Color You Remember Seeing Isn't What You Saw




This is Scientific American 60-Second Science. I'm Karen Hopkin. This'll just take a minute.
What color is your living room?
Beige? Maybe eggshell?
Or is it cream, buff, ecru, khaki, or warm desert sand?
Chances are you have no idea, and you wouldn't be able to pick the shade out of an off-white lineup.
But before you go blaming your eyes, a new study suggests that the fault lies in our brains, which fail to commit to memory the actual colors we see.
The findings are in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
To figure out why we're not so good at recalling hues, researchers first had subjects look at what's called color wheel on a computer screen.
The wheel included 180 shades in a circle, and subjects were asked to find what they considered the best example of, say, the color blue.
Turns out, most people agree on which shades are most representative of a given color. like a robin's egg blue for the truest blue or a parakeet-like color as the greenest green.
Shades like teal, which falls between green and blue, got the fewest votes.
Then came the memory bit.
A second group of volunteers looked at the computer screens.
This time, a colored square would appear briefly and, about a second after it disappeared, subjects were asked to find that color on the wheel.
The result: people tended to skew their answers toward the colors that had previously been identified as being the best specimen of that color, no matter what color they'd actually seen.
That is, if they briefly saw a teal square, which is bluish green (or greenish blue)—some volunteers would remember it as being more blue than it was, while others would swear it was more green.
The findings suggest that our brains tend to categorize from just a few choices when filing away colors.
So though a sunset might be unforgettable, its many subtle colors are actually impossible to recall.
Thanks for the minute, for Scientific American 60-Second Science. I'm Karen Hopkin.