Horizon: Do you see the same colours as me?

Monday 8 August 2011, 15:35

Sophie Robinson Sophie Robinson

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Back in April this year I was called to a brainstorm with the Horizon production team to discuss the science of colour.

It seemed like such a fun and compelling idea and addresses the kind of questions we've all asked ourselves. Do you see the same colours that I see? What if what I see as yellow, you really see as blue? And why do I fancy you more in red?

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Scientists and contributors answer the question "What is your favourite colour?"

Clearly the intelligent questions of a scientific mind... but these really are some of the questions that scientists all over the world are asking. And, as the show's director, I jumped at the chance to make this episode and find some answers.

As we looked deeper into the scientific research, the more we found that this is a world which is just beginning to be properly explored. The scientists were bright, curious, often rather quirky, and full of fascinating discoveries.

One of the first people we met was neuroscientist Beau Lotto - a master of illusions who wanted to do an experiment to find out whether people of different ages, gender and nationality see colours in the same way.

Eight weeks later, there we were with 150 people, filming the Beau Lotto colour experiment bonanza.

The volunteers took part in eight different experiments veering from whether colour had an impact on time passing, to looking at how people made different colour patterns in mosaics, to what emotions people associated with different colours - red for anger, blue for tranquillity?

The results shocked even the scientist involved. Beau found that colour really can impact the passing of time.

Volunteers were asked to stand in three different colour pods bathed in either blue, red or white light, and Beau found that blue light made time pass more quickly and red seemed to slow it down.

"Red makes us highly aware of our environment and so time slows down in your mind," he says.

Another experiment found that women who are made to feel more psychologically powerful and in control were more sensitive to spotting changes in colour illumination.

Overall it seemed that depending on the experience we bring with us, our perceptions of colour can vary from person to person.

Beau says, "In thinking about 'do you see what I see', the answer depends on what it is we're looking at. If it's something that's shaped by our own individual experiences, then we can see the world very differently."

We really do perceive colours differently depending on experience, age and state of mind.

Dr Beau Lotto

Dr Beau Lotto

Something else we found was that there were scientists looking at whether language can influence the way we perceive colour. Could the number of words you have for colour affect the way you perceive it?

The only way to find out was to go to a civilisation far from the technicolour world we live in, to a tribe who have only five words for colour, compared to the 11 essential colour categories.

The Himba of northern Namibia - who had never even set foot in a local town - call the sky black and water white, and for them, blue and green share the same word.

In having fewer words than us for colour, it seems that their perception of the world is different to ours - it takes them longer to differentiate between certain colours, and so we can determine from this that they see the world a little differently.

The tribe found us a bit of an oddity - they hadn't been filmed before - so when I played them back the footage we had filmed they thought it was the most hysterical thing they had every seen.

And what about the effects colours might have on us?

Scientists Russell Hill and Iain Greenlees were looking into the 'winning effect' of the colour red. They organised an experiment to see if wearing red might have an impact in sport.

They set up a penalty shoot out with 48 footballers looking at whether it was wearing red or seeing red that made the difference.

They found that the men wearing red had lower levels of cortisol, the hormone for stress, than those in blue or white. This in turn makes them more confident in their game.

These are just a few examples of the people we met and filmed. The whole thing was a technicolour experience that made us see the world through different eyes - and more than that, made us realise there's more to come.

This, for once, is a relatively new subject in the world of science, so there are many more discoveries to be made.

So when you get up tomorrow, look around you. Think about what colours you are going to wear and think about the colours you see - do you really see what I see? Probably not.

Sophie Robinson is the director and producer of Horizon: Do You See What I See?

Horizon: Do You See What I See? is on BBC Two and BBC HD at 9pm on Monday, 8 August.

Beau Lotto has written about how we perceive colour for BBC News.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    What a terrible episode. Almost as bad as the "Is Seeing Believing" epsiode, with the way to smug Dr Beau Lotto, also on last night.

