When the photoreceptors in our eyes react to specific wavelengths of light or electromagnetic radiation, we experience the beautiful phenomenon of color. While most of us can see color, what we call them can vary dramatically. The summer sky you confidently describe as cerulean blue could be considered a shade of green by others, and neither of you would be wrong.1 And what we call colors has changed throughout history, too: in the Odyssey, Homer refers to the sea as being “wine-dark,” which causes some to ask: have people only started seeing blue in modern times?
How we understand color is dependent on language, culture, biology, and even our exposure to natural and unnatural light. We’ll walk through what impacts our perception of color, how different cultures might see color differently, and why some say we have only recently started seeing the color blue.
In the English-speaking Western world, we’re raised to recognize a palette of 11 colors:
As we get older, we begin to label the spectrum of shades between these colors as well, incorporating things like magenta, olive green, and navy blue into our vocabulary.
While most people worldwide can see these different colors and shades, how we think about them is vastly different. Many studies have shown that language and culture play the biggest roles in how we perceive color, but there are other factors — mainly physiological — at work, too.
There are two major — and opposing — color categorization theories: universalist theory and relativist theory. Universalist theory claims that color perception is the same for everyone, regardless of culture or language. Universalists also believe that blue, yellow, red, and green are the color terms learned first in our development and that color categorization is intuitive (based on those biological perceptions) rather than learned.1
On the other hand, relativist theory claims that language and culture determine color categorization and that it is learned rather than innate. The best studies show it’s not one or the other; both universalist and relativist theories seem to play a role in color perception.1
There have been dozens of studies around the world investigating how different cultures develop their own color palettes. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent studies.
The most famous color perception studies looked at how an indigenous tribe of around 50,000 people in northern Namibia categorized color, performed by Drs. Roberson and Davidoff, two psychology professors from the University of Essex and the Goldsmiths University of London. The study observed how English and Himba toddlers perceived color over three years. Roberson, Davidoff, and their team noticed that while the children acquired knowledge of colors in the same way, their categorization of these colors couldn’t be more different. They noted that color categorization was most influenced by the toddlers’ own language and culture.2
The Himba tribe only has a color palette of 5 colors covering a broad range of shades, while the English have 11 basic color terms and hundreds of named shades in between.1 Not only do the Himba differ in the number of color terms they have, they most notably do not have a separate word for blue and green, both of which are referred to as “burou.”3 Likewise, red, orange, and pink fall under the Himba color term of “serandu.” When shown a dark orange tile, the Himba children categorized it as red rather than orange, like the English children. Navy blue was also considered black by the Himba children and blue by the English children.2
When thinking about what might cause such a drastic difference, it’s important to consider that the Himba tribe is small and contained when compared to the English-speaking Western world. Our culture plays an important role: we live in a highly commercialized society that relies on our ability to communicate precisely with millions of other people. The sheer amount of color we encounter in daily life contributes to how we think about it and our need for exacting details. An Indigenous tribe of 50,000 people may not experience the number of colors we do and simply may not feel the need to categorize every shade.2
Roberson and Davidoff have often been credited with another study on the Himba perception of color. Many think they ran a study that provided Himba tribe members with a set of green tiles and one blue tile and asked them to pick out the odd color. The Himba apparently could not differentiate between green and blue tiles, referring to them as one color (“burou”). However, the images and references that come up when searching for this particular study actually belong to a 2011 BBC documentary, not Roberson and Davidoff.
While certainly interesting, no published study correlates with these findings. There isn’t much validation or reference to this documentary running or replicating verifiable research, and critics have pointed out that the documentary exaggerated its portrayal of the colors, making it unlikely that any findings would be accurate. The documentary is no longer available to watch, and surprisingly little information can be found about it, further cementing our decision to exclude it as an example of different color perceptions.
Researchers find variations in how we label colors in countries that are geographically closer together than England and Nambia, too. Even though Mongolia and China border each other, they perceive colors differently. A study done in 2019 found that while Mongolian and Chinese people may categorize green similarly, they differed when classifying blue. Mongolians have separate words for light and dark blue — “qinker” and “huhe” respectively — while green in any shade or saturation is simply “nogvgan.” In Chinese, shades of blue are all referred to as “lan” and shades of green are “lv.” 4
However, their similarities held researchers' interest as much as their differences. Both Mongolian and Chinese participants reacted more quickly to green stimuli than blue, implying that an aspect of universalist theory may be at work. According to the Spectral Luminous Efficiency Function, human eyes react best to the color green in bright light, meaning that we have a biological predisposition to noticing green over any other color under certain conditions. So, while the differences in the categorization of blue could be due to language and culture, the reaction and categorization of green is more instinctive.4 Considering how much of the natural world comes in shades of green (and how little is blue), this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.
A 2007 study on English and Russian speakers’ perception of the color blue yielded some interesting findings. While English has one color term that encompasses all shades and saturations of blue, Russians see light blue and dark blue as two separate colors.
During the experiment, the participants were shown two shades of blue on a screen and were asked to classify them as either light blue (or “goluboy”) or dark blue (or “siniy”). Russian speakers made the distinction faster if they were shown one of each shade rather than two light blue or two dark blue shades, while English speakers had no such advantages.5 Due to the Russian language's effect on understanding blue stimuli, this study was a good example of relativist theory.
