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Distillations podcast

Deep Dives into Science Stories, Both Serious and Eccentric
June 11, 2024 Health & Medicine

Can Color Heal Us?

For centuries people have been fascinated by the potential healing powers of color, but is there any truth to it?

Collage with multiple color components, man in uniform, and spectrochrome

For centuries people have been drawn to the potential healing powers of colored light. From a civil war general to a Thomas Edison wannabe, people have touted it as a medical miracle. Despite claims to the contrary, though, colored light won’t regrow limbs or heal burns. And yet, we are still drawn to the idea that somehow it can fix us. Today there are actual medical studies investigating the health benefits of colored light. So is there any validity to the claims of the past? Can color really heal us?

This episode was inspired by our museum exhibition, BOLD: Color from Test Tube to Textile, on view through August 3, 2024.


Host: Alexis Pedrick
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Associate Producer: Sarah Kaplan
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer
“Color Theme” composed by Jonathan Pfeffer. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions

Resource List

Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World, by Paul Collins

Sir Isaac Newton – More Than Meets The Eye

Color War: Dinshah P. Ghadiali’s Battle with the Medical Establishment over his Revolutionary Light-Healing Science, by Harvey Rachlin

Round Table with Mark Ungar

History of the Food and Drug Administration Interview with Walter A. Ernst

McGill Office for Science and Society

Green Light-Based Analgesia – Novel Nonpharmacological Approach to Fibromyalgia Pain: A Pilot Study, by Nelli, A; Wright, MC; Gulur, P

The Jefferson Center of Immersive Arts for Health


Alexis Pedrick: Lynn Godley is an artist who’s obsessed with light. In 2011, she incorporated it into a solo show and it made her see a whole new potential in her work. 

Lyn Godley: The show was called “In Flight,” and we filled the gallery with all of these two by two foot images of birds. They were charcoal drawings, and we fed fiber optics through the imagery, so all of these images had pixels of light along the edges of the wings and the tails.

Alexis Pedrick: Fiber optics are these thin strands of glass or plastic with tiny lights at the tip. They’re basically how the internet works. The pulses of light are transmitted as information, and besides being much more powerful than broadband, the pulsing strands are actually quite beautiful. They kind of look like fireworks.

Lyn Godley: And about two weeks into the show I get a call from the curator and she said people are behaving strangely, and just thought you might want to know this, that they were coming into the gallery, there weren’t any benches in the gallery, and they were sitting on the floor, sitting down and just staying in the gallery for up to three hours and returning multiple times.

They just wanted to be in the space and to keep coming back. 

Alexis Pedrick: Intuitively, this made sense to Lynn. After all, she was drawn to working with the light. 

Lyn Godley: There is a physiological draw towards light. There’s a physiological draw in our bodies towards dynamic light. You know, it’s sparkling off water, et cetera, et cetera.

And so somewhere along the line, I just, I really have become obsessed with using that, you know, as part of my medium. In a piece of static artwork, in a photo, or a painting, etc., you’re, you’re really talking about, you know, color that is created by pigment. And when we’re talking about color in new media art, you’re talking about color that is created by mixing light.

Alexis Pedrick: Lynn decided to push on this experience. Could light do more than just make people stop and sit for a while? Could it alleviate our suffering, make us healthier? And she isn’t the first person to wonder this. Over the centuries, people have gotten obsessed with this idea that we can harness the power of light and use it as medicine.

And not just any light, colored light. Science is full of these attempts, and yet, the question remains. Why are we so drawn to it? Why do we think it can heal us? And is there any truth to it? 

From the Science History Institute, I’m Alexis Pedrick, and this is Distillations. 

Chapter One. The guy with the blue glass.

There’s a long history of alternative medicines that use colored light, and it all started during the Civil War. 

Paul Collins: As is often noted, probably as many or more people were dying from illness and field conditions than from the combat itself. 

