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

June 2, 2015, Johns Hopkins University
We can see millions of colors, but our brains store memories of those colors as basic, general hues. Credit: Royce Faddis/JHU

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.

In a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers led by cognitive psychologist Jonathan Flombaum dispute standard assumptions about memory, demonstrating for the first time that people's memories for are biased in favor of "best" versions of basic colors over the colors they actually saw.

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, after all, tell them apart. But when storing them in memory, people label all of these various colors as "blue," the researchers found. The same thing goes for shades of green, pink, purple, etc. This is why, Flombaum said, someone would have trouble glancing at the color of his living room and then trying to match it at the paint store.

"Trying to pick out a color for touch-ups, I'd end up making a mistake," said Flombaum, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins. "This is because I'd misremember 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, working with cognitive scientists Gi-Yeul Bae of the University of California, Davis, Maria Olkkonen of the University of Pennsylvania and Sarah R. Allred of Rutgers University, demonstrated that what seems like a difference in the memorability of certain colors is actually the result of the brain's tendency to categorize colors. People remember colors more accurately, they found, when the colors are good examples of their respective categories.

The team established this color bias and its consequences through a series of experiments. First, the researchers asked subjects to look at a color 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 colored 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 color on the color wheel featuring the 180 hues.

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

"We can differentiate millions of colors, but to store this information, our brain has a trick," Flombaum said. "We tag the color with a coarse label. That then makes our memories more biased, but still pretty useful."

The findings have broad implications for the understanding of . When faced with a multitude of something—colors, birds, faces—people tend to remember them later as more prototypical, Flombaum said. It's not that the brain "doesn't have enough space" to remember the millions of options, he said, it's that the mind tries to reconcile those precise details with more limited, language-driven categories. So an object that's teal might be remembered as more "blue" or more "green," while a coral object might be remembered as more "pink" or more "orange."

"We have very precise perception of color in the brain, but when we have to pick that color out in the world," Flombaum said, "there's a voice that says, "It's blue," and that affects what we end up thinking we saw."

Explore further: Researcher explores complex relationship between color perception and memory

More information: Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2015-22398-001/

Related Stories

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.

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 ...

When it comes to memory, quality matters more than quantity

February 4, 2014
The capacity of our working memory is better explained by the quality of memories we can store than by their number, a team of psychology researchers has concluded.

Researchers explore how prior knowledge influences our visual senses

November 1, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—The perception and processing of color has fascinated neuroscientists for a long time, as our brain influences our perception of it to such a degree that colors could be called an illusion. One mystery ...

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 ...

Recommended for you

Greening vacant lots reduces feelings of depression in city dwellers, study finds

July 20, 2018
Greening vacant urban land significantly reduces feelings of depression and improves overall mental health for the surrounding residents, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Arts & Sciences ...

New study questions use of talking therapy as a treatment for schizophrenia

July 20, 2018
The findings of the first meta-analysis examining the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for psychosis (CBTp) on improving the quality of life and functioning and reducing distress of people diagnosed with schizophrenia ...

Perfectionism in young children may indicate OCD risk

July 19, 2018
Studying young children, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that kids who possess tendencies toward perfectionism and excessive self-control are twice as likely as other children to ...

Younger children tend to make more informed decisions

July 19, 2018
A new study from the University of Waterloo has found that in some ways, the older you get the worse your decision making becomes.

Finding well-being through an aerial, as opposed to ground-level, view of time

July 19, 2018
Do today and yesterday and tomorrow loom large in your thinking, with the more distant past and future barely visible on the horizon? That's not unusual in today's time-pressed world—and it seems a recipe for angst.

Are you prone to feeling guilty? Then you're probably more trustworthy, study shows

July 19, 2018
It turns out your mother was right: guilt is a powerful motivator.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Jun 03, 2015
There has been work on perfumers, wine tasters, on the 'golden ears' audiophiles and artists and the findings are fairly uniform: they do not have better senses but they scrutinise their speciality sense more closely and categorise the percept, usually by having hundreds or thousands of descriptors. The relationship with language is not essential: audiophiles often can tell the difference between two sound systems or recordings but can not clearly describe the difference.

Why bother with the nuances? Unless you train your brain in any domain where there are a fine graduation the brain will be attracted to parsimony and will store only the general descriptions which is easier to store and faster to retrieve.

Let's not forget that the brain is a purpose driven organ that will not enter complex or resource sapping behaviour unless there is a good reason for it.

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.