The world around us is a riot of colour, and our eyes can see millions of different shades. It’s these vibrant colours that make everything from clothes to casino games attractive to us, and different hues are associated with different feelings and emotions too. However, it turns out that how we perceive colours, however, depends on more than just the cones in our retinas.
The absence of those light-sensitive cells is the reason some individuals are colour-blind. Their slightly different placement in the eyes of others are one reason two people looking at the same shade will never see it the same. Anyone remember the dress that became an Internet sensation as some saw it as black and blue, while others saw it as white and gold? Point made.
However, according to Lancaster University language, cognition and neuroscience lecturer Aina Casaponsa and linguistics and English language professor Panos Athanasopoulos, our perceptions are much more subjective than we think they are.
Language Categorises Colour
Studies around the world have shown that five key terms for colour are found in most languages. The most common of them include dark, light, yellow, red, and a word that means both blue and green. This last one has no English equivalent, although if we had to make one up, we would probably go for bleen, or maybe grue?
This holds true for vocabularies as far-flung as those in Papua New Guinea and Namibia. It was also once true of Chinese, Japanese, and Welsh. Words to describe green either evolved over time, or were incorporated from other languages.
In a similar way, Greek, Russian, and Turkish see the shades of dark blue and those of light blue as belonging to two different categories, each of which is described by a specific term. Other cultures describe differences in terms of cool or warm, instead of dark or light.
We Interpret Colours
The academics said we interpret colours more than we see the shade we are looking at. Our brains process the information received through sense organs to make something meaningful of it. Those interpretations are coloured by personal experiences and associations.
We cannot help categorising things, and that goes for not only various hues, but objects, emotions, sensations, tastes, and sounds as well. How do we do this? By using language, of course.
A commonplace example of this is the paint department at the local hardware store. However, depending on where they are in the world, what is sun-dappled meadow to an interior decorator is simply green to the Average Joe or Jane. Alternatively, their approach to the spectrum might be completely different.
When Colour Is a Symbol
The deeply ingrained associations and symbolisms assigned to colours by various cultures for hundreds, if not thousands, of years also influences our perception. This is why some are thought to bring good or bad luck.
It is also why, in Canada, the UK, and other western countries, white is often associated with special celebrations such as weddings and christenings. Wear it to a marriage ceremony in India, however, you may be looked at suspiciously, as it is often associated with death, funerals, and mourning.
Red is another whose symbolism varies widely, depending on where you are. In many former Eastern Bloc countries, as well as in other places, it still has associations with communism. In India, however, it is seen to represent energy, vitality, and sensuality, while in the Far East, it is one of the luckiest in the spectrum. In western countries, the association is often one of excitement, risk, danger, and dynamism.
So, if you are ever tempted to buy someone that egg-yolk-yellow hat you think would look gorgeous on them, first ask yourself whether they relish or retch at the thought of a sunny side-up breakfast. After all, it would be a terrible waste of a hat.