Color Perception: Is It All an Illusion?

From the dress to the shoe to the nail polish, we know that our perception of color is tricky business. Sometimes, what I think is lavender might appear to be periwinkle for you. We all perceive every hue in the spectrum differently, but why? And if color is merely a reflection of light, is it even real?

To understand why we see color differently, we need to examine how we see color at all. There are structures known as cones and rods in our eyes that function differently in dark and lit environments. Cones are active in brightness and are used to detect and process colors by transmitting a specific light intensity to the brain signaling what color it is. This is why the color spectrum shows that each color has its own wavelength. The human eye can actually perceive a larger variety of warmer hues than cooler ones. 

Research shows that color perception is dependent on gender, ethnicity, nationality, language and location. Considering this, it is safe to assume that there is nothing concrete about color. The number of cones each individual has is also determinant of how detailed our perception of color is, and every individual has a different amount. Clearly, our ability to perceive color is dependent on a multitude of variables, but is the inconsistency a hint of an illusion created by our brains?

Through a scientific lens, color does not exist. What we see as color is simply the bending of light which our brains perceive as color. In essence, color is a figment of your neural network. Keeping this in mind, let’s put what we’ve learned about color so far in perspective. All through human history, we have used color to express ourselves, our culture, and our beliefs. We have learned to associate specific colors like purple with royalty and that stopping at a red light can save you from a ticket. Early hunters and gatherers distinguished poisonous food based on color. Entire industries from fashion to rail transportation are dependent on our ability to process and interpret color. Colors are present as identifying factors in all religious ideologies from Greek mythology to the Hindu gods. Color is, arguably, the greatest essence of humankind itself. But none of it is actually real.

What I take from this is knowing that although color is an illusion created by my brain, humans see color for a reason. Evolution has driven us to rely on color perception for social interaction, health and learning along with so much more. A world without color is like a candle without a wick; who needs a jar of wax? Our perception of color has opened an entire branch of psychology that works toward studying what emotions and behaviors are elicited by which colors. Companies around the world use how we see color to market goods and services that purposefully tap into our subconscious thought processes. Color is interwoven into every aspect of our lives and has proven to be essential to our existence as a species. So, maybe its importance is what makes it concrete, or maybe it's just a pigment of your imagination.