Colors exist on a seamless spectrum, yet we assign hues to discrete categories such as “red” and “orange.” Past studies have found that a person's native language can influence the way colors are categorized and even perceived. In Russian, for example, light blue and dark blue are named as different colors, and studies find that Russian speakers can more readily distinguish between the shades. Yet scientists have wondered about the extent of such verbal influence. Are color categories purely a construct of language, or is there a physiological basis for the distinction between green and blue? A new study in infants suggests that even before acquiring language, our brain already sorts colors into the familiar groups.

A team of researchers in Japan tracked neural activity in 12 prelinguistic infants as they looked at a series of geometric figures. When the shapes' color switched between green and blue, activity increased in the occipitotemporal region of the brain, an area known to process visual stimuli. When the color changed within a category, such as between two shades of green, brain activity remained steady. The team found the same pattern in six adult participants.

The infants used both brain hemispheres to process color changes. Language areas are usually in the left hemisphere, so the finding provides further evidence that color categorization is not entirely dependent on language.

At some point as a child grows, language must start playing a role—just ask a Russian whether a cloudless sky is the same color as the deep sea. The researchers hope to study that developmental process next.

“Our results imply that the categorical color distinctions arise before the development of linguistic abilities,” says Jiale Yang, a psychologist at Chuo University and lead author of the study, published in February in PNAS. “But maybe they are later shaped by language learning.”