Why color is in the eye of the beholder

By | May 26, 2023

James Fox writes:

In February 2015, a Scottish woman uploaded a photograph of a dress to the internet. Within 48 hours the blurry snapshot had gone viral, provoking spirited debate around the world. The disagreement centred on the dress’s colour: some people were convinced it was blue and black while others were adamant it was white and gold.

Everyone, it seemed, was incredulous. People couldn’t understand how, faced with exactly the same photograph of exactly the same dress, they could reach such different and firmly held conclusions about its appearance. The confusion was grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding about colour – one that, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, shows little sign of disappearing.

For a long time, people believed that colours were objective, physical properties of objects or of the light that bounced off them. Even today, science teachers regale their students with stories about Isaac Newton and his prism experiment, telling them how different wavelengths of light produce the rainbow of hues around us.

But this theory isn’t really true. Different wavelengths of light do exist independently of us but they only become colours inside our bodies. Colour is ultimately a neurological process whereby photons are detected by light-sensitive cells in our eyes, transformed into electrical signals and sent to our brain, where, in a series of complex calculations, our visual cortex converts them into “colour”. [Continue reading…]