Alexis Pedrick: This is Paul Collins, an English professor and author, and he tells us that this is the era that brought us embalming, anesthesia.

Paul Collins: You know, we were finally starting to get doctors and nurses washing their hands and cleaning their instruments and things like that. You know, this was sort of an era where people not only were seeing very significant advances in public health, but also because of those advances, I think they were more credulous too. So many things seem to be within reach that you could kind of believe almost anything like applying copper plates to people’s feet to draw poison. 

Alexis Pedrick: Or the healing powers of colored light a topic Paul Collins Discovered by accident while researching his book “Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People who Didn’t Change the World.” 

Paul Collins: I was in the basement of the library at the University of California at San Francisco.

And this one day, I literally just saw this very pretty blue binding. It actually really stood out. It was sort of this bright blue binding that stood out from all the other old books there. And so I pulled it out and opened it up, and all the printing on it was in light blue as well, like this light, almost violet kind of blue.

And I just went, what is this? 

Alexis Pedrick: It was an 1877 book called “The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Color of the Sky” by Augustus Pleasonton, a Civil War general. 

Paul Collins: He’d become interested in the idea. That not only was light, uh, in, in general, this, uh, sort of medical panacea, but the blue light in particular was.

Alexis Pedrick: Augustus Pleasonton proposed that isolating blue wavelengths from the sun could help plants grow. Now he didn’t have scientific or medical training, but that didn’t stop him from diving into endeavors that required them with gusto.

Paul Collins: He really, he really put his all into things. Uh, his initial career was in the army.

But after he left the army, he started a law practice. And so that was his professional capacity was basically as a military officer and as a lawyer, but he was a man of great enthusiasms. And so he read a lot and he was very interested in the sciences. And in particular with, uh, optics, with, uh, reading about things like photography, reading studies about light, and also very interested in medicine and health.

Alexis Pedrick: Pleasonton’s adventures in blue light began when he built a special greenhouse at his home in Philadelphia. 

Paul Collins: Every eighth pane was blue glass so that the inside wouldn’t be too heavily shaded, but there would be, you know, just a little extra kick of, uh, of blue coming in and he planted grapes. In the first year, of course, they didn’t, they didn’t yield anything. Uh, by his account, at least in the second year, when he had someone come by to look at how they were doing, they had this fantastic yield. He had, he had 1,200 pounds of grapes, and I should add, this is all happening as the civil war is starting and as he’s in charge, you know, among other things with like helping to defend Pennsylvania.

So I guess this is how he would unwind. This was clearly a labor of love for him that he’d been spending years on. 

Alexis Pedrick: He was so convinced by the grape experiment that he applied for a patent. 

Paul Collins: And a patent examiner came up from Washington to look at his work and apparently looked at it and said wow, great job. So he was awarded a patent for that. 

Alexis Pedrick: This made Pleasonton extra confident about his ideas. And he decided to branch out from plants to animals. If his grapes grew better under blue glass, then maybe his livestock would too. 

So he built his pigs a barn with glass in the roof. 

Paul Collins: He basically put in skylights, and in one side he put in clear glass and the other side he put in some blue glass and reported, you know, these wonderful results on the blue glass side. And I probably should point out that one person who visited him, who was actually very admiring of, of him in general, he said, well, the side that he’s got the blue glass on, he’s taking much better care of the pigs are getting a much better deal there. So the funny thing with Pleasonton is he seems like someone who really genuinely believed in what he was doing, but he did not have, uh, sufficient grasp of, uh, of like a controlled experiment. 

Alexis Pedrick: At this point, maybe you can guess what comes next. From grapes to pigs to people. He claimed that patients suffering from ailments like rheumatism could improve after sitting under blue glass, and that tumors would shrink from the light. 

Paul Collins: I think Pleasonton had had some health issues himself, which he, attributed to getting better to, to be under this glass.

