Colorblindness, or the profound effect of labels on reality

Greta and I, like approximately 8% of Caucasian men, are colorblind; specifically, due to a genetic problem, our red cones have their peak sensitivity at the wrong wavelength of light (protanomaly), and we perceive the red light hitting our eyes as much less intense than most people. Thus, we confuse purples with blue, yellows with green (since yellow light is a mixture of red and green light), pinks with gray or light blue, and dark reds with black. (Despite the name, people who are “red-green colorblind” rarely confuse actual red and green.) Most of the time, this presents no special problem. Every once in a while, it’s a minor annoyance: color-coded maps or graphs can be very difficult to read, networking and electrical work requires another person to double-check the wiring, and red laser pointers are next to invisible. Once in a while someone gets confused because we say something’s purple and it’s actually blue.

Okay, I said “it’s actually blue” – but what does that mean? Last week I included “blue” in my list of examples of troublesome words whose meaning seems rock-solid at first glance. We can define “blue” as light of a particular wavelength (according to Wikipedia, between 450 and 495 nm), in which case we have a nice objective definition. But if you step out onto the street right now and ask someone for their definition of blue, I can guarantee you it won’t be that one. More likely, they will have no idea at all how to answer you, except perhaps to point to a blue object nearby.

Even worse for our attempt at defining blueness, different languages and different cultures split up the color spectrum differently. In ancient Greece and Rome, there wasn’t even a word for blue, and if you read some poetry or literature from that time period and pay close attention to the color words, many of them seem very strange if not outright wrong to us. Homer, for example, describes both the sea and oxen as the color of wine, honey as green, and sheep as violet. Of course, the Greeks and Romans still saw the same wavelengths of light as we do, but they classified the wavelengths they could see in a different way. Researchers have found similar (if often not quite so shocking) differences between cultures even today.

This cultural relativity suggests that the only reason something is blue is because most people say it is. And our objective definition isn’t objective after all, because, other than convention, there’s nothing intrinsically special about the section of the visual spectrum between 450 and 495 nm, and no reason we couldn’t decide to set the boundaries somewhere else. The wavelength definition only describes what our culture has already labeled blue by consensus, it doesn’t actually define blueness.

I’m oversimplifying a bit by implying that colors are completely arbitrary. While research is not unanimous on this subject, there are strong indications that cultures do choose color boundaries based on the properties of human vision, presumably so that people can discriminate between the categories easily. Many different languages have been found to adopt color words in a set order, for example. But, if true, this just means that many cultures converge on a set of categories that generally allow precise and effective communication, just like many languages have found that alphabets are an effective way of representing information. Although both alphabets and colors are sensible ways of organizing the world given the average human’s physiology, they are ultimately human constructions, and the shapes of letters and the wavelengths of light do not, by themselves, have any objective meaning – they only mean “A” or “blue” when interpreted by a person. Thus, blueness is a useful concept and may not have been chosen randomly, but things are nevertheless blue only because we say they are.

So color labels are subjective, but our culture has chosen some. What effect does that have on our reality? Getting back to Greta and me, we can’t always correctly predict when most people in our culture will call something “blue,” since our eyes see a slightly different balance of colors. So we have to live with sometimes being unable to tell what color something is. Until we ask someone what color it is, we see the color as sort of indeterminate – maybe “purple-blue.”

But wait – color is not an objective property of the world. If we weren’t using these color labels, might we not be functionally “color-blind”? Yes, we are physically unable to identify as many distinct colors as someone with normal color vision, since one of the three dimensions of our color space is limited. We might be able to discriminate between only ten thousand colors, whereas someone with normal color vision could see a million. But when it comes to communication, that’s irrelevant; in practice, it’d be tough to identify a time when discriminating between more than 20 or so distinct colors or color names is necessary, and there are only 11 “base” colors in English (black, white, gray, red, green, blue, yellow, brown, orange, pink, and purple). Rather, Greta and I have difficulty communicating with others only because our color spectrum looks different from Joe Normal’s spectrum, and in some areas where Joe has good color discrimination we have bad discrimination. The color names in English split up the spectrum in a way that caters to Joe’s sensitivities. This is sensible, since over 90% of people have the same ones. But unfortunately for us, it means that colors that are treated as obviously separate by the labels we’re forced to use don’t look obviously separate to us. It’s this mismatch between labels and perception – not the decreased number of colors we can see – that makes us have to ask “What color is this?”

