If a picture is worth a thousand words, a picture with natural colors may be worth a million, memory-wise. Psychologists have documented that "living color" does more than appeal to the senses. It also boosts memory for scenes in the natural world. The findings, reported in the May issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, published by the American Psychological Association (APA), shed light on how the visual system efficiently exploits color information. Conceivably, by hanging an extra "tag" of data on visual scenes, color helps us to process and store images more efficiently than colorless (black and white) scenes, and as a result to remember them better, too.
In Europe, a trio of psychologists conducted five experiments (participants, in order, numbered 36, 34, 31, 20 and 20) to explore color's role in memory for natural scenes such as forests, rocks and flowers. In the basic experiment, participants looked at 48 photographs, half in color and half in black and white. Then, they viewed the same 48 images randomly mixed with 48 new images, and indicated if they had seen (or not) each picture. Participants remembered the colored natural scenes significantly better than they remembered black and white images, regardless of how long they saw the images.
People who saw images in color but were tested on them in black and white, and vice versa, did not remember them as well. This finding suggests that image colors are part and parcel of initial storage, attached to how objects "appear" in our memory.
Through experimental variations, the researchers ruled out whether color's built-in appeal caused the advantage by grabbing participants' attention better than would black and white. Among other findings, people did not remember falsely colored natural scenes any better than scenes in black and white -- suggesting that it wasn't any color that strengthened memory, but rather natural color. Says co-author Karl Gegenfurtner, Ph.D., "It appears as if our memory system is tuned, presumably by evolution and/or during development, to the color structure found in the world. If stimuli are too strange, the system simply doesn't engage as well, or deems them unimportant." Gegenfurtner, who was with the Max-Planck Institut fur Biologische Kybernetik when the experiments were conducted, is now with Giessen University.
The visual industries may find these studies valuable. "Perhaps designers should be aware that, in order to engage or grab one's attention (as in advertising), bright colors might well be most suitable," Wichmann observes. "If, on the other hand, the aim is more to have an image stick in the viewer's memory, unnatural colors may not be suitable."
Effect of Color on Memory
Article: "The Contributions of Color to Recognition Memory for Natural Scenes," Felix A. Wichmann, Max-Planck Institut fur Biologische Kybernetik and Oxford University; Lindsay T. Sharpe, Universitat Tubingen and University of Newcastle; and Karl R. Gegenfurtner, Max-Plank Institut fur Biologische Kybernetik and Justus-Liebig-Universitat Giessen; Journal of Experimental Psychology -- Learning, Memory and Cognition, Vol 28. No.3.