And of course, one of the problems with that is that he might’ve been entirely correct. That people were improving because if you spend some time relaxing and out in the sun, that’s probably not an entirely bad thing. And he was probably not providing negative examples where it didn’t work. So, yeah, I think he was quite sincere about that, but he had this anecdotal sense that it seemed to be helping a number of people that he knew and it had helped him and his own health.

He really just thought it was going to be this tremendous medical advance. 

Alexis Pedrick: For years, Pleasonton told everyone he could about his blue light therapy. 

Paul Collins: For almost all of that time, basically nobody was listening to him. 

Alexis Pedrick: But then something happened. A newspaper in Chicago published an article about his book.

Now, the article happened to be written by a friend of Pleasonton’s brother. I mean, small world, who can say what really happened? But the point is other newspapers picked up on the story and that was it. Blue mania had arrived. 

Paul Collins: And within a few weeks it had become a thing. It was a, there was a run on stores for blue glass.

People were buying sunglasses with blue glass. You could get parasols with glass beads hanging off of them. Prams, you know, for babies had blue beads and little blue glass panels installed in them. There were like streetcars that had blue glass put in them, things like that. So I, I think it looks like an overnight success, but it took a long time. 

Alexis Pedrick: For all its popularity Pleasonton didn’t get rich off of it. Yes, he patented his idea, but they couldn’t enforce the patent. You can’t prove how anyone’s going to use blue glass, but Pleasonton didn’t seem too bothered by this. He was, however, bothered by what happened next.

The esteemed journal Scientific American questioned the scientific merit of blue glass and dragged his name through the mud. 

Paul Collins: They wound up eventually doing a series titled “The Blue Glass Mania” and where they, they kind of step by step went through what kind of testing has been done on this? What do people who actually work with glass and, you know, who work with optics have to say about this?

And it just very, you know, steadily took the whole thing apart. 

Alexis Pedrick: Some quick context. Quack Medicine was rampant at this time. You know, people pretending some bogus treatment was a panacea so they’d get rich. It was a big problem, and medical societies were trying desperately to stop it. So, even though this article was a huge blow to Pleasonton’s project, he was more upset that his character was being questioned, by a suggestion that he was some sort of charlatan.

In response, Scientific American made it clear that Pleasonton was not out to exploit people, but instead was simply, uh, ignorant. Months after blue mania hit, it went bust. 

Paul Collins: That’s when you first start seeing reports by May of 1877 that not only was blue glass starting to pile up in the stores, but that, you know, a number of dealers had put in all these orders for more of it and they didn’t know what they were going to do because people were not suddenly not really buying it anymore.

So I’m guessing that by, uh, late 1877 or 1878, you could pick up glass very cheaply. 

Alexis Pedrick: Despite how quickly the blue light craze fizzled for a short time, people ate it up, which begs the question, why? Why was this idea so appealing? 

Paul Collins says it comes down to a few things, and the first was just timing. The Civil War left people desperate for ways to heal from injury and disease. And even though a lot of charlatans took advantage of this desperation, Augustus Pleasonton didn’t seem to be one of them. 

Paul Collins: He seems to have been really a great idealist.

And the history of medicine, and particularly sort of fad medicine from that period, has got a great many people whose motives were not necessarily all that noble. 

Alexis Pedrick: Another appealing thing about the blue light theory was its simplicity. 

Paul Collins: In general, with people’s health, one of the real challenges around illness is a feeling of helplessness. Or not even helplessness necessarily so much as well, maybe I can get this cured, but it’s going to take, you know, a bunch of surgery. It’s going to take a bunch of medications. It’s going to, it’s just going to take a lot of effort. And a lot of it will be out of my hands. And this presented something that you could actually do yourself relatively easily.

So I, yeah, at some level, I think it gave people a sense of autonomy, of control, that they could actually take control of their health, which is, you know, a very appealing thing. And I think that’s why variations of it keep coming back. 

Alexis Pedrick: Blue light mania might have been over, but our fascination with colored light was still strong and someone else would soon fill the void with new ways that the light could heal us.

