Color Perception

The other day I ran across an interesting statement from a scientist (which I’d attribute if I could recall where I read it) to the effect that the “universe has no colors.” He went on to explain that what we see as colors are essentially the different energy levels of photons either emitted by or reflected from objects and that colors are the interpretation of those levels by our brains. Experiments and observation have determined that this visual perception differs from species to species and between men and women. Women perceive more different shades than men in the ranges of blue and green.

None of this is necessarily particularly surprising, and while colors may only be an interpretation of photonic frequencies by my gray matter, I certainly prefer that interpretation to shades of gray. To me, it would seem that living in a world of gray would be rather depressing, but that just might be my personal bias.

Years ago, Charles Harness wrote a book entitled Redworld, set on a world around Barnard’s Star where colors and color perception are very different because Barnard’s Star emits largely reddish light and the planetary atmosphere is an oxygen/ammonia mix. The result is that all the planetary phonic frequencies, if you will, are overwhelmingly shades of red and ochre, and the intelligent humanoid life there has evolved to discern a wide range of reddish shades, but infrequent “colors” like violet or yellow are perceived as gray or black. I won’t speak to the accuracy of this depiction, but since Harness had an undergraduate degree in chemistry, I would suspect it’s largely correct.

In retrospect, Harness was on to something, although I didn’t see it that way when I first read the short novel nearly thirty years ago. Since “colors” are more easily and quickly distinguished than are shades of gray, that interpretation enhances our perceptive ability, and as a result, our survivability as a species, and the same would have held true of Pol and his people in Redworld.

Yet how many people consider how perception colors not only our views of the world [yes, it is a terrible pun], but biases how we think? And yet, that perception of the universe varies between individuals and species… and yet, as the protagonist in Redworld is told, white [or blond] for him is black.

6 thoughts on “Color Perception”

  1. lauren raine says:

    As a professional artist I have to say that only a scientist, a very dry one, could say that the universe has no colors. But as you comment, colors are experienced in different ways. Perhaps there is a whole range of color that we simply don’t have the equipment to know?

    I recently read “The One Eyed Man” and was just stunned at what a fabulous, haunting, evocative novel it is – I could not put it down, and even now lines float through my mind……”Is color art?”. when I walk in nature, I personally cannot help but think that Gaia, the being we live within, is an artist.

    Thank you for such a wonderful novel!

    1. Thank you. I’m very glad it touched you. It’s one of my favorites.

  2. Scott says:

    From the opposite perspective, it’s interesting that the subjective perception of colour, and the meanings we attach to them, vary so much between people and species when there is a physical definition of colour built into the universe.

    For instance a certain yellow is related to a specific atomic transition in hydrogen (to give an example), this yellow is absolutely defined in terms of physical constants: no matter how different the subjective interpretation of that colour might be, it is always exactly the same.

    So it might be truer to say the universe does have colour – and defines it precisely!

  3. Joe says:

    Color perception evolved in primates to help determine which fruits were ripe to eat.

    Color perception evolved in insects to determine where to land on flowers to get nectar (which is why they see into the ultraviolet range).

    Simultaneously, fruits and vegetables evolved to better display their ripeness (so that they seeds can be carried farther away) and their stamen (so that they can be fertilized).

    Source: BBC nature films by David Attenborough.

  4. John Prigent says:

    I’d be happy if there was a way to describe the two extra colours I see in a rainbow, presumably infra-red and ultra-violet. It comes back to the old saying about describing colours to a blind man, nobody can be sure that what they see is the same as what anybody else sees.

  5. RRRea says:

    The distinctions between colors are more culture bound than anything else. There are cultures for which there are only three colors – red, all that is bright, all that is bright. And those are ALWAYS the three colors when a culture has only three. When a culture has four colors, they are ALWAYS red, green, all that is dark, all that is light. The lines defining what is one color are subject to culture bias. Indigo is essentially meaningless to most modern Americans. Orange isn’t just a shade of yellow because of the change in availability of the fruit of the same name. There’s a reason the two words are the same. Chinese doesn’t (or didn’t) draw the line between yellow and brown in the same place. The “Yellow” River is/was yellow if you are Chinese. The yellow-est it gets to western eyes is the light brown frequently called “tan”. And so on. Even the scientists are culture bound. They take specific frequencies of light and fit them into their preconceived notions of what color are supposed to be called.

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