General Question

ubersiren's avatar

Is your yellow my purple?

Asked by ubersiren (15208points) February 21st, 2009

I’ve often wondered if each of us has his/her own color palate that we view the world with. For example, if we see a car, could we really be seeing it in different colors? You see a yellow car and I see a purple car. BUT- since kindergarten we’ve been taught that the colors we are seeing are both called red.

I know we all have cones and rods (eye cells), but could our brains be interpreting colors differently but be trained to call them one uniform color?

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58 Answers

poofandmook's avatar

@ubersiren: If I could give you 20348203948 lurve points, I would. When I’m bored, I contemplate all kinds of stuff that most people would never think twice about… and I’ve wondered that since I was very little. The few times I’ve shared that, people looked at me like I’m insane. The worst is when they try to give me a scientific explanation. What I call blue may very well be your yellow. They’ll never know unless they can get into my eyes.

ubersiren's avatar

@poofandmook , you are me! I know all about the insane looks. I think the worst is when people don’t get it. I’ve gotten a lot of, “Well if I say that ball is blue, and you say that ball is blue, it’s blue, right?” Eeek! It kills me!

DrBill's avatar

I have also ask this since I was a kid, and the same question about taste, smell and other senses.

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

No colors anymore I want them to turn black. (not really)

ubersiren's avatar

Is it obnoxious to ask a question every day? Are there fluther morals or standards like on some sites? Should I be submitting this as a question? I’m such a noob.

Jayne's avatar

I doubt that there is any great disparity in the perceptions of color, as some colors are known to evoke certain psychological responses in most people- red producing stress, for instance. These reactions would not work in this manner if they were not triggered by the same input, so for perception of colors to vary between people, the reactions would have to lie somehow between the input and conscious perception, with the ‘scrambling’ taking place after the unconscious reaction. As conscious perception is most likely informed by the standardized unconscious reaction, it seems unlikely that any great variation would take place. But the idea is appealing nonetheless.

DrBill's avatar

There is a condition that effects people who have been severely traumatized, and they lose the ability to see the color red. That would lead me to think red is red for everyone.

aprilsimnel's avatar

Ah, epistemology. How do you know that you know anything? That is the question.

Re your question: I find it’s a blue/purple discussion with other people if we’re disagreeing about colors.

ubersiren's avatar

@Jayne : That’s a very good way of thinking of it. Something I never thought about! Though, I tend to think our emotions are triggered by associations. So, if blue calms most of people because of an association with the beach, or a childhood bedroom, etc. that color could be hot pink and have the same effect on the person if he grew up that way. It’s all how we’re nurtured.

Jayne's avatar

Yes, there is no doubt that the inborn reaction to colors, evolved to help the species survive, can be overridden by life experiences. I’m not sure that this could have any effect on the basic perception of the color- or perhaps that distinction is meaningless, because if your perception changes over time, you would have no reference against which to check it.

ubersiren's avatar

@aprilsimnel : Very interesting wiki entry. I’d never heard of that term for “theory of knowledge.” This fluther thingamajig is awesome!

aprilsimnel's avatar

@ubersiren – I know, innit?

I took Philosophy 101 in college. Epistemology was the first unit of the class.

Harp's avatar

Another argument in favor of a uniform experience of color from one person to another is the fact that certain color combinations are widely considered to clash. Colors opposite from each other on the color wheel (yellow and purple, red and green, and blue and orange) are found to be problematic combinations by most people, whereas colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel are typically considered to go well together.

If each person experienced color differently, one wouldn’t expect to see such widespread agreement about how colors harmonize.

El_Cadejo's avatar

i have randomly thought of this question since childhood :) and just like you poofandmook when i shared it people looked at me like i was crazy lol

skfinkel's avatar

I have thought about this question also, many times when I was younger. I pretty much accept the notion of length of light beams causing certain colors. I think in some ways accepting the fact that we all see colors pretty much the same way, or taste food the same way, means we have to accept that we are not such exceptional creatures—the way we feel when we are young—if we are lucky.

Curious404's avatar

Thank you fot summing my shared theory up so well. I too get strange looks! Gladvto know others are out there.

intro24's avatar

I have asked the exact same question to my friends and was considering asking this soon. I think it’s possible and would have something to do with the brains perception. It would be really cool if it was based on your eye color.