Chapter Two. The guy with the special lamps. 

As the 19th century rounded the corner into the 20th, colored light therapy, or chromotherapy, found even more evangelists. And I use that word intentionally, because things started taking on a whole new religious direction. Augustus Pleasonton was a Civil War general who dabbled in medical science in his spare time.

But his chromotherapy contemporary was an actual physician who dabbled in the spiritual. His name was Edwin Dwight Babbitt, and his book, “The Principles of Light and Color,” was published the same year as Pleasonton’s. It covered some of the same therapeutic benefits of light and color, but it also pushed a philosophy of life, sort of like a religion.

Of course, Babbitt wasn’t the first person to tie light to religion. Isaac Newton himself thought the rainbow was divine. 

Sir Isaac Newton – More Than Meets the Eye: Sir Isaac Newton was sure that there was more to sunlight than meets the eye. 

So he trapped a sunbeam and passed it through a prison. And there were the colors of the rainbow, the component parts of white light.

Alexis Pedrick: And here enters perhaps the most infamous figure in chromotherapy’s history. Dinshah Ghadiali. Dinshah, who went by his first name, like, you know, Beyonce, was born in Bombay, India in 1873. And by his own account, he was remarkable. Although, to be clear, we weren’t able to verify any of his claims. 

He says he began school at the age of two, became an assistant professor at age 11, and began to study medicine by 14. Oh, and he was also a journalist, a skilled composer, an actor, and most relevant to this story, an inventor. Dinshah considered himself the Parsi Edison. He eventually ended up settling in America in 1911. By 1920, he was entirely focused on his prize invention, the Spectrochrome. 

To the average person, the Spectrochrome looked like a metal box on a stand with the light bulb and colored slides inside. But Dinshah was clear. He wrote, the Spectrochrome was not a lamp. It is a system, he said, a new original and unique science. This unique science could do miraculous things, according to him. Heal a badly burned infant and give them brand new silky skin. Restore the sight of a blind girl. Allow a paralyzed woman to walk again. Dinshah and the Spectrochrome practitioners went on to claim it could cure over a hundred ailments, including diabetes, tuberculosis, syphilis, and cancer. By 1946 Dinshah had sold an impressive 11,000 Spectrochromes, bringing in a cool $1 million.

Soon he wrote, there will be a Spectrochrome in every home. 

Harvey Rachlin: My family had a house in Havertown, which is a suburb of Philadelphia, and it was a very normal household. And in this normal household was this Spectrochrome machine. 

Alexis Pedrick: This is author Harvey Rachlin. 

Harvey Rachlin: So I was a child at that time and in the living room, I saw this big clunky blue metal machine that looked like a, um, like a box on a pedestal with wheels.

And it was kind of like a curiosity for me. In this box that was mounted on this pedestal. There was a kind of like an opening. Inside was a light bulb and you would put over that aperture in this box, color slides. Sometimes as a child, I would put the color slides over the opening with the light bulb on and get different colors.

You know, as a child, you want to blend colors to make a different color. So it was just a curiosity for me and I never really gave it any thought. So, my father didn’t tell us anything about the machine, you know, what it was for or anything really. I never saw him using Spectrochrome, and he started using it in the 1950s.

And he didn’t even talk to us about it at that time. 

Alexis Pedrick: To young Harvey Rachlin, the Spectrochrome was just a regular, if slightly weird and cool, part of his house. But Dinshah himself wanted to project the opposite image. 

Darius Dinshah: We believe that every cell in your body is an electrochemical machine. Every single one.

The billions and billions and billions of them. 

Alexis Pedrick: This is Dinshah’s son, Darius Dinshah, speaking on a cable TV program called “Roundtable” in the 1990s. He’s sitting with the host at a round table, with a bunch of books and pamphlets spread around him, and he’s holding up a color wheel and explaining the Spectrochrome system.