    So light alters colour, colour alters mood, and if you stand in the right place you can make it look like you're holding the Statue of Liberty in your hand.

    Who gives a ****.

    You really need to pull your finger out Horizon, and stop dumming down.
    "And why do I fancy you more in red?"
    Says it all really.

    There was more science in "James May's Things You Need to Know", than there was last night.

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    Comment number 42.

    I watched the Horizon programme on colour perception and felt that there were so many issues glossed over and misrepresented that the whole was very unsatisfactory.

    The programme was presented as modern science yet the idea that colour is made in the head was one of the great breakthroughs of late 18th and early 19th Century science. Particularly impressive was the work of the French scientist Gaspard Monge who not only demonstrated “induced colour” but also posited an explanation for “colour constancy” which was very similar to that suggested in Edwin Land's "Retinex” theory published nearly two centuries later in Scientific American (1979). Like Monge’s, Land’s explanation was based on the discovery of a constancy in ratios between colour triplets when viewed under different wavelength combinations of light. And where were the “lightness algorithms” reviewed by Annie Hulbert in the early 1980s? These were dedicated to finding a more neurophysiologically plausible explanation for colour constancy than Land’s. They were based on the idea of separating out light reflected directly from a surface (without changing its wavelength composition) from pigment-determined reflective properties of the substance of which the surface was made (what I call “body-colour”)? Plenty of scope there for explaining differences in responses to actual bananas and backlit squares of yellow. Have the lightness algorithms been show not to work in the real world? I hope not for the one we developed certainly provides a good explanation for otherwise puzzling phenomenon in the perception of surface, space and light in paintings.

    Why was the distinction so blurred over between what we “experience” when seeing colours and how we “classify” them. There was almost nothing that suggested that people with “normal vision” (trichromats) actually see colours differently, although various kinds of anomalous colour vision surely produce very different and for me fascinating perceptual worlds, as I have discovered from close questioning of "red/green colour blind" artist students. The one exception in your programme was the artist who claimed only to see blacks, whites and greys (which of course may not correspond to what normal colour vision people experience when experiencing colours with those names). As for people with “normal” colour vision classifying colour space in terms of just noticeable differences (JNDs), has any new evidence come to light that they perform differently? If so, this would go against the received wisdom of the1980s.

    I am in awe of anyone capable of implanting colour receptors into monkeys eyes, but I am not surprised that doing so enabled them to distinguish a new range of colours. The reason is that as part of a project in which I was involved concerned with modelling neurophysiological systems I studied early visual processing and the learning processes that are responsible for the way it happens. As an implementation of what I found, for an exhibition in 1987, I designed a computer programme that automatically learnt to classify colours into 64 categories based on data coming via a video camera randomly exploring a full spectrum of colours projected onto a white wall. To make this possible, the system had been previously exposed to a slide show of landscapes, townscapes and interiors with the object of sensitising it to a fixed number of different levels of illumination (in other words this process automatically resulted in it becoming a light meter). It ran on a BBC computer (32K memory) and was based on (a) the existence of three light-sensitive captors representing the light primaries, (b) an algorithm derived from known properties cells and taking into consideration the architecture both of the retina and the “columns” in the visual area at the back of the brain, and (c) the proposals of Lynch on the conditions necessary for learning to take place in the neural systems he was studying. An assumption was that that the so-called “hard wired” parts of adult visual systems always go through a preliminary learning phase that depends on the exposure of infants eyes to patterns of light. One requirement of a system designed in this way is the existence of feedback loops capable of freezing it at the stage where the visual area “columns” have reached the appropriate level of functionality. Such a system would remain adaptive if new inputs (as a result of changes in the numbers of receptor types) were added or old ones subtracted. As far as I can see the monkey data fits well into this model.

