 1993, a new optician's device called the Intuitive Colorimeter was made available to British opticians so they could measure which tint -- bright pink, yellow, green or blue -- best helps people who normally see text as swirling, wobbling, or with letters appearing in the wrong order.
PHYSICAL EFFECTS OF COLOR
Until recently, the function of light was thought to relate largely to sight. However, it is now well established that color need not actually be seen for it to have definite psychological and physiological effects. It can also be distinguished by blind, colorblind, and blindfolded subjects. This phenomenon, referred to as eyeless sight, dermo-optic vision, or bio-introscopy, has been researched since the 1920s, when it was established that hypnotized blindfolded subjects could recognize colors and shapes with their foreheads, and that non hypnotized blindfolded subjects could precisely describe colors and shapes presented under glass.
Research in Russia during the 1960s was stimulated by studies of Roza Kulesheva, who, when blindfolded, could distinguish color and shape with her fingertips, and could also read this way. Other experiments found that Kulesheva was not exceptional; one in six experimental subjects could recognize color with their fingertips after only 20-30 minutes training, and blind people developed this sensitivity even more quickly.
Some subjects who could distinguish color correctly by holding their fingers 20-80 centimeters above color cards described experiencing sensations varying from needle pricks to faint breezes, depending on the color. Even when heat differences, structural differences in dyestuffs, and other variables were controlled, people were still able to distinguish colors accurately, whether they were put under glass, tracing paper, aluminium foil, brass or copper plates. The phenomenon remains something of a puzzle.
Understanding of these effects has come about only as a result of research into the hormones melatonin and serotonin, both of which are produced by the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin is known to be the crucial chemical pathway by which animals respond to light and synchronize their bodily functioning with diurnal, lunar, and seasonal variations. Serotonin is a very important neurotransmitter in the brain, whose action has been linked with mental disturbances such as schizophrenia and hallucinogenic states.
Serotonin, a stimulant, is produced by day, whereas the output of melatonin -- which is linked with sleep -- increases when it is dark and has a generally depressive effect. This is reversed when it is light and production of melatonin drops. Its main site of action appears to be the hypothalamus, the part of the brain involved in mediating the effects of various hormones and regulating emotions. However, changes in the output of melatonin in response to light influence every cell of the body, notably the reproductive processes, which are very sensitive to such variations. Very high levels of melatonin have been found in women with ovulation problems and anorexia nervosa (a characteristic feature of which is amenorrhoea, or absence of periods), in men with low sperm count, and people suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which usually occurs during winter.
Depression in general appears to be closely linked with melatonin levels, and sufferers tend to show rapid improvement in response to natural sunlight or light therapy using full-spectrum lamps. Research has also confirmed that certain parts of the brain are not only light sensitive but actually respond differently to different wavelengths; it is now believed that different wavelengths (color) of radiation interact differently with the endocrine system to stimulate or reduce hormone production.
It might be thought that modern-day healing with color is based on the discoveries of Western science over the past few decades. However, it is based on an altogether more ancient and esoteric science whose principles and practices have yet to be acknowledged, much less verified by Western scientists. Healing with color is rooted in ancient mysticism, the major principles of which are common to many different cultures throughout the world.
Discover Color Therapy: A First-Step Handbook to Better Health
by Helen Graham.
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About the Author
Helen Graham is a lecturer in psychology at Keele University in England and she has specialized in color research for a number of years. She also presents workshops on the use of color healing.