I think the actual perception is less important than the cultural and emotional significance the colour has upon us. Whether you and I see the same thing when we look at a pale blue is a question that can never be answered; however most people find that looking at that particular colour induces feelings of peace and calm.

Likewise something that's painted in vivid red and orange: the same wavelength of light is stimulating the rods and cones in your eyes and my eyes, but how our brain interprets that is a unique, personal experience. What is know is that to most people from a western culture these colours are far more "stimulating" than most others.

Our understanding of colour is also very open to cultural bias. Many people know that to the Chinese white is a colour that signifies death, whereas black has this symbolism in Western cultures. Yet even amongst people from the same region there is variation: the Welsh have a word glas that basically translates as "the colour of a mountain lake" -- dependent on the ambient lighting this can be anything from grey through deep green to a vivid blue. In the Welsh language these shades all count as one colour, glas, whereas English distinguishes between them.

No people dont see the same thing when they see colours (I will stick to the UK English Spelling).

This is shown up in Colour Blindness, I am Colour Blind in the Turquoise area (Blue/Green). Its not that I cannot see anything that is Turquoise in Colour, but unlike people who claim that it is an individual colour all I see is a shade of Blue or Green not a mix of both.

So what I see as one colour, the majority of people see as another.

This is not a problem with my eyes (since they can see the turquoiuse frequency of light), but more of a question of recognition that this frequency is in fact a distinct colour.

Heres an Experiment to prove my point.

Gather a dozen people together at sunset and ask them what Colour it is.

I believe that the majority if pressed will not be able to give a precise answer that is the same as their neighbours.


No two people ever see the same colour. Some may say this is because of psychological factors, others, well.. who knows. This is my reason as to why two people never see the same colour.

There are three different cones in our eyes. They are characterized by the photopigment that they have. In short, they are red, green and blue. Now, this is NOT to say that every blue cone is the same. There are differences, such as the number of photopigments actually in the cone. Now, why would this cause any problems you ask? Well, when blue light is shined into our eyes, these pigments become activated and send signals through complicated processes that I will node later, to the brain. Now blue cones that have different pigment counts will be activated differently by the same light. Hence, the signal that is sent to the brain will be different.

Furthermore, the distribution of these cones and rods are not random, but are not fixed either. There is a pattern, there are more cones near the fovea but more rods in the periphery. The number of cones and rods differs from individual to individual. So a light, incident on the same piece of the retina will activate different amounts of receptors.

So, a single light beam of PURE blue color will activate different amounts of blue cones in different people, and the signal to the brain will be different based on the cones activated and the amount of photopigment that are actually activated. Now that is just for one colour. When you factor in different shades, you are factoring in different ratios of cones activated and those two differ from individual to individual. Hence, no two people see the exact same colour.

Or "Indigo: Absurd Liberal Myth!"

"Indigo is simply an abomination" - mauler
"A careful reading of Newton's work indicates that the color he called indigo, we would normally call blue; his blue is then what we would name blue-green or cyan." -Gary Waldman


Believe it or not, one of the most persistent conversations had in our household was over colour. Christine was an artist, came from artist stock. She had boxes of crayons and coloured pencils with a range the like of which I had never seen. Who knew there were so many bloody colours, and above all, who knew that every one had a name? She (or Tess) would take great delight in describing an item of clothing in front of me, only to have me decline the word "aqua" or "teal" in favour of more prosaic descriptors.

I also remember quite an argument breaking out when I was a small wertperch and describing a recently-granted present of a new sweater. When I called it "blue", my mother was shocked that I would describe it so. "Turquoise", she would say. "Green" was my father's vote. I was beaten for my wicked ways.

As a child, I certainly had issues with the names of coloured pencils and crayons - "flesh" as a colour disturbed me greatly - after all, who but a Jeffrey Dahmer would need a flesh-coloured crayon? "Why not 'skin'?" I would ask before the inevitable beating from my teacher.

For me, there were at the time just nine colours that I was prepared to recognise and name: firstly, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet. The colours of the rainbow, obviously. Minus indigo, which Newton threw in for good measure. Then brown, the colour of good mud, and poop. Finally, black and white. A little more recently, I have been forced to agree that pink is also a valid colour, largely because "light red" doesn't cover it. Ten colours I will have, and variations of "light", "dark" and possibly "dirty".

