Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ruminating on Red

This post by Sharon on, among other things, the color red and featuring her beautiful work "Petals", got me thinking again about something interesting that I recently read and reminded me of a book that I can wholeheartedly recommend if you are looking for a Christmas present for a musician or artist.

In Daniel Levitin’s book, “This Is Your Brain On Music”, in his discussion of the biology of how the brain organizes and categorizes the things we perceive into prototypes he tells how researchers used the color red in an interesting study. There is a tribal group in New Guinea, the Dani, who have only two words in their language to designate color, and those words really, essentially, only correspond to light and dark.

The researchers showed the Dani subjects chips with dozens of different shades of red and then asked them to pick out the best examples of this color, the chips that most effectively represent the definitive examples of the color red. Overwhelmingly, and in spite of the fact that their language does not allow for descriptive discrimination, the Dani selected the same red that Americans select in the same study. The results were the same for other colors that they couldn’t name, like green and blue.

From this work, it is theorized that there is a class of prototypical information that the brain categorizes, such as the principal color groups, that “are a consequence of our retinal physiology; certain shades of red are universally going to be regarded as more vivid, more central than others because a specific wavelength of visible light will cause the “red” receptors in our retina to fire maximally.”

In other words, there is a physiological component to how we understand color, in addition to such cultural notions as “fire engine red” or “candy apple red” that, uhm, color our perceptions. It is part of our design.

How does the way we perceive color relate to music? Until you read the book, you'll just have to trust me, it does.

My apologies to the color-blind. And the left-handed. And anyone else feeling neurologically disenfranchised this Christmas…the baby Jesus came to earth for you, too.

Dore's, "The Nativity"

(click to enlarge)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just put this book on my amazon list to buy. Thanks for the suggestion and post.