Grisson's avatar

The perception of color is very subjective, as is the perception of orientation and absolute size.
How do you know your brain doesn’t size everything you view twice as large as it really is.
How do you know you’re seeing ‘Up’ as ‘Up’ and not ‘Down’.
As long as the math works, it doesn’t matter.

Grisson's avatar

Interestingly, there were some experiments with LSD (back when there were experiments with LSD that were actually scientific), where subjects perceived a color they had never perceived before, I think it was a very intense chartreuse or something like that. The thinking was that the drug stimulated a part of the visual cortex that isn’t normally stimulated and the subject perceived this odd color.

Jeruba's avatar

I’ve wondered this all my life and come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter. As long as we can agree that this and this are the same color, which we happen to call red, and this and that are not the same, because that is what we call blue, it doesn’t make any difference whether your subjective perception is exactly like mine or not.

@Harp, couldn’t we have the same aversion to seeing opposites paired even if we didn’t have identical perceptions of the opposites? I mean, they would still be opposite relative to one another whether or not your purple were my purple, wouldn’t they?

I think the key is in the shared perception that A = A and does not = B, regardless of whether we all see A the same way.

nebule's avatar

@Grisson tell me more, tell me more….:-)

Harp's avatar

@Jeruba Yes, but the very fact that two colors are universally considered to be opposites would at least indicate that we perceive the same relationships between colors. That’s not proof of uniformity of experience, but it’s a strong clue.

Another little piece of evidence comes from the synaesthetic experience. Synaesthetes who associate colors with letters or numbers tend to have certain letters and numbers that get associated with the same colors by most other synaesthetes (A=red, for example). This color is generated by the circuitry of the brain, not by an external stimulus. So if synaesthete Jane and synaesthete Mary both agree that the color their brains link to A matches the color of fire engines, then there’s probably reason to believe that “red” is a uniform sensory experience.

dynamicduo's avatar

Color doesn’t really exist. All color is is our brains interpreting the wavelengths which are reflected from surfaces. The wikipedia article goes into a lot of very interesting details.

We can perform tests that confirm that we generally recognize similar colors. So your example with the different colored cars wouldn’t commonly exist, as the wavelength of light reflecting off of the car would correspond generally to one set of hues. The car may reflect off wavelengths that correspond to the color being green, for example. However, what can affect the “color” of the car is the ways our brains interpret this wavelength. For example, people who are colorblind have a skewed (relative to the average human) interpretation of wavelengths of colors (see the wikipedia article), so for most colorblind people, they would generally not interpret green as being the “green” that we all know of.

But what exactly is green? Just try to describe it with descriptive words… I’m finding it very hard to do so. So no, there’s no real way we can verify for sure (yet) that the color of a green tree which we are both viewing is the exact same saturation and value of green that we both interpret it as being.

The ultimate question is, is there a significant disadvantage in (excluding colorblind folk) us not interpreting colors the exact same? And the general answer is no. For most of humanity’s existence, color has been a tool to help with understanding if something is good or bad quickly so we can make an appropriate decision for survival (red = dangerous, as it is the color of blood – if you see it on the ground, there may be danger around. black = death, rotting food and feces which harbour diseases). In today’s modern world we still use a lot of symbolic color usages (traffic lights for instance), so it still has a purpose, but for the most part we have extended past its original use and made it into something more (art, fashion, etc).

ubersiren's avatar

@Jeruba : I am actually a “synesthete” as we are called. I can actually taste foods when I hear, read, or say words. I think it comes naturally for me to ask these types of questions because I have these experiences that very few people truly do. Who knows what is going on from brain to brain!

dynamicduo's avatar

@ubersiren – wow! How unique! I’ve read about synesthesia but I’ve never known anyone with it. I’d love to hear more of your experiences with it, if you’d like to share them.

ubersiren's avatar

Combination words I have to break apart- Dynamic tastes like mint tic tacs, duo tastes similar to Spaghetti-o’s. My husband’s name is Justin and his name tastes like Cheez-its crackers.

toomuchcoffee911's avatar

I was wondering that since I was young. But nobody can prove it because nobody can see what others see.

