Judging from Twitter, most of my UK-based friends spent all of last night glued to the television news. Except, of course, for the idiots like me who spent it working. But today I caught up with some other TV, because there is a new series of the BBC’s science program, Horizon, just started, and the opening episode is well worth a dive into the iPlayer archives.
The program looks at the idea of color, how we perceive it, and what effect it has on us. Many of the findings may surprise you. For example, color influences not just our emotions, but also how awake we feel, and even our sense of the passage of time. Color perception is different for different people as well. For example, your ability to tell the difference between two colors depends heavily on how the language you speak divides up the spectrum into categories. That’s because as a child you learn to distinguish colors on the basis of the words you learn to describe them. And that’s fascinating because it means that our experience of art can be subjective on a very basic level.
Interestingly, our ability to perceive color is dependent on our expectations. So, for example, we will identify a banana as yellow under a range of different lighting conditions, but a patch of yellow paint has no such clues. That means that our brains are making up the color we see, based on their expectations of what we are looking at.
Color can also influence what we think we are seeing. In combat sports contestants are randomly allocated blue or red clothing. Experiments, including digitally altering the color of film, suggest that expert judges will tend to favor the contestant in red. Studies of sports at the Olympics suggest that in a close bout wearing red confers a significant advantage.
All of this is fascinating, but I can’t help but wonder if it is the tip of a very big iceberg. I have this sneaking suspicion that an awful lot of what we think that we see is influenced by our environment, and by our expectations of the things we are looking at.
For those of you who don’t have access to the iPlayer, there is an article about some of the issues raised during the program here.