Art in Paradise: Blue Means Go

In a BBC Horizon video, a researcher interacts with Namibian Himba tribesmen participating in a fascinating experiment. The researcher shows them a circle of 12 colored squares. In the first example, all the squares are green, with one a very slightly different shade. It’s extremely difficult to spot the different one. The Himba, however, find it almost instantly.

The next circle of colors is also green, except for one that’s a glaringly obvious bright blue. The Himba participants stare. And stare. One gives up entirely trying to spot the different color. The other cocks his head in puzzlement.

Why does this happen? Well, it turns out the Himba have fewer words to differentiate color than English speakers. Weird as it may seem, the fact that different frequencies of light are entering our eyeballs apparently makes less difference to perception than does the overlay of words that artificially divide the spectrum for different languages.

This odd phenomenon raises an unavoidable and mystifying question: what does the world look like if you have a different set of color divisions in your vocabulary? Do the Himba look at a tree against the sky and find it hard to distinguish? It’s the sort of thing that, it seems, acquiring a second language doesn’t confer.

Talk to people who are labelled color blind and you may find yourself equally stymied. It seems that being color blind does not always mean seeing the same thing. Some varieties of color blindness make the world appear rather monochrome; others make two colors appear to be approximately the same. When it comes to language, research suggests that visual perception may be altered in some similarly surprising ways by language.

At a website called Empirical Zeal, Rutgers University Ph.D. student Aatish Bhatia covers a grab bag of scientific subjects with a remarkable clarity and sharpness of prose. In a recent pair of articles, Bhatia covered the strange matter of languages and colors at length. His work is peppered with academic references, and offers a great jumping-off point for further reading and research.

What Bhatia uncovers in the research is nothing less than fascinating. Studies reveal that languages not only have a varying number of words for colors, but most follow a well-worn path from simplicity to complexity, dividing the spectrum in largely similar ways as they go. These divisions are applied to the same set of human visual perceptions as a starting point, so perhaps that’s not so surprising.

What’s more mind-boggling yet is some of what’s covered in that Horizon video. Dr. Anna Franklin, of the University of Sussex in the U.K., has studied the differences in color perception between children who’ve acquired language and those who haven’t. Her research indicates that non-speaking infants do have some color distinction, though they don’t have words for the colors. The main difference in color pereception for children who’ve learned to speak is where in the brain they process color. For infants, it’s a visual thing, occurring in the right hemisphere. When those same infants learn the words for colors well enough, the processing seems to become a function of language, primarily happening all the way over on the opposite hemisphere of the brain.

We can, of course, only guess what someone else sees, even if it can be approximated in film. The resonances go well beyond language and physical differences. In large part, art education is about learning to see the world differently, to divorce perception from the meaning or labelling of an object. A kid’s drawing of a person, for instance, is likely to have all the right parts, regardless of real resemblance to the subject. A trained artist has learned to see something else: the patterns of light and dark, the contours of the lines that separate figure and ground. It’s easy to imagine that a painter would indeed fare better on researchers’ tests on color differentiation.

Such things are easy to take for granted, but differences in how we see the world are almost certainly more pronounced than at first they might appear. And, lest we get too cocky or self-absorbed from our perch atop the food chain, Bhatia points out how wildly different our world might be if our physical accoutrements were slightly otherwise. The lowly mantis shrimp, it turns out, can see many thousands of shades, including plenty that are beyond our visual spectrum, well into the ultraviolet. Which makes us pretty much color blind compared to a shrimp.

For Bhatia’s articles and the BBC video, visit

Author: James Heflin

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