PS I am also a synesthete, only I don’t taste letters and numbers, I see them and know the texture.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@ubersiren do you enjoy this being a synesthete because i know i would love it.

ubersiren's avatar

@uberbatman : whoa, another uber! Well, it’s always there so I hardly notice it unless I’m thinking about it. It’s fun sometimes- like when my friends do the “what’s this word taste like” game. I actually played that game when I was a kid but didn’t find out it had a name until my freshman year in college. I saw it on the Rosie O’donnell show.

Jeruba's avatar

@Harp & @ubersiren, I have very strong visual synesthesia for letters and numbers. For sounds, voices, and especially music, it is there but much weaker. So I understand the experience. And I say “association” is a misnomer. It isn’t an association, which is a learned relationship such as an association of red and green with Christmas or an association of apples and rulers with school. It just is, part of the way of seeing, as much as size and form are.

A is red for me, as it is for many. But after agreement on A, experiences diverge sharply. I have found a few for whom B or Monday or July as the same as mine, but even then we have little agreement overall. For the most part our visions of letters, words, and numbers are without commonality or pattern. I have found the same thing in looking at online material on the subject, both from researchers and from synesthetes who have devised ways of trying to share their experience. What we have in common is the seeing of the color in the words, but not which colors.

@Harp, I can’t offer you any science for this, but I think that logically we might be able to separate the quality of opposition from the actual color value. The oppositeness comes from some intrinsic relationship in the color composition, rather than being a matter of perception, does it not?

Jeruba's avatar

@dynamicduo, your name is mostly green, deep green, and would be more strongly so if the two D’s were capped. The overall impression is green from the two D’s and the C. The A and the U add warm colors, so that the overall impression is a bit like that of a string of malachite beads with a few pieces of jasper and amber interspersed.

ubersiren's avatar

@Jeruba : That’s so cool. Sounds pretty! And you made perfect sense when you said that it’s not really an association. That’s something I have a hard time explaining to people. It’s automatic. And I actually can taste the food as someone says, “chair” or “Josh” or “boat.” Another not so prominent synesthesia I have (that I’m not even sure is a real thing) is assigning a gender to letters and numbers. Hahaha I feel so silly saying that, but it’s something I’ve always done.

Jeruba's avatar

@ubersiren, it took me about 45 years, but I finally came up with a way to explain it. How’s this?

When you look at a black-and-white picture like this one, you don’t think that Marilyn is wearing black lipstick. You can see that the tone in the image appears to be black, but your mind reinterprets it, and you “see” it as red.

Likewise, when you view an image like this, you “see” green grass. You know it isn’t gray.

It’s not exactly like that, but it’s something similar. The color happens inside your head, not in your eyes and not in the image, and you simply know what color it is. At the same time, you don’t know whether the rabbit is brown or gray, so you can’t fill it in—the analogy breaks down there because it depends on prior knowledge. It’s the knowing versus association that I am getting at with this example.

People who don’t have synesthesia can sort of get it when I explain it like this. I have never seen this explanation anywhere in the literature or elsewhere, but it satisfies me well enough.

When I was a child, I thought it was just the normal way of seeing things and didn’t even try to explain it. I was eleven before I found out that most people (including my parents) didn’t know what I was talking about, and then I stopped talking about it too. I was about 25 when I found out what it was called. I then began to discover that some people think it’s just a fantasy. Oddly, those are some of the people who write about it quasi-scientifically using words like “association” and try to explain it in cognitive and psychological terms (e.g., “Your mother loves pink, and her name begins with K, so you associate pink with the letter K”). Nonsense.

Harp's avatar

@Jeruba The research I’ve looked at finds significant commonalites only among vowels, interestingly. A=red is true for about 1/3 of syneasthetes; E=yellow for about 1/4; I=either black or white for 1/2; O= white for almost 1/2; U has no strong pattern. With consonants, no patterns emerge.

Jeruba's avatar

@Harp, for me the vowels are all warm colors and the consonants are cool. Some letters (H, for instance) are chameleons, picking up the neighboring color, and some change in combinations. For instance, K is usually purple, but CK is green.

My first three vowels match your list, except that I can also be gray or clear. O is sometimes white, sometimes orange, and U is such a strong, vivid orange that, like A, it can dominate a word.

I married when the women’s movement was young and going strong, and a lot of people asked me why I took my husband’s name. I didn’t tell a soul that my maiden name was dirt brown and my husband’s name was red and gold.

