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Why cannot we imagine a new color?
Question Date: 2017-10-17
Answer 1:

What a great question, thank you!

While the eyes are needed to detect light in the environment, it is the brain that is needed to see color. What I mean by this is that color does not exist anywhere but in your brain. Wow.

What’s really happening is that each object in the world reflects certain types of light which special cells in your eyes called cones can detect. Your brain, however, does all sorts of things to the light that the eyes take in, including determining what colors to make things appear. With different eyes and a different brain, things would appear to have much different colors, or none at all. For instance, dogs see a world that is without color.

So now for your question. The human eye and brain can only perceive a certain range of different colors, or wavelengths, of light, what is called the visual spectrum This includes all the colors we can see. There are other wavelengths we cannot see, like infrared light or ultraviolent light. But because our biology is not designed to detect that type of light, we cannot perceive it, or even imagine such new colors. The brain constrains what colors it can imagine based on how it was designed by evolution.

But wait! There is a way to see colors that are beyond the natural abilities of the human visual system! We can use optical illusions to see what are called chimerical colors, which are new colors that can only be perceived by tricking our own brain. You can find an example here:

Focus on one of the black cross-hairs, when the picture shifts you may be able to see, for a brief second, an afterimage of a color that is impossible to see in nature. The brain is truly amazing!

Thanks again for the great question, Spencer

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