Darius Dinshah: There are 12 colors that we use basically. Red is basically for the liver, the pituitary is affected by green, digestion by yellow and lemon, uh, reproductive system by magenta, so every part of your body has a specific function to perform, and in performing that function, it radiates a certain energy.

Again, going back to that color wheel in the book, if it’s excessive, we use the opposite color. If it needs reinforcement and it’s weak, we use the appropriate color. 

Alexis Pedrick: When Harvey got older, his father finally told him what this machine in their living room was for. And admittedly he was a bit alarmed.

Harvey Rachlin: Honestly. You know, I look at him in a way like, are you all there? Because how could color lights cure illnesses? But he told us about the story behind Spectrochrome and was really kind of blown away. So I read these, um, testimonials and case histories, and I was just amazed. by the convictions and the enthusiasm of these medical doctors, as well as laypersons who used it.

Testimonials: Mrs. S. G. suffered terribly with piles. Her family physician and others considered her case unamenable and hopeless. I used the yellow wave on area 19. Her recovery was so rapid that after her fifth treatment, she went to Atlantic City, where she is still working. Mr. L.A.G. Chronic gonorrhea. Green, systemic, and on area 11. Three weeks now. Patient is alright. 

Alexis Pedrick: After years of traveling the country, selling the Spectrochrome, and teaching classes, Dinshah had accumulated a dedicated following, people who were fervent about the Spectrochrome system. And it’s supposedly those devoted followers who provided the testimonies he published.

After reading these, Harvey found himself intrigued by Dinshah’s scientific claims. 

Harvey Rachlin: Dinshah devoted decades of intensive research to determine that the diseased organs have abnormal emanations, or auras as he said, and that they could be normalated, or remedied, by applying what he called attuned colored waves, which means color waves of certain oscillatory frequencies that were calculated to coincide with those in cells of the body.

So he used spectroscopical techniques and was able to determine the chemical imbalance of diseased organs, whether those imbalances were excessive or deficient. And he determined what color wave radiations could neutralize auras of diseased organs and bring them back to a normal state. 

Alexis Pedrick: Now, is this explanation backed by actual science? No. 

Joe Schwarcz: Dinshah is just a very interesting example, a very good example, you know, how people can buy into, uh, into total nonsense. 

Alexis Pedrick: Joe Schwarcz is a chemistry professor and the director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University. The office’s mission is to separate sense from nonsense. 

Joe Schwarcz: You can make nonsense sound very seductive, especially when you have a mostly scientifically illiterate audience.

To them, it may not sound so absurd that shining some sort of colored light on you can have a benefit, you know? If you choose your language properly and you say, well, you know, and we know that plants need light in order to grow, right? 

Alexis Pedrick: And even to a scientifically literate audience, certain misleading claims can still be enticing because they promise so much.

But selling something you’re calling a medical miracle, when it’s really nothing of the sort, is illegal, which is why the FDA got involved.

FDA Oral History: This is a recording of an interview with Walter A. Ernst. The date is March 20, 1979, and the recording is being made at Walter’s home. 

Alexis Pedrick: This is an oral history conducted by the FDA, with a man named Walter Ernst, who worked as an FDA investigator from 1929 until 1963. When he started, a lot of his work involved examining fruit, making sure it wasn’t sprayed with arsenic. But in 1938 his work changed drastically. Here’s Walter. 

FDA Oral History: There were many changes that had come over the Food and Drug Administration because of the fact of the passage of the new Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Alexis Pedrick: For the first time, the FDA had the authority to regulate medical devices. Before 1938, they just fell through the cracks. 

FDA Oral History: One of the largest areas of attention was given to, uh, Dinshah P. Ghadiali, who, uh, was distributing a Spectrochrome machine, a colored light device used to treat everything known to man, as far as diseases are concerned.

And it was good for almost anything, wasn’t it? Everything. Everything. Even, it was supposed to regrow amputated parts of the body. 