This resulted in great consternation in the rest of the family. The womenfolk teased me about my inability to recognise the difference between say turquoise and sea-green, and Christine would give me shit about how black and white were not colours in the first place. I would stand my amused ground in the face of this and then nod sagely as she elucidated at great length.

Some Cultural Observations

I remember being told that at one time there was no German name for the colour orange; German people just called it "red"¹. Well, the word "orange" was drawn from the fruit, and my guess is that they were just not that common in Northern Europe at the time, hence no word for the colour, possibly in any Northern European language.

Whether or not that's true, there are differences between various nations on naming colours. For a long time, the Japanese certainly had no word for orange. Some countries in the East (The BBC cites Vietnam and Korea as examples) do not differentiate between blue and green. The Dugum Dani people of New Guinea (again, from Aunty Beeb) have just two colour names, basically describing items as light or dark. Black and white, if you will.

Men and women certainly seem to have differing views. Randall Munro of xkcd fame recently had a survey on his website to investigate how people identified colour. The results were interesting. Men tended to be less precise than women, who used more descriptive terms to define colour. The link below makes interesting reading, is both informative and highly entertaining. Adjectives like "dusty teal" and "blush pink" were more popular with the women, "puke" and "penis" the more masculine colours.

Others suggest that women are better at colour than men, and that it's genetic. "Five- and six-year-old girls are better at naming colors than boys, and grown men are not as good at color-naming compared to women." This site suggests that some women have not three types of receptor cones in their eyes, but four. This suggestion, that some women possess tetrachromatic vision is not new, but thus far, I am not convinced by this.

Colour-blindness is more common in men than women, too. Perhaps that might explain this discrepancy, but I still prefer to think that we are just the more pragmatic sex.

Back to "Indigo"

The human eye is apparently "somewhat insensitive to hue changes in the wavelengths between blue and violet". Newton also admitted some difficulty in identifying colours, and indeed, in his famous experiments with prisms and the visible light spectrum, had a friend mark the delineations between the differing colours.

It seems that he also wanted there to be seven colours, possibly because he wanted to link to the seven notes of the major scale, possibly also because seven is viewed by some as representing Biblical perfection or completeness.

Certainly, after orange, the spread of the so-called indigo takes the least proportion of the spectrum in his diagrams. Newton, I'll give you orange, but the other? You can keep it.


So my colours, by popular request: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, Brown, Black, White, Pink. And I was just kidding about the beatings.




Responses From Readers

¹ DonJaime says: "German has a word for orange, which is 'orangenfarbig'. Before oranges, orange was seen as a kind of yellow, rather than red."

mauler adds: "I agree with your worldview on colors. What always bothered me about indigo was that it is not elegant to have [7] colors. You have 3 "primary" colors" red, blue, and yellow, and then you have 3 other colors that are mixes of two primaries: orange, green, and purple. That is so elegant. If you randomly have indigo between blue and purple, than you'd need to make up 5 other random colors between purple and red, orange and yellow, orange and red, green and yellow, and green and blue. Indigo is simply an abomination.

Maevwyn responds: I went to a fascinating lecture some years back on colour perception - apparently the eye and brain can distinguish between shades of colour much more finely than language does; even people who use a very small number of colour words can visually differentiate almost infinite shades of colour. One wonders if the difference between the sexes also holds true in languages that have a much more restricted vocabulary for colours than English does? English, for whatever reason, seems to be overrun with words for colours - I can't, for example, think of any real equivalent for "teal" or "maroon" in French.




The BBC
xkcd
Wikipedia on indigo
Wikipedia on tetrachromats
His and hers colours

Rondeau: a form consisting of fifteen lines (sometimes fewer) arranged in three parts and rhyming aabba aabR aabbaR. The R indicates a refrain that repeats the first word or phrase of the opening line. (The Poetry Dictionary, John Drury, Story Press, 1995.)


The More Sublime Need

Color is reflection of light not absorbed. Lime
is everything but, and tangerine's orange rind
is the disendowment of that very shade. Lately,
I wonder at the things not said. The weight we
choose to carry on, when there is no clear sign,

when emotion bounces back off topic. I'm
not sure where the light goes then. In line?
In scattered fragments, pieces of the prism beam?
Color is reflection.

If I can't adjust my angle of perception in time
I may miss your meaning, or at least the more sublime
need you express between words. A theme
of longing for something I may never absorb seems
to be in question. How to hold and define
the pigment of love when color is reflection.

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