Why “Color Cures” for Mental Illness Endure

The persistence of “color therapy” reveals the weakness of conventional treatments for mental illness.

I recently reported on the proliferation—or persistence—of treatments for mental illness that involve stimulating the brain with electromagnetism. These electro-cures (my term) confirm a thesis I advanced in my 1996 Scientific American article “Why Freud Isn’t Dead.”

Freudian psychoanalysis has been vilified as a pseudo-science ever since its inception. It nonetheless endures not because of its merits but because science has not produced an indisputably superior theory and therapy for the mind. (For evidence of the persistence of psychoanalysis, see this article in The New York Times Magazine.)

A corollary of my thesis is that treatments for mental illness never really vanish; they just go in and out of fashion. I recently came upon another example of this phenomenon. A friend who enjoys perusing the New York Times archives sent me an article, “Use Colors to Cure Insane,” published October 26, 1902.

The “color cure,” devised by physicians in an asylum on Wards Island, involved putting mental patients in rooms dominated by a “primary color.” “The walls are painted in vivid color, the bed and chair colored to correspond to the walls, and the light sifts into the room through a shade of the same color,” the Times explains. Patients with acute mania were put in black rooms, patients with melancholia in red rooms. “There are violent rooms for mild forms of insanity; blue and green rooms for the boisterous, and a white room for the person who is practically well.” The reporter described watching a melancholic woman who, when shown a red room,

“raised her head instantly, looked into the room, and then about her. The vibrations produced by this room had evidently been felt by her, while the [differently colored rooms] had no effect. In this way the room is generally selected for the patient. Of course, when the case of melancholia is so bad that nothing will attract attention, a red room cannot be supposed to have immediate effect, but after a week or two weeks in this room some slight improvement may be noticed; the glance of an eye, the motion of a hand or the head mean much to the doctors—more than the layman would ever imagine.”

The Times stated that “the color cure is new to alienists, but one that promises to become very successful.”

The “color cure” hasn’t become “very successful,” but it has never entirely vanished, either. Called “color therapy” or “chromotherapy,” it has persisted as a treatment for mental (and physical) disorders. See this 1982 New York Times article, which claims that “the ancient and once discredited field of chromotherapy has been rejuvenated”; and this 2005 review in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which calls chromotherapy “a centuries-old concept used successfully over the years to cure various diseases.”

WebMD notes that while chromotherapy is used to treat a wide variety of disorders–from depression and anxiety to diabetes and high blood pressure—there is “no reliable scientific support” for the treatment, which is not a licensed practice in North America.

My online research turned up dead ends, such as “Color Cure,” which turned out to be a car wax. But see this website, which markets “color therapy workshops”; and this one, which sells color-therapy products, ranging from the “Photodynamic Therapy Device,” for $119.95, to the Pro Color Therapy Unit, for $1696.68. If you can figure out how these things (supposedly) work, please inform me in a comment.

Pardon my belaboring the point, but there would be no market for color cures if mainstream treatments for mental illness—namely medications and psychotherapies—were truly effective. Color cures aren’t dead for the same reason that Freudian cures, Jungian cures, behaviorist cures, electromagnetic cures and Buddhist cures aren’t dead.

I realize that my reporting on mental health is relentlessly negative. A friend recently made me squirm by asking: “What do you have to offer the severely depressed person? If there is no proven therapy, people will opt for unproven ones. What else can they do?”

This dilemma is similar to that posed by cancer and other diseases that mainstream medicine has difficulty treating. If someone you care about is suffering from a treatment-resistant disease, should you dissuade her from pursuing unproven therapies? Perhaps not, if the therapy gives her hope, or a feeling of empowerment.

But I would advise against unproven treatments that are costly, time-consuming and potentially harmful. That criterion would rule out some conventional as well as alternative treatments. But it would not rule out exercise, meditation, yoga, improved nutrition (such as reduced consumption of alcohol, sugar and caffeine) and free support groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous).

 

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