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Here’s Why Colours Might Not Even Exist

Colour is crucial for so many things in daily life and yet it still remains somewhat of an enigma. Join DCODE as we surf the spectrum of theories related to colour and how we see it.

In Full Colour

Many of us will remember The Dress of 2015 when arguments raged among family and friends, some saying, ‘It’s white and gold!’ while other equally vehemently asserted it was black and blue.

Our world is full of fascinating conundrums, but surely something that is red is actually, well… red. Or is it?

Scientifically we must ask what is colour and where is colour. However, it seems that neither scientists nor philosophers know what colour actually is.

In her 2015 book, Outside Color, Professor Mazviita Chirimuuta writes, ‘Color hovers uneasily between the subjective world of sensation and the objective world of fact.’

In fact, an object’s colour is not actually inherent in the object itself. And that is according to science.

Explanations for our human perception of colour have been attempted for two centuries.

One such is trichromacy theory, also known as Young-Helmholtz theory, dating from the 19th century.

Similar to RGB on monitors, this theory decided that each of three colours – red, green, blue – was assigned to one of three types of cone cells in the retina of our eyes, mixing and creating the correct shades and nuances in much the same way the Red, Green and Blue of a monitor does.

A later oppositional process theory posited that one cone is for red–green, another for blue–yellow and the third for black–white, which basically adds the brightness and contrast.

At one time both theories were in opposition to one another, but it turns out both are necessary to explain colour perception.

The wavelengths of light also play a role, with short, medium and long wavelengths each having a designated type of cone receptor in the eye.

The amount of opsin amino acids in the receptor cone determines the physiological response to a photon, a process known as phototransduction.

Which Colour is Real?

Think about those times you have been shopping and asked to see the item in daylight, just to make the colour is ‘correct’. But which is the ‘correct’ colour? The one in the shop lighting or the one in daylight?

And if you wear that blouse or shirt at night, the colour will be different again. Or maybe even, with so little light, not exist at all.

One would assume that science has got an answer for all this by using wavelengths to analyse and quantify colour.

Using surface spectral reflectance or SSR to match our perception of colour to a computer’s digital recorder should have solved the issue.

All this was done but what the computer ‘saw’ was different from humans, either too many colours or colour instead of shadow or too much inconsistency in differing light conditions.

It only proved that our eyes and brains are better at colour than computers.

Colour Adverbalism

Going back to The Dress, we all learned that people saw the colours a certain way. As an example of what Chirimuuta calls colour ‘adverbalism’ we could say that some of us saw the dress whitely-goldly while others saw it blackly-bluely.

Chirimuuta says, ‘Color is not an object of sight but a way of seeing things.’

Remember that an adverb qualifies the verb, so adverbial colour would go something like, ‘I saw a cat blackly’ instead of ‘I saw a black cat.’

Colour, then, is within the observer rather than within the object viewed. Our perception of colour is a method of interpretation that can provide information about our world and our surroundings.

Of course, this type of mind-bending shift in thought processes, rather than perception, will probably never catch on.

But it may turn out useful if you meet an over-pedantic person who insists something is not merely purple, it is aubergine.

You could have the satisfaction of saying, ‘Oh, but you are only seeing it auberginely.’

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