Brain Sense: The Science of the Senses and How We Process the World around Us

By Faith Hickman Brynie | Go to book overview

Chapter 17
Color and Memory

Want to remember a picture or scene? See it in living color! So says a team of psychologists working at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. They showed pictures of forests, rocks, and flowers to volunteers who looked at a large number of photographs, half in color and half in black and white. Then the volunteers viewed the same images randomly mixed with many new images. Their task was to identify which pictures they had seen before and which they had not. Memories of the colored pictures were 5 to 10 percent better than those of the black-and-white ones, no matter how long the subjects viewed the photos. Subjects who first saw pictures in color and later saw them in shades of gray (or vice versa) did not remember the pictures as well.

Through several related experiments, the researchers were able to rule out the idea that their volunteers were simply paying more attention to the colored pictures. The investigators also found that artificially colored pictures, as opposed to natural colors, offered no memory advantage.1 The study concluded that the human brain stores colors as part of the overall memory of scenes and objects. The question is how?


FIRST THINGS FIRST: HOW COLOR VISION WORKS

A physicist will tell you that there is no such thing as color in the real world. Like beauty, color is in the eye—or more accurately, the brain—of the beholder. Light acts like particles, but it also behaves like a wave. The distance between the peaks of the waves can vary. That's wavelength. White light contains many wavelengths. Objects reflect different wavelengths, but wavelengths themselves

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