Influences of Light & Color on the Mind

How Color and Light Influence the Mind

The following article is excerpted fromLight Therapies: A Complete Guide to the Healing Power of Light by Anadi Martel, published by Inner Traditions.

Meditation is the inner sun,
The source of inner light.

Right from the very start of my interest in light in the 1980s what intrigued me most was to find out whether it could contribute to enhancing altered states of consciousness—specifically, the higher state of meditative consciousness. This propelled my interest in developing new techniques for the control of light based on its modulation. I started out by studying its effects directly on myself, and then I examined its effects on others. This process, which was of an empirical nature, showed clearly that certain types of light could indeed have profound effects on the mind and on the psyche.

At the same time it was obvious to me that no technical method could create a state of meditation. Meditation is being present to oneself, a conscious awareness of our experience in the moment. No machine, no technology, can give us this state of awareness. However, nothing prevents us from using technology to contribute to the creation of an interior space that is favorable to meditation, and in so doing helping it to occur—which is what we intended to do by means of visual stimulation. When we accomplished this we discerned that this sort of sensorial approach could have other applications as well. Ma Premo and I both realized that light could have considerable potential for psychotherapeutic applications. However, though we could clearly recognize its effects, we were still incapable of fully comprehending why they were taking place; it was very difficult to understand this correctly by simply relying on the scientific or psychological facts that were available to us at that time.

We discovered in our early experiments that the light we were using seemed to intervene in an intermediate zone between the physiological influence of color in its most concrete biophysical aspect and its purely cognitive impact through its capacity to evoke a rich interior universe. The conventional scientific references at the time took into account only one of these two influences, and this seemed inadequate to us. In fact, it was only gradually, over the course of about twenty years, that we developed a model to better understand the nature of this intermediary domain, and as a result we were able to identify the scope of therapeutic applications of this type of light.

The Power of Color on the Mind

One of our early inspirations came as a result of the first studies about the way the brain reacts to the perception of color. Generations of researchers had already explored the cerebral structures connected to vision, the most important of all our senses. They had started to identify a complex organization capable of decoding information coming from the retina by means of a successive sequence of cerebral centers, each one processing a particular aspect of the visual field, with the major part of the visual cortex found at the back of the brain, where the optic nerve extends to the occipital lobe.

But it was only in 1989 that Lueck et al. identified the anatomical center that specifically processes information about color. This study was accomplished with positron emission tomography (PET), which enabled scientists to see the metabolic activity in the brain in a very direct way. The technique consisted of having subjects view two analogous images, one a set of rectangles in multiple colors (known as “Mondrians” because they evoke similar-looking images made by painter Piet Mondrian) and the other the same set of rectangles in achromatic shades of gray (see fig. 11.1). They took care to preserve equal luminosity in both types of images in order to create the same level of nervous stimulation in the brains of the test subjects. Then they tested to see which cortical zones reacted differently. In this seminal study, which was later published in the journal Nature, they demonstrated that they were able to isolate the brain’s color center* in a region of the visual cortex called the V4 area (Lueck et al. 1989).

*The color center located in the V4 area of the visual cortex includes the lingual gyrus and the fusiform gyrus.

A particular detail that stood out when I read this study was a graph that depicted the levels of activity in the different cerebral areas when subjects viewed the color images and the achromatic images. Naturally, the color center in the brain reacted more actively to the colored version of the image, while another area, called the frontal eye fields, showed a clear suppression of activity with the colored image (see fig. 11.2). This area is to be found in the frontal cortex, the cerebral lobe generally associated with evolved mental activity, such as language, motivation, and planning.

The logical implication is that color appears to reduce mental activity while simultaneously stimulating the visual cortex. It is as though pure color consisted of complete information in itself, in such a way that the brain is not obliged to pursue any further mental analysis. This was in stark contrast to the same image in black and white, in which the frontal eye fields—i.e., higher cortical functions—are stimulated by the absence of color. Could color be a stimulus permitting the increase of global cerebral energy, yet calming the mind at the same time? This was a seductive possibility, because such a function is precisely what meditation does.

This close relationship between color and the mind was again emphasized in an astonishing study carried out by Kosslyn et al. (2000). He applied the same technique as Lueck (PET measurements resulting from viewing the Mondrian images); however, Kosslyn used subjects who were highly suggestible and placed them under hypnosis.* He discovered that in this case the color center reacts less to the actual coloring of the test image than to the suggestion under hypnosis that the image is colored (or not). Not only does color perception influence the mind, as Lueck had shown, but mind influences color perception: the two are intimately linked.

*According to Kosslyn’s study about 8 percent of the general population is highly suggestible to hypnosis.

The Domains of Influence of Light

Let’s examine more closely two important areas where color exerts its influence: the objective domain (working through the physiological and biophysical channels) and the cognitive domain (animating our thoughts and our consciousness).

We have explored a number of influences coming from the objective domain, which are influences mediated by the purely physical properties of light. This includes all those influences to be found in the new light medicine. So we have photobiomodulation, through which light acts directly at the cellular level, stimulating the mitochondrial respiratory chain and modulating the production of ATP, our metabolic energy source. Also influenced is the nonvisual optical pathway, through which light governs the endocrine system by means of the retinohypothalamic tract. Notably, this includes a profound influence on our central internal clock and consequently on circadian rhythm. Another objective effect of light is that of photic entrainment. Here, pulsating light interacts with brain waves to directly induce different mental states.

Many modalities of alternative light medicine come from the objective domain as well. For example, in syntonic optometry the visual field of the subject is exposed to precise colors in order to obtain specific autonomic effects. In Colorpuncture, the colors are chosen and applied according to the stimulated reflex points. The common characteristic of all of these objective influences is the systematic manner in which their action takes place, independent of the will or of any cognitive involvement of the subject.

The cognitive domain of light is that which passes through the sense of vision; this influence is one of the most profound we can have in life. Through vision, we build an interior representation of our entire world. Vision informs our superior cognitive faculties; it can evoke all the emotions, sensations, and thoughts that define us.

We’ve all heard that old truism, “An image is worth a thousand words.” The arts of painting and photography, television, and cinema are visual forms that can give meaning to our existence. In their most exalted manifestations such as sacred geometry or mandalas, images are capable of exerting influence of a higher spiritual nature. When light interacts in such a way with our mental universe, it is not only acting through its physical properties; it becomes a vehicle for the transfer of information through images that are formed by our visual system. The influence of light in this cognitive domain is characterized by the complexity of its form and by its rich informational content.

The Subjective Domain, the Third Area of Influence

So we possess many ways of using light, which can act on either one or the other of these two domains, the objective and the cognitive. But what happens at the boundary between these two? Essentially, in this intermediate domain we try to induce perceptions of a superior cognitive order by using the objective properties of light. For this reason I call this third domain of influence the subjective domainbecause it intervenes at the level of our interior perception, which is subjective. We will see that it concerns one of the most fertile of regions, and this has profound implications for the therapeutic application of color.

What do we mean when we say “perceptions of a superior cognitive order”? This has to do with all cognitive activity capable of inducing within us a harmonious and positive state of being. Such activity can take several forms: any emotion that evokes beauty or pleasure; the sensation of unity with the flow of life; deep relaxation; or, again, an impression of immense peace and security. Why would such perceptions be of particular therapeutic interest? Most of us understand this intuitively: they permit us to rediscover our natural equilibrium, and they open the door to an intrinsic mechanism of healing always ready to move into action when we give it the opportunity.