Colour's importance to us as a healing agent was recognized by ancient civilizations of both the East and West, and is again being explored by contemporary scientists and healers
Colours are a wonderful visible display of light energy. These varying wavelengths of energy are trans-lated into the peacock display of colour by photoreceptors in the retina called 'cones'. Although we see a rich palette of colours, there are just three kinds of cones-one type each for blue, green and red. So the variety of colours we actually see is made by mixing these three basic elements.
When light hits the retina, it is converted into electrical impulses that travel to the brain and trigger the release of hormones. That is why colours become associated with certain moods and can influence our thoughts and disposition. We can feel 'blue' or indeed sing the 'blues', while red is associated with passion and so on.
Paradoxically, this phenomenon is more precisely experienced by blind people who, scientists have discovered, can sense colour as energy vibrations-which is exactly what they are.
Historically, colour as a healing therapy in the West remained dormant until the Renaissance physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) spoke with pagan healers, or 'witches', who explained their techniques to him, after which he began using light and colour in his treatments.
But this was more folk medicine than science until the 1950s, when the late University of Alberta professor emeritus Dr Harry Wohlfarth began to conduct colour and light experiments called 'colour psychodynamics', where he demonstrated that certain colours have measurable and predictable effects on the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. Rates of blood pressure, pulse and respiration could be increased dramatically on exposure to the colour yellow, moderately so with orange and minimally so with red. At the other end of the spectrum, he found that black, blue and green had the smallest effects (Int J Biosocial Res, 1984; 1: 44-53, 54-61; 1985; 1: 9-16; 2002; 5: 12-9). Wohlfarth's early findings gave credence to the well-accepted idea that colour and light affect people and their moods and behaviour.
American photobiologist Dr John Ott has continued this work by investigating the effects of colour on the growth and development of plants. He found that plants grown under red glass grew four times as quickly as those exposed to natural sunlight, while green had the opposite effect and was less enhancing than sunlight.
However, although plants enjoyed an initial flourishing under red light, their growth was eventually stunted. Like others before him, Ott discovered that blue light was able to stimulate slower growth, but one that was sustainable, eventually leading to taller and thicker plants.
A similar result was achieved with laboratory rats. Those that lived under a blue light developed normally and grew thicker coats, whereas those kept under a red or pink light experienced an abnormal increase in their appetites and growth patterns.
But red does have its uses, and therapists have worked with it in the treatment of migraine head-aches and even cancer. Red is central to one form of colour therapy being adopted by some oncologists. Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is based on the discovery that certain intravenously injected photosensitive chemicals accum-ulate in cancerous cells only, thus allowing them to be destroyed while leaving the healthy ones alone. The chemicals are activated when a red laser light is beamed onto the patient. Red has a longer wavelength that allows it to penetrate more deeply into tissue than other colours.
PDT was developed by Dr Thomas Dougherty, who has used the technique to treat more than 3,000 patients with various malignant tumours. Far from being a maverick therapy, it has been recognized as a cancer treatment by the US Food and Drug Administration for years. In August 2003, the FDA also approved its use as a treatment for high-grade dysplasia associated with Barrett's oesophagus (a peptic ulcer sometimes followed by an adenocarcinoma). It is believed to be especially beneficial in cancer patients for whom surgery is impossible, or where chemo-therapy or radiation has failed to prevent recurrences (J Natl Cancer Inst, 2002; 94: 1740-2).
Light therapy is often used to treat skin diseases such as psoriasis and has also successfully reversed neonatal jaundice, a potentially fatal condition affecting two-thirds of premature babies.
Obstetricians found that exposure to direct sunlight could counteract the problem, a finding that was confirmed in the 1960s when white-light therapy replaced blood transfusion, a high-risk procedure.
Nowadays consultants use blue light, found to be more effective and less hazardous than full-spectrum light.
The same therapy is also being used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Work by Dr Sharon F. McDonald at the San Diego State University School of Nursing demonstrated that arthritis sufferers exposed to blue light for up to 15 minutes experienced a significant reduction in pain (Int J Biosocial Res, 1982; 3: 49-54).
Blue light can also be used to heal injured tissue and to prevent scarring. And at the 1990 annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, scientists reported on the successful use of blue light to treat a variety of psychological problems such as addictions, eating disorders, impotence and depression.
Colour therapy has even been used to help dyslexia in children. Psychologist Helen Irlen discovered that colours could help such children to read. Her research was initially met with enormous scepticism until research by the UK's Medical Research Council confirmed her findings. As a result, the Intuitive Colorimeter was devised and
is used by opticians. It helps determine which of the colours -bright pink, yellow, green or blue-best helps a dyslexic child see letters and words that would otherwise be swirling or wobbly.
