The Color of Emotion

By Kathy Scherer, PhD. Emotions are the colors of the mind; they help us learn, create, and form relationships. Although our emotions may start with an immediate sorting of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to protect us, it quickly gets more colorful.

Our emotional capacity is built from the bottom up, following the evolutionary development of the brain. Basic emotions are rooted in the older, more primitive, mid portion of the brain that we share with most mammals, while our more complex emotions are created in the more advanced, higher portion of the brain.

Primary emotions, like primary colors, are the foundation of more complex emotions. These basic emotions are found across cultures and species. Such feelings include care, play, grief, and anxiety. Primary colors like red, blue, and yellow mix to create more complex colors like purple and green, similarly complex emotion are a blending of basic emotions with the help of the higher brain. This creates intricate feelings such as trust, pride, guilt, and shame.

Parents and teachers can accentuate the colors that build emotional strength. Joyous laughter, loving hugs, and playful banter stimulate neuronal growth in areas of the brain responsible for learning and curiosity. This positive play with others also decreases the brain’s sensitivity to fear, grief and panic.

In all mammals, the success of the offspring is dependent on the positive relationship with an adult caretaker. Rats with more nurturing and grooming from their caretaker grow to be stronger and more resilient than rats who lack affection. Elephants with nurturing parental figures live longer and are more successful in their adult lives than those who lack such parental support.

Extreme negative experiences in childhood such as constant fear, repeated anger in the home, or chronic depression can shape young emotional systems in self-defeating ways. This stress decreases brain growth in areas that help calm anxiety and increases areas that raise the negative reaction to stress. Repeated stress then becomes a negative cycle lacking the full pallet of color needed for positive growth. The brain’s ability to grow and change, neuroplasticity, holds hope for children even after difficult experiences. Immediate parental intervention is the best way to repair damage.

It is our responsibility, as adults, to offer children the support and love to help shape their life’s trajectory for the better. Adults who are fortunate to feel secure and hopeful in life hold a rich canvas for children to grow and heal. Positive experiences early in life can mold young minds into a life of opportunity and growth rather than a scenario of disappointment and despair.

Young minds require strong adults to bring color into their lives so they can feel loved, secure, and curious. Supportive adults lay the foundation for children to relish in feelings of happiness and confidence, and to seek comfort in times of grief and frustration. We must prepare children for all of the colors of life and to flourish.


The Heart and Work of Parenting blog is the written by two Psychologists, Drs. Kathy Scherer and Elizabeth Sylvester, who live and work in the heart of family life. They bring their expertise on emotional development, family attachments, neurobiology, and current scientific research to their work. The contents of this blog are sections of a book in progress; we welcome any thoughtful feedback. Website: Heart and Work.

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