The human body is a miraculous thing. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day, billions of biological processes must occur at exactly the right instant and in exactly the right way merely to keep us alive.
This seeming infinity of chemical and mechanical reactions do far more than keep our heart pumping, our blood flowing, and our lungs breathing in and out. These deeply interconnected systems of the inner self enable us to make sense of and move through our exterior world.
Biologists and physicians are only just beginning to understand how complex human sensory perception truly is and how profoundly intertwined the senses really are. It’s called sensory integration, and it’s a process that strongly determines how we experience, engage with, and move through the world.
This increasing insight into the mechanisms and effects of such sensory crosstalk has important implications across almost every domain of human endeavor, from healthcare to education to commerce. However, these revelations carry perhaps the greatest significance in the arena of architecture, environmental engineering, and interior design, those charged with creating spaces that are at once inviting, comfortable, and functional.
Indeed, unleashing the power of sensory integration may prove to be the most effective tool in the designer’s toolbox yet. Nowhere are the possibilities greater, or more interesting, than in the nexus between color and sound perception. But how, exactly, do color and sound interconnect and what might this mean for architects, environmental engineers, and interior designers?
Oh, What a Tangled Web
The sensory organs–the ears, eyes, nose, tongue, and skin–are where external stimuli are received, but the reception of these impulses is only the beginning of a long and complicated process, one that neurobiologists are only beginning to understand. What is already apparent, however, is that the standard assumption that the brain processes distinct categories of sensory stimuli in separate cortical regions is false. Rather, sensory processing is complementary and interdependent, particularly at the higher/latter stages of information processing, where the brain, in essence, “makes sense” of its environment. This is why faint sounds seem louder when they occur simultaneously with a flash of light, as the visual and auditory processing apparatuses amplify one another. The result is a true synergistic effect, and the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.
As complex (some might say “baffling”) as all this may seem, it’s really fairly simple when you consider where and how the brain responds to sensory stimuli. No matter what the particular type, the body sends all environmental stimuli (i.e. sound, light, smell, touch, and taste) to one central area in the deepest and most primitive part of the brain: the thalamus. This catalyzes an endless cascade of neurochemical reactions, activating, in the example above, both the auditory processing apparatus and the visual one. Those impulses are then received by higher-order processing centers, where the visual and auditory information is synthesized, decoded, and made intelligible.
Sight and sound impulses, fundamentally, reinforce one another in this process of transforming sensory data into a meaningful experience of the external environment. This is why, for instance, persons who are hard of hearing are better able to hear and understand what someone is saying when they can also see their lips move. It is also why visual cues have proven so critical in helping children with cochlear implants learn to speak (1).
Bright and Beautiful Sounds
As we’ve seen, the strong interconnection between the senses means that not only is sense perception increased due to sensory integration, but it is also enhanced by it. Indeed, the synergistic effects of sensory integration can determine both what you experience in your external environment and how you experience it.
Not surprisingly, this mechanism has vast implications for architects, environmental engineers, and commercial designers, particularly when it comes to the use of color to shape the environment – or more precisely, the occupant’s experience of the environment. There is, in fact, an entire science behind it. There is a mounting body of evidence to support the wide-ranging benefits of chromotherapy, or the strategic use of color in an environment to influence behavior, emotion, and even physiological functioning (2, 3).
While science increasingly shows that chromotherapy can have a demonstrable impact on cellular function, including the speed at which cells replicate, this is by no means the only, or even the most important, effect of color on human functioning. In fact, color may exert its greatest influences on the mind, producing important psychological effects that in turn shape the body’s physiological response (4).
Blues and greens, for example, have been shown to have a significant calming effect on the mind and body. This may be due, at least in part, to a natural, evolutionary response that links these colors to the colors of nature. By extension, that links them to the inherently healing properties of natural elements, to the restorative properties of earth, water, and sky. For millennia, after all, humans have turned to botanicals from the soil and the sea to cure their illnesses, heal their wounds, and increase their longevity.
It’s an association that’s literally thousands of years in the making, but it’s one that has demonstrable, empirically quantifiable effects on the human brain today. Researchers have found, for instance, that students engaged in a long and tedious task felt calmer and more productive after spending 40 seconds looking at green vegetation on a rooftop than were students engaged in the same task who were required to spend their 40 seconds looking at a bare, concrete rooftop. Research such as this has contributed in no small measure to the rise of biophilic design, which is the integration of natural elements in built environments in order to bring the calming, therapeutic benefits of nature into the space.
Coloring the Soundscape
As we’ve seen, colors can shape a person’s emotions, behaviors, and perceptions, and colors that are reminiscent of the colors of nature can have a particularly soothing and restorative impact. This is especially true of the myriad shades of blue and green.
We’ve also seen that, due to sensory integration, the perception of sight and the perception of sound are linked to and enhanced by one another. What this suggests is that the effects of color may also have a demonstrable effect on the perception of sound.
