Do we see as well as we think we see?

Picture of the sky over Pont du Gard

On the first day of Arts on the Brain, we were told to write freely about the prompt “What color is the sky?” I immediately remembered a podcast about a man, Guy Deutscher, who asked his daughter every day what color the sky is, and she didn’t answer blue. The podcast by Jad Abumrad and Jim Gleick starts off by talking about Homer and his lack of the word blue in his texts. It then goes onto talking about other old texts that don’t mention blue. It then goes into talking about the order that colors enter languages and says that blue is always the last one and that the theory was that it had to do with having the ability to make the color. They then talked about another person who brought a test to a group of people without the word for blue and that they had trouble identifying the blue box from green boxes. This seemed like proof that language impacts perception. They then got to Deutscher’s experiment with his daughter. They made sure that no one told her the sky was blue but made sure she did know the color blue. At first, she refused to answer the question about what color it was until one day she answered white and eventually she said blue. This seemed to answer why languages wouldn’t find it incredibly important to add a word for the color blue.

This made me wonder, how much does language impact perception? Do French people experience the world differently than I do? So many people speak more than one language here, unlike in America, and would that impact your perception as well?

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Broca’s and Wernike’s areas, outlined above, are two of the major regions associated with speech. The visual cortex at the back of the brain is where the majority of visual processing happens. At first, it appears that the visual cortex is so far away from the rest of the sensory processing and anything involving language. However, everything in the brain travels through multiple areas in the brain. Here is the path that light takes after entering the eye:

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Once the sight has been processed by the visual cortex, it then projects out to other regions of the brain.

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Language and speech also move around to different regions like in the picture below.

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With all of this and other information moving through the brain, it doesn’t seem super farfetched to me that language could impact our perception. Bhatara et al. (2015) showed that learning a second language would impact rhythm perception in native French speakers. Work by Ardila et al. (2015) shows that one region of the brain has to do with both recognition and adding a word to what you see. They also showed that this region connects with regions that play roles in thinking, categorization, and memory.

More recent research by He et al. (2019) compared color perception between Mongolian and Mandarin speakers. According to the study, both languages only have one word for light versus dark green. However, Mongolian divides light and dark blue into two different words while Mandarin only has one word for light and dark blue. They showed the subjects greens and blues and asked them to divide them into one of the 2 or 3 categories. They were then asked to sort the colors so that similar ones were together. The Mongolian speakers grouped the colors more closely together than the Mandarin speakers did. They also did an experiment where they timed how long it took the participants to find which color was different than the rest and found differences between the two groups. These experiments further show that language does have an impact on how we perceive color.

It would be interesting to find out if language or culture plays more of an impact on color perception. However, because the two heavily influence each other and are nearly impossible to completely separate, it would be impossible to know which plays a larger role. I would also be interested to know if language’s impact on color perception means that I would see artwork differently than a native speaker of a different language. Did all of the artists that we’re learning about in Arts on the Brain see their paintings differently than I do?  Would a bilingual person categorize colors according to their first language or the language they speak with the most color terms? Would common terms like light blue vs dark blue play a role or would they both be considered blue? I think the impact that language can have on perception is fascinating and will definitely keep it in mind the next time I’m looking at paintings in a museum.

Works Cited

Ardila, A., Bernal, B., & Rosselli, M. (2015). Language and visual perception associations: meta-analytic connectivity modeling of Brodmann area 37. Behavioural neurology, 2015, 565871. doi:10.1155/2015/565871

Bhatara, A., Yeung, H. H., & Nazzi, T. (2015). Foreign language learning in French speakers is associated with rhythm perception, but not with melody perception. [Abstract]. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(2), 277-282. doi:10.1037/a0038736

He, H., Li, J., Xiao, Q., Jiang, S., Yang, Y., & Zhi, S. (2019). Language and Color Perception: Evidence From Mongolian and Chinese Speakers. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 551. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00551

Radiolab – Why Isn’t the Sky Blue? [Jules Davidoff and Guy Deutscher] [Audio blog review]. (2018, January 2). Retrieved June 9, 2019, from






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