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
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    Comment number 61.

    With reference to comment #55.

    Sorry to disagree, "springy88", but it seems to me that you are confusing perceived time with actual clock-time. I agree that much of the language used in the programme was sloppily composed and imprecise, but, whichever way a subject's perception of time is measured, if they over-estimate the actual clock-time which has passed (e.g. they think it's 60 seconds when there are only 50 seconds on the clock, or 72 seconds when there are only 60 seconds on the clock) then they are perceiving time passing more quickly than real time, not more slowly.

    I have here expanded your argument to include numbers to show what is happening:
    "if I signal that I think a minute [i.e. perceived 60 seconds] has passed after, say, 50 seconds [on the clock], then I would perceive a [real] minute [i.e. 60 seconds on the clock] as taking more than a minute [here, this would be 72 seconds perceived] to pass".
    This shows that your conclusion ("i.e. I am perceiving time to be passing more slowly if I think a minute is up before it actually is") is not consistent with your own reasoning.

    This is also apparent when you refer to "the way you keep looking at your watch when impatient or bored, not believing it's only been a minute since you last looked". In that situation, you are believing that THE WATCH (i.e. not time itself) must be running slow, and you believe that because your mind is perceiving time as passing more quickly than the watch is showing. Thus, using the same numbers as above, five minutes of real time on the clock would feel like six minutes.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 62.

    I’ve solved the conundrum of illusion of colour.

    Well, the main conundrum in Horizon’s “Do you see the same colours as me?” But please bear in mind that with psychology testing the real question may remain hidden and Dr Beau Lotto is fascinated by illusions.

    The programme ranged over many areas of sensory perception of colour and contained interesting experimental evidence. The reality of colour was so varied and compelling.

    There was baby development, experiments on adults, other primates, emotional and psychological growth.

    “How do we create colour in the first place?” “Your eye doesn’t see colour, your brain creates it, drawing on knowledge of what things should look like.” “When it comes to seeing colour we can’t escape from our ecological history, we can’t help imposing that structure onto the world.”

    There were interesting cases where certain visual phenomena were subjected to different illuminations and when other coloured patterns were introduced into the visual field. A person would perceive not a different colour of a familiar object but impose a “colour constancy” image.
    It really showed how our mind is part of nature and not a dichotomous neutral onlooker. (Pity about Descartes).

    But, - there came a repeating conundrum of the form: the “unsettling idea that colours may not really exist” “Colour is effectively an illusion” (Come back Descartes?)

    No real explanation of a non-conforming paradox was proffered except a brief reference to the nature of light.

    My take on this is that the nature of light is robustly described as identical to electromagnetic waves, which is part of natural mathematics (Physics). (See Maxwell’s equations). The paradox arises because of a perceived conflict between colour perception and physics; and my first serious science was Electromagnetic theory.
    (Or is it between biology and physics?)

    In natural mathematics it is the morality of science that in imposing the structure of our theories we diligently seek evidence by experiment and critical observation.

    Colour (origin perception), is described as various
    combinations of electromagnetic waves of various wavelengths, which is validated, inter-alia, by our colour perception. There is clearly a correspondence between our mathematics of colour and our perception of colour because that is what we sought to understand. It is not necessary to expect some exact correlation between perception and mathematics

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 63.

    I’ve solved the conundrum of illusion of colour.

    Well, the main conundrum in Horizon’s “Do you see the same colours as me?” But please bear in mind that with psychology testing the real question may remain hidden and Dr Beau Lotto is fascinated by illusions.

    The programme ranged over many areas of sensory perception of colour and contained interesting experimental evidence. The reality of perception of colour was so varied and compelling.

    There was baby development, experiments on adults, other primates, emotional and psychological growth.

    “How do we create colour in the first place?” “Your eye doesn’t see colour, your brain creates it, drawing on knowledge of what things should look like.” “When it comes to seeing colour we can’t escape from our ecological history, we can’t help imposing that structure onto the world.”

    There were interesting cases where certain visual phenomena were subjected to different illuminations and when other coloured patterns were introduced into the visual field. A person would perceive not a different colour of a familiar object but impose a “colour constancy” image.
    It really showed how our mind is part of nature and not a dichotomous neutral onlooker. (Pity about Descartes).

    But, - there came a repeating conundrum of the form: the “unsettling idea that colours may not really exist” “Colour is effectively an illusion” (Come back Descartes?)

    No real explanation of a non-conforming paradox was proffered except a brief reference to the nature of light.

    My take on this is that the nature of light is robustly described as identical to electromagnetic waves, which is part of natural mathematics (Physics). (See Maxwell’s equations). The paradox arises because of a perceived conflict between colour perception and physics; and my first serious science was Electromagnetic theory.
    (Or is it between biology and physics?)

    In natural mathematics it is the morality of science that in imposing the structure of our theories we diligently seek evidence by experiment and critical observation.

    Colour (origin perception), is described as various
    combinations of electromagnetic waves of various wavelengths, which is validated, inter-alia, by our colour perception. There is clearly a correspondence between our mathematics of colour and our perception of colour because that is what we sought to understand. It is not necessary to expect some exact correlation between perception and m

  • rate this
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    Comment number 64.

    Just watched the programme on iplayer. Interesting but wrecked by music making the speech inaqudible ....

  • rate this
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    Comment number 65.

    I can not find anywhere to comment on the Horizon "The Core" programme, so here goes.
    I have not watched Horizon for many years (at least 3) and had gone off it due to what could be summed up dumbing down. Alas, "The Core" was no different. What was said in the programme could have been said in about 10 minutes flat. Instead we get endless slow-moving tedium as things are explained at a snail's pace. For example all that footage of the seismic explosions, spray-painting the ground etc - a complete waste of time and travelling expenses. Almost every section was at least twice as long as it should have been. The most interesting part was that focussing on the Japanese scientist, but even that was padded out with long visual effects - and all played out with the usual gamut of sound effects and dubbed-on sound. This sort of programme seems to be aiming at everyone and missing everyone at the same time; it is BBC1 standard material or, at a push, for school-level viewers. What viewer of Horizon, on BBC2 at 9pm does not know that the earth is made up of various layers? Please drop all the sound and visual gimmicks and play it straight. This is no way to educate anyone, with such diluted material spread over a full hour. If I was doing a programme on this subject, I would talk about the instruments, how they work in some detail, how that Cambridge scientist actually came to her conclusion in a lot more detail and would have allowed the Japanese scientist more time to talk about his experiments, past, present and future. The resultant programme would be no more than 30 mins long. Listen to "More or Less" on Radio 4 to get a feel for just how much really interesting and detailed material you can pack into 28 mins. Why does no-one seem to take advantage of TV and do so much more on this level? Or are TV viewers considered less intelligent? In terms of educational value, there is sadly no comparison between these two programmes.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 66.

    The part about the people in Namibia who had a wider perception of greens than people in the West particularly interested me, as I immediately saw the different green. I put this down to the fact that I am an artist and have been working with and mixing colour for many decades. Very interesting to see that people do perceive colours differently.

 

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