Do We Really See The Colors We Think We See?

When you see red, do you remember it as red?

According to a new study, maybe not. 

Newswise.com reports that, though people can distinguish among millions of colors, we have trouble remembering specific shades because our brains tend to store what we’ve seen as one of just a few basic hues, a Johns Hopkins University-led team has discovered.

New research disputes standard assumptions about memory, demonstrating for the first time that people’s memories for color are biased in favor of “best” versions of basic colors over the colors they actually saw.

For example, there’s azure, there’s navy, there’s cobalt and ultramarine. The human brain is sensitive to the differences between these hues —we can, after all, tell them apart. But when storing them in memory, people label all of these various colors as “blue,” the researchers found. The same thing goes for shades of green, pink, purple, etc. This is why, they say, someone would have trouble glancing at the color of his living room and then trying to match it at the paint store.

I've been there.  There's white, and then there's white, the color our family room is painted.  Egg shell.  Cream.  Ivory.  You get the drift.  I went crazy trying to find the exact perfect shade of white (or off-white) to match the paint peeling off the walls!

"rying to pick out a color for touch-ups, I’d end up making a mistake,” said researcher Jonathan Flombaum, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins. “This is because I’d misremember my wall as more prototypically blue. It could be a green as far as Sherwin-Williams is concerned, but I remember it as blue.”

“We can differentiate millions of colors, but to store this information, our brain has a trick,” Flombaum says. “We tag the color with a coarse label. That then makes our memories more biased, but still pretty useful.”


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