This is due principally to physiological responses. Environmental noise, for example, can incite a significant, and significantly unhealthy, stress response, triggering the release of cortisol and adrenaline.
The effective use of interior colors can dampen, if not entirely halt, this cascade, thanks to the wonderful, synergistic powers of sensory integration. A moss green wall made of FSorb acoustic tiles, for example, will pack a powerful one-two punch when it comes to reducing noise annoyance. First, the materials used in the panel will absorb sound waves, muffling ambient noise. At the same time, through the magic of chromotherapy, the green color will incite a neurological response that will inhibit the brain’s natural stress reaction when exposed to ambient noise. The background cacophony will be less noticeable, and far less disturbing, in a soothing blue or green room.
If you’re looking for a bit of variety without compromising the calming effects of these nature-inspired hues, violet can be an ideal color alternative. Violet has a blue base, meaning that, even at an unconscious level, it’s going to resonate with associations to sea and sky–not to mention the myriad flower varieties that come decked out in shades of purple and violet.
Another effective strategy for “coloring” the soundscape is to avoid colors that are deeply saturated, particularly if your goal is to create a calm, soothing environment. There is evidence, for example, that the more saturated a color is, the more strongly it is associated with excitement and arousal. This is why pastel colors, particularly lighter shades of turquoise and pale yellow, green, and pink, can have such a relaxing effect. Indeed, if you’ve been to a spa lately, you’ve probably found yourself swathed in these light tones.
Such considerations of color and saturation are especially significant when you’re designing a sound environment for a hospital, school, or another potentially high-stress environment, an environment that must function not only to avoid exacerbating occupants’ stress but to actually help mitigate that stress.
One example lies in Healthcare settings, which are always already fraught environments. When you combine that anxiety with the myriad sights and sounds of the space–the whirring of equipment, the startling shrillness of alarms, the omnipresent beeping of monitors–patients, visitors, and staff are almost inevitably thrown into a state of physiological hyperarousal.
The stark white walls and fierce fluorescent lighting that are characteristic of hospital environments do little to ameliorate that stress response. Unfortunately, a body in a chronic state of stress is a body that heals more slowly–if it heals at all.
For this reason, using cool, unsaturated, nature-inspired colors in hospitals, schools, and other high-stress environments where ambient noise is a concern will only enhance your sound treatment strategy. The visual cues of such a color palette will temper occupants’ stress response which, in turn, will make them less aware of, attentive to, and annoyed by the sounds around them.
On the other hand, and perhaps not surprisingly, if your goal is to increase awareness, alertness, and reactivity, deep, saturated, and bold colors such as red, orange, and bright yellow, appear to be your answer. Red, for example, is typically associated with passion, aggression, and dominance. Recent studies have found that competitive athletes who wear the color red appear to have an advantage over those who sport the more “docile” and healing hues, such as blue or green. Yellow, the color of the sun, is also strongly associated with energy and action. It’s a bright, cheerful color that is often used to increase alertness and boost mood.
What this means is that these vibrant colors may be used in environments where enhancing physical and/or cognitive performance is the prime objective, such as in a school or workplace. The caveat, however, is that using color to increase alertness is likely also to increase the perception of sound, making ambient noise seem louder and more annoying. This will only increase the need for care in designing a sound treatment strategy that reduces echoes, reverberations, and noise.
How FSorb Can Help
At FSorb, our immense catalog of innovative, eco-friendly acoustic solutions comes in a wide array of colors and patterns. We are also proud to customize our products to your exact color, pattern, and design specification (with minimum order). Contact your local FSorb representative today to explore the FSorb product line and discover how we can help you color the perfect sound environment for your next commercial design project.
At FSorb, we are motivated by improving human health and do so by creating eco-friendly acoustic products. Our mission is to help designers build beautiful spaces that reduce excess ambient noise while calming the human nervous system. With over 25 years in the acoustic business we stand behind FSorb as a durable, environmentally friendly, and low-cost product. If you want an acoustic solution that is safe to human health at an affordable price, then we are your resource.
Leybaert J, LaSasso CJ. Cued speech for enhancing speech perception and first language development of children with cochlear implants. Trends Amplif. 2010 Jun;14(2):96-112. doi: 10.1177/1084713810375567. PMID: 20724357; PMCID: PMC4111351.
Azeemi STY, Rafiq HM, Ismail I, Kazmi SR, Azeemi A. The mechanistic basis of chromotherapy: Current knowledge and future perspectives. Complement Ther Med. 2019 Oct;46:217-222. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2019.08.025. Epub 2019 Aug 30. PMID: 31519282.
Azeemi ST, Raza SM. A critical analysis of chromotherapy and its scientific evolution. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Dec;2(4):481-8. doi: 10.1093/ecam/neh137. PMID: 16322805; PMCID: PMC1297510.
Elliot AJ, Maier MA. Color psychology: effects of perceiving color on psychological functioning in humans. Annu Rev Psychol. 2014;65:95-120. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115035. Epub 2013 Jun 26. PMID: 23808916.