21 Mar 2013

The Illusion of Color

Written by Brittney Reeves
Graphics by Hannah Boresow

What is color? That seems like a simple enough question to answer, right? So go ahead, and try.

Let me guess… you had trouble?

Why is color so difficult to explain? It’s simple – color is nothing more than an illusion created inside our minds. The way we interpret color is an internal experience that cannot be shared with anyone else. As cool as it would be to put ourselves inside someone else’s mind and watch the world through their eyes, it just isn’t looking like it’s going to happen any time soon. I’m a dreamer – I try to avoid using the word impossible. But, if there were ever a time to use it, I believe now would be appropriate.

So, let’s think. What color do you associate with an apple? You may think of yellow, green or red, but how about purple?


Does something seem strange about one of these apples? Any sighted person would agree that the coloration of this apple is simply inaccurate. They might call it a piece of art, but it’s certainly not edible.

Now, let’s get deep – the way you are looking at the apple right now could be the way your neighbor sees an apple on a regular basis.

Have I confused you yet? This idea goes back to the age-old question we’ve all heard before – could your red be my blue? I would frequently ask myself this as a child. My inability to find the answer always left me feeling unsatisfied and confused. Now that I’m grown and can research these topics pretty readily myself, I can appreciate the fact that perception of color is immeasurable and unexplainable, but I’m still not satisfied.

This takes me back to 4th grade when I spoke with a man who was born blind. I will never forget the conversation. I asked if black was the only color he could see. He responded, “No- I see nothing.” When I asked for his definition of nothing, he asked me what I saw in the back of my head. “Nothing,” I responded. Point proven. Just imagine trying to explain the difference between blue, orange and green to someone who was born blind.

While pondering if we see color differently, it makes sense to bring preferences into discussion. My favorite color is purple and my mother’s is yellow. But is it possible that my purple is my mother’s yellow? Perhaps I would like sunflowers more if I could see them through my mother’s eyes.

While there is no direct way of reaching a conclusion yet, science suggests that people may, in fact, see colors differently. In the video below, Michael Stevens explains this idea with references to other scientific concepts and the behavior of animals.

With the limited knowledge we have today, we can’t make any assumptions about perception of color and communication, but it’s hard not to wonder how different we all see the world. So, the next time you ask someone their favorite color, keep in mind that until science can see how our brains think, their red could be your blue.