Color Perception is a State of Mind

Color Squares Artwork
Color Squares (2010) by Nevit Dilman CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Buttercup. Cerulean. Periwinkle. Blush. Asparagus. Puce. Vermilion. Marigold. Burnt Sienna.

I used to fantasize about being the person who made up color names for crayons, paint chips and turtlenecks in the L.L. Bean catalog. There is something so romantic about being able to give connotations (all those random poetic associations) to something as fundamental as color.

At some point, it also occured to me that not all humans see color the same way- I remember learning about about red-green color-blindness, as well as engaging in arguments with various family members about particular colors (“Mom, your [90’s era] windpants are purple.” “No, they are not, they’re royal blue.”)

So this week, when The Dress That Broke the Internet went viral, I (and everyone else) watched as our feeds exploded with declarations of “White & Gold!” or “Blue & Black!” The best of it was what seemed like a fairly straightforward argument about color of a dress (which we know can be photoshopped and back-lit any number of ways to look differently) mutated into a really interesting conversation on the science of human perception. h/t to all the folks who posted stuff!

  • Jonathan Corum at the New York Times provides some helpful graphics explaining perceptual shift in color based on lighting.
  • Michael Stevens (aka Vsauce) links our personal perception of color to the philosophical concept known as “Theory of Mind” in this video ~10 min.
  • Kevin Loria reviews a RadioLab episode that posits that ancient people didn’t perceive the color blue the way we do (relevant segment starts at 47:30). This is fascinating when I think about the color tekhelet, which in modern Hebrew in “light blue,” but in ancient times could have been blue, purple or even red. There is archaeological evidence that the source of the tekhelet dye was Hexaplex trunculus, a sea snail that lives in the Mediterranean.

5 thoughts on “Color Perception is a State of Mind

      1. OH..I’ll have to try that!! I saw one post that said, “It’s two different dresses, people!” which made me wonder if different people were actually seeing different photos (somehow?)


  1. color perception is one of the things that fascinate me most about foreign languages – like the color tekhelet that you mentioned, most Slavonic languages have two different words for ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’ and people from there are much more sensitive to differences between the two kinds of blue, and in Japanese there is the color ‘aoi’ which encompasses both blue and green! 🙂 and in Cantonese there is even a color called ‘ching’ which is used for things that are green, turquoise, blue, black or even ‘clear’ (like the color of the white of an egg) 🙂 fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

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