Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

17 AUGUST, 2012

Goethe on the Psychology of Color and Emotion

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“Colour itself is a degree of darkness.”

Color is an essential part of how we experience the world, both biologically and culturally. One of the earliest formal explorations of color theory came from an unlikely source — the German poet, artist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in 1810 published Theory of Colours (public library; public domain), his treatise on the nature, function, and psychology of colors. Though the work was dismissed by a large portion of the scientific community, it remained of intense interest to a cohort of prominent philosophers and physicists, including Arthur Schopenhauer, Kurt Gödel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

One of Goethe’s most radical points was a refutation of Newton’s ideas about the color spectrum, suggesting instead that darkness is an active ingredient rather than the mere passive absence of light.

…light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of colour… Colour itself is a degree of darkness.

But perhaps his most fascinating theories explore the psychological impact of different colors on mood and emotion — ideas derived by the poet’s intuition, which are part entertaining accounts bordering on superstition, part prescient insights corroborated by hard science some two centuries later, and part purely delightful manifestations of the beauty of language.

Color wheel designed by Goethe in 1809

YELLOW

This is the colour nearest the light. It appears on the slightest mitigation of light, whether by semi-transparent mediums or faint reflection from white surfaces. In prismatic experiments it extends itself alone and widely in the light space, and while the two poles remain separated from each other, before it mixes with blue to produce green it is to be seen in its utmost purity and beauty. How the chemical yellow develops itself in and upon the white, has been circumstantially described in its proper place.

In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character.

State is agreeable and gladdening, and in its utmost power is serene and noble, it is, on the other hand, extremely liable to contamination, and produces a very disagreeable effect if it is sullied, or in some degree tends to the minus side. Thus, the colour of sulphur, which inclines to green, has a something unpleasant in it.

When a yellow colour is communicated to dull and coarse surfaces, such as common cloth, felt, or the like, on which it does not appear with full energy, the disagreeable effect alluded to is apparent. By a slight and scarcely perceptible change, the beautiful impression of fire and gold is transformed into one not undeserving the epithet foul; and the colour of honour and joy reversed to that of ignominy and aversion. To this impression the yellow hats of bankrupts and the yellow circles on the mantles of Jews, may have owed their origin.

RED-YELLOW

As no colour can be considered as stationary, so we can very easily augment yellow into reddish by condensing or darkening it. The colour increases in energy, and appears in red-yellow more powerful and splendid.

All that we have said of yellow is applicable here, in a higher degree. The red-yellow gives an impression of warmth and gladness, since it represents the hue of the intenser glow of fire.

YELLOW-RED

As pure yellow passes very easily to red-yellow, so the deepening of this last to yellow-red is not to be arrested. The agreeable, cheerful sensation which red-yellow excites increases to an intolerably powerful impression in bright yellow-red.

The active side is here in its highest energy, and it is not to be wondered at that impetuous, robust, uneducated men, should be especially pleased with this colour. Among savage nations the inclination for it has been universally remarkedy and when children, left to themselves, begin to use tints, they never spare vermilion and minium.

In looking steadfastly at a perfectly yellow-red surface, the colour seems actually to penetrate the organ. It produces an extreme excitement, and still acts thus when somewhat darkened. A yellow-red cloth disturbs and enrages animals. I have known men of education to whom its effect was intolerable if they chanced to see a person dressed in a scarlet cloak on a grey, cloudy day.

The colours on the minus side are blue, red-blue, and blue-red. They produce a restless, susceptible, anxious impression.

BLUE

As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.

This colour has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.

As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us.

But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies from us, so we love to contemplate blue — not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.

Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade. We have before spoken of its affinity with black.

Rooms which are hung with pure blue, appear in some degree larger, but at the same time empty and cold.

The appearance of objects seen through a blue glass is gloomy and melancholy.

When blue partakes in some degree of the pltis side, the effect is not disagreeable. Sea-green is rather a pleasing colour.

