Our Brains See Colors, But Don’t Remember Them

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Remember those stoned dorm room conversations about what it meant to really see a color? New research from cognitive psychologists at Johns Hopkins has provided some more food for thought when it comes to brains, colors, memory, and perception.

Put simply, the human brain has the ability to distinguish between millions of different colors and hues, even if the differences between shades is minute. However, when it comes to remembering what colors we’ve seen, it’s a different story. The researchers figured this out by asking study participants to look at a brief flash of a color, then try to match it on a color wheel with 180 options. They found that study subjects tended to pick not the correct color–whether it was azure or ocean blue or pale turquoise–but instead the “best example” of the overall color category — that is, “blue.”

“We have very precise perception of color in the brain, but when we have to pick that color out in the world,” lead researcher Jonathan Flombaum told the Hopkins Hub, “there’s a voice that says, ‘It’s blue,’ and that affects what we end up thinking we saw.” Flombaum also noted that this is why even though you look at the blue paint on your bedroom walls every day, if you go to the hardware store and try to pick a paint match from memory, you’ll probably get it wrong.

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