If you read that essay by Colin Bower that I linked to yesterday, you might have noticed that he said that red “defeats definition.” If you delight in the ways that language can convey information despite its limitations, and in the pleasures of metaphor, you will probably enjoy Natalie Angier’s verbally extravagant essay in the New York Times about what red means (at least, what it means to creatures with visual systems and minds like ours).
Here’s an article from The Economist that describes two recent papers about color and language. The papers tackle different aspects of the question: When humans divide the spectrum of visible light into distinct colors with individual names, how much of the naming is due to something inherent in how the human nervous system perceives colors, and how much of it is due to the language that’s used to describe colors?
One paper examines the range of colors visible to humans, mapped on a globe such that the colors we perceive most distinctly physically stand out. If we assigned color names based logically on these perceptions, the sensible divisions of the spectrum into colors would follow certain lines on this color map. By comparing these dividing lines with the way languages actually do deal with color words, the researchers found that color names do seem to map pretty well to the divisions on the color globe (so there is something ingrained in how we name colors), but there is some room for environmental influences in cases where the dividing lines are ambiguous.
The other paper sounds very similar to something I blogged last January, although the article says the paper was published only last week. It involves checking how quickly a color difference between similar colors is noticed depending on whether the left or right visual field is presented with the stimulus. The right visual field provides input to the left side of the brain, where language processing takes place, and it turned out that while volunteers were always slower to spot the difference between two shades of blue than between blue and green, this effect was more pronounced when the right visual field was involved–suggesting that language processing was part of how the color difference was perceived.
So in short, this provides some interesting evidence for both the ways that color naming is hard-wired and the ways that language mediates our experience of color.
I didn’t realize that primates are the only mammals with color vision. As for why this might be the case, some recent research indicates that it might be useful for picking up emotional cues about other primates. By studying the wavelengths at which primate cone cells are most sensitive, a team at Caltech has found a link between more advanced color vision and increased sensitivity at wavelengths that are important in distinguishing shifting blood oxygen levels as seen through the skin–in other words, things like blushing. Also, the most sophisticated color vision appears in primates that don’t have hair-covered faces, so that blushing is more obvious. This probably isn’t the whole story on why we have color vision, but it’s an interesting part of it.
A rose by any other name, Shakespeare tells us, would smell as sweet. But does the fact that we have a name for it at all change how it looks to us? Researchers at Berkeley have used a nifty experimental setup to demonstrate differences in how quickly the left side of the brain (where most language processing takes place) and the right side can distinguish different colors. People were shown an arrangement of squares that were all the same color except for one; the different-colored square was shown on either the right half or the left half of the visual field, and so was processed by either the the left or right side of the brain, respectively. The left side of the brain was slower to spot the odd square when it was a different shade of the same color than when it was a different color entirely. For the right side of the brain, it took about the same time to identify the odd square in either case. The idea is that because the left side of the brain relies on language, it’s quicker to identify the difference when it can label the odd square as “blue”, for example, rather than a slightly different shade of green that you might not be able to name as quickly, or at all. Being a writer, I think a lot about the way words affect our emotional experiences, and of course advertisers also give this a great deal of thought. This is an interesting data point on how our physical perceptions might be altered by the words we use. Being as language-oriented as I am, I’m also intrigued by that relatively wordless perception going on over on the right side of the brain.
When asked to adjust the color of a light until it was pure yellow, participants in a study all chose pretty much the same wavelength of light. So evidently one person’s pure yellow was nearly the same as another’s. However, researchers were able to use adaptive optics (a technique used in astronomy, and adapted for use in the eye) to get a look at the retinas of these people in unprecedented detail, and they found that the distribution of cones varies significantly (by as much as a factor of 40). This is surprising, given how uniform the perception of color seemed to be. This indicates that a lot of our color processing goes on in the brain, where something is compensating for the differences in optical hardware (the retina) to produce a calibrated perception of color.
This got me to thinking about the nature of our relationship to reality, mediated as it is by our senses that are still in some ways pretty mysterious. Coincidentally, my friend Greg recently introduced me to some of the visual wizardry of the Computational Visual Cognition Lab at MIT. For some interesting takes on visual perception, check out this lab’s gallery (http://cvcl.mit.edu/gallery.htm). The angry/calm face and Thatcher/Blair illusions are pretty weird.
When you see the color red, does the word “red” come to mind? Maybe, maybe not, but if you see the word “red”, the color itself may automatically appear to your mind’s eye. In other words, the link going from word to image is stronger than the link going from image to word. At any rate that’s what some new research suggests. Furthermore, the underlying cause may be that there are different circuits for processing words and processing images, and they don’t always communicate with each other. I’m so verbal that it’s hard to imagine having images without the words to describe them, but it’s also very intriguing. I’ve always been fascinated by these lines from a Moody Blues song: “No words will go with you; And now, what is real?”
Years ago in creative writing class, we had to describe red. Is the red I see the same red that you see? Here’s a story from Science that describes the latest research into whether color perception varies across cultures. There is an ongoing debate as to whether your perception of color is shaped by the language you speak, or if there are some basic colors that are universally recognized. This study looked at speakers of 110 different languages and found considerable agreement on six basic colors that all recognized, indicating possibly some underlying feature of our common perceptual apparatus. However, there was enough variation that the question is not settled yet.
Here’s a story about how athletes tend to do better when they’re wearing red, although it’s not clear why. I have to say I agree with the part about red uniforms being no substitute for talent, but I guess it’s good that Indiana University’s jerseys are red and white (OK, cream and crimson). An interesting side-note was that in animals, the color red generally indicates a high degree of physical fitness, and when researchers use red leg-bands to identify birds, a side effect is that sometimes this helps the banded birds to find a mate.