I have also made a personal study of how this effect changes
– when I read a foreign language that is written in the Roman alphabet—one I understand vs. one I don’t, especially when the pronunciation of letters differs sharply from English pronunciation
– when I read a foreign language that is written in another alphabet that I can read
– when I look at words in a writing system I can’t read

I have also noted the effect on hearing spoken language versus reading it and, significantly, how the visual of a word changes (names especially) when I find out that it is spelled differently from what I thought.

ubersiren's avatar

@Jeruba : That’s a perfect way of putting it.

Jeruba's avatar

Thank you! That’s validation, all right.

A few years ago I tried to interest some researchers in that explanation, wrote to the contact address on their website (where they had invited correspondence), but they didn’t even answer.

intro24's avatar

Not sure if anyone has said this yet but…

if we saw in different colors we would be more sensitive to some colors than another person would be. If my red is your grey I’m gonna notice something red more than you would so it seems that this would matter.

dynamicduo's avatar

So interesting! Thanks to you both for your interpretations of this username, it was very interesting to read how you perceive it.

ubersiren's avatar

@intro24 : That’s a great point.

amanderveen's avatar

Like many others here, I’ve often wondered the same thing about how people see colours. We associate names (eg red) with specific “colours” of items (eg a ripe Macintosh apple) because we were taught to associate that name with the light wavelengths our eyes pick up from that object. Because the wavelengths are the same and we’re attaching the same labels to those wavelengths, we have a common vocabulary to describe “colours”.

I’ve always wondered what I would “see”, though, if my consciousness was dropped into someone else’s head for a few minutes. For example, someone who is completely colourblind can still see all visible wavelengths, even if they are unable to differentiate between the different wavelengths the same way I can, so I would theoretically see everything, but in black and white. Are there similar, although more subtle, differences in the way people who are not colourblind see colours? My mom has a much better “eye for colour” than I do (she’s much better at picking out aesthetically pleasing colour combinations than I am, for example). Is it because she actually sees colours “better” than I do, or just because she has taught herself to analyze the colours differently? If I were to see what’s in her head, is she actually seeing a more expansive palette than I am? I’ve always been curious, although I don’t know if there have ever been any studies on that aspect of colour and sight.

amanderveen's avatar

@Jeruba – I’d heard of synesthetes before, particularly ones who associate colours with audible tones. It’s interesting to read your description of it.

Jeruba's avatar

To your point, @amanderveen, I used to have an eye for color that is probably about like having perfect pitch. I could distinguish fine shades with precision. I could go to the fabric store without a swatch and bring home a spool of thread that was a perfect match for some odd shade of fabric I was working with. This was nothing I learned; it was just there.

Surprisingly (to me), this ability began to fade when my eyesight got poorer with age. I would never have thought focus played a role, but it seems to. I have to work at certain color distinctions now and have just as much trouble as my husband does in differentiating black from navy blue. In my head I know them as well as ever, but my eyes let me down.

amanderveen's avatar

@Jeruba – Excellent point! I like the way you compare it to having perfect pitch. My colour “pitch” isn’t abysmal, but it certainly isn’t perfect.

Grisson's avatar

The closest I come to synesthesia is that my ‘number line’ has shade and light, and it changes direction on occasion. So it’s a kind of visual representation of numbers. Anything that has a logical linear sequence (alphabet, calendar months, calendar years) is subject to the same shading and direction changes.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

I am red/green colorblind to some extent, so sure, your yellow could be my purple, but more likely, your green is my brown and your red is my grey.

nebule's avatar

… i was commenting the other day on how it was awful to put lime green and grey together (on my son’s juice cup – i was talking about the evident bad decision made by the production design team…) when i was immediately corrected by everyone in the room (i think there was about 8) that it was in fact BLUE not GREY….

hmmmm… I’m a bit concerned now…

aviona's avatar


Thank you for putting it into words! (haha, no pun intended?)

Lupin's avatar

This is such a cool thread! I too have thought of this.
Humans can detect light in wavelengths from 380nm to 780nm (Violet to red). There is nothing magical about those wavelengths. Mosquitoes and snakes can see all the way into the IR or 1200nm. Jumping spiders see in the UV range. These ranges are best for finding their prey.
@Jeruba That is the coolest ability. Does it help you remember things or does it result in confusion!