Alexis Pedrick: The FDA sent Ernst to Milwaukee, where Dinshah had a large and committed following.

FDA Oral History: They had some very enthusiastic operators there. I, uh, found that Dinshah had been so active that he had induced the chief of police and the state’s attorney to each purchase one of these machines for self treatment. Uh, of course they did not want to be mentioned once they found out that it was, uh, uh, a fake. 

Walter, he had these groups of people, they weren’t just people who he sold the machine to, but it was almost, almost like a religious sort of thing. It was a religious group. A religious group. 

Alexis Pedrick: Walter talks about Dinshah’s followers as being absolutely devoted to him and the Spectrochrome System.

FDA Oral History: At the time I was making my investigations, they had a lot of secret meetings. Did you ever infiltrate any of their secret meetings? We frequently would set up a microphone in the meeting room. And, uh, listened to their, uh, meetings, but, uh, never did actually get in the meetings themselves because they were strictly closed.

Alexis Pedrick: By listening in on the meetings, Ernst pieced together that Milwaukee was a distribution hub for Spectrochrome parts. 

FDA Oral History: Once Dinshah found it, uh, it was impossible to ship the machines interstate. 

Alexis Pedrick: Did Walter Ernst have any idea that his FDA career would be reminiscent of a CIA career? We’ll never know. But this next part seems right out of a spy movie.

On one occasion, Ernst trailed a man who left Milwaukee with a carload of Spectrochrome parts. 

FDA Oral History: On the way he left just before dark, and uh, he stopped in a small town and went to a movie, while I had to wait, watch for him to come out again. So it was about midnight before I, before he crossed the Milwaukee Illinois state line, and I, I stopped him.

At the, uh, line there. Uh, but, uh, he refused to allow me permission to check his car. Consequently, I was not unable to do anything about checking what he had in it. 

Alexis Pedrick: Walter didn’t nail Dinshah that time, but eventually the law caught up with him. 

FDA Oral History: Didn’t he go to jail for a while? Yes. We, uh, first got an injunction against him.

And, uh, stopped the shipment, but later on he had to ship more, and he is eventually prosecuted. And, uh, had served, served time. Which made him a martyr. Yes, he is a martyr.

Alexis Pedrick: In 2018, Harvey Lin wrote a book about Dinshah and the Spectrochrome called “Color War: Dinshah P. Ghadiali’s Battle with the Medical Establishment over His Revolutionary Light Healing Science.” 

Harvey Rachlin: Okay. And it’s, it wasn’t just me. Again, I want to, you know, emphasize that my brother Steven Rachlin, a physician, you know, had a great part in the writing of this book.

He’s no longer alive. He had a severe stroke and passed away, uh, many years after that. But he credits the long. The years that he survived after that to Spectrochrome, which he used privately. 

Alexis Pedrick: Does Harvey’s defense of Dinshah come from his love for his brother? Did his brother turn to the Spectrochrome after hitting a wall with conventional medicine?

And if so, can we blame either of them? 

Joe Schwarcz: It’s a grab bag of frustration with conventional medicine, of the hope that is offered by the alternative people. And, uh, people, you know, are seduced by, by that, understandably, you know. But so, I, I generally don’t blame the people who go down that path, you know, out of desperation.

I blame the ones who take advantage. 

Alexis Pedrick: Harvey Rachlin knows that Dinshah’s claims were never scientifically proven. The closest thing he can point to are those testimonials, which are not scientific. 

Joe Schwarcz: You can get testimonials for anything. So what we’re looking at with testimonials there, essentially, is cherry, cherry picked data.

Alexis Pedrick: The testimonials could have been completely made up. And even if they weren’t, there’s still an explanation for why the Spectrochrome might have seemed more effective than it actually was. 

Joe Schwarcz: The placebo effect is very powerful, and you know, you can yourself become delusional. You know, you forget all the cases where it didn’t work, and you just remember where there was some success.