Some scientists believe our gender can also impact how we perceive color. Recently, a team of researchers found a gene responsible for detecting light in the long-wavelength part of the color spectrum (red and orange colors). This gene is found on the X chromosome, and the theory is that because women have two X chromosomes, they may be able to discriminate between more colors in this category than men, who only have one.7
A study by Israel Abramov seems to support this. In his study, men and women were asked to break down individual colors into percentages of yellow, green, red, and blue. (Emerald green, for example, might be 80% green, 15% blue, and 5% yellow.) Women could do this more accurately than men, especially with red and blue colors. However, men could detect more brightness changes across space and were better at noticing rapid movement and finer details, which implies some residual primitive hunter influence. Testosterone may be responsible for this, but more research is needed to determine whether or not there is a link.8
How much natural versus unnatural light we expose ourselves to can also impact our color perception. In 2015, the #TheDress phenomenon set the Internet — and the scientific world — ablaze. The dress was a photo of a striped dress that people either saw as blue and black or white and yellow. (To settle the score: the dress is black and blue.) At the time, scientists were genuinely baffled at the difference in color people were seeing, and it was two years before researchers offered their theories.
Now, researchers think the difference in color perception was due to unconscious assumptions made by the person looking at the photo. If you assumed the photo was taken in natural light, you would see the dress as white and yellow. If you thought the photo was taken in an area with unnatural light, like a fitting room or store, you would see the dress as blue and black.9 But where do these assumptions come from? The answer is simple: your exposure to natural and unnatural light.
If you spend more time under artificial lighting (i.e., going to bed late and waking up late), you would probably see the dress as blue and black, as your brain would fill in the missing information based on your habits. Likewise, if you spend more time under natural light (i.e., going to bed early and waking up early), you’d see the dress as white and yellow. 9 This finding is consistent with cultural studies of language, too: what you spend time around influences how you see the rest of the world.
The recurring theme of blue surrounding the color studies we’ve examined seems to imply significance. The color blue didn’t exist as a manufactured pigment until 6,000 years ago when the ancient Egyptians developed it using a highly prized blue stone called lapis lazuli. (Red and black pigments can be found in cave art by Neanderthals as early as 65,000 years ago.) Blue pigment made its way around the world, first reserved only for royalty before being lost to history. Historians claim that the color blue is even absent from ancient Greek texts and texts from other ancient civilizations.6
This absence posed an interesting question; when did people actually begin to see blue? From the studies we’ve examined, it’s not really about whether or not we see it. No evidence suggests that humans don’t “see” certain colors unless colorblindness is at work. We all have cone cells in our eyes that recognize the wavelengths we call blue. A better way to frame this question is to ask: when did people begin to categorize blue?
Blue is not common in the natural world; there aren’t many blue plants, flowers, animals (except birds and fish), or rocks, and blue things are often intangible, such as the sky and bodies of water.6 A tropical sea may appear bright blue, but if you scoop some water in your hands, it’s no longer any color. So it’s not surprising that blue wasn’t widely categorized until it became pigmented and exported.
According to Roberson and Davidoff, the researchers responsible for the Himba-English study, simply having a word for a color increases recognition of that color. Along these lines, perhaps the color blue was not a regular part of daily life as other colors were and did not need to be categorized. Or perhaps, like the Himba, the examples of blue in their daily lives were close enough to green to be grouped as one color.3
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Adelson, R. (2005, February). Hues and Views [Review of Hues and Views]. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/feb05/hues
Roberson, D., Davidoff, J., Davies, I. R. L., & Shapiro, L. R. (2006). Colour categories and category acquisition in Himba and English. Progress in Colour Studies, 159-172. https://doi.org/10.1075/z.pics2.14rob
Goldstein, J., Davidoff, J., & Roberson, D. (2009). Knowing color terms enhances recognition: further evidence from English and Himba. Journal of experimental child psychology, 102(2), 219–238. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2008.06.002
He, H., Li, J., Xiao, Q., Jiang, S., Yang, Y., & Zhi, S. (2019). Language and Color Perception: Evidence From Mongolian and Chinese Speakers. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00551
Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M. C., Wu, L., Wade, A. R., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(19), 7780–7785. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0701644104
The Color Blue: History, Science, Facts | Dunn Edwards Paints. (2015). Dunn-Edwards Paints. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://www.dunnedwards.com/pros/blog/the-history-and-science-behind-the-color-blue/#:~:text=Scientists%20generally%20agree%20that%20humans
Why We Don’t See the Same Colors | Psychology Today. (2020). Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-superhuman-mind/202006/why-we-dont-see-the-same-colors#:~:text=We%20sometimes%20think%20of%20colors
Fessenden, M. (2015). Men and Women See Things Differently (No, Literally). Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/men-and-women-see-things-differently-literally-180954815/#:~:text=The%20results%20showed%20that%20women
Witzel, C., Racey, C., & O’Regan, K. (2017). The most reasonable explanation of “the dress”: Implicit assumptions about illumination. Journal of Vision, 17(2). https://doi.org/10.1167/17.2.1