Is It Possible That One Day We Will Discover a Fundamentally New Color?

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Is it possible that one day we will discover a fundamentally new color?

Something like that is possible. It’s more correct to say that it appears that people in some primitive cultures never learn to distinguish “blue” as a distinct color. A number of studies suggest this, in particular, work by Jules Davidoff, a psychologist from Goldsmiths University of London, who work.ed with the Himba tribe from Namibia. T have no word for “blue” but have lots of words for “green”, so he showed them circles of green squares and one blue square and asked them to identify the one square different from the others. T performed remarkably poorly on this test, so he presented a similar test to western volunteers and asked them to identify the outlier among a circle of green squares, one of which was very different—but still green. The Himba had no trouble with this while the western volunteers, as you might guess, were stumped. So, does this mean “people couldn’t see blue until modern times?” No. And yes. All normal healthy human eyes are sensitive to the same frequencies of light in the same ways, owing to the same chemical pigments in the retina—but no human eyes is sensitive to the colors “red”, “green,” or “blue.” Those colors don’t really exist in nature. T are the product of our interpretation of the imperfect color information the brain receives from the retina in the form of overlapping signals representing different frequency ranges. White light is in fact a continuum, with equal intensities of all the frequencies we can see. Yet, if you look at a rainbow, you perceive that continuum as a series of bands of different colors—so many shades of red, so many of orange, so many of yellow, so many of green, so many of blue, so many of magenta, and so many of indigo. Though the Himba and a few other peoples might disagree, careful studies have shown that the vast majority of people from most cultures—both primitive and modern—classify colors into these same seven groups—groups that aren’t really there in the light we see. Why is that? Human eyes have three types of color receptors. Each is sensitive to a range of frequencies, and the sensitivity of each follows a bell curve. The brain learns to interpret these three signals by comparing their relative strengths, attempting to adjust for lighting, and picking one of seven color bands. one for each signal peak (roughly magenta, green, and yellow) the two outliers (red and indigo) and the two admixtures (orange and blue). The retina cannot send a signal telling the brain “light at 500 nm frequency.” For that color (a shade of green) it might send a signal more like “the mostly green sensitive signal is loudest, and the mostly blue and mostly red sensitive signals are about the same.” The brain then has to figure out from context is that means it’s looking at dark or “bluegreen,” a mixture of blue and red, or some unusual complex of reflections and shading. Since this interpretation is learned, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it isn’t universally consistent. And since the sensitivity bands of our color receptors are not equally spaced, we might expect that we would see wider bands of red, blue, and magenta than we do of green, yellow, and orange—but we don’t. We see something more like this. The brain doesn’t know that our photoreceptors are sending skewed data, so it pieces that data together into a uniform—and usually pretty dependable—approximation of what’s out there in the world. But on February 15, 2015, we all got a shock when an innocuous fashion photo illustrated that this approximation is imperfect—and learned. Among the images above, the center image is the original. The left is (roughly) how I and millions of other people interpreted it (gold stripes on a white dress), and the right is (roughly) how everyone else interpreted it (black stripes on a blue dress). Which is correct? Well, by most measures, the rightmost image correctly reflects reality. Why did the rest of us get it wrong? Because the eye isn’t a piece of scientific lab equipment, and the real world often conspires to confuse us. The brain takes lighting and context into account; many people’s brains interpreted the context of the original image as lighting and underexposure that caused the brain to make the wrong guess about how to interpret those three color signals. But here’s the telling thing. We were wrong, and if we kept looking at the original, within a day or so, our brains all collectively figured it out. I can no longer see the gold-on-white dress even if I try. Context is important. Very little in nature is blue except the sky. In the Himba’s world, shades of green are very important. It’s likely that, guided by personal experience and cultural priming, their brains have simply learned to use the information from their highest frequency receptor to coax more resolution out of the middle band—where green is. I strongly suspect that if you show them a clear sky and a stormy sky, t can tell those colors aren’t shades of green. Whether t perceive them as shades of “blue” or gray—t just draw the line between green and blue at a different point than we do. That way, t get more resolution in the area that is more important to them. Who is right? No one. In fact, birds have a forth pigment, and their color sensitivity is better balanced than ours and stretches down into the ultraviolet. If you could discuss the rainbow with a pigeon, he would be amazed that we see only seven basic colors, where there are clearly nine. But his nine are just as illusory as our seven. The rainbow, is in fact, a continuum. If you like science, you might enjoy my free award-winning scifi sampler.

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