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The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains

     

"We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language (…) all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar”

Benjamin Whorf, Science and linguistics, first published in 1940 in MIT Technology Review [See also: linguistic relativity]

"The implication is that language may affect how we see the world. Somehow, the linguistic distinction between blue and green may heighten the perceived difference between them. (…)

If you have a word to distinguish two colors, does that make you any better at telling them apart? More generally, does the linguistic baggage that we carry effect how we perceive the world? This study was designed to address Whorf’s idea head on.

As it happens, Whorf was right. Or rather, he was half right.

The researchers found that there is a real, measurable difference in how we perform on these two tasks. In general, it takes less time to identify that odd blue square compared to the odd green.  This makes sense to anyone who’s ever tried looking for a tennis ball in the grass. It’s not that hard, but I’d rather the ball be blue. In once case you are jumping categories (blue versus green), and in the other, staying with a category (green versus green).

However, and this is where things start to get a bit odd, this result only holds if the differently colored square was in the right half of the circle. If it was in the left half (…), then there’s no difference in reaction times – it takes just as long to spot the odd blue as the odd green.  It seems that color categories only matter in the right half of your visual field! (…)

It’s easier to tell apart colors with different names, but only if they are to your right. Keep in mind that this is a very subtle effect, the difference in reaction time is a few hundredths of a second.

So what’s causing this lopsidedness?  Well, if you know something about how the brain works, you might have already guessed. The crucial point is that everything that we see in the right half of our vision is processed in the left hemisphere of our brain, and everything we see in the left half is processed by the right hemisphere. And for most of us, the left brain is stronger at processing language. So perhaps the language savvy half of our brain is helping us out.

    

It’s not just English speakers that show this asymmetry. Koreans are familiar with the colors yeondu and chorok. An English speaker would call them both green (yeondu perhaps being a more yellowish green). But in Korean it’s not a matter of shade, they are both basic colors. There is no word for green that includes both yeondu and chorok.

      
To the left of the dotted line is yeondu, and to the right chorok. Is it still as easy to spot the odd square in the circle?

And so imagine taking the same color ID test, but this time with yeondu and chorok instead of blue and green. A group of researchers ran this experiment. They discovered that among those who were the fastest at identifying the odd color, English speakers showed no left brain / right brain distinction, whereas Korean speakers did. It’s plausible that their left brain was attuned to the distinction between yeondu and chorok.

But how do we know that language is the key here? Back to the previous study. The researchers repeated the color circle experiment, but this time threw in a verbal distraction. The subjects were asked to memorize a word before each color test. The idea was to keep their language circuits distracted. And at the same time, other subjects were shown an image to memorize, not a word. In this case, it’s a visual distraction, and the language part of the brain needn’t be disturbed.

They found that when you’re verbally distracted, it suddenly becomes harder to separate blue from green (you’re slower at straddling color categories). In fact the results showed that people found this more difficult then separating two shades of green. However, if the distraction is visual, not verbal, things are different. It’s easy to spot the blue among green, so you’re faster at straddling categories.

All of this is only true for your left brain. Meanwhile, your right brain is rather oblivious to these categories (until, of course, the left brain bothers to inform it). The conclusion is that language is somehow enhancing your left brain’s ability to discern different colors with different names. Cultural forces alter our perception in ever so subtle a way, by gently tugging our visual leanings in different directions. Oddly enough, Whorf was right, but only when it comes to half your brain.

Imagine a world without color names. You lived in such a world once, when you were an infant. Do you remember what it was like? Anna Franklin is a psychologist who is particularly interested in where color categories come from. She studies color recognition in infants, as a window into how the brain organizes color.

Here she is discussing her work in this incredible clip from a BBC Horizon documentary called ‘Do you see what I see?‘. (…) It starts off with infants, and then cuts to the Himba tribe who have a highly unusual color naming system. You’ll see them taking the color wheel test, with very surprising results.

Surprisingly, many children take a remarkably long time to learn their color names. By the time they can name dozens of objects, they still struggle with basic colors. A two year old may know that a banana is yellow or an apple is red, but if you show them a blue cup, odds are even that they’ll call it red. And this confusion can persist even after encountering hundreds of examples, until as late as the age of four. There have been studies that show that very young sighted children are as likely to identify a color correctly as blind children of the same age. They rely on their experience, rather than recognize the color outright. (…)

The big question is when children learn their color words, does their perception of the world change? Anna Franklin (who we met in the video above) and colleagues took on this question. Working with toddlers aged two to four, they split them into two groups. There were the namers, who could reliably distinguish blue from green, and the politely-named learners, who couldn’t. The researchers repeated the color circle experiment on these children. Rather than have them press a button (probably not a good idea), they tracked the infants’ eyes to see how long it took them to spot the odd square. (…)

As toddlers learn the names of colors, a remarkable transformation is taking place inside their heads. Before they learn their color names, they are better at distinguishing color categories in their right brain (Left Visual Field). In a sense, their right brain understands the difference between blue and green, even before they have the words for it. But once they acquire words for blue and green, this ability jumps over to the left brain (Right Visual Field).

Think about what that means. As infant brains are rewiring themselves to absorb our visual language, the seat of categorical processing jumps hemispheres from the right brain to the left. And it stays here throughout adulthood. Their brains are furiously re-categorizing the world, until mysteriously, something finally clicks into place. So the next time you see a toddler struggling with their colors, don’t be like Darwin, and cut them some slack. They’re going through a lot.”

Aatish Bhatia, Ph.D. at Rutgers University, The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part II), Empirical Zeal, June 11, 2012. (Illustration by Scott Campbell).

See also:

☞ Regier, T., & Kay, P. (2009). Language, thought, and color: Whorf was half right Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13 (10), 439-446 
☞ Gilbert AL, Regier T, Kay P, & Ivry RB (2006), Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103 (2), 489-94
Aatish Bhatia, The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part I)

"Why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.  (…) What really is a color? Just like the crayons, we’re taking something that has no natural boundaries – the frequencies of visible light – and dividing into convenient packages that we give a name. (…) Languages have differing numbers of color words, ranging from two to about eleven. Yet after looking at 98 different languages, they saw a pattern. It was a pretty radical idea, that there is a certain fixed order in which these color names arise. This was a common path that languages seem to follow, a road towards increasing visual diversity. (…)

Cultures are quite different in how their words paint the world. (…) For the 110 cultures, you can see how many basic words they use for colors. To the Dani people who live in the highlands of New Guiniea, objects comes in just two shades. There’s mili for the cooler shades, from blues and greens to black, and mola for the lighter shades, like reds, yellows and white. Some languages have just three basic colors, others have 4, 5, 6, and so on. (…)

If you were a mantis shrimp, your rainbow would be unimaginably rich, with thousands, maybe tens of thousands of colors that blend together, stretching from deep reds all the way to the ultraviolet. To a mantis shrimp, our visual world is unbearably dull. (Another Radiolab plug: in their episode on Color, they use a choir to convey this idea through sound. A visual spectrum becomes a musical one. It’s one of those little touches that makes this show genius.”

Color words in different languages, Fathom, Nov 8, 2012.