The Langugage of Color

Here at Colour Studio we do a lot of thinking about color. We are not alone, as  deep in the Brazilian rainforest there are people who can change the way you talk about color. The Piraha system of language is  based on just eight consonants and three vowels.  It possesses such a complex variety of tones, stresses, and syllable length that its speakers can sing, hum and whistle conversations. 
Dan Everett with a member of the Pirahã Tribe. Photograph by Martin Schoeller via The New Yorker
Dan Everett, a professor of linguistics from Bentley University in Massachusetts, found that the Pirahã tribe of Brazil has a very unique way of thinking about color. Instead of having color names like red or blue they use context significant comparisons. John Colapinto writes in The New Yorker about Everetts language expedition:

“Everett … learned that the Pirahã have no fixed words for colors, and instead use descriptive phrases that change from one moment to the next. “So if you show them a red cup, they’re likely to say, ‘This looks like blood,’ ” Everett said. “Or they could say, ‘This is like vrvcum’—a local berry that they use to extract a red dye.”

So if the tribe members speak about color differently do those words,  change they way they think about or even see color? That was the question Paul Kay, a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was wondering about when he designed a color observation study comparing how infants and adults see color. The study used Magnetic resonance imaging to see the activity of the brain when shown colors into one eye verses the opposite eye. When an image is only show to the left visual field that image is processed exclusively by the right hemisphere, and vice versa. Kerri Smith writes about the study in Nature:

“Adults reacted more quickly if the target was presented in the right side of the visual field, which is processed by the left hemisphere of the brain. For babies, the pattern reversed: they were quicker if the target was in the left visual field, which is processed by the right hemisphere”

Kay’s conclusions are a bit dizzying. He states that the study is evidence that language in the form of color labels, pink orange etc, transfers the primary observation of color from the right to the left hemisphere. But not everyone is one board, a quote from latter in Smiths article:

“The obvious conclusion is that language is constraining colour perception,” says Kay. Language certainly seems a good candidate reason for the difference, says Jonathan Winawer, who studies colour perception and language at Stanford University in California. But this is still a controversial idea, he adds, and not the only possible explanation. “There are other things that separate adults from infants,” he points out.

But many scientists agree with Kay. Steven Shevell, a psychologist who specializes on color and vision is also convinced that we are changing our perception with our language. Via Futurity.org

“Color is in the brain. It is constructed, just as the meanings of words are constructed. Without the neural processes of the brain, we wouldn’t be able to understand colors of objects any more than we could understand words of a language we hear but don’t know.”     

Who knew the science of color is at the forefront of understanding the brain. Next time your are gazing at some colorful trinket take a moment to consider just how your brain is translating that image and whether you can really see a color without labeling it.

– Emily Eifler, Writer, Colour Studio
– Jill Pilaroscia, Principal, Colour Studio

Leave a Reply