The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

The brain's memory systems may be particularly attuned to images containing natural colors, according to a study in the May 2002 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

What we remember depends a lot on what happens to grab our attention, and color is one way to grab attention. It's long been known that people shown photographs of forests, rocks, and flowers in natural color or in black-and-white remember the colored images with greater accuracy. But is this memory effect just a byproduct of the intrinsic appeal of bright colors?

To find out, researchers showed people a series of photographs in black-and-white, natural color, and "false" colors (for example, reddish grass, or people with bluish faces). Later, the participants in the study were tested on how well they remembered the pictures. Although the false-colored images were more unusual, participants remembered the naturally-colored pictures better. And the false colored images were no easier to remember than black-and-white ones.

These findings suggest that color makes information more memorable, but only if the colors are realistic. They also suggest that when the brain takes in visual information, conceptual knowledge (i.e., "grass is normally green") and color and are processed together. The result may be a stronger memory for that information.

If these effects of color on memory withstand further testing, industries such as advertising could take advantage. To grab a potential customer's attention, any kind of bright coloring may be sufficient. But to make an image really "stick" in memory, using the natural coloring of an object may be a better strategy.

Further Reading:

  • "The contribution of color to recognition memory for natural scenes," by Felix A. Wichman, et al. (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, May 2002, Volume 28, Number 3, pp. 509-520.)