Is there such a thing as color perception?
Surely, we all see colors in the same way? I mean, the mechanics of our eyes are the same, and the way our brains process color is the same. So, unless there is a physical reason for us to process color differently, color perception should be universal – right?
Actually, seeing is less about what we look at but more about how our brain interprets what we’re looking at. To do this our brain uses many things to help us create different colors. So, in reality, there are many factors that influence the way we see colors. One example is language.
1. How language influences our color perception
From the moment we learn to speak, we begin to use language to describe everything in our world. This includes color. So that we don’t get overloaded, our brains have to categorize, from grouping animals together, to cultures, even situations. The same is true when we think about color. We tend to allocate color into different categories so that it makes sense to us.
Our environment plays a very important role in how we perceive color. For instance, Greek people have many different words to describe the color blue. Obviously, as they are typically surrounded by many varied shades of blue, they have evolved to use separate words to describe the color.
As a result, Greek people see the color blue in a different way to English speakers. Greek, Turkish and Russian speakers also have two fundamental color terms for light and dark blue. However, if they spend a long time in the UK, where blue is more muted, they start to see these separate colors as more similar.
Talking about the color blue, in the UK, we don’t tend to distinguish between light blue and dark blue, we just call both blue. However, this is not true when we describe light red and dark red. In the UK, light red is pink.
On the other hand, Russians find it very difficult to describe light red or dark red as they don’t have separate words to describe them. Russian people do have around 12 basic terms for colors. By contrast, Dani, a language spoken in New Guinea, only has the two which describe warm colors (mola) and cool colors (mili).
There are some people that don’t even have a word for color. In Australia’s Northern Territory, the Warlpiri people have a rich culture and use physical properties to describe different shades. They’ll talk about the texture and the feel which are all related to their own cultural practices.
2. How memory influences our color perception
We are the sum of all our experiences. And as such, the way we attach memories to these experiences is bound up in color. Therefore, no two people are likely to describe a bright blue sky in the same way.
Just practice for yourself for a moment. When I ask you to think about choosing the words to describe your blue sky, what are you instantly thinking about? Has the previous segment on Greek people influenced your thinking? Or are you sitting under a grey-blue sky?
When you look at the sky for inspiration or search for the words to describe the color, you are bringing all your life experiences with you. So, for you, a grey-blue sky might remind you of a funeral. You might, therefore use words such as gloomy, depressing, grey or melancholy as you associate it with a particular memory.
Let’s use another example. How about the green of a school playing field? Do your schooldays influence the way you’d describe the green of the field? Are they happy days that you like reminiscing about, so your choice of words to describe green are likely to be upbeat and positive? Or did you have a terrible time at school and you associate green with depression and anxiety?
Whenever you use a word to describe a color, you are drawing on your lifetime of memories. So we might well be looking at the same blue sky or the orange of a sunset, but our inner memories are totally different in the way we perceive these colors.
3. Psychological influence on color perception
There have been many psychological studies on the influence of color on our psyches. Red is a dominant color and associated with aggression. We ‘see red’ when we’re angry, we feel ‘blue’ when we’re sad. But can our preconceived notion of colors actually influence us?
One such study took the color red and explored how it affects us in a sporting capacity. In 2004, during the Olympics, researchers tracked the performances of competitors in certain combat sports. All the sports chosen, such as boxing and tae kwon do, athletes were randomly given red or blue sports kits to wear. Results showed that athletes wearing red were 5% more likely to win than those wearing blue.
“Simply wearing red doesn’t turn you into an excellent competitor. But it helps tip the balance between winning and losing when people are fairly evenly matched.” Hill et al.
Similar experiments show comparable results. For example, football penalty takers are less likely to score when the goalkeeper wears red. The color red can even influence referees who are supposed to be impartial. The same study recorded bouts between tae kwon do players. Then they changed the kit colors and showed the recordings to professional referees. In each case, the competitor wearing red was picked as the winner by the referee.
There are many different things that affect color perception. The way we talk about color, how we recall past experiences about color, and finally, our psychological response to color. Each one helps us build up an enriched and colorful world. After all, without color, it would be a pretty gloomy place.
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