Color we see isn't always what we remember

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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

BALTIMORE, Md. (WPVI) -- In the movie, "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) painstakingly tells the contractor what colors she wants rooms painted.

She pulls out a spool of thread and other items to precisely describe the shades.

Once she leaves, the contractor says very simply to the painter, "Red, yellow, blue, and green."

Turns out our brain essentially does the same thing.

Johns Hopkins University researchers say that although our eyes can see millions of colors, our brains tend to store those specific shades as just a few basic hues.

Cognitive psychologist Jonathan Flombaum led the team delving into the mystery of why we have trouble recalling shades.

Maria Olkkonen of the University of Pennsylvania and Sarah R. Allred of Rutgers University were also part of the team.

They asked volunteers to look at a color wheel with 180 different hues, and to find the "best" examples of blue, pink, green, purple, orange and yellow.

Then other volunteers were shown a colored square for a tenth of a second, asked to remember it, then to find that color on the wheel.

In trying to match the hues, the volunteers tended to err on the side of basic colors.

Flombaum says of the memory, "We tag the color with a coarse label. That then makes our memories more biased, but still pretty useful."

The brain may be able to sense the difference between azure, cobalt, and ultramarine, however, when stored in our memory, they tend to all become "blue."

The researchers say the experiments open the door to understanding visual working memory.

It's not that the brain doesn't have enough space to remember all the options we see, it's just that the mind puts them in prototypical categories which will be easier to remember.

So when you're trying to pick out paint to touch up your living room walls, don't be surprised if you say 'green' and your spouse says 'blue.'