Alexis Pedrick: Still, Harvey argues that Dinshah’s ideas weren’t ever exactly disproven either. 

Harvey Rachlin: The problem that Dinshah ran into is that there was never a double blind study. All I’m saying is what Dinshah and all these doctors said through all the years investigate it, okay? Do a double blind study. If it doesn’t work, so be it.

But if it works, this could be, you know, one of the greatest revolutions in medicine. To summarize, was he a quack? Is this all, you know, nonsense? Maybe. Who knows? 

Alexis Pedrick: But doing proper studies is really difficult. And they’re also really expensive. And there’s a certain bar of credibility, of scientific plausibility, that an idea needs to get funding.

Joe Schwarcz: We know a lot about how the world works. We know a lot about biochemistry. You know, the kind of things that are possible and, you know, are not possible. You know, whatever they say about different color lights, it’s just not scientific. You can never be 100 percent certain of anything because there may be some mechanism that, you know, we’ve never thought about.

But that would have already come to light, as it were, you know. And the classic line that, you know, we use to teach medical students is, uh, you ask them the question, what do you call alternative medicine that works? And the answer to that is medicine. Okay. Because, uh, there, there is no conspiracy in the scientific medical community to keep effective therapies away from, from people.

I mean, you know, that’s just nonsense. 

Alexis Pedrick: Chapter Three. The doctor with the colored glasses. 

Given the tarnished history of blue glass and the Spectrochrome, you might think scientists stay as far away as possible from colored light therapy, but that’s not the case. 

Padma Gulur: My name’s Padma Gulur and I am a anesthesiologist and pain medicine specialist.

I am professor of anesthesiology and population health at Duke University. I’m also the executive vice chair in the department of anesthesiology. 

Alexis Pedrick: As an anesthesiologist, Padma Gulur obviously uses drugs to manage pain, but she wanted to see if she could help manage it in other ways, too. So, like moths drawn to a flame, she started thinking about colored light.

Padma Gulur: Pain is a biopsychosocial phenomenon. Pain is an experience, and once you recognize that, that it is an experience, and that it has so many different factors that play into it, uh, you start to recognize there may be other facets that we can leverage, to change that experience and make things, you know, feel a little bit better.

Alexis Pedrick: We all know intuitively that some colors make us feel better than others. And this notion is part of Dr. Gulur’s work. But there’s more to it. 

Padma Gulur: Sometimes the color itself is able to stimulate, scientifically stimulate, the right rods, cones, other receptors through your visual spectrum or on your skin.

Because we have photoreceptors there too. And just get a pathway to get initiated, which could either make you feel better or inhibit bad signals, right? Signals that we don’t want to feel. 

Alexis Pedrick: Dr. Gulur designed a study where patients would wear colored glasses and she’d see if that would help them to manage pain.

Her team had to pick a color they thought would be most effective. 

Padma Gulur: I’ll be honest. My feeling was blue. And the reason I thought it would be blue is I love blue. If you go to the beach, those blue waters, that, you know, just, it’s calming. There are some people, you know, you always have the people who like forests more than they like beaches.

So green was another color of interest. 

Alexis Pedrick: So they looked at green, blue, and clear glasses as a control with two different study populations, one managing chronic pain and one experiencing acute pain. Dr. Gulur and her team studied the effects related to pain relief from the different colored glasses. The participants had no way of knowing whether the blue, green, or clear glasses were the ones that might provide relief.

And there was a clear winner between the two shades. 

Padma Gulur: Hands down, it seems to make a difference now. Is this conclusive? Are we completely there? No, like with most things, when you start out, you have to do more studies because you have to have more types of patients, different pain conditions. No, we still have a road ahead of us to do this systematically and figure it out.

Alexis Pedrick: In clear contrast to Dinshah or even Augustus Pleasonton, Padma Gulur is not telling anyone to go out and buy 20 pairs of green colored glasses. She’s not saying that it’s a cure all, and she’s really upfront about not understanding why it seems to work. 

