Why we can’t recall the exact colour we saw

New York, June 14 (IANS) Do you know that although we can see millions of colours, webut can remember only the few basic ones?

When we see a colour, our brain stores it as a basic, general hue. So when we try to remember a precise colour, we err on the side of the basic shades the brain prefers, a new study reveals.

For example, there’s azure, there’s navy, there’s cobalt and ultramarine. The human brain is sensitive to the differences between these hues — we can tell them apart.

But when storing them in memory, people label all of these various colours as “blue”, the researchers from Johns Hopkins University found.

The same thing goes for shades of green, pink, purple, etc.

“We can differentiate millions of colours, but to store this information, our brain has a trick. We tag the colour with a coarse label. That then makes our memories more biased, but still pretty useful,” said lead researcher Jonathan Flombaum.

Flombaum demonstrated that what seems like a difference in the memorability of certain colours is actually the result of the brain’s tendency to categorise colours.

People remember colours more accurately, they found, when the colours are good examples of their respective categories.

The researchers asked subjects to look at a colour wheel made up of 180 different hues, and to find the “best” examples of blue, pink, green, purple, orange, and yellow.

Next they conducted a memory experiment with a different group of participants. These participants were shown a coloured square for one tenth of a second.

They were asked to try to remember it, looking at a blank screen for a little less than one second, and then asked to find the colour on the colour wheel featuring the 180 hues.

When attempting to match hues, all subjects tended to err on the side of the basic, “best” colours, but the bias toward the archetypes amplified considerably when subjects had to remember the hue, even for less than a second.

That explains why you may have trouble glancing at the colour of your living room and then trying to match it at the paint store.

“Trying to pick out a colour for touch-ups, I would end up making a mistake. This is because I would mis-remember my wall as more prototypically blue. It could be a green as far as Sherwin-Williams is concerned, but I remember it as blue,” Flombaum said.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.



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