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 1.

    There's a mistake in the accompanying article headed "Do You See What I See?" posted today on the BBC's Science and Environment pages at 11:31am. About halfway down there's a colour persistence demo of a desert scene to be viewed after staring at green & red blocks -- you see inverse colour casts, of course, a red cast where you were staring at green and vice versa. But the 'Results' button above the images shows the result the wrong way round, and the paragraph purporting to explain the effect is utterly garbled! Please check and correct, BBC!

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    Comment number 2.

    Sophie, in the related news article, there was a picture of a supposed optical illusion. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14421303
    In it was are told that the tiles in the left and right hand pictures are the same colour despite looking blue and yellow for each different picture. In the top two images, the tiles all looked identical colours, so I assumed it was meant the corresponding tiles in the bottom two pictures which do look blue and yellow. I didn't believe that these really were the same colours, so I opened up the picture in Photoshop, zoomed right in and used the colour picker tool. And as my eyes told me, they were indeed quite different shades, one set distinctly blue and one distinctly yellow. Am I missing the point here, or is the picture a big mistake ?

    BTW, this is the most stunning colour optical illusion that I have ever seen.
    http://www.planetperplex.com/en/item/pacman-illusion/

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    Comment number 3.

    There's a basic logical mistake in the accompanying article, "Do You See What I See?". The article makes the argument that since the colours we see do not correspond one-to-one with the light reflected from or transmitted through surfaces, therefore "colour does not exist", i.e., that our brains create colour and therefore it has no reality in itself. This conclusion is a non sequitur. All the experiments show is that colours are not "made from" light. But no-one ever thought that colours are "made from light", anyway. It is a pretty basic belief that surfaces remain coloured even in the dark. My red car might be parked in my windowless garage with the lights off, but no-one, not even a child, would think that it has suddenly stopped being red. So there is nothing new in the idea that colours are not "made from" light. What the experiments do show is that there are all sorts of *interesting ways*, many now known before, in which colours are not "made from" light. The basic idea, though, is not new. It is a huge (and fallacious) step to conclude that colours are "not real" just because they are "not made from" light. Different surfaces may in fact have lots of different colours, i.e. be coloured in many different ways at the same time, whether there is light around or not. It could just be a *limitation* of our brains that we can only see one at a time. The writers and producers of the Horizon programme, and the journalists who write on the BBC website, and perhaps even the scientists themselves, would clearly probably benefit from some basic logic and philosophy classes!

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    Comment number 4.

    'Colour does not exist' is a statement made in the original article. For us to have the variety of 'colour-experiences' we have there surely is a variety in the cause. We may have misunderstood how our experience of colour is produced but all this means is that we need to change our views as we do regularly in the face of better science. We can still talk about colour and believe it exists just the details of that existence have changed.

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    Comment number 5.

    Aaron , although your post precedes mine in posting time we both must have been posting at the same time otherwise I would have simply posted the following:

    Aaron, exactly!

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    Comment number 6.

    I agree with all the previous comments. Nowhere in the article can I find the idea of "perception". Artists through the centuries have understood the concept of colour perception ie. where the same colour appears to be different depending on what colours surround it. It would seem to me that this apparent "scientific breakthrough" is more the result of some simple science and the "perception" of an overenthusiastic journalist.

    Sorry Beeb but this time, it seems, you have let yourselves down.

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    Comment number 7.

    Hi Matti Lamprhey (#1) and Luke (#2),

    We've spoken to our colleagues in BBC News and they've now corrected the colour persistence demo in the article. Thanks for pointing this out to us.

    Gary
    Assistant Content Producer
    BBC TV blog

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    Comment number 8.

    My first comment on this program, as someone who is an artist and went to art college, is the section on the blue and red pods experiment. I love burgundy with a passion, therefore if you put me in a red pod, i would simply want to stay longer and drag out my minute. In a blue, dull, non stimulating pod, i would almost want to die with boredom and try and hasten my exit... maybe by counting 1 - 60 slightly faster? More comments to come i feel!

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    Comment number 9.

    How can (as the program suggests) single cell orgaisms move up and down in the sea to avoid UV light. Is this not just a wild guess supporting the many unproven theories in this program.

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    Comment number 10.

    So - any chance of a follow-up programme on Colour Blindness? In particular, since the brain has such an influence on colour perception, could red/green colour blindness be helped (or corrected) by a visiti to north Namibia, to relearn colour language ;o)

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    Comment number 11.

    An interesting and thought-provoking programme, but I believe a few of the conclusions were rather simplistic, if not plain wrong. For example, the claim that being 'in control' rather than 'powerless' allows one to perceive colour change more 'accurately' ignores the well-known psychological behaviour that when under stress decision making - whether right or wrong - takes significantly longer than normal.

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    Comment number 12.