Padma Gulur: You know, I think there’s so many things we don’t always know exactly how they work in medicine, right?

But as long as they’re doing good things and not doing harm, it’s still good to use them. That said, we should keep looking to understand the mechanism, and the reason for that is if we understand the mechanism, we can make it even better. Like with any scientific mind, right? Discovery. It’s all about discovery.

We’ve got to find out what’s going on. 

Alexis Pedrick: But Dr. Gulur isn’t the only one asking questions. Remember Lynn Godley? The light obsessed artist whose exhibit mesmerized people? Well, she kept thinking about that experience she had back in 2011 and wondered if she could intentionally recreate the response people had.

So she started doing some research, starting with a book called “Your Brain on Art.” 

Lyn Godley: And you know, it is just filled with study after study after study how beneficial art is, whether you’re the one creating the artwork, or you’re viewing it. 

Alexis Pedrick: Lynn wanted to create a study that would investigate the health benefits of light and color.

It took some time, and some kismet, like the time the design school she worked at merged with a medical school. And not just that, a medical school that just so happened to have a light research program and what came next was the creation of the Jefferson Center of Immersive Arts for Health. 

Lyn Godley: It’s a broad range from different programs, from public health, from behavioral medicine, from psychology, from autism and neurodiversity that are all involved in, you know, doing some research on using dynamic light or immersive experience. 

Alexis Pedrick: The center has already collected data around viewing light and color and pieces of art. The first was an exhibit of 11 installations called “The Waiting Room.” It was open in Center City, Philadelphia at the end of 2022. 

Lyn Godley: And we had seating at each installation. And the research team put together a survey. 

So there was a QR code next to each installation that people could log in and, and just answer some questions like, you know, how long, how long did you sit with this installation? What was your experience? How would you describe it? And surprisingly people stayed for a long time.

I mean, some of the installations, they stayed up to three hours in this gallery, just sitting with one piece and overwhelmingly the words used to describe their experience was feeling calmer, feeling more introspective, feeling more peaceful. 

Alexis Pedrick: Lynn’s team just published the results from that first study, but they didn’t stop there.

They went on to test out the effects of light and color on students during high stress points during the semester, and they’re continuing to try and find more intentional and data backed ways of thinking about how we use color and light. 

Lyn Godley: How do we make the spaces that, that we reside in, that we spend time in, that we work in, more healing for us?

Um, it’s critical. It’s really critical to start taking this more seriously because you, I mean, you look around and everybody’s just ready to tip over. So, you know, I think that anything that we can do, and this is, it, you know, doing this is not going to cure cancer, right? It’s not, it’s not going to solve all the problems in the world, but if it can lower stress, because stress also makes it harder for us to heal. It, it increases everything bad that happens in our body. And so, you know, how might we slow that down? And if making artwork can be part of that, you know, that’s good. 

Alexis Pedrick: So, there are still more questions than answers, and no, no one has suddenly unlocked the secret to the healing power of colored light. None of this means that Augustus Pleasonton’s blue light worked, or that Dinshah’s Spectrochrome could do everything it claimed, but it’s in our nature to wonder.

Maybe in a hundred years, we’ll still be asking these questions. We’ll probably still be fascinated because light can have profound impacts on our moods, even if it can’t cure our diseases.

Distillations is produced by the Science History Institute. Our executive producer is Mariel Carr. Our producer is Rigoberto Hernandez. And our associate producer is Sarah Kaplan. This episode was reported by Sarah Kaplan and mixed by Jonathan Pfeffer who also composed our theme music. This episode was inspired by our museum exhibit Bold: Color from Test Tube to Textile.

You can learn more at sciencehistory.org/bold. You can find all our podcasts, as well as videos and articles at sciencehistory.org/stories. And you can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news about our podcast and everything else going on in our free museum and library.

For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick. Thanks for listening.

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