Seeing Is Believing, Or Is It?

Prisma light spectrumWith my grandparents living in Missouri, the “Show Me State” motto was always familiar to me as a child. The notion from that motto that seeing the world is how you know the world became more complicated when I met my wife. She sees the world differently from me, noticing differences in colors that look the same to me, differences that I have neither perception of nor words to describe. If seeing is believing, whose vision (perception) should I believe?

The issue of perception of color has come into the foreground after the sensation that was Dressgate. In one segment of a Radiolab podcast on color from several years ago (embedded below) that suddenly became popular, they compared the number of different color perceiving cones in the eyes of different animals (beginning about 9:30 in the podcast). Dogs have two, humans three, butterflies five, and mantis shrimp top the list with sixteen.

While other animals can perceive light waves that are invisible or indistinguishable to us, a few humans have an ability to perceive distinctions that most cannot (skip to 23:50 above). In testing to see if those individuals have a gene for a fourth color-perceiving cone (some do), Radiolab suggested that a bigger correlation among those who perceive more color differences is not genetics but occupation/interest. A few people who pay special attention to color in their careers or activities (like artists, interior decorators, etc.) perceive more color differences, whether or not they have the gene for the fourth cone. While physical abilities probably influence my wife’s acute perception of color, her long-term training as an artist also suggests that perception is something honed and developed over time. If you concentrate on color differences, then you activate different physical abilities to distinguish colors.

Beyond individual training, socialization comes into play. Linguistic studies suggest that terms for colors in ancient languages developed over time. First distinctions between white and black (as broad categories) developed, then later words for red. Other terms for colors like green, yellow, blue, brown, etc., developed even later. While we cannot know what people could or could not see (depends on what you mean by “seeing”), it is possible that, without a word for a difference, they may not train themselves to focus on that particular difference. What you see is, in some respects, what you have been socialized to distinguish, along with your physical abilities.

This discussion of color perception, though, has focused narrowly on one form of color difference, namely hue. Hue refers to different wavelengths of light, like the primary colors or the spectrum of colors that we identify in a rainbow, but color also comprises tint (mixing white with a hue), shade (mixing black with a hue), and brightness. the original box of eight Crayola crayons emphasizes differing hues (red, blue, yellow, green, orange, violet, brown, and black), which reinforces our focus on the difference of hues. While we perceive ancient languages as lacking color distinction, we are judging them based on our focus on hue. If our society emphasized tint and shade, that box of eight crayons would range differently, perhaps from a few pastels to several dark shades. People growing up in such a society, while still able to see hue, would learn to emphasize a difference other than hue.

Unlike the adage “I have to see it to believe it,” our perception of the world is not straightforward. We are trained to focus on particular differences, while ignoring others. What we perceive of the world in ways beyond sight similarly reflects particular emphases on specific differences that likewise ignores other differences. Problems arise, though, when we think that our perception of the world is an objective description. Judging others for their failure to perceive things the same way, whether family members who see the dress differently or other cultures (ancient and modern) that make different observations from ours, means that we fail to see our own limitations.

Of course, how in the world anyone can see that dress and think it is blue and black is beyond me.


Gif by John Roland Hans Penner (Johnrpenner) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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