Thursday, 6 September 2012

Horizon, Hockney and the Hippocampus

“It’s blue.”  “No it’s grey but with some blue in the grey.”  “Well to my mind it’s definitely blue.”  Re-painting the garden table last weekend highlighted just how differently my other half and I see colours.  And as if to underline the problem along came the news this week that men and women really do process colour information differently in the brain.  Women apparently see more detail in colours, whilst men are better seeing small detail in moving objects.  Interestingly, research available out there in internet land seems also to suggest that language and colour are linked in the brain.  Perhaps if you’re a linguist you get an even better view of the spectrum! 

The polymath Stephen Fry chose to launch his new series of Fry’s English Delight with a programme on the language of colour a few weeks ago.  David Hockney, being interviewed by Stephen Fry, suggested that we see colours through our memories.  I can understand what he means.  The vivid yellow and chocolate black of a seemingly giant sunflower head, seen against a South-of-France blue sky is certainly deeply embedded in my psyche from travels with my family in childhood. 

Holding these powerful yet very individual stimuli to account when trying to reach agreement over a paint colour card is thus very likely to generate differences of opinion.  No two people’s experiences in life are exactly the same.  About a year ago, the BBC Horizon series dedicated a programme to the science of colour perception, from cultural, medical and psychological perspectives.  Expressing what you see may well depend on the angle of light and its reflection where you live, and its consequent effects on the development of your local language. 

The programme-makers seemed to find it curious that a certain African tribe spoke of water as being ‘white’ as opposed to our notion of it being ‘blue’.  If you live in a parched land defined mainly by earth colours, you’re going to have a different view, not just of the palette of colours but of their significance too, compared, say to people featured in Michael Palin’s Himalaya series.  In those lands, snow melt water brings forth a mass flowering of many hues.  These colours are reflected in traditional dancing costumes, such as those in Basil Pao’s photography for the series.  In the same way Scottish fabrics often reflect the mosses and mountains, heaths and heathers in their landscape of origin.    

Neuroscience would have us all boiling our life experiences down to a chemical soup in the brain.  Yet because none of our lives are exactly the same – thank goodness – there will always be differences in perception and use of colour.  So let’s celebrate the individuality which brings us the Monets, Gaugins and Hockneys, and that brings us a world of symbolic patterns, textures and colours in our textiles.  Here’s wishing you a week coloured with interest and good fortune in your making. 

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