    I have written enough. One thing that can certainly be said of colour is that we are very lucky that evolution has provided our species with the capacity not only to experience it but also to appreciate it in a multitude of different ways.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    A lot of reading here ;-) First of all. Horizon is asking the question. It's a subjective matter and not exact science as every individual sees different.
    I thought the football match was a bit simplistic and seen from the wrong angle. The Red shirt makes the team more confident as their cortisol levels hardly rise whilst taking a penalty. (?) Better explanation; the colour Red is as known a colour asociated with danger. The blue team has more stress therefore more cortisol because the clolour Red "destracts" them from their task.

    Pod test: Time is relative, so is peoples time perception. The colour is also relative. My Mum loves blue. It makes her calm and happy. Blue makes me feel cold and depressed. But Mr. Lotto also says this.

    Ontario girl: She has no cones. She does not know what colour is. Although her brain would know what colour is. The tool to see them is broken. She has to learn the colours by name and asociation with her surroundings and convert them into greyscale. So a granny smith apple probably tastes nice and to her it has a nice grey, so she'd like to paint her house that shade of grey.. green! to colour seeing people. She has monochromatic vision or complete colour blindness.

    Colour Light Restaurant: Photosensitive ganglia in the eye and the body clock, located at the chiasma opticum are quite well known to medical people, hence light therapy and the "wake up light" and "mood light". Like a shortage of Retinol gives you night-blindness. And that you take in sensory information about 10 to the power of 9's bits/s. But most gets lost or processed subconsciencly.

    Evolution: Yellow, Blue vision? Hmm. Makes sense, as vegetation came much later in evolution. (you need green and red to see yellow) So YB vision became Y separated into R and G RGB vision. A lot of sea life still doesn't like UV light so they only surface during nighttime. A lot of birds and insects can see UV light, but they live a short time. Humans would get cataract and other nasty things. As UV light (the wavelenght) is harmful to us. Evolution got rid of that.

    The people in Africa do see different as their world around them consists of Blue sky, probably nearly all year round or Black sky (at night). Greenish/Brownish shrubbery and Brown/Red Earth. Their brain evolved around the importancy of that erray of colours. Green is probably the most important for survival. And asociating words with colours does make a big difference, because the two hemispheres of the brain connect the two together in early childhood.

    Blue is%2

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    What a disappointing program, from the misleading title to the questionable experiments featured. The banana colour experiment in particular seemed flawed. If they had have painted the banana with the same paint used in the similarly coloured tile it would have been more valid - was the experimenter aware of light/material interaction such as diffusion, reflection and scattering? One could argue that the subjects of this experiment could more accurately judge the colour of the banana by the way it transported the light as opposed to a flat painted tile.

    In another experiment there was mention that spider monkeys were given the ability to see red and green. However, we were not told how the experimenters did it, surely an important detail.

    The Horizon "brand" should be for properly researched science programming, covering cutting edge discoveries, theories and technology, not this poorly assembled piece of edutainment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Very interesting - I hope there is a follow up prog to go into more detail and perhaps explain why we have no yellow receptors. I like the idea that colour only exists as a product of our own brains, it makes perfect sense to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Echoing others' disappointment, the programme's suggestion that people perceive colours differently seemed to be undermined by the findings that particular colours have constant psychological effects. If we do not perceive red the same way, then why does wearing red consistently affect sporting performance? If we do not perceive blue the same way, then why does blue light seem to make time pass more slowly (and not make time pass more slowly, as the voice over suggests)? Besides, even if people do perceive colour differently, this does not show that colours do not exist but are instead ‘created by the brain’. To take just one example, Lotto’s experiments show that we perceive time differently when bathed in differently coloured light. Does this show that time does not exist, either?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    I just wanted to say thank you for all the comments that you've sent in after my blog. I've read through all your observations, opinions and criticisms, all of them pertinent and thought-provoking, and shared them with the rest of the team that made the film.

    For a start, I just wanted to let anyone who's interested know that there's a set of links and clips on the Horizon website at bbc.co.uk/horizon. You can find out a bit more about the work of some of the people who featured in the film, and there are some links to some other researchers working in this field.