Most people don’t realize this, but there are some places where colorblind people have better color discrimination than those with normal color vision, both in hue and (particularly) in luminosity. For example, Greta and I are lousy at picking out red berries in green foliage, but blue flowers really “pop” on a green background, much more than for normal people. Colorblind people can easily read a short word from this Ishihara test plate, but most normally sighted people can only read it with considerable difficulty (see the end of this post for the answer). The army recruits colorblind people to serve as lookouts and snipers, because camouflage designed to fool normal color vision is next to worthless against them (see example). So here’s a thought experiment: imagine a world which is exactly like our own, except 95% of people are colorblind (we’ll assume they all have the same type of colorblindness) and the remaining 5% have normal color vision. The majority population of colorblind people would almost certainly make up the color names, and they could easily end up differentiating them using cues like small luminosity differences that are all but invisible to normally sighted people. I know that Greta and I would have no trouble at all creating 11 standard color categories that we would never confuse if we could completely throw out all the existing ones; for instance, we would combine yellow and light green into a single color and have forest green as a separate color (light and dark green look completely different to us, and that’s why we can read that test plate easily). Under the Greta-Nicosia color system, people with “normal” color vision would have difficulty communicating! Sure, they would still have better color vision in that they could see more individual shades of color, but since colorblind people use different cues to differentiate colors, the normal folks would disagree on which colors looked similar and so would not understand why the rest of the world grouped them into categories the way they did. The people with normal color vision might even be called “color-blind” if nobody thought to look and discover that they were actually seeing more colors.

So colorblindness is just one profound example of how completely labels can change our subjective reality: we went from those with poor color vision having a disadvantage to those with better color vision having a disadvantage, just by changing the labels. Of course, the labels do not change objective reality: regardless of how we label our colors, people who have normal color vision have physical eyes that allow them to distinguish more colors than people with any form of colorblindness. And there are a handful of specific tasks that Greta and I are objectively bad at and always will be; although maps and wiring and laser pointers in the colorblind-majority world would use colors we could easily discriminate, we would still be unable to easily spot the red raspberries in the bushes or tell when meat is done by looking at its color, because those tasks require discrimination between specific wavelengths of light and, barring some serious selective breeding or genetic engineering, always will. But our subjective reality, which is affected, has a huge impact on objective reality, since it’s all we have to help us decide what actions to take in objective reality.

Other examples? Many dream researchers have long suspected that lucid dreams and astral projection (along with many more mundane out-of-body experiences) are actually the same physiological state. Nevertheless, most people who have attempted both report that they are very different experiences, the difference being determined entirely by the label they used and the expectations that came along with it.

Over here in the tulpa community, many strongly dislike the label “imaginary friend,” but there is considerable evidence that plenty of beings identified as “imaginary friends” by their creators behave certainly as sentiently as what the tulpa community might call a young tulpa, if not more. And there’s no logical reason to think that there’s something objectively different about the neurological functioning of a being called an “imaginary friend” as opposed to one called a “tulpa” when both appear to behave the same way. But the difference of label does make them different subjectively, different enough that people actively shun one of them. The creator of an “imaginary friend,” partly because of the term’s cultural connotations, likely has different beliefs about the friend’s reality and sentience, and on average probably considers the friend less of an integral part of their life – all of which make the friend less “real” and more “imaginary.” This is also why some people with tulpas break the ice when describing them to others by calling them “imaginary friends”: that sounds more like a harmless, if slightly weird, hobby to most people, and if they react poorly it’s easy to dismiss it as unimportant.

Labeling a tulpa, particularly in the early stages of development, directly changes them. Although deviations are common, it’s pretty rare to find a tulpa who turned out to bear no resemblance at all to the labels the host put on them at the start. On the dark side, intrusive thoughts can become a form of labeling, in which a random thought with a young and suggestible tulpa can become a deviation that nobody wants but is very difficult to eradicate once the label has been attached.

Try paying attention to how your perception of the world and your system are affected by labels. It’s not easy to notice what’s actually going on – it’s taken me several decades to realize that I’m only colorblind because of bad labels – but it can be very enlightening when you do.

(Side note: If you have normal color vision and are curious about what colorblindness looks like, there are a number of simulators available on the Web that let you upload an image and see a version modified to match what a colorblind person would see. Even cooler (according to our friends with normal color vision) are the smartphone apps that let you select a deficiency to simulate and walk around looking at the world through the camera.)

(Answer to challenge plate at the end of the first section: The image reads NO.)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comment (anonymous posts allowed)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s