Friday, August 12, 2011

Color Terms and Perception

A BBC program called “Do You See What I See?” presents some interesting facts about color perception and how it is influenced by language, mood, and gender. Addendum: The video has unfortunately been removed.

A segment filmed with members of a tribe in northern Namibia shows how growing up with a different set of color terms affects the ability to recognize slight differences of certain colors.

These findings are presented as if they’re new, but they’re based on the pioneering work of Paul Kay and Brent Berlin in 1969.

One of the challenges for me in getting used to the Yurmby color wheel is learning to recognize cyan and magenta as basic color terms, distinct from blue, green, and red.

Because I didn’t grow up with the terms “cyan” and “magenta,” it has taken me a few years to remap my brain, but now I routinely recognize cyan and magenta colors around me according to their own terms.

It would have been much easier if I had learned those color terms in kindergarten, but that would be like changing America to the metric system.

Direct link to video for feedreaders: 
Part 1 of the same series
Part 2 of the same series
Part 3 of the same series.
Related article on BBC website: "Do You See What I See?"
Thanks, James Ryman and Campbell Harmon
Book: Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing
The “Yurmby” wheel is presented in Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter
Brent Berlin’s study about basic color terms on Wikipedia

Previously on GJ: The Color Wheel (A 7-part series)


Colin said...

When they did the green wheel, I really didn't see a difference. I took a screenshot, and using a color identifying program, sure enough, one was fairly different [11 were RGB 79,187,12, the odd one (about 10 o'clock on the wheel) was RGB 95,191,1]. In the video, they show a different one as standing out, but I think they flipped the image or used a different one for the still.
I've taken the shot and blown up the swatches, you can see it here:

Of note, the Himba in the film had five colors in their language, and four included greens. So they really have four different, distinct greens, which would be very helpful in identifying plants.
I did disagree that we have only 11 words to describe color, I would say that our children learn about 11, whereas painters have more like 50 words because of our specialized need for them.
Great video, Mr. Gurney! Thanks.

--Colin Adams

Chris Jouan said...

I have tried to enlighten my six-year-old son about cyan and magenta but his schooling has emphasized blue and red. He get's so frustrated when his colors don't come out right. He'll throw his papers several meters! :)

Timothy said...

I always thought there was something odd about the assertion that "we all see color the same way." Of course, being a graphic designer as well as a painter, I'm used to CMYK, having been trained in it pretty much from day one.

However, the point remains...identifying a color on a color wheel is one thing; being able to distinguish it in nature, separate it from its neighboring colors, and then duplicate that in paint...that is something else entirely.

One rather disheartening thing I've learned from my training relates to the work of Josef Albers. In his studies of color interactions, he shows how there is no such thing as a pure color: every color alters and is altered by its neighbor. This is one of the hardest things to realize about color, I think. There is no such thing as a red fire hydrant, or a blue ball, or a white horse.

Ernest Friedman-Hill said...

@Colin: I noticed that too, that the green/green trials they are showing the subject are different from the green/green trial the experimenter points to in explanation. I am sure the experiments are done with lots of randomized trials. If this experiment is scientifically valid it's quite amazing stuff!

Lindsay said...

This is a really interesting video... I wonder what would happen if they studied people who are trained not to associate words with visual perception. I think artists try to judge colors objectively, and not mix their left and right brains.

Nancy Goldman said...

What a fascinating video. No wonder art is so subjective.

Coalvin said...

There was a subtext here that was not discussed. When describing how they 'have different names for colors' it would have been much more accurate to say 'they have an entirely different concept of what color is'.
I'm sure if you asked them to spot the odd one out or something similar to that in their language they could have done it straight away. However asking them to spot the different 'colour' makes us think they are not seeing what we see, when in reality, to them 'color' means something completely different than it does to us.
In summary, the term color could easily have been lost in translation.

If you showed the Himba toddler a pink card and then later showed him a red one and ask if they're the same card, the kid would often mistakenly say yes -- because they're both "serandu."

Olly Lawson said...

Other than the wonderful part on the monkeys, I have to say the full show was a disappointment for the question asked at the beginning - too many TV "experiments" and unrelated points just touched on.

I would love to read a professor of neuroscience write about what seems to me a sure fact that we see the same colours, considering we all have the same protein light receptors in our eyes that respond to the same exact frequencies. If we all did see different, we might all also smell differently!

Nat Urwin said...

I watched this the other night and thought it was very interesting. I did see the different green in that colour wheel, it was almost like an allusion though as it was so similar. The bit I thought was most interesting though was the blue light waking people up. I'm going to try using blue light when i'm doing an all nighter on my uni work and see what happens :)

PAF said...

Interesting - I was at the Boing Boing site which showed the test pattern of greens. I couldn't pick out the different one until I was scrolling off of the wheel, which at one point isolated just the four greens at the top. Then it was easy to pick out the different one. Could it be the large circle of greens that our eye can't ignore while we're trying to visually isolate each one?

When trying to match a color from a photo reference, I rely on a circle cut out to isolate the color and match a swatch of paint. I'll bet the center of anyone's retina can discern color much more accurately than the outer regions.

Mike Lynch Photography said...

Video has been removed by the user.

Trench-Art said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trench-Art said...

Is this the same video?

Unknown said...

Color "names" drift in language as much as conceptualization. I've read the Sir Isaac Newton's spectral-"Blue" is our Cyan, and his "Indigo" is now our Blue. Hence ROY G BIV. And that originally he considered 5 colors, similar to the Munsell primaries, but was seduced by music theory and it's 7 notes of the scale (and 7 planets and 7 days of the week). The Music of the Spheres was an important philosphical construct back-then that extended to cosmology.

- Ted B.