Jeruba's avatar

@Lupin, there’s no confusion at all. Sometimes it is a gorgeous extra, like hearing a choir of angels in your head as you’re falling asleep. Sometimes it is just entertainment. A page of print is as colorful as the bin of sprinkles at Baskin-Robbins. But it is also useful. Synesthesia is one of the things (besides being a born speller) that make me a good proofreader: a misspelled word is the wrong color. For instance, a word that ends in ”-ible” looks strikingly different at a glance if it is spelled with -“able.”

Most of the time I don’t pay any attention to the phenomenon and just take it for granted, along with all the other things you expect to see when you read: contrast, form, line, aspect ratio and silhouette of whole words, alignment, arrangements of white space, even baselines, etc.

Lupin's avatar

@Jeruba Thank you for sharing something so personal with us. You have such a precious gift!
I always find your answers insightful and descriptive. But now, with the addition of color, you have added another dimension.
About 25 years ago, I had a serious medical event that required several weeks of recovery time. Once I left the hospital, I noticed I could not read as quickly as I used to. The letters had an edge to them. The ophthalmologists did not see any problem since my visual acuity was 20/15 when I looked at a fixed image. However, when I moved my eyes or if the object moved, I saw a double flash in the direction of motion. Being an engineer, I decided to measure the width of the flash myself and found it corresponded to a time delay of 5 ms between my left eye and right eye. Once I knew the delay value, I was able to look at objects and estimate their speeds. For example, I could look at a car driving by and determine its speed by observing the edge of the bumper. In the car example, if the gap was about 1/2 a bumper width, that meant the car was moving about 4 inches in 5ms or about 40 mph. I could look at a spinning fan blade and estimate its rpm. The other engineers in my group were so envious. After about 2 months, my brain figured out that it was taking too much effort to process all that information and no doubt slowed down the faster eye to match the other. For a short while, I felt that I could see in four dimensions.

The only time I see colors in text is when my spelling and grammar checkers flag it.

If I may be so bold, what color is my name?

Jeruba's avatar

@Lupin, the name “Lupin” is predominantly green to me, because of the capital L, with a strong dash of orange from the u. When I look at it steadily, I see the purple p and the brown n, with the i white in this case, but at a single glance the main effect is green shading into orange.

This is confused in my eye by your having a black and red avatar. Hardly anyone has an avatar that matches his or her name in my perception, so I have that dissonance all the time on Fluther.

Your moving-edge perception is fascinating. Somewhere there must be a researcher or a Ph.D. candidate who would be interested in your documentation.

Lupin's avatar

Thank you for the reading. I’ll try playing with my avatar in Photoshop. Maybe I can change the colors to reduce the dissonance for you. A green jacket, purple shirt and a red tie perhaps? Sorry, but the black hair is a given.

I was tested at the University of Rochester Strong Memorial Hospital. They verified my measurement and description. They were surprised that I noticed such a small phase shift. Usually a patient starts to detect a difference once the phase shift begins to go above 20 ms. Not only did I detect it, but I measured it. How? I sat in a swivel chair and put a newspaper on the wall. My wife spun the chair at a rate of about one turn in 2 seconds. I then looked at the print and saw which font was the same width as the double flash. It was easy math from there.

Jeruba's avatar

Wow, that is really amazing, @Lupin, and I think it is much more impressive than a little synesthesia, which I was born with and didn’t have to cultivate at all. The method of testing alone is ingenious.

Just a green jacket (about the same color as the dark green in the Fluther page header) would do nicely, thanks.

flutherother's avatar

How interesting all this is. I can’t know but it is likely that grass looks ‘green’ to everyone and ‘red’ to no one. However just as some people have a keener perception of sound and pitch than others so I think some people will experience colours more intensely. Artists for example.

I read of a case where a colour blind person with synesthesia was able to ‘see’ the colours that they could not see in real life. The colours they saw in this way they called ‘Martian ’ colours.

28lorelei's avatar

The problem with knowing how others see color is the simpleness of our language. I may see purple while someone see what I call blue, and we both call it purple. If only there was a more specific way to describe this. I assume that people who are related would see relatively similar colors.
There is a similar thing for pitch as well. Most people don’t perceive the “chroma” that much, though, so I don’t know how that affects the scheme of things. But for those with perfect pitch, one’s A might sound like another’s D. I dunno.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

We just had a similar discussion here about whether people taste things differently. I think it is possible, because you can’t describe a color any more than you can describe a taste.

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