    One of the things that struck me as we researched the film was just how many different teams are looking into different aspects of the science of colour. There's also an interesting debate about some of the deeper, philosophical questions that this work raises. In a single episode of Horizon there just isn't time to cover all this work – and it may be that we should return to this field in the future. I do hope that anyone wanting a deeper layer of content will find some pointers on our website.

    There's a few specific comments that caught my eye;

    P_Sarad wrote about associating colours with days of the week. You may be interested in an article about a film we made a few years ago on Horizon, called Derek tastes of Wax, about people who seem to connect their senses in interesting ways: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/horizon/derek_prog_summary.shtml

    Dorothea makes an interesting point about whether the colours that competitors wear should be looked at before the Olympics.

    And finally, if anyone is interested in taking part in Beau Lotto's experiment, it continues at London's science museum: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/

    Thanks once again for your comments and please keep them coming. Next week Horizon has a film about the work being done at some of the most powerful telescopes ever built – including a filming trip with a new telescope that flies on the back of a 747 plane: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b013pnv4

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I wasn't impressed by most of the content. Being a photographer I have a good understanding of colour, use of filters and a scientific understanding of colour wavelength properties (Spectral Astonomy being an interest). This program may have put one over on the general public about the understanding of colour but it failed on so many levels to really present anything groundbreaking.
    However look forward to next weeks program about developments in telescopes (this will be a lot better).

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I remember asking my parents and my teachers about this when i was a child. Nobody really listened. It crosses my mind sometimes and as a child i was convinced that we percieve collors differently from person to person.
    I am not collorblind but i had problems seperating red and green, as in what collor is called what. And i generally liked the idea of the world suddenly changing collor, getting mirrored or that everyone dissapeared and appeared randomly. :P

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Hello Sophie

    I very much like the quality in your TV shows. I love the science themed topics, especially like the ''do you see what I see?

    I was wondering if there could be a TV show on human motivation. And how motivation relates to the work we do. Daniel Pink, an author and speaker has talked about many scientific findings about motivation in his book 'drive, the surprising truth about what motivates us'.

    I would love to see a show based on motivation, and how it relates to the world of work.

    Thanks so much

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I watched this programme with great interest as I am red green colour blind. Most of the content seemed fairly logical.

    What surprised me was the throw away comment on the experiment with the monkeys that they had been given the red green cones absent in their eyes.

    Exactly how was that achieved? Is there now a cure for colour blindness?

    Surely such a discovery as this merits more than a very short slot on a programme trying to examine how we see colour.

    Would be really interested in finding out more about the monkey experiment surely there is another Horizon programme on this alone!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Sorry Sophie, it's not just that you didn't have time to put in all the important philosophical questions. Many people were complaining about how incoherent the script was and how at odds it was at times with the careful explanations given by some of your contributors.

    Here are some bad slips:

    To start with a big and over-blown statement that colours don't exist and then go on to show how colours in our environment affects us is contradictory.

    To tell us we all see colours differently and yet red (and blue) has the same effect on all of us is equally bad.

    To show us that cortisol levels go down and make us less stressed when wearing red before Beau Lotto tells us that red makes us more anxious (not less stressed) was also careless or just an unnoticed inconsistency.

    We are told that emotions affect how we see colours (actually, we are told they effect colours!) and yet blue and red have the same effect on how time is perceived by all. (We are also told colours make time go slower. Really? What near post-boxes but not anywhere else? And remember colours don't exists and we all see them differently, anyway.)

    We are told language creates colour and that colour doesn't exist until we have a language just before Anna Franklin tells us, much more carefully, that colour vision is limited in pre-linguistic infants (limited not non-existent), and that colour categories - not colour vision - are influenced by language. (Notice, she tells us that infants have colour categories before they have language, it is processed by the right hemisphere. Her research shows how our colour categories are revised by language. That was completely distorted by the voice-over.)

