You have to cram for an exam. You have two rooms to choose from. One’s a pale blue, and the other’s a vivid red. Which one do you settle into for a study session? Is one going to get your brain fired up for learning, or let you relax into a state of optimal concentration?

According to researchers at Curtin University in Australia, it might be best to camp out in the bright red room when you’re looking to retain information.

It might sound strange, since we often think of pale rooms — soft blues or light greens — as soothing, or even reassuring. And they seem to be: The Curtin University study showed that pale colors made subjects feel more relaxed and calm, while bright, vivid colors increased heart rate. But calming and relaxing, it turns out, may not always be the best environment for intense concentration or knowledge intake. Reading comprehension was much better in the vivid rooms than in the paler rooms.

Although subjects reported that they generally preferred the pale rooms to study in as a means to relax into work, the researchers saw just the opposite — that the stimulating rooms seemed to perk up concentration.

While this might seem merely surprising, the finding gets into a fairly controversial area of psychological study. The Yerkes-Dodson Law says that a little bit of stress is good for achieving optimal performance, while too much stress negatively affects it. The higher heart rate, the reports of the vivid colors inducing a tense atmosphere — it just might indicate that a little stress was good for the brain.

While the findings about room color and increased heart rate and comprehension superficially supports the Yerkes-Dodson Law, the “law” has also been strongly criticized for being too pat and not standing up to scrutiny.

What color are your favorite spots for studying? We’re going to guess that they’re probably not painted bright red or yellow. But maybe they should be.


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