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Why are colors the color that they are?
Question Date: 2013-12-11
Answer 1:

This is a fantastic question! As for now, the answer is quite a philosophical one. We can try and understand colors from many aspects. Colors originate because they can be seen by our eyes. They belong to a (very narrow) band of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum, called the visible spectrum. Other kinds of radiation include radio waves, microwaves, and X-rays. Usually we can see the range in colors from [infra]red light (low energy) all the way up to [ultra]violet light (high energy). We would normally associate all the colors in between with those in a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Interestingly enough, there is no “pink” light in this spectrum [1]. Instead, we perceive a combination of red and violet light as a “filler” color of pink because we cannot perceive beyond the visible spectrum of light.

How do we perceive light? Our eyeballs have special sensors called cones that detect color [2]. There are three types of cones, each detecting a particular color very well: blue, green, and red. When a color is not exactly one of those three colors (for instance, yellow, a combination of red and green), multiple cones are activated to a certain degree, and our brain interprets this signal as a unique color. There is a YouTube channel called “Vsauce” that wonderfully explains these color concepts, referenced below.

Why do we give a particular color its name? Well, this is a fundamentally philosophical question that contains strong roots in our backbone of communication. The names of these colors are essentially arbitrarily decided (aside from a long history lesson in linguistics). The sensation that we perceive when we look at, for instance, a strawberry, allows us to collectively say that it has a red color [3]. But we can never say for certain whether or not one person’s perception of red is the same as another person’s perception of red. Ultimately, our language is not complex or powerful enough to describe the sensation of perceiving a color (other than to say what color it is). This is known as the explanatory gap of qualia. Another Vsauce video linked below has a great explanation of this phenomena.

[1] does-the-color-pink-exist-scientists-arent-sure
[2] Vsauce, “This is not Yellow”
[3] Vsauce, “Is Your Red The Same as My Red?”

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