Your Brain Likes Shiny Blue Things For A Reason

Shiny blue ocean and sky

As water is so necessary and precious to the preservation of life, humans are inexorably draw to lustrous surfaces because they are connected in “ancient memory” to bodies of shimmering water. Color combined with luster is an irresistible lure.

i read that “color factoid” in the margin of page 129 of Pantone Guide to Communicating With Color quite some time ago, and was intrigued. “Ancient memory”? What were they trying to imply here? i tucked it away as something to believe but not yet fully understand, and then more recently i read Suzanne Bohan’s report in the Contra Costa Times about the “Bluemind Summit” held in San Francisco this past June (2011):

The sea and the brain have common chemical compositions, the conferees gathered at the academy learned. And all life arose from the ocean, said Philippe Goldin, a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist from Stanford University who spoke at the event.

“There’s no lack of clarity that we came from the ocean,” he said. “Seventy percent of my body is saltwater. My brain is bathed in saltwater.” Even neurons fire because of salt level changes in the brain.

This evolutionary connection to the ocean explains some of its draw, said Michael Merzenich, an emeritus professor of neuroscience from UC San Francisco.

But he and other scientists described how the ocean instills a sense of safety with its flat horizon that allows humans to spot any oncoming threats like lions or warriors, and unlimited supply of water that’s so essential to life.

“To the evolving mind, it’s the cleanest savanna ever experienced,” said Nichols.

Cultures worldwide pick photos of the savanna as the most appealing, even if they’ve never seen one, pointed out one scientist at the event. And Nichols said even though we rationally know salt water isn’t drinkable, the abundance is nonetheless comforting.

And the smooth surface of the ocean rarely surprises, which is also soothing, Merzenich said. “When it’s landmark-free, it’s naturally calming to us, much like closing your eyes is calming.”

It looks like neuroscience is starting to take on something that designers of all stripes – and humans at large, of course, though perhaps on a deeper, less conscious level – have already known and practiced: conveying feelings of safety, meditative calm, abundance, and life itself through the use of lustrous blues. One of the scientists that helped organize the summit said “Considering the ocean is three-quarters of the planet, it’s kind of a big miss [for neuroscience not to have studied it before now].” (Although, to be thorough and clear, the Pantone quote doesn’t restrict this effect to blues; any lustrous color will produce a similar association)

If you’re a designer or marketer of any type, i invite you to consider more consciously when and how to use shiny blue things, with a more academic understanding of WHY it produces the results it does. We all, as consumers, can be more aware of how we feel when we see unmarked expanses of shimmering blue in any context, and take a moment to appreciate the ancient memory that we’re sharing with all of humankind in that moment.

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