Do We Perceive Colours Differently?

Many things in this world are subjective, but does that include how humans see and perceive colour? Even if you and a friend both agree that strawberries appear red, how can you be sure that the “red” you see is the same as his or her version of red?

The truth is, there’s no sure way to know the answer. As a whole, society may agree on colours in certain contexts, but there isn’t a sure way to see things as someone else sees them. The question of whether people perceive colours differently encompasses multiple disciplines.

For our purposes, we’ll focus on the scientific processes that determine how we interpret the colours that we see. Looks can be deceiving, but fact and research tell us much about how our eyes and brains interpret colour. Read on to learn more about how you interpret colours (and the world) around you.

#TheDress: Debate vs. Difference in Perception

A perfect example of how light affects colour perception is the fabled blue and black dress. What started as a simple Tumblr blog post soon turned into a worldwide trending Twitter topic.  

The science of why this dress looked blue and black to some and white and gold to others is simple: light affects perception. As light enters the eye, different wavelengths create different colours. Once light hits the retina, neurons in the visual cortex process the information and generate a coloured image.  

Through this process, your eyes and brain figure out the colour. Sometimes, though, the visual system may focus more on the illuminant. Have you ever come indoors on a sunny day and noticed that you saw things—even colours—differently?

On-the-Fringe Lighting

The simple answer to why the dress looks two different colours is that the image hits a perceptual boundary. When you see a colour in bright light, you usually discount the chromatic bias created by the bright light.

Since the picture has ambiguous lighting, some people see the dress as though it’s in broad daylight (white and gold). Others discount the background brightness to see the true colours (blue and black).

Whatever colour you see, know that the context (or lighting) and colour-constancy matters. And depending on how you focused on the context, you’ll see different colours as a result.

Other Dividing Factors

Although our eyes and brains use lighting to interpret colour, there are countless other reasons why our perceptions differ. Our brains have a highly adaptive visual system that associates colour frequencies with different objects and situations.


So depending on your typical environment and upbringing, you’ll see things differently than others. According to The World Color Survey of the 1970s, warm and cool hues were a common perception. But, not all cultures recognized “pink” and other specific shades.

In addition, colours mean different things throughout the world. Western culture prefers brides in white, while China dresses their brides in bright red. These colours evoke different emotions depending on their cultural context. This is a perfect example of how people perceive colour and the emotional connotations that go with it.


Have you ever argued with someone of the opposite sex about what colour looks best in your new bathroom? While age-old adages joke about how different men and women are, they aren’t far off when it comes to colour perception.

Israel Abramov, a professor at CUNY Brooklyn College, published a study in 2012 with interesting results on vision and the sexes. According to his findings, women were better at discriminating among small differences in the colour spectrum. They especially excelled with yellows and greens.

But in another test, the study measured the ability to sense moving objects from a distance. In the latter test, men had the clear advantage.

Abramov stated that this shows how the nervous system that deals with colour can’t be the same in men and women. Although the reasons behind this difference in perception aren’t clear, Abramov hypothesizes that evolutionary adaption may play a role.

In a hunter-gatherer society, men would need to see distant moving objects while hunting. Likewise, women would benefit from colour differentiation skills in their plant-gathering tasks.

See the World Differently

However you see the world, it’s obvious that perceptions and interpretations differ. Our eyes are amazing mechanisms by which we view what’s around us. Colour is just one small example of unlimited differences in the human experience.

So the next time you find yourself arguing over which paint looks the best, realize that you likely see the colours through different eyes. When it comes down to it, seeing the world through many different viewpoints is how we each contribute something unique.

Whether you’re picking out new throw pillows or arguing over the colour of an online photo, try seeing colours and the world through someone else’s eyes. You never know where it might take you.

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