Can you see the different shades of color?

You can’t see blue if you have never seen blue.

Earlier this year, we all had our minds torn apart by a dress that was clearly blue and black to some people, and 100 percent white and gold to others. But what’s more mind-blowing is that there’s actually evidence that, until modern times, humans didn’t see the colour blue at all.

In a fascinating feature over at Business Insider, Kevin Loria breaks down the evidence behind the claim, which dates all the way back to the 1800s, when scholar William Gladstone, who later went on to be the Prime Minister of Great Britain, noticed that, in the Odyssey, Homer describes the ocean as “wine-dark” and other strange hues, but he never uses the word ‘blue’.


Interesting article about the ability to see a color. Essentially, it appears that if you have never seen a color, you have a hard time differentiating it from the colors you have seen.

Since blue does not exist much in nature, humans that have never seen the color before cannot separate it out from shades of green, for example.

They have a test for Europeans based on the color green. Nice optical illusion.*


They all look the same shade. But if I rapidly scanned all of them, I could tell which one was a different shade. My peripheral vision picked it up but if I then focused on it, it no longer looked different.

This suggests that the difference is based on luminosity, as our peripheral vision is much more sensitive to slight variations in light intensity (this why we can easily see stars with the peripheral vision that disappear when we focus on them).

Our peripheral vision can see something is off because it reflects a different amount of light. But if we focus on it, our  fovea, which is great at color separation but less good at luminosity, sees no difference. Our brains cannot process the color difference.

This would suggest that our ancestors saw a much less colorful world than we do. And that our descendants may see an even more colorful one.

Image: Kevin Dooley

*The odd one is the one between the two squares at the 12 o’clock position and the two at the 3 0’clock.