How Human’s Obsession with Color Shaped Our Modern World

MC: It’s really weird. I’m fine. We need to take a quick break and come back soon with Adam Rogers talking about color, and it will get weird.


MC: Welcome back, our guest today is our senior correspondent WIRED partner, Adam Rogers. Adam just wrote a book that was recently published Full Spectrum: How Color Science Makes Us Modern. Adam, as we discussed, humans have been obsessed with color for so long before we ever had Photoshop and Pantone champions. But even after all this time, we still don’t fully understand all the ways that color affects our brain. Since we’re showing you off, I think we’re bound to ask you about The Dress.

With: When 2015 happened, I believe, and it started spreading on the Internet. I thought, ah, another meme, though. And then the executive editor at the time Rob Capps went and fell next to me where I was sitting. He said, “Have you seen this dress?” I was like “I know that’s ridiculous. And no?” And it’s like, yeah, “I know, I can’t believe it.” I said, “I mean, it’s obviously blue.” And he looked at me and his eyes were frozen. And his face went and went, “It’s white.” And he went, “Oh, shit.”

At that insight, I realized how, oh, or God, I’m four hours late. Like, this is huge. And I’m four hours late. And at that moment, Joe Brown, who was editing the website, then Joe went through it like, no kidding, running, walking, like, with his finger out towards the science desk. And all I did was watch, shout, “Here we are.” I started making calls. And the reason I started making calls is that I had, before coming to WIRED, when I was on a scholarship to MIT for science writers, and had spent most of this fraternity, obsessed with color and how people see color and what pigments they were and how chemistry and science and neuroscience work.

So I had a couple of people I could call who took my call. And that day was a strange day because what I was coughing about was on the screens we all watched. These emissive screens that are made up of small, minor, small dots of light, red, green, and blue, and sometimes a white light even behind or next to those that have been able to create not all possible colors, a human being can see, certainly not in 2015 when the range was not so good. But many of the colors that humans can see emitting them as light, not reflections, not subtractive pigments, but an admissible surface, have shown this photo of a garment that has become the super unusual thing, which is an illusion of bimodal color.

So, the illusions are, and look at those in the children’s books and there are those that are like the rabbit or the duck, rather than the cube forward or backward, these kinds of things. And we call them bimodal because they have two different shapes. People see them two different ways, but usually with a bimodal illusion of shape your brain shifts back and forth. And the way the eye and the brain perceive shape and color are intertwined with each other, they overlap. And they talk to each other, but they are semi-separate systems.

They are superimposed, but separate systems. So this was a bimodal color illusion at the time it was thought to be really rare. Now there has been a lot of research from people working on color illusions. So I see them on Twitter all the time, and they’re really funny, but they were rarer. And once your brain, it seemed to choose, who chose blue or chose white. You can’t see the other, it’s just closed and it has become impossible to understand the person standing next to you, who said, it was the other color where you were going, well, it’s not possible.

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