This is a serialization from my book, Happiness: A Physician/Biologist Looks at Life. To see the Table of Contents and the dust jacket blurb, click here; to start from the beginning, click here; to read the previous post, click here.
Our experience of color is an illusion; I still find that amazing. But colors do not really exist outside of the few cubic inches of our skulls. There is no inherent color in the world. The colors we experience are fiction, fabricated entirely within our heads. It is amazing, but true.
Remember the question some kid would always ask, “How do you know that what I call ‘green’ doesn’t look like ‘red’ to you?” With no understanding of physics and physiology, even children are aware that colors are an unusual aspect of vision, and that there is something impermanent and arbitrary about them.
Certainly, we can differentiate and recognize various energies of light. And because of that, we can agree on the names of those energies, “red,” “blue,” or “green.” But there is absolutely no way to be sure that our experiences of colors are the same. We may each experience them differently.
Entirely Personal Colors
And we know that at least some of us experience colors differently: what is the experience of red or green for someone with red-green color blindness? Is it red? Green? Or is it a color that none of us could possibly imagine? Our colors are entirely private, and entirely fictitious.
Now, the objects we see are really out there in the world; they exist. And our vision is a faithful recreation of the shape and position of those things. And the colors are reliable indicators about the light reflected off of those objects. But the color we see, is entirely generated within the brain.
Colors as Shorthand
Colors are simply a sort of mental shorthand to help us recognize and differentiate the various objects “out there.” Red is an experience that helps to quickly identify both blood, and ripe berries. Likewise, blue can help us locate water, and to contrast against non-blue items against the sky. And so forth. Obviously the ability to discern colors makes it easier for us to make decisions, sometimes split-second decisions. And you can see how those decisions help us to survive in a difficult world.
The fact that the information is “shorthanded” is also important here, and to our future discussions. To make quick decisions, the last thing I need is some signal saying, “We have incoming nerve pulses on optic axons #3,425,228 through 3,427,919 in rhythm pattern G, suggesting a light frequency of about 46 x 1013 Hz.” I need something quicker, like, “Hey dummy, your toe’s bleeding.”
Obviously a shorthand for say, spotting a bleeding toe is not very important to survival, but spotting a bleeding artery is. And spotting blood is not nearly so important as the shorthand for a pair of closely-placed glowing points in the darkness, something we tend to identify as eyes, very quickly. To the point, the shorthanding lets us spot things around us that are critical to our survival. And colors, with many different hues and patterns, provide great shorthand messages.
To continue reading, click here.
Rainbow Bubble courtesy of Foundry on Pixabay.