We always see it in the movies: the younger child and the father laying together in the grass, gazing up at the midday sky. She asks what color the sky is, and he says blue without hesitation. Such a simple answer to what is, in reality, such a complex question. Over the past few weeks, to combat my occasional homesickness, I’ve found myself looking up to the sky, wondering if my parents can see the same sky back home in Georgia. When we discussed the colors of the sky in class, it encouraged me to investigate the simple answer to the question: what color is the sky?
The real answer, it turns out, depends on a variety of factors; the time of day, location of the viewer, location of the sun, the viewer’s visual abilities, language, mood, etc. From personal experience, I believe the same sky can be different colors to the same viewer in different states of mind. For example, individuals experiencing sadness have a greater tendency to “focus on the tree instead of the forest” (Gasper 2002), which translates to not seeing the full visual picture and instead fixating on visual detail, such as the shade of one item instead of the collective colors in a room. In a more scientific sense, a red-green colorblind viewer would have a different visual opinion of a sunset than a normally sighted individual. But what about language?
Interestingly enough, language and culture also exert a large influence on color perception; different languages have different words for different colors, and some only have one word for a whole category of colors. The color category perception effect (Zhang 2018) describes this phenomenon in which “people were more likely to distinguish colors from different colors than those that landed in the same area.” Those who speak languages that have more words for different colors would, under this theory, be better able to distinguish various shades than those who speak a language with fewer words for color. Based on this perception of color, two people from different cultures could view the sky in different shades. The figure below displays how the color wheels of the English and Greek lexicon differ due to variations in groupings.
There is evidence that language centers in the brain are activated with color perception; in an experiment performed by Siok et al., when stimuli are observed from different linguistic categories, there is a greater activation of visual cortex areas 2/3 – the areas responsible for color vision. This enhanced V2/3 activity coincided with enhanced activity in the left posterior temporoparietal language region, which suggests a top-down control from the language center to modulate the visual cortex (Siok 2009). In other words, increased activity in language perception areas of the brain correlates to increased modulation of color vision before you’ve had the chance to pay conscious attention (Athanasopoulos 2010).
This is especially relevant in Paris; as an English-only speaker in a world of French speakers, I can’t help but wonder how differences in our color-related vocabulary translate to questions like that of the sky’s color. It is known that language effects sensory perception in its earliest stages (Athanasopoulos 2010), but would learning French color vocabulary change my perception of what colors I see? A previous experiment (Theirry 2009) demonstrated a difference in brain activity for both a native Greek and English speaker, the former of which makes a lexical distinction between light blue (ghalazio) and dark blue (ble). This is shown in the figure below, which demonstrates a greater Visual Mismatch Negativity response for the Greek participant when they were observing a blue stimulus due to greater lexical representation for this color.
In summary, the influence of language is one often underestimated when considering why we see the colors we do. I believe perception of color is a uniquely integrative experience, combining elements of culture, background, language, personality, and individuality to create specific visuals distinctive to one person. This seems all the more evident in Paris; everything is so new, so fresh and exciting that I cannot help but feel that the very colors of Paris hold something special that I have not seen elsewhere. So what color is the sky? You may be surprised, as I was, to find your answer constantly changes.
Athanasopoulos, P., Dering, B., Wiggett, A., Kuipers, J., & Thierry, G. (2010). Perceptual shift in bilingualism: Brain potentials reveal plasticity in pre-attentive colour perception. Cognition, 116(3), 437-443. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.05.016
Gasper, K., & Clore, G. L. (2002). Attending to the Big Picture: Mood and Global Versus Local Processing of Visual Information. Psychological Science, 13(1), 34-40. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00406
Siok, W. T., Kay, P., Wang, W. S., Chan, A. H., Chen, L., Luke, K., & Tan, L. H. (2009). Language regions of brain are operative in color perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(20), 8140-8145. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903627106
Thierry, G., Athanasopoulos, P., Wiggett, A., Dering, B., & Kuipers, J. (2009). Unconscious effects of language-specific terminology on preattentive color perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(11), 4567-4570. doi:10.1073/pnas.0811155106
Zhang, J., Chen, X., You, N., & Wang, B. (2018). On how conceptual connections influence the category perception effect of colors: Another evidence of connections between language and cognition. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 50(4), 390. doi:10.3724/sp.j.1041.2018.00390