World Science Festival: What is Color?

“What is Color?” was the dominant question submitted by more than 26,000 curious eleven-year olds around the world in this year’s Flame Challenge, issued by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. The Challenge asks scientists to answer the chosen question in a manner understandable and engaging to eleven-year olds (past questions were: What is a Flame? What is Time?), and this year, almost 400 scientists responded. The 2014 winners were announced on Sunday.

To accompany the announcement, the festival held an event featuring three scientists in discussions about how we see color, which included audience participation and even a sound and music show to close out the evening.

Opthalmologist Jay Neitz, Ph.D., and neuroscientist and artist Bevil Conway, Ph.D., kicked off the program by explaining how our brains interpret color. Both used children from the audience to illustrate aspects of color vision: Neitz brought volunteers on to the stage in colored t-shirts, representing the colors of the rainbow. He asked the audience to identify the colors, and then to repeat the exercise after the kids had been shuffled, the lights dimmed, and only a sodium light producing a single, yellow-light wavelength pointed at the volunteers. Because how we see color is dependent upon varying wavelengths of reflected light hitting the retina, the shirts now appeared colorless.

Conway took a more artistic approach to demonstrate how background color can affect our perception of an object’s color–something interpreted by our primary visual cortex. Assisted by a young audience member, some canvasses, and paints, Conway and his volunteer showed how our perception of squares painted the same color changed when accompanied by a background of yellow versus blue. This illusion has been notably demonstrated in Josef Albers “The Interaction of Color,” said Conway.

Certainly the most crowd-pleasing presentation of the evening was neuroscientist David Eagleman’s talk about synesthesia. While the first two speakers focused on how our brains interpret color, Eagleman, Ph.D., spoke about how the brain can invent colors that aren’t really there, creating a unique reality.

Once thought of as a rare “oddity,” synesthesia–an involuntary blending of the senses –is experienced by at least three percent of the population, said Eagleman. Synesthesia can take on many forms; letters may trigger internal experiences of color, for example, and some people experience just one form, while others may experience multiple types. Synesthesia is not a disease or disorder, said Eagleman, noting that it can actually be advantageous in certain areas, such as memory.

We are often told to use word association to remember names or facts, and for synesthetes, words or letters may have a particular color or texture, or even have a personality, said Eagleman. These triggers can aid in recall.

Eagleman studies synesthesia out of his lab and has developed an online, public participatory test that identifies synesthetes. Noting that many past studies worked with small samples of participants, he said that his study has identified more than 22,000 synesthetes and is able to quantify the many forms. It does so by testing for consistency, he explained. For example, on the test for grapheme-color synesthesia, people are asked to assign colors to numbers and letters presented in random order with repetitions (demos are available here).

Violinist and neuroscientist Kaitlyn Hova, a synesthete, was on hand to participate in a few trial questions of Eagleman’s test, and to end the program with a song, accompanied by a color light show to demonstrate what she sees when she plays or hears music. Different colors washed over the stage with each cord (the “G” cord is green, she said), and the audience was entranced.

If you’d like to know more about how we see color and what was said in Sunday’s program, a video of the event can be watched online.

–Ann L. Whitman

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