How do we remember colors? Categories influence color memory, says new research

June 23, 2015 by Tom Mclaughlin

How do we remember colors? What makes green... green?

As Sarah Allred explains, while color perception universally involves the practice of categorizing according to basic labels, the influence of categorization on color memory remains largely unknown and understudied.

'So that leaves a lot of questions unanswered,' says Allred, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University-Camden. ''Do we remember colors just as we saw them?', 'Does time affect how we remember colors?', 'Are some colors easier to remember than others?''

Thanks to Allred and her fellow researchers, these answers have just come sharper into hue.

Allred and cognitive scientists Jonathan Flombaum of Johns Hopkins University, Gi-Yeul Bae of the University of California-Davis, and Maria Olkkonen of the University of Pennsylvania, shed light on the phenomenon of working color memory in their illuminating new study, 'Why Some Colors Appear More Memorable Than Others: A Model Combining Categories and Particulars in Color Working Memory,' published in the May issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

In two pairs of experiments, the researchers used a set of 180 colors, spanning the entire color spectrum. In the first experiment pair, the researchers showed observers colors one at a time and asked them to categorize the colors according to eight basic color terms—red, green, blue, purple, yellow, orange, brown, and pink.

In addition, the researchers presented the in a ring, gave the observers the list of category labels, and asked them to pick the color on the ring that best represented each category.

From these experiments, the researchers had estimates of what observers considered to be the best examples of each color category.

'We had an idea of the greenest green, the bluest blue, and the yellowest yellow,' explains Allred. 'It turns out that people actually have pretty good agreement on these labels. There isn't as much variability between people as you might expect.'

In the second experiment pair, employing different observers than the first pair, the researchers presented colors briefly one at a time on the screen. After each color was removed from the view, the ring of 180 colors was presented. Participants then had to select the color on the ring that matched the one that they had just seen.

After a series of trials, the researchers arrived at an average response for each color observed. However, the responses were anything but universal.

'We discovered that people weren't always accurate,' says Allred. 'There really were systematic biases.'

Using the data, the researchers then created a model to explain—and predict—these biases. They found that the model that best explained the data is one where the remembered color is a combination of the color that was actually seen and the color category that was assigned to that color.

'What the model postulates is that, when you are trying to encode the information, you encode something about the particular value, but you also tag it with a color label,' she says.

For instance, explains Allred, if the observer was shown a teal color—something that is in between blue and green—but a little bit more on the greenish side, the observer remembered the color as 'green' and, more specifically, 'this version of green.'

'Consequently, the observer remembered the color as greener than the actual color presented,' she explains. 'That category representation biases the response.'

Meanwhile, if the researchers presented colors that were really close to a category center—such as the 'yellowest yellow' or the 'greenest green'—they found very little bias.

'The observers were very accurate at remembering those colors, but as you move toward colors that are on the borders of categories, the biases become greater,' she says. 'Essentially, when you think that you are remembering something, your memory is probably shifted by your category representation.'

Allred notes that the researchers are now analyzing another set of data, using a different set of stimuli and behavioral tasks, which shows that their results aren't just artifacts of the particular task or stimulus that they used.

'The connection is definitely there,' she says. 'Our initial results surprised me, and I did every analysis possible to try to disprove them, but it's definitely there.'

Explore further: When the color we see isn't the color we remember

Related Stories

When the color we see isn't the color we remember

June 2, 2015
Though people can distinguish among millions of colors, we have trouble remembering specific shades because our brains tend to store what we've seen as one of just a few basic hues, a Johns Hopkins University-led team discovered.

Researcher explores complex relationship between color perception and memory

February 10, 2015
As the time-honored tradition goes, many lovebirds may be seeing red this Valentine's Day. The color of blood and fire, red has long been synonymous with intense emotions, such as love, passion, desire, strength, and vitality.

Brain, not eye mechanisms keep color vision constant across lifespan

May 8, 2013
Cone receptors in the human eye lose their color sensitivity with age, but our subjective experience of color remains largely unchanged over the years. This ability to compensate for age-related changes in color perception ...

Three perspectives on 'The Dress'

May 14, 2015
When you look at this photograph, what colors are the dress? Some see blue and black stripes, others see white and gold stripes. This striking variation took the internet by storm in February; now Current Biology is publishing ...

Recommended for you

Abusive avatars help schizophrenics fight 'voices': study

November 24, 2017
"You're rubbish. You're rubbish. You're a waste of space." The computer avatar pulls no punches as it lays into the young woman, a schizophrenia sufferer, facing the screen.

Ten-month-old infants determine the value of a goal from how hard someone works to achieve it

November 23, 2017
Babies as young as 10 months can assess how much someone values a particular goal by observing how hard they are willing to work to achieve it, according to a new study from MIT and Harvard University.

Stress in pregnancy linked to changes in infant's nervous system, less smiling, less resilience

November 23, 2017
Maternal stress during the second trimester of pregnancy may influence the nervous system of the developing child, both before and after birth, and may have subtle effects on temperament, resulting in less smiling and engagement, ...

Domestic violence turns women off masculine men

November 23, 2017
Women who are afraid of violence within partnerships prefer more feminine men, according to new research carried out by scientists at the University of St Andrews.

Study finds infection and schizophrenia symptom link

November 22, 2017
If a mother's immune system is activated by infection during pregnancy, it could result in critical cognitive deficits linked to schizophrenia in her offspring, a University of Otago study has revealed.

Schizophrenia drug development may be 'de-risked' with new research tool

November 22, 2017
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) have identified biomarkers that can aid in the development of better treatments for schizophrenia.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.