How good is your brain in remembering colours?


Not so accurate!, says a recent experiment. We tend to remember more accurately if the colours are basic ones, but not so accurately when it comes to shades that are in between basic colours.

Did you know that Canary, Unmellow, Lemon, Mellow, Royal, Cyber are just some of the shades of the colour yellow? Or that Egyptian, Ultramarine, Spanish, Catalina are some hues of the colour blue? Most of us are more familiar with all the primary colours and combinations and some of us are aware of the various shades depending on how much we read, shop and are interested in such matters.

Many of us are also aware of the subjective nature of colour perception among individuals. Research has highlighted that colour experience is more a feature of an observer’s visual perception than solely a feature of electromagnetic radiation.

Moving away from colour perception to memory, there is now evidence that our brains are not so accurate in remembering the exact shades. We are more likely to remember the main category the shade belongs to. This has something to do with the way our brain stores our colour memories.

In a recently published research article, a team of scientists led by Johns Hopkins University cognitive psychologist Jonathan Flombaum demonstrated that people’s memories for colour are biased in favour of “best” versions of basic colours over the colours they actually saw. “We can differentiate millions of colours, but to store this information, our brain has a trick,” Flombaum says. “We tag the colour with a coarse label. That then makes our memories more biased, but still pretty useful.”

Flombaum says that this is why someone would have trouble glancing at the colour of his living room and then trying to match it at the paint store. “Trying to pick out a colour for touch-ups, I’d end up making a mistake. 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.”

The team established this colour bias and its consequences through a series of experiments. First, subjects were required to look at a colour wheel of 180 different hues and had to find the “best” examples of blue, pink, green, purple, orange, and yellow. Another set of participants had to perform a working memory test. They were shown a coloured tile for one-tenth of a second. They were then asked to remember it, after looking at a blank screen for a little less than one second and then had to locate the colour they saw, in the wheel.

Another set of experiments focused on colour perception of ‘boundary’ (bordering two central colours) and ‘focal’ (central) colours.

When attempting to match shades, all subjects tended to err towards basic colours or “category centres” and away from “category boundaries”. Also, the bias toward the basic colours was more apparent when subjects had to recall the colour after a short delay.

These findings add another layer of understanding with regard to our visual perception and recall. In an age where we are bombarded with thousands of colours, objects, patterns and faces, one wonders how our brain deconstructs, stores and retrieves when we want it to.

It’s not that the brain “doesn’t have enough space” to remember the millions of options, he says, but rather 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.”

Royce Faddis/Johns Hopkins
Royce Faddis/Johns Hopkins

More information can be found here.

The original paper can be accessed here: Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.