Seeing Color Through the Eyes of Neuroscience

The gold paint color reminds me of the sand of the beach near my childhood home. The addition of blue and green create a graphic triad of landscape colors in this stairwell area.
The gold paint color reminds me of the sand of the beach near my childhood home. The addition of blue and green create a graphic triad of landscape colors in this stairwell area.

Visualize “fire engine red” and the color red rushes to mind with or without a vision of the wheels. It’s the same for “grass green”, “sky blue” or “chocolate brown”. Seeing color is such a natural condition that we often don’t question why we see colors and we presume that everybody sees the same colors.

Though most of us do see the same colors, some people can’t. Men (about 5-8% and about 1% in women) with congenital color-blindness may not even know the exact extent of their color blindness until professionally tested. And seeing the same colors is no guarantee towards agreement.

When I was a painting student in art school my professor asked me to randomly choose “Coca-Cola red” from a group of red color chips. I confidently picked a red, sure that it matched my memory of the color. When the professor produced a bottle of Coke and had me put my sample up to the logo, I was surprised to find my choice, though close, was not completely accurate.

Since then, decades of working with color and honing my color sense have increased my understanding of how precise the eye can be. For years I’ve mixed color as an artist, continually refining my experience with both the components of a color and how it appears next to other colors. I’ve also realized that my memories of  colors are only broadly accurate.

The color of the beach sand near my childhood home in Playa del Rey, California, is golder to me in my memories than the actual vial of sand from that beach that I collected for a keepsake. That’s because the expanse of sand and the light of the day make the color experience.

So, when I incorporated the gold of the sand into my home interior design color plan I went with the color that best bridged my color memories, the vial of beach sand  and the reality of my living room walls. I compromised between the color I held in my mind and what my  brain and eyes were telling me.

Learning about the neuroscience behind how the brain and the eyes  see color is the topic of Mark Changizi’s book,  The Vision Revolution. It’s a wonderful book from a man who describes himself as a  “theoretical neuroscientist”. Even if your interest in color is currently limited to what color to paint your living room accent wall, you’ll find that Changizi’s book will inform and enlighten your understanding of how the mind works and that how you physiologically perceive color affects your entire life.

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