RED-BLUE

We found yellow very soon tending to the intense state, and we observe the same progression in blue.

Blue deepens very mildly into red, and thus acquires a somewhat active character, although it is on the passive side. Its exciting power is, however, of a different kind from that of the red-yellow. It may be said to disturb, rather than enliven.

As augmentation itself is not to be arrested, so we feel an inclination to follow the progress of the colour, not, however, as in the case of the red-yellow, to see it still increase in the active sense, but to find a point to rest in.

In a very attenuated state, this colour is known to us under the name of lilac; but even in this degree it has a something lively without gladness.

BLUE-RED

This unquiet feeling increases as the hue progresses, and it may be safely assumed, that a carpet of a perfectly pure deep blue-red would be intolerable. On this account, when it is used for dress, ribbons, or other ornaments, it is employed in a very attenuated and light state, and thus displays its character as above defined, in a peculiarly attractive manner.

As the higher dignitaries of the church have appropriated this unquiet colour to themselves, we may venture to say that it unceasingly aspires to the cardinal’s red through the restless degrees of a still impatient progression.

RED

Whoever is acquainted with the prismatic origin of red will not think it paradoxical if we assert that this colour partly actu, partly potentia, includes all the other colours.

We have remarked a constant progress or augmentation in yellow and blue, and seen what impressions were produced by the various states; hence it may naturally be inferred that now, in the junction of the deepened extremes a feeling of satisfaction must succeed ; and thus, in physical phenomena, this highest of all appearances of colour arises from the junction of two contrasted extremes which have gradually prepared themselves for a union.

As a pigment, on the other hand, it presents itself to us already formed, and is most perfect as a hue in cochineal ; a substance which, however, by chemical action may be made to tend to the plus or the minus side, and may be considered to have attained the central point in the best carmine.

The effect of this colour is as peculiar as its nature. It conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness. The first in its dark deep state, the latter in its light attenuated tint; and thus the dignity of age and the amiableness of youth may adorn itself with degrees of the same hue.

History relates many instances of the jealousy of sovereigns with regard to the quality of red. Surrounding accompaniments of this colour have always a grave and magnificent effect. The red glass exhibits a bright landscape in so dreadful a hue as to inspire sentiments of awe.

GREEN

If yellow and blue, which we consider as the most fundamental and simple colours, are united as they first appear, in the first state of their action, the colour which we call green is the result.

The eye experiences a distinctly grateful impression from this colour. If the two elementary colours are mixed in perfect equality so that neither predominates, the eye and the mind repose on the result of this junction as upon a simple colour. The beholder has neither the wish nor the power to imagine a state beyond it. Hence for rooms to live in constantly, the green colour is most generally selected.

Though hardly a work of science, Theory of Colours stands as an absorbing account of the philosophy and artistic experience of color, bridging the intuitive and the visceral in a way that, more than two hundred years later, continues to intrigue.

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16 AUGUST, 2012

Happy Birthday, Bukowski: On Going All The Way

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“It’s the only good fight there is.”

Charles Bukowskibeloved poet and novelist, grim prophet of love, champion-voice of the 99% long before they were called that — would have been 92 today.

From his 1975 novel Factotum (public library) comes one of my favorite passages in literature, which lives beautifully outside its immediate context as a timeless and powerful manifesto for living wholeheartedly and living the life of purpose:

If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery — isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

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16 AUGUST, 2012

Risk Intelligence, the Art of Uncertainty, and the Flawed Psychology of Airport Security

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What the TSA has to do with Rilke and the boundaries of knowledge.

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” Rilke advised. “Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty,” asserted Stuart Firestein in his fantastic book on the value of ignorance. “You live out the confusions until they become clear, Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary. Uncertainty has even been shown to be the key to happiness.

In Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty (public library), Dylan Evans explores the psychology, sociology, and politics of uncertainty through what he calls “risk intelligence” — the essential skill of learning the boundaries of our knowledge and using that insight in honing our humanly flawed decision-making.

