Tell me what color you see, I'll tell you who you are.

Mar. 02, 2017

Learn a few curiosities about colors.

A few days ago a dispute over color perception divided the netizens. Akiyoshi Kitaoka, Psychology professor at Ritsumeikan University in Japan, posted a picture of a bowl of blue strawberries that everyone sees as red. Oddly, there are no red pixels in the photo, the color distortion is merely due to a brain correction that is stimulated when the things you see (the strawberries, in this case) are rendered under different types of light.

The science behind the origins of colors is pretty straight forward. Whenever the sunlight strikes an object you observe, it either absorbs or bounces off the light it was struck by. Since black objects absorb all colors and reflect none, they are said to lack colors completely. On the other hand, white objects absorb no light at all, and behave exactly the opposite as black ones.

But do we all perceive colors the same way, and do different colors transmit the same emotions to each of us?


In the case of the strawberries, the massive alteration in color vision was probably determined by the way our brains interpreted the light. This phenomenon is known as color constancy. If the same color is seen under different light sources, the hue is going to be perceived differently, depending on the prevailing spectral content of the light source.

Nevertheless, we can’t be certain that the color we perceive as “yellow,” for instance, corresponds exactly to what the rest of the population sees as “yellow,” even though we use the same word to define it. It has been hypothesized that even those people who are not suffering from color-blindness can see variations of the same colors, or even completely different ones but still be calling it by the same name. Therefore,your “green” could definitely be my “blue,” as each person’s color wheel could be rotated with respect to one another’s. According to Prof. Westland, from the University of Leeds, “People think if they take a photo of something, people will see the same thing. But of course, that is not true.”


An interesting phenomenon occurs sometimes, when people of different cultural backgrounds use different denominations for the exact same group of colors. It was observed in several studies that cultural differences can lead to a variation in the names that people with different cultural backgrounds attribute to the same color. For instance, the members of the Namibian tribe named Himba appeared to be using peculiar appellatives to distinguish several shades of a color that people from the West could not tell apart. At the same time, Himbas have trouble identifying hues when the difference among them seems pretty obvious to Western people. The question that spontaneously arises is: does the language we use,and therefore the culture we belong to, influence how we see colors and the colors we are capable of seeing?

According to cognitive psychologists,the answer to the second question is no. Even though we do have a different perception of colors, at the end of the day our brain is wired to make us see (see, but not perceive) the same casts as anybody else.

The first part of the question is more tricky: the language we use influences the way we perceive the world, indeed,but to what extent? Let’s go back to the Himba’s example…while the English language has 11 separate color categories, the Himba has only five. Whenever asked to identify the difference between blue and green, Himbas showed confusion: from their perspective those colors were extremely similar. When presented with shades of green, people from the West would see as only one color, Himbas would name three or four!

Some scholars believe that the difference in color perception in the case of the Himbas is determined by a lack of artificial stimuli that produces several gradations in Western societies, but not in theirs. Not being exposed to as many shades of colors,Himbas did not have the need of enriching their vocabulary to tell them apart.Thus, as a consequence, those colors just didn’t exist to them. It’s not a matter of different initial stimulus in itself, but a difference in the structural connectivity of synapses that permit hierarchical methods of categorization of those stimuli, and allow us to define and identify those colors. Pretty cool no?


Last but not the least, different casts have different meanings depending on the culture that is displaying them. A few examples:

Red, which in South Africa and in European countries is associated with violence, danger and sacrifices, in Oriental cultures is generally associated with good luck. Chinese people wear red clothes during the Chinese Spring Festival and for weddings. The Chinese stock market could be difficult to understand to the Western world, as whenever a stock’s share price has gone up, it is highlighted in red, not green.

White is another color that can have diametrically opposed meanings, depending on the culture adopting it. While it symbolizes purity and it's normally worn by Western brides, in China and some other Asian countries it is associated with death and it’s the color worn at funerals. Chinese people consider it a cold color, as it recalls the snow and the feeling of loss after the death of a dear one.

In the traditional Chinese color symbolism, yellow has the meaningof “powerful, royal, prosperity.” In time, the original meaning of the color changed, and the same yellow is now used to indicate pornographic material in publications. In the Western world, yellow has always been associated with infidelity and jealousy. For instance, in the 10th century the French painted the doors of traitors and criminals yellow. In contrary, African countries associate it with wealth, given its close similarity to gold.

Because of the variables we’ve just mentioned, our work can be quite challenging at times. Defining a color palette for a client isn’t as immediate and simple as one might think. Luckily, our international team, made up of locals and foreigners, is culturally diversified and able to target users worldwide!



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