    Similarly, Jules Davidoff is careful to tell us that as far as sensation goes we probably see the same thing, but when asked to compare colours the concepts we use may differ and create different comparative colour judgements. This got completely mangled in the voice-over and all but contradicted by the claim that colour is created by language . Would be good to pay attention to what the better scientists are saying if you have them as contributors.

    We have red and green colour vision to pick out ripe fruit in a forrest. That's because ripe fruit IS red: not because our brains create the colour. And it doesn't tae us a life-time to learn these colours as it is said. If it did, our ancestors would have died out before finding the red fruit. Notice too that giving the monkey cones - how? - instantly enables it to sort red and soon after develop a preference based on red. Didn't take a lifetime evidently.

    Why do we have colour constancy for the banana in the rather poorly designed experiment we saw? Because, we are told, we know that bananas look yellow: ie. we know what colours bananas are. How does this square with none of this exists and colours are created by the brain? And how do we know what colour bananas are if we all see colours differently because of our experience and how we feel?

    In Lotto's experiment about detecting whether the light changed colour, he concludes that if we feel more powerful we detect the colour change sooner and more accurately. How do we measure success here? By speed of detection of actual colour change? Does the colour change? But I thought colours didn't exist and that they were created by our brains, and that we all see colours differently and that colours have an impact on time. Not here it seems.

    There is an obvious interpretation of these results - people who feel more/less empowered don't see things differently or detect the change of colours more or less quickly quickly (assuming the colours do change) but rather they feel more/less sure in making judgements and giving their answers. This is consistent was lots of other experimental evidence of the impact of emotional state on cognition, and it's way more plausible. Big confound in the findings.

    Reviewing these tensions and inconsistencies, it would have been helpful to point out that there were some fundamental differences of view held by your contributors. And it would have been good to acknowledge that some of these findings or suppositions were controversial and contested by others - including others featured in the programme. Or did you just not notice this? Instead, what viewers got was an incoherent story with an assortment of exciting but conflicting findings and speculations. Were you at all aware of these inconsistencies or were you just under too much time pressure to notice when assembling the programme? I guess that's what many who have raised similar issues here would like to know. Horizon has maintained till now a pretty high standard. Don't give it up for the sake of making a cute programme with supposedly new and amazing findings. Stick to the facts or consult more experts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I don't disagree with the results but I must take issue with the interpretation of the same. This morning, my wife on the way out said something and I understood it to be different to what she actually said (Chinese Whispers) - does that mean my misinterpretation was correct or the actuality of what exists in the outside world? An illusion is an illusion not a fact about the outside world. If my senses are faulty or misled temporarily about reality, that doesn't mean I am right and the rest of the world is wrong - this is the basis for delusion. Coral Atkins in her book and in the TV play, starring Sarah Lancashire, made this same point. She blotted out of her mind perception of 'The Colour Red' (Title of the book I believe). Does this mean that the colour red ceased to exist in the outside world? No, just her perception of it within. As somebody else said about a fallacious statement 'I refute it thus', altering reality to prove the statement made previously was based on unsound ideas, even if they seemed to follow some semblance of logic: You could probably prove I don't exist with words but to misquote Gallileo 'Still I exist.'

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    RE: The African people who's perception of coloured squares was different to ours: I wasn't at all convinced that this has anything to do with language. More likely I thought that their eyes may have evolved to perceive colours slightly differently to the way our eyes work - the effect seemed more akin to "colour-blindness", both in their inability to pick out the "blue" square from the "green" ones AND in our struggle to pick out the "slightly-different-green" square from the other "green" ones. It's all relative and no surprise as human bodies have evolved differently across the planet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    I agree that there was a lamentable lack of coherence and clarity in the presentation of this program, and I've been waiting for someone to comment on what to me was the most glaring confusion of all, which involved the "perception of time passing" experiment. I could overlook the continual references to "time speeding up/slowing down" instead of "time being perceived to pass more quickly/slowly", but the interpretation of the results of the experiment made no sense, which must be the fault of script and editing rather than those conducting the experiment.