At the heart of risk intelligence lies the ability to gauge the limits of your own knowledge — to be cautious when you don’t know much, and to be confident when, by contrast, you know a lot. People with high risk intelligence tend to be on the button in doing this.

[…]

This is a vital skill to develop, as our ability to cope with uncertainty is one of the most important requirements for success in life, yet also one of the most neglected. We may not appreciate just how often we’re required to exercise it, and how much impact our ability to do so can have on our lives, and even on the whole of society.

As a frequent traveler who resents the tedium, frustration, and time-sink of airport procedures — so much so that I’ve begun turning down speaking appearances solely on the basis of travel time involved — I found particularly fascinating Evans’s exploration of risk intelligence through the lens of airport security:

The security expert Bruce Schneier has dubbed many of the [airport security] measures “security theater” on the grounds that they serve merely to create an appearance that the authorities are doing something but do nothing to reduce the actual risk of a terrorist attack. Indeed, it is intelligence tip-offs, not airport checkpoints, that have foiled the vast majority of attempted attacks on aircraft.

Schneier may be right that many of the new airport security procedures are purely theatrical, but that begs the question as to why they are such good theater. In other words, it is not enough to point out the mismatch between feeling safe and being safe; if we want to understand this blind spot in our risk intelligence, we need to know why things such as taking one’s shoes off and walking through a body scanner are so effective in creating such (objectively unreliable) feelings of safety. It probably has something to do with their visibility; intelligence gathering may be more effective at reducing the risk of a terrorist attack, but it is by its very nature invisible to the general public. The illusion of control may be another factor; when we do something active such as taking our shoes off, we tend to feel more in control of the situation, but when we sit back and let others (such as spies gathering intelligence) do all the work, we feel passive and impotent. Maybe there’s a ritual aspect here, too, as in the joke “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.” The default assumption is that the “something” is good, and we feel better. Psychologists have long known that the illusion of control is a key factor in risk perception; it is probably one of the main reasons why people feel safer driving than when flying, even though driving is more dangerous.

Politicians, Evans points out, have a vested interest in putting on this security theater, which lets them get credit for taking action. But current security measures are orchestrated on the presumption that every single person is equally likely to be a perpetrator, which is statistically inaccurate, can be avoided with better pre-screening measures, and proves highly costly on many levels:

To gauge the true cost of screening passengers at airports in the United States, it is not enough to look at the TSA’s operating budget; we should also take into account the extra time passengers have spent waiting in line, taking their shoes off, and so on. Robert Poole , a member of the National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel in the Government Accountability Office, has calculated that the additional time spent waiting at airports since 9/11 has cost the nation about $8 billion a year. It is by no means clear that this was the wisest use of the security budget. Every dollar spent on one security measure is a dollar that can’t be spent on an alternative one. The costs of the new security procedures do not end there. Long lines at airports have prompted more people to drive rather than fly, and that has cost lives because driving is so much more dangerous than flying. The economist Garrick Blalock estimated that from September 2001 to October 2003, enhanced airport security measures led to 2,300 more road fatalities than would otherwise have occurred. Those deaths represent a victory for Al Qaeda.

One of the principal goals of terrorism is to provoke overreactions that damage the target far more than the terrorist acts themselves, but such knee-jerk responses also depend on our unwillingness to think things through carefully. As long as we react fearfully to each new mode of attack, democratic governments are likely to continue to implement security theater to appease our fears. Indeed, this is the Achilles’ heel of democracy that terrorists exploit. One thing we could all do to help combat terrorism is to protect this Achilles’ heel by developing our risk intelligence.

The rest of Risk Intelligence goes on to explore everything from the mechanisms of climate change misinformation to how “the CSI effect” makes jurors in real-life criminal trials hold evidence to the impossible standards of fictionalized TV dramas. Underpinning these broader insights is a practical toolkit for enhancing our own risk intelligence in a way that translates into better, smarter everyday decision-making.

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