YInMn, the new shade of blue

The quest for new colours is a space where art meets science
Photograph of YInMn Blue as synthesized in the laboratory.

Last year, the first new blue pigment for 200 years (YInMn Blue, pronounced yin min) was officially approved for commercial use. It was discovered accidentally in a chemistry lab at Oregon State University back in 2009. A team of scientists was working on an electronics project when they stumbled upon this shade that resulted from heating the elements yttrium, indium and manganese, giving us YInMn Blue.

This blue may be the latest but discovering pigments goes back thousands of years, across continents, and has on occasion, shaped societies.

Purple, for instance, has a colourful history. In Roman times, Tyrian purple, named after the ancient Lebanese city, Tyre, was made from a certain snail shell. Around a quarter of a million sea snails were required to make a single ounce of this imperial hue. Little wonder then that purple became a symbol of wealth and power in several societies. For example, England's Queen Elizabeth I passed laws banning all but the royal family and her closest relatives from wearing purple.

In the middle of the 19th century, though, purple's fortunes took a turn. In 1856, the hunt for a malaria cure led to an 18-year-old chemistry student, William Perkin, accidentally discovering a cheap purple: the world's first synthetic dye. Never again would purple fabric be restricted to the fabulously wealthy.

What impact might YInMn Blue have? Could it trigger particular thoughts and make us more likely to feel certain emotions?

Most colours have fascinating histories. Few people, for instance, know that the tint 'mummy brown' was made by pulverising the mummified remains of cats and crocodiles, but also humans. The popularity of this brown pigment among 16th-century artists led to the digging up of human remains.

Among the rich stories of colour, accidental discoveries happen the other way around too, with the quest for colour sometimes leading to scientific breakthroughs. For example, the hunt for commercial dyes in the 1950s led to the developing of chlorpromazine, a drug that managed psychosis and made it possible for psychiatric patients to be prescribed those and finally be discharged from institutions. Who could have predicted that the hunt for dyes would result in a 90 per cent decrease in in-patient care since the 1950s?

The quest for new colours is a space where art meets science. Artists see a link between colour and science, especially a connection with psychology. Vincent van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky believed that colour acts directly on the psyche. Kandinsky wrote: "Colour hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body."

BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 24:  Visitors take a look at Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night" at the MoMA exhibit, on March 24, 2004 in Berlin, Germany. The exhibit, which opened February 20 and runs through December 14, has been a tremendous success and is averaging between 5,000 and 7,000 visitors a day. Highlights of the exhibit, all of which come from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, include works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein.  (Photo Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

But what does science have to say about the effect of colour on minds, moods and motivation? Quite a bit, as it turns out. One study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology in 2013, examined the idea of wearing red, as opposed to blue, and whether that influenced the outcome of single-competitor combat sports such as boxing, wrestling and tae kwon do.

This question was explored during the 2004 Olympic Games by randomly assigning red or blue outfits to competitors. In closely fought bouts, where the athletes were evenly matched, 62 per cent of victories went to participants in red. The study's authors concluded that all else being equal, wearing red appears to confer a competitive advantage. The effect seems to hold in the digital world too. A recent study looked at gaming performance on a first-person-shooter. Gamers who randomly assign characters the colour red, rather than blue, performed better.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that England's most successful football clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal – all wear red.

Another study, this time in an educational setting, looked into the colour of private study rooms. In rooms of different colour, researchers assessed students' heart rate, emotional state and performance on a reading task. It turned out that they did better in pastel-shaded study environments. At the same time, heart rates were higher in the red room. In contrast, the blue room was associated with increased feelings of relaxation and calmness. This study was published in the scientific journal Colour Research and Application. The mere existence of a journal with this title suggests that the scientific community is taking Kandinsky's words seriously: "Colour is a means of exerting direct influence on the soul".

What impact might YInMn Blue have? Could it trigger particular thoughts and make us more likely to feel certain emotions? The fact that this colour is now commercially available means we can find out first-hand. The new blue, however, like the old purple, is rather expensive. One small tube (1.3 Oz) costs around $180, so it might be a while before we are all driving YInMn Blue cars and relaxing in YInMn Blue waiting rooms. In colour therapy, blue is said to produce a calming and stabilising effect. Let’s hope YInMn brings that.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National