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''Homage to the Square'' (1954), by Josef Albers. ( 2003 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

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Color Cognition

By DIRK OLIN

Published: November 30, 2003

Roses are red; violets are blue. But if we called a violet red, what color would it be? This is not a rhetorical question. How we label things can affect how we perceive them. Naming can impose meaning. And though science and anthropology have provided significant support for the proposition that color perception is basically identical across societies, recent studies have found evidence that we also see our rainbows through cultural lenses.

Tinted History

Theories about color were developed at least as far back as the time of Socrates, in the fifth century B.C. But Aristotle's notion of seven basic colors -- with primary hues, related to the four elements -- held sway through the Renaissance. No enduring paradigms for the organization of color emerged until Sir Isaac Newton, building on the laws of refraction discovered by Willebrord Snell and Rene Descartes in the early 17th century, shone light through a prism and revealed the spectrum. This was not a purely scientific result, however, since Newton sorted out seven major colors to ''harmonize'' his categories with the (then known) seven planets and the seven notes of the diatonic scale. In the 1720's J.C. Le Blon's treatise on color revealed how mixtures could create secondary colors.

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As findings in recent years have demonstrated, however, color is in the mind as well as the wavelength. Yes, physical objects have intrinsic properties, and their absorption and reflection of particular wavelengths have an existence independent of the observer. But color is a neural response triggered in our eyes, a biochemical reaction processed in our photoreceptors and a psychological phenomenon occurring in our brains. Categorizing colors is also affected by culture and by our very acquisition of language.

Clashing Colors

The world clearly has many shades of color meaning. Literary Welsh has no words that correspond with green, blue, gray or brown in English, but it uses others that English speakers don't (including one that covers part of green, part of gray and the whole of our blue). Hungarian has two words for what we call red; Navajo, a single word for blue and green but two words for black. Ancient Greek's emphases on variables like luminosity (as opposed to just hue) led some scholars to wonder seriously whether the culture at large was colorblind.

In a series of classic studies conducted during the late 1960's, Eleanor Rosch, now with the University of California at Berkeley, compared color discrimination by Americans with that of the Dani people of Indonesia. English speakers typically use 11 separate ''elemental'' color words (including black, white and gray), whereas the Dani use only two. Rosch tested the color memory of the two groups' members -- first showing them a color, then (after a short delay) asking them to find it in a separate group of similar colors. Despite the groups' big difference in nomenclature, she found that they were perceiving colors in the same way. Rosch's findings were seized upon by advocates of universality, who said terminology doesn't affect cognition: color transcends culture.

But recent studies conducted by Debi Roberson, Ian Davies and Jules Davidoff (at the universities of Essex, Surrey and London) suggest otherwise. They examined the hunter-gatherer Berinmo tribe of Papua, New Guinea, a people with five basic color terms who don't distinguish blue from green. (They do, however, have a distinction for shades of green -- called nol and wor -- that are not shared by Westerners.) In essence, they found that the Berinmo handled their nol-wor differences better than their blue v. green (while it was vice versa for English speakers). After practice, both groups were able to improve their discernment of the distinction that they previously hadn't shared with their counterparts. ''These results,'' Davidoff and his colleagues contended, ''indicate that categorical perception occurs, but only for speakers of the language that marks the categorical distinction, which is consistent with the linguistic relativity hypothesis.'' (The relativity of color naming is just one manifestation of this broader concept, for which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a formula: ''large differences in language lead to large differences in thought.'')

According to Paul Kay, an emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, the relativists have simply overstated their claim. He concedes that naming can affect memory of colors. But in findings presented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July 2003, Kay reported conducting statistical tests on color-naming data from more than 100 languages in both industrial and nonindustrialized societies and concluded that ''strong universal tendencies in color naming exist across both.''

Hue and Cry

Dueling theories of universality and relativity are not likely to disappear any time soon. But there may be some room for a, well, gray area. Roberson, in a paper soon to be published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Research, suggests that ''no language has ever been reported to have a category that includes two areas of color space (e.g., yellow and blue) but excludes an area in between them (green).'' Yet when asked to square that with her relativism, she expands: ''Although the physiological basis of color vision is the same for all humans (and some primates) with normal color vision, higher order processing and categorization differ between cultures.''

In a recent presentation to the Psychonomic Society, Roberson and her colleagues compared color-category acquisition in English-speaking children and seminomadic Himba children in Southwest Africa. Her evidence suggests the learning of labels may tune the perceptual system to become more sensitive to some distinctions than others.

Objectivity and subjectivity can coexist here. Color can be understood both scientifically and artistically. It is experienced as a phenomenon, but it is also learned, like a language. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but one called by any other color might look a bit different.

A Spectrum of Meanings

From the introduction to ''Colour: Art & Science'' (Cambridge University Press, 1995, reprinted in 1999), edited by Trevor Lamb and Janine Bourriau.

''Although the idea of 'colour' may seem a simple concept, it conjures up very different ideas for each of us. To the physicist, colour is determined by the wavelength of light. To the physiologist and psychologist, our perception of colour involves neural responses in the eye and the brain, and is subject to the limitations of our nervous system. To the naturalist, colour is not only a thing of beauty but also a determinant of survival in nature. To the social historian and linguist, our understanding and interpretation of colour are inextricably linked to our own culture. To the art historian, the development of colour in painting can be traced both in artistic and technological terms. And for the painter, colour provides a means of expressing feelings and the intangible, making possible the creation of a work of art. . . . In the field of colour, the arts and the sciences now travel in unison, and together they provide a rich and comprehensive understanding of the subject.''

Dirk Olin is national editor of The American Lawyer.


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