Scientists have a lot to say about color perception — Dogs see the world only in black, white, and shades of grey. Cats, on the other hand, see a large variety of colors, but at a more subtle level than we. Many birds, fish, and reptiles also see certain colors, albeit poorly. And some other mammals even see yellow and blue the way humans do.
Why is color perception different between animals and us humans? The scientists would say it’s because a human’s retinas contain more distinct types of cones, the photoreceptor neurons in the retina that convert light into color by absorbing photons of varying wavelengths. The variances in photon absorption between the different cone types allow the human brain to perceive a myriad colors.
OK, that’s the mildly technical explanation. But who’s to say that you truly see colors the way I do?
Think about it. We’re all different. We taste things differently, and we smell things differently. In both cases, something that is pleasant to one person may be repulsive to another. We look different. We speak differently. Some people use the right side of their brain; others, their left. Most people shouldn’t wear Spandex, while a very select few can make it work. Even when comparing to animals’ capabilities, isn’t “the way us humans see color” just too general? Isn’t it possible that when I’m seeing red, you perceive it differently?
After all, how do I communicate to you what red is to me?
It’s… well… it’s… it’s just red!
I know which things are red because someone taught me that the apple I was eating was red, or that the fire engine that screamed by our house was red, or that sexy two-piece swimsuit on that girl on the beach is red.
Sure, we can measure the color red in terms of frequency, wavelength, and vibration — but it’s still not possible to convey to you how I’m personally seeing it. If we were able to transplant my eyes and the part of my brain that is stimulated by color and processes images, and then connect them to the part of your brain that contains the background knowledge, images, and ideas, who’s to say that that we’d still “see” color exactly they way we did before?
When we determine whether or not animals can see color, we’re testing their ability to distinguish between differing colors, measuring responses to various wavelengths of light, quantifying the abilities of light-sensitive proteins to absorb photons, calculating neuron transmembrane electrical potential.
That’s not the same thing as determining whether or not our perception of red is the same as their perception. For all we know, they don’t actually see in black and white, maybe they just see colors differently. Or, for that matter, they may see colors beyond our perception.
Since we can’t really tell what colors look like to animals (not just what colors they can or cannot see) and we can’t even communicate what colors look like amongst ourselves, I’m willing to bet that when I see red, you’re seeing something quite different. And I don’t think that there’s anything science can do to prove it either way.
I’m just thankful for that bikini, no matter what color it is.