Natural Color Has Staying Power

People remember natural color images best, study finds

WEDNESDAY, May 8, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Colors, especially bright ones, grab our attention. However, natural colors, such as those found in trees, lakes and water, are the most memorable.

This new finding may have practical implications for visual designers, educators, corporate trainers, safety experts and others interested not only in getting our attention, but in helping us remember the message.

A report on the research appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

"What our study demonstrates is that human memory for natural scenes is significantly better for color than for monochrome or black-and-white images of such natural scenes," says co-author Felix A. Wichmann, a researcher at Oxford University in England.

The European researchers made the discovery about natural colors after they did a series of experiments showing 141 subjects a variety of photographs -- both color and black and white. Some of the color photographs were natural color, while others were artificial color. The photos depicted landscapes, flowers, rock formations and manmade objects, such as a pickup truck parked by a utility pole.

First, the subjects looked at 48 photos, half in color and half in black and white. Then, they viewed the same 48 photos mixed in with 48 new images, and had to remember if they had seen each photo before.

The subjects remembered the natural color scenes best. Researchers say it isn't just color, but natural color, that's most memorable. When they probed further, they found the subjects did not remember artificially colored scenes any better than black-and-white ones.

Why are natural colors so memorable? Our memories are tuned -- either by evolution, during our development or both -- to the structure of color found naturally in the world, says Karl Gegenfurtner, a researcher at Giessen University in Germany and another co-author of the study.

That makes sense to Kenneth Deffenbacher, chairman of the department of psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, whose research areas include memory and visual perception. The natural color, he says, may help your mind encode the image, "to put it in a form you remember better."

The impact of natural color on memory, he agrees, is probably due both to evolutionary causes and to our own development from childhood to adulthood.

"The natural colors have been around so much longer, so we are used to processing these natural colors," Deffenbacher says. "It's as if our brains have some sort of biological expectation of certain objects being certain colors. We have a reasonable expectation of how human skin tones should be [for instance], and also what tones various objects within the environment should be. As we go from infancy to adulthood, we have these things confirmed."

We come to expect rocks, for instance, to be certain shades and the sky to be blue.

"It is hard to estimate how much of this is hardwired versus how much are software changes, so to speak -- that is, our own experience," Deffenbacher says. "I suspect a good part of it is hardwired or evolutionary."

The take-home point?

"One could speculate that images which should be remembered -- be it in advertising or education or training films for corporations -- may be advantageously presented in their natural colors," says Wichmann. Safety messages, such as what to do in case of a fire, might employ color photos of real people instead of line drawings, he adds.

Educators might take note, too, adds Gegenfurtner.

"Students should be able to remember colored figures better than black and white figures," he says. "Many schoolbooks and textbooks still have black and white figures because they are cheaper. Now there is a good justification to add color."

What To Do: For information on color research, see the Rochester Institute of Technology's Munsell Color Science Laboratory or click here.

SOURCES: Karl Gegenfurtner, Ph.D., Giessen University, Germany; Felix A. Wichmann, D.Phil., Max Planck Institute, Germany, and Oxford University, England; Kenneth Deffenbacher, chairman, department of psychology, University of Nebraska at Omaha; May 2002 Journal of Experimental Psychology
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