Colourful language

20 June 2016

The Crucible at the Cheltenham Science Festival hosted Marie Rogers from the Sussex Colour Group, who gave a fascinating introduction into the psychology of colour.

Delving into whether the colours we see can be affected by the language we use, Marie explained that all colour is on a continuum and that the boundaries between colours (such as the blue/green boundary) are human constructs that differ between cultures. Marie talked the audience through experiments undertaken with the Himba tribe, who have different colour boundaries to Western cultures; when faced with a series of green squares, one very slightly different, the Himba were easily able to pick the odd one out, as this lay over a Himba colour boundary, despite it looking pretty much the same to the eyes of the audience. However, when faced with a series of green squares and one blue square – so obvious that it ‘popped’ out of the screen to us – the Himba really struggled. They do not have a blue/green colour boundary, and could not identify the odd one out very quickly.

In order to investigate further whether our language affects how we see, Marie undertook studies with pre-linguistic babies, showing us how she had constructed an experiment to test whether babies saw colours as novel, indicating whether colour boundaries exist before language takes hold. In a really fascinating (and slightly mind-boggling) talk, Marie introduced us to how our language and culture can really impact on how we perceive the world around us. It really does seem that colour boundaries and colour constancy, such as ‘the dress’ illusion, are a product of our language, environment and culture. (Llatest thinking is that your environment, whether you spend lots of time outdoors in natural light or inside in artificial light, can explain why you might see ‘that dress’ as black and blue or gold and white). The work that Marie and the Sussex Colour Group are doing is starting to unpick how this develops.

The session really made those of us in the Crucible look at the world slightly differently.

- Report by Kelly Auty, Policy Advisor (Psychology Education) at the British Psychological Society.

Read more from the Cheltenham Science Festival. You can find out more about language and thought in the July edition, in the interview with Asifa Majid; Laura Speed on olfaction; and Tim Lomas on the second wave of positive psychology.