See Inside March 2007

Illusory Color and the Brain

Novel illusions suggest that the brain does not separate perception of color from perception of form and depth

A world without color appears to be missing crucial elements. And indeed it is. Colors not only enable us to see the world more precisely, they also create emergent qualities that would not exist without them. The color photograph on the opposite page, for example, reveals autumnal leaves in the placid water of a fountain, along with the reflections of trees and of a dark-blue afternoon sky behind them. In a black-and-white picture of the same scene, the leaves are less distinct, the dark-blue sky is absent, the reflections of the light are weak, the water itself is hardly visible, and the difference in apparent depth among the sky, trees and floating leaves is all but gone.

Yet this role for color, and even the true nature of color, is not well recognized. Many people believe that color is a defining and essential property of objects, one depending entirely on the specific wavelengths of light reflected from them. But this belief is mistaken. Color is a sensation created in the brain. If the colors we perceived depended only on the wavelength of reflected light, an object's color would appear to change dramatically with variations in illumination throughout the day and in shadows. Instead patterns of activity in the brain render an object's color relatively stable despite changes in its environment.

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