Color and Reality

When I was a kid, I used to wonder if everyone saw the world in the same way. We can all look at the same grass, but maybe the color I called green showed up in my brain as the color my friend called blue. Maybe all of our colors were shifted around to the point where all the colors were accounted for, but how we perceived them was shuffled up. I thought it would be remarkably exciting, and hoped that I could see the world through someone else’s brain to see if, in fact, this was true.


My eight year old self would be bitterly disappointed technology today has not progressed far enough to make that wish a reality. At the time, we had to settle the debate by another manner – asking an adult, a source of concrete and immutable knowledge. The answer I was given was that everyone sees the same colors of course (although why this was so obvious was never really clear) and if they didn’t it wouldn’t matter much since we couldn’t tell. Color was “real” – bits of light had a color (later I found out we could call it the wavelength of a photon), it hit our eyes, and our brains converted it to a beautiful image.

The only problem is that this is wrong.

Color as Wavelength

Well, alright. Before you get upset, it isn’t completely wrong. We were all taught about Sir Isaac Newton who discovered that a glass prism can split white light apart into its constituent colors.


While we consider this rather trivial today, at the time you’d be laughed out of the room if you suggested this somehow illustrated a fundamental property of light and color. The popular theory of the day was that color was a mixture of light and dark, and that prisms simply colored light. Color went from bright red (white light with the smallest amount of “dark” added) to dark blue (white light with the most amount of “dark” added before it turned black).

Newton showed this to be incorrect. We now know that light is made up of tiny particles called photons, and these photons have something called “wavelength” that seems to correspond to color. Visible light is made up of a spectrum, a huge number of photons each with a different wavelength our eyes can see. When combined, we see it as white light.


So this appears to resolve my childhood debate. Light of a single wavelength (like that produced by a laser) corresponds to a single “real” color. The brain just translates wavelengths into colors somehow, and that is that. There’s just one problem.

We’re missing a color!

Color as Experience

To find out just what we’re missing, we have to consider how we can combine colors. For instance, you learned some basic color mixing rules as a kid. In this case, let’s use additive color mixing since we’re mixing light.


Let’s find two colors on the spectrum line, and then we can estimate the final color they’ll produce when you mix them by finding the midpoint.

Red and green make yellow.


Green and blue make turquoise.


Red and blue make…


Green? What? That doesn’t seem to make any sense! Red and violet make pink! But where is pink in our spectrum? It’s not violet, it’s not red – it seems like it should be simultaneously above and below our spectrum. But it’s not on the spectrum at all!

So we’re forced to realize a very interesting conclusion. The wavelength of a photon certainly reflects a color – but we cannot produce every color the human eye sees by a single photon of a specific wavelength. There is no such thing as a pink laser – two lasers must be mixed to produce that color. There are “real” colors (we call them pure spectral or monochromatic colors) and “unreal” colors that only exist in the brain.

A Color Map

So what are the rules for creating these “unreal” colors from the very real photons that hit your eye? Well, in the 1920s W. David Wright and John Guild both conducted experiments designed to map how the brain mixed monochomatic light into the millions of colors we experience everyday. They set up a split screen – on one side, they projected a “test” color. On the other side, the subject could mix together three primary colors produced by projectors to match the test color. After a lot of test subjects and a lot of test colors, eventually the CIE 1931 color space was produced.


I consider this to be a map of the abstractions of the human brain. On the curved border we can see numbers, which correspond to the wavelengths in the spectrum we saw earlier. We can imagine the spectrum bent around the outside of this map – representing “real” colors. The inside represents all the colors our brain produces by mixing – the “unreal” colors.

So let’s try this again – with a map of the brain instead of a map of photon wavelengths. Red and green make yellow.


Green and blue make turquoise.


Blue and red make…


Pink! Finally! Note that pink is not on the curved line representing monochromatic colors. It is purely a construction of your brain – not reflective of the wavelength of any one photon.

Is Color Real?

So is color real? Well, photons with specific wavelengths seem to correspond to specific colors. But the interior of the CIE 1931 color space is a representation of the a most ridiculously abstract concept, labels that aren’t even labels, something our brain experiences and calculates from averaged photon wavelengths. It is an example of what philosophers call qualia – a subjective quality of consciousness.

I later learned that my childhood argument was a version of the inverted spectrum argument first proposed by John Locke, and that the “adult” perspective of everyone seeing the same colors (and it not really mattering if they didn’t) was argued by the philosopher Daniel Dennett.

I have come no closer to resolving my question from long ago of “individual spectrums” – but for the future, I vow to pay more attention to the idle questions of children.