Does Color Even Exist?

May 22nd, 2015 § 0 comments

Malcolm Harris at The New Republic reviews a new book titled Outside Color by University of Pittsburgh professor M. Chirimuuta which tries to look at color in a different way. After showing that the existing scientific models for color have surprisingly insistent results she turns to computers and optical illusions to make her point in a very clever way. Rather than looking at them as a weakness of human perception she sees them as a strength.

Take a popular optical illusion, designed in 1995 by Edward Adelson, a professor of vision science in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT:
CheckerBoardIlliusion
The human perception system sees a checkerboard with a cylinder, while a basic SSR measurement shows squares A and B read the same. “Illusion” implies that our system is fooled, but as far as useful information goes, the checkerboard interpretation is probably better. Try as they might, mathematicians can’t make the computers see the checkerboard. Rather than a demonstration of how easily fooled we are, optical illusions like this one are examples of the brain’s mysterious and irreplicable abilities. It interprets its environment with a sophistication that exceeds our ability to measure and reconstruct physical phenomena. The usual framing has it wrong:
Despite A and B having the same SSR, humans are still able to see the checkerboard.

The color is not as important as the information that it conveys to us. This might explain why we have such an obsession with color and it’s perception. How much the color information that we take in on a daily basis was manufactured by our ancestors and given to us by our parents and culture? This reminds of of the fantastic Radio Lab episode Why Isn’t the Sky Blue? which looked at the etymology of the word blue and noted that in almost all languages it was the last color named in the rainbow. Without the name could we even perceive the color?


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