    Very suprised by this program. Just found myself shouting at the tv. Yes we may see the colour the same but feel it differently not only in relation to others but also how we are feeling at the time or the time in our lives. I know when i was a teen I loved black but green is where I would run to now to live with family. Give me the right shade of blue and I would surround myself in it but only if I'm alone. It is too variable. This program answered none of my questions : (

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    Comment number 13.

    Fairly interesting program, particularly when it came to different nationalities, however, in the main i didn't exactly find it enlightening. Watching the dot between red & green blocks above the sky and sand for 60 seconds, changed nothing for me in the landscape scenes below. So either the experiment doesn't work on TV or i must assume that i am just an odd female? I was really looking forward to this documentary, as i have to understand colour for my work, but it didn't come up to my expectations. Sorry BBC2.

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    Comment number 14.

    As an Aura-Soma colour consultant and teacher I found this programme very interesting. The Aura-Soma system of colour was developed by an amazing woman, Vicky Wall, who had lost most of her sight due to diabetes when she developed it. The system works with the vibration/energy of each colour to offer insight to clients in relation to their colour choices. There are now 110, mostly dual, coloured bottles for clients to choose 4 from at the beginning of their consultation. The feedback I've had from clients is always how astonished they are at how acurate the consultation is.

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    Comment number 15.

    Watched with great interest as I am what I was always reliably informed, every time I had my eyes tested and looked at the book of dots by the Japanese guy, as 'colour defective" ( Blue Green)...and indeed was often chastised by those who knew better that 'colour blind ' was a VERY rare condition indeed ...like the Canadian artist on the show...... so I was very surprised to hear the term 'colour blind' used many time in the show about people and behavious other than the one Canadian artist...can you please clarify?
    my thanks in advance

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    Comment number 16.

    A thought provoking programme - thank you for that.
    I'm not sure if I'm unique in this but since a very early age (I am now in my forties) I have strongly associated colours with the days of the week (apart from weekends) as follows:
    Monday = Light Blue
    Tuesday = Red
    Wednesday = Green
    Thursday = Brown
    Friday = Black
    Saturday & Sunday = Maybe Pink.

    Maybe it's just me............

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    Comment number 17.

    Bitterly disappointed by this programme after eagerly anticipating it. The question 'do you see what I see?' fascinates me, but this documentary failed to answer it in any way. Instead it was full of scientific inaccuracies in the VoiceOver (of course colour doesn't change the passage of time;only people's perception of it - this was clarified later on but the ridiculous statement was still made in the first place!) it was also incredibly frustrating to see genuinely interesting experiments (such as the squirrel monkeys and the experiments in Namibia) which lacked the detail necessary to fully understand what they were showing. I may not bother watching horizon again as it seems to be descending into speculative nonsense.

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    Comment number 18.

    Do people see limited colour because they only have the 5 words for colour, or do they only have 5 words because they see limited colour? I think the latter.

    In the experiment with the yellow once you'd pointed out the banana-coloured square, the square and the banana stayed the same colour, both changing with the light. Before you pointed it out, the banana stayed yellow. Very bizarre! Particularly given the short duration of the bit of film.

    I would like to see the experiments - timing a minute, kicking the ball into a net - done with different colours. Is purple different? Orange? Green? Yellow? The idea that the sporting judges opinions are affected by colour is startling, and should be investigated further, don't you think? Before the next Olympics?

    White is not neutral, it is aggressively dull, like a repeated sound.

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    Comment number 19.

    For a supposedly scientific programme, it fails in explaining the methodolgy of the experiments and also fails to question the assumptions. Two comments come to mind:
    1. with the colour pods, it wasn't explained if each person was assigned to just 1 pod, and if they were assigned randomly - in which case the results have some validity. Or did all subjects go into all the pods, and in the same order, e.g. did everyone go into red, then blue, then white - in which case one might expect the subjects to have less patience as they went on and spend less time in the last pod.
    2. the power/perception experiment claimed to show that people who had been thinking about a situation in which they had control perceived changes faster. Not true, as they didn't test perception! They tested when people were confident enough to say they'd perceived a change. It's hardly rocket science to realise that if you're feeling confident, you're likely to indicate immediately when you've seen a change, whereas someone feeling less confident will doubt themselves and hesitate. What the researchers tested was how soon people felt confident enough to say they'd seen a change, NOT how soon they actually saw a change. I.e. they showed that thinking about being confident made people more confident! The researchers themselves should have seen the flaw in their experiment, and the Horizon researchers should also have spotted it, and questioned the methodology, rather than just spouting the results as "proof" that confidence affects perception.

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    Comment number 20.

    I did the tests on the programme. No effect. But then I am colour blind (though not like the woman in the programme). I was amazed that she talked about the effects on her of colours she couldn't even see. I never associate colours with feelings. Haven't a clue what people are on about when they talk about that. As usual the conventionally colour blind were disregarded in programmes like this.

 

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