    We witnessed the subjects being asked to indicate when they thought a minute had passed. However, we were then told several times that what was being measured was the subjects' perception of how long a minute took to pass - which is exactly the opposite! Put simply: if I signal that I think a minute has passed after, say, 50 seconds, then I would perceive a minute as taking more than a minute to pass, i.e. I am perceiving time to be passing more slowly if I think a minute is up before it actually is. (The way you keep looking at your watch when impatient or bored, not believing it's only been a minute since you last looked.)

    I can't believe that the experimenters made such a simple error of interpretation, but both the voiceover and Dr Lotto referred to people's perception of "how long a minute took", which was not what this experiment actually measured. This gave the impression that those who underestimated a minute were experiencing time passing more quickly, when the opposite is the case.

    The most charitable explanation is that Dr Lotto's ambiguous exposition was lacking in scientific rigour, and that this was compounded during editing and scripting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I found this episode of Horizon very interesting as i myself am totally colour blind.
    i have learnt to identify colours through experience and conditioning. We grow up learning what a colour should look like. I totally sympathised with the young woman who is colour blind and have exsperienced many of the same problems she has. it is important to be able to identify colours as this sharpens a person vision. It is very difficult living in a world of colour and being unable to identify certain things. i use a contrast spectrum to help me but this doesn't always work

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Having studied and worked with colour for 23 years I am quite surprised that there is the approach of "scientists are now beginning to discover.." Colour research and studies have been happening for 100's if not 1000's of years. At one time Russia was the foremost in the psychological effects of colour, in Canada they ran a programme in a set number of schools to see if by changing the colour of the lighting it would affect students learning and concentration levels.. results showed it did. Feltham young offenders and other prisons and some police stations had a "pink" room research carried out in the US showed a specific shade of pink (bubble gum pink) caused the body to release a certain type of hormone which blocked physical strength and aggression. Unfortunately there were too many complaints from staff that was just not a "manly" enough colour to be used in such places, shame cause it worked! The colour is called Baker-Miller pink named after the two people who did the research in the US.
    Colour in sport - it's been known a long time about the effect of red and most teams who wear red have a higher percentage of winning. At the end of the 90's I did a tv slot for Man U TV all about the history of the colour strip, including a special piece about the infamous game against Southampton where at half time Man U players were complaining they couldn't see each other in their grey shirts, they changed their shirts during half time and went on to win the match.
    I guess what I'm saying is that whilst it's great that there are more scientists speaking out about the effect of colour and making it more known to everyone, i think some science has around a few thousand, if not more, years to catch up with what people have known and believed in long before the words "experiment" or "clinical trials" ever existed.
    Thank you though for also giving me something to share with my students. Next April at Northamptom University there is a two day conference all about Colour.
    Happy colouring everyone

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Enjoyed the programme .... I agree that we have inherent evolutionary distinction of colour and colour that we learn from our own experieince and intepretation. What about colour and taste? When I was a teenager I played with the different colours of food. I can eat 'yellow' scrambled eggs but if I put in diffrent food colourings I cannot eat it .... green scrambled eggs ... yuck! Pink scrambled eggs ok ! .... black scrambled eggs ... yuck !! Our brain is trained to associate certain colours with taste from an early age and the older we become so change in the colour of foods that we know becomes abhorrent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    The programme's seeming inconsistency over the subjective/objective nature of colour is more apparent than real. The prevailing "scientific view" is that colours as such are virtual properties of objects and lights that exist only in relation to the human visual system, but this is in no way inconsistent with specifying these virtual properties, for example by a Munsell notation. Newton realized and clearly stated that "the rays to speak strictly are not coloured", but in much of his writing was happy to go along so far with the "vulgar people" (including some modern philosophers) as to call the rays not only coloured, but colours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    How did I miss this? I have always wondered about this very problem and have actually read many books and scientific papers on the topic in my spare time. I will have to make sure I catch your film at some point!


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