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The Shady World of Colour

27 Sep 2013



When it comes to colour, we don’t always see eye-to-eye
Have you ever bought something over the internet and found that when you actually receive it, it seems a slightly different shade than the online image?

It’s probably happened to us all at some point. The reasons are complex, and have a lot to do with different lighting and the type of screen we’re viewing the image on, which have variable colour saturation and brightness settings, etc.

But let’s indulge in a slight, fascinating tangent here: did you know that all of us see colours differently? It’s true!

Seeing Red?
We all assume your red and mine are the same. In fact, what I call red and you call red might actually be quite different. Sure, we both think that red is the colour of blood, strawberries and the planet Mars, but that doesn’t really prove anything.

Such discrepancies can occur because colour isn’t an absolute, intrinsic quality; things only look a certain colour because they reflect and absorb certain wavelengths of light. So an object isn’t actually ever red, it just looks that way when it reflects red wavelengths of light and absorbs the rest.

The reflected wavelengths of light reach the millions of light-sensitive cells in our eye, receptors that mysteriously process this light into nerve impulses and pass them on the brain, which then ‘sees’ the colour.

All in the Mind?
Until recently, scientists assumed that unless there’s some kind of colour blindness, eyes pass on the same messages about colour, which the brain interprets in the same way.

Now, however, scientific opinion is changing. According to the colour vision scientist, Joseph Carroll of the Medical College of Wisconsin, the way each brain takes in and interprets colours isn’t all the same. Instead, when our brains get information about a colour, we each develop a unique perception or interpretation of it. So rather than being a universal fact, colour is more like a ‘private sensation.’

Bad Taste?
Now I’m absolutely intrigued to find out how other people see the colours I see, but since we can’t easily get into other people’s minds, this is something that’ll have to remain a mystery.

However, one thing’s for sure: scientists have figured out that men and women have a different perception of colour. Experiments have found that women are better at distinguishing subtle colour distinctions, seeing tiny little differences in shades of yellow, blue or green where men see no difference at all. Men also see orange as redder and green as more yellowy than women.

That may explain why men are sometimes less patient when women spend hours trawling through colour charts or worrying whether that dress is quite the right shade. To men, those subtle shades all look pretty much the same.

However, men are apparently better at tracking fine detail among moving images. Once, this would have been useful for hunting; now, it’s probably gives you a slight edge when watching the footie or playing computer games.

So when it comes to redecorating, leave choosing the paint to the women. Guys, why not use the old ‘colour’ excuse and take the opportunity to watch a match?

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