I’ve been reading a lot about the symbolic meaning of color lately, but what do seeing color really looks like?
North American Birds Exhibit, Gelatin Silver Print, 2010 [FROM “ANY COLOR YOU LIKE”] © MATTHEW GAMBER
These beautiful images by Matthew Gamber made me think of Oliver Sacks and The of Case of the Color-blind Painter. In The Case …, Oliver Sacks describes a man who, as a result of a car accident, suffered an unusual condition. Mr. I, as Sacks calls him, described his symptoms as:
My vision was such that everything appeared to me as a black and white television screen … my vision became that of an eagle – I can see a worm wiggling a block away. The sharpness of focus is incredible. But – I AM TOTALLY COLOUR-BLIND.
When Mr I ‘saw’ colors as shades of grey he felt uncomfortable because he knew he was not seeing “real black and white”. Mr I had developed a very strange condition, and it was not at al like any kind of “ordinary” color-blindness.
One morning while driving (by now he had learnt to recognise stop lights by location and not color!) he saw the sun rise. He realised the blazing reds had all turned to black “like a bomb, like some enormous nuclear explosion”. It dawned on him that no one had ever seen a sun rise in this way before. In that moment, Mr. I was inspired to start painting again; this time in black and white. Over the next few months he worked 15-18 hours a day producing dozens of paintings in a style and with a character he had never shown before.
Further tests showed that Mr I perceived color by seeing tones of grey to a degree unknown by normally sighted or congenitally color-blind people. How was he able to do this?
Recent research into visual perception has revealed that color recognition requires a minimum of three sub-systems to be functioning: Physical receptors (ie. the cones in the eyes); wavelenght-sensitive cells (apparently located in an area of the brain known as V1); and a higher order color-generating mechanism (located in the V4 region). These three process need to work in harmony to yield the perception of color.
Tests revealed that for Mr I, the higher order color-generating mechanism was not functioning. However the other two processes were operating perfectly. Mr I was able to recognise variations in color by the comparative wavelength of the reflected light without being able to see color!
His brain damage had made him privy to, indeed trapped him within, a strange in-between state – the uncanny world of V1 – a world of anomalous and, so to speak, prechromatic sensation, which could not be categorised as either coloured or colourless.
… a world of anomalous and, so to speak, prechromatic sensation, which could not be categorised as either colored or colorless … makes you wonder, doesn’t it?!
So: what do seeing color really looks like?