Leaving aside its use in clinical practice, many critics of colour therapy have argued that its efficacy is 'all in the mind'-which is, of course, far truer than they realize. Several studies have established that colour doesn't have to be seen to be either recognized or therapeutic. Tests involving blind, colour-blind and blindfolded participants have established that people can sense colour without actually seeing it.
This phenomenon-known as 'eyeless sight', 'dermo-optic vision' or 'biointroscopy'-has been investigated since the 1920s, when it was found that hypnotized subjects who were blindfolded could recognize colours and shapes using only their foreheads, and that blindfolded subjects who were not hypnotized could describe colours and shapes that were placed under glass.
One extraordinary example of this ability was demonstrated by Russian Rosa Kuleshova, who could distinguish colours and shapes with her fingertips while blindfolded. When experimenters delved further, they found plenty of others who also demonstrated Kuleshova's gifts, leading them to conclude that around one in six of us can do the same after just 30 minutes of training.
Indeed, some people were able to distinguish the correct colour even when they held their fingers as far away as 80 cm (31 inches) above coloured cards and described experiencing sensations like needle pricks or faint breezes, depending on the colour. This ability was demonstrable even when the coloured card was under glass, tracing paper, aluminium foil, or brass or copper plates.
Scientists have been unable to explain these extraordinary events, but believe they have something to do with the hormones melatonin and serotonin, both of which are produced by the pineal gland in the brain. They are the 'night' and 'day' regulators of the brain, and are associated with yellow and dark blue, respectively.
But perhaps the explanation is more interesting yet. If colour is a demonstration of energy waves and we are an aspect of the same sea of energy, it is perhaps not so surprising that we can be influenced by colour.
Colour my room
We all practice colour therapy even if we do so subliminally. Many of us agonize over the colour scheme for a room, and scientists suggest this is for a very good reason.
The governor of a newly built prison noticed that prisoners in each of the four wings behaved differently. He eventually came to realize that this was because each wing had been painted a different colour.
The prisoners had been randomly allocated to one of the wings, yet those in the red and yellow wings were inclined to be more violent than those in the blue and green wings.
His observation is supported by research. Viewing red light has been found to increase the observer's strength by 13.5 per cent, with the arm muscles showing a 5.8 per cent increase in electrical activity.
Red is often used to help athletes like sprinters and pole-vaulters who need quick bursts of energy, while those participating in long-distance races are given blue-light therapy before events.
If red can make you more violent, pink can have a tranquilizing and calming effect, often within one minute. It's an observation that has already been put into practice by the prison service. Holding cells for the most violent and aggressive prisoners are often painted pink. Tests have shown that muscle strength is reduced within two seconds of seeing the colour.
Yellow is another stimulating colour and is along with red the last colour that a violent person should see. Theo Gimbel of Hygeia Studios believes that yellow street lighting (sodium rather than blue/white quartz halogen) could be the cause of violent street crime.
The rainbow doctor
If you want to use colour therapeutically to help recuperation, here are the main colours and their benefits, according to those using colour psychobiotics.
Green - This regulates the pituitary gland and fights depression, bulimia and other psychosomatic conditions affecting the stomach and digestion. It calms the nervous system, fights irritability and insomnia, and can assist recovery from nervous breakdowns.
Blue - The most calming of all colours, it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, lowers blood pressure and calms rates of breathing and heartbeat. It has anti-inflammatory and muscle-relaxing qualities, and can combat physical and mental tension while aiding general relaxation.
Red - This is the colour to use if you want more energy or stimulation. It affects the heart by raising the pulse rate and can increase tension in muscles. It's helpful if you need to be in 'fight-or-flight' mode. Red increases vitality and body temperature and can also trigger excitement and sensuality, so it's the spectrum's answer to Viagra.
Yellow - A detoxifier and cleanser, it can increase neuromuscular tone, purify the blood and aid digestion. It can also be used to stimulate happiness and encourage a strong sense of security as well as feelings of well-being. It is, after all, the colour of the sun.
White - The colour of balance and regeneration, it can also provide energy and so is the ideal antidote if your sleep patterns have gone awry or you're feeling out of kilter with life. It can stimulate the production of serotonin, a hormone regulator. As a result, it's especially helpful for those who suffer seasonal depression during the long days of winter in northern hemispheres.
u The International Association of Colour Therapy (IACT)
P.O. Box 194
London SE16 1QZ
u The Hygeia College of Colour Therapy
Brook House, Hampton Hill
Gloucestershire GL8 8NS
u Aura-Soma International Academy of Colour Therapeutics
Dev Aura, Little London
Tetford near Horncastle
Lincolnshire LN9 6QL
vol 23 no 9 December 2012