I am smitten by color. I love wearing color, I love seeing color; my first impulse on seeing bright shades of color - with paint, for instance - is to want to put them in my mouth and taste them. I'd love to synesthesia, a neurological condition where the brain processes information through several senses at the same time. In other words, a person can hear sounds and also see them as color or taste or another expression of the senses simultaneously. Maybe it would be overstimulation, but I think it would be amazing to experience life in such a multi-dimensional way.
I’m using our ability to see color as a metaphor. Color adds richness and variation to our lives. Is it important to know why we’re seeing what we see, and can it really change our experience for the better?
Research suggests that human beings can distinguish up to 10 million different colors. I don't know about you, but I rarely have the range of experience that this would imply. Nevertheless, color has a profound effect on the experience of my everyday world. And for you, too.
Color is a powerful influencer. We respond to different colors with different emotions; some colors make us happy while other colors might disgust or repel us, primarily because of their associations. There’s such a thing as color symbolism, in which certain colors are associated with different meanings, for instance, in the colors associated with the chakras or gemstones. We react to color in our surroundings, in our food, the color of our pets, in a website or on a business card. Imagine what it would be like to live in a world which was only black and white! Think of a late winter, almost-dusk evening, where there is only snow, or mud, bare trees and gray skies. Never a fallen red maple leaf or a pink rose. Now, I admit I do enjoy black-and-white in limited quantities: old movies or photographs for example, but I couldn’t live without color.
We look around us and attribute specific colors to objects - the yellow sunflower, the red strawberry, the blue sky. And yet, one of the most fascinating facts about our ability to see color is that objects in and of themselves do not possess color - they only reflect electromagnetic wave lengths of light that are visible to the human eye.
That’s astonishing! Radical! Our eyes and our optic nerves are telling us what we see - it’s not the other way around! We take so much for granted. Every response we have to our circumstances is not based on what’s “out there” but how we interpret what’s out there. In other words, it's our thinking that determines what we see. Bruce Lipton, the celebrated cellular biologist, alludes to this phenomenon when he refers to the biology of belief.
Here’s a little bit of a physiology lesson to explain what happens when we look at an object. Not too technical, so stay with me. The eye is constructed in such as way as to allow the light reflected from an object to pass through the cornea to the pupil to the lens and finally to the retina at the back of the eye, where the nerve cells are located. These nerve cells, called photoreceptors, are made up of rods and cones. The rods are sensitive to the amount of light coming in, which accounts for why we see mostly grays when we’re in low light conditions. The cones have color-detecting molecules called photo pigments such as green, blue and red and those are what are sensitive to different wavelengths of visible light.
When our eyes record those reflected waves of light, the cones in our retina send signals to the visual cortex in the brain. It is those photo pigments that allow us to perceive a particular color and our minds that interpret what we see. That sunflower isn’t actually yellow and the sky isn’t blue. Our physiology is interpreting our reality. The mind is more like a projector than a camera, so what we see isn't necessarily what's out there. The mind makes assumptions based on incoming data through the senses.
And not only that. There’s a phenomenon called color constancy, something we humans do. We impose, or rather insist, that regardless of what those rods and cones are telling us, an object is still the same color -regardless of light conditions. For example, when I see my green hat in daylight, it appears green, but when I’m under fluorescent light or red light, the color isn't exactly the same. If my brain registered this color as truly different, I wouldn’t be sure if that hat was mine or someone else’s. If constancy is important for humans, imagine what other information we take in that's subject to this same tendency?
Then there’s color blindness, which is actually not a form of blindness but rather a deficiency in being able to distinguish certain colors or to see them only as gray or washed out. Recently, I had someone buy one of my paintings in which blue was the predominant color. He bought this painting for a friend because the friend was color blind and could only see colors clearly that were in the blue family. I discovered that colorblind eyeglasses have been developed with tinted lenses that filter incoming light to the eye making it possible for the wearer to see the spectrum of colors normally lost to them. Most of us do a lot of thinking that's the equivalent of color blindness. Maybe we could call it mental color blindness. So is there a the mental equivalent of those corrective eyeglasses?
We live in the world based on the interpretation of our physiology, our conditioning and our mood, not on what is actually out there, which we may never really know. But we think we are reacting to what’s out there. That can make life rather confusing.
What’s the value in knowing that the way life actually works is inside-out rather than outside-in? For me, it’s that I don’t have to be locked into a knee-jerk response to what I think I see going on around me. My interpretation of events can be fluid instead of rigid and predictable. And if my interpretation can be fluid, I can see more possibilities in a situation and choose a course of action based on in the moment, real-time responsiveness. I no longer need to replay old thinking about who is doing what to whom. I can be open to a new perspective that gives everyone involved an opportunity to make a fresh understanding and deeper connection.
Life takes on a richness, a flow and an invitation to see possibilities that are available in this moment rather than simply replay habitual interpretations. That’s the kind of world I want to live in. Life in all it’s 